Riverside rebirth in Guerneville

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A stretch of downtown river frontage that was abandoned to illegal dumping and invasive plant life for five decades soon will be unveiled to the public, transformed in a manner scarcely imagined even by those involved in its metamorphosis.

Where tons of trash once littered the ground and treetops — left there from repeated floods — new pathways, birdhouses, interpretive signs and installations beckon the curious.

Earthen ditches that once drained contaminated runoff straight into the river are gone now, replaced with carefully planned and planted bioswales and a rain garden designed to collect rainfall, filter it naturally and slow it down so it can sink underground, recharging groundwater.

Ground once covered with mounds of non-native ivy and blackberry now is covered in freshly mulched native plants, about 4,000 of them.

From the graceful redwoods that now frame the main entrance to the concrete benches that form an outdoor “classroom,” what’s now being called Riverkeeper Stewardship Park stands as a testament to hard work and volunteerism, as well as providing wildlife education and serving as a model of ecological management in a drought-prone landscape.

For Russian Riverkeeper Don McEnhill, who leads the nonprofit group behind the 10-year restoration project, it’s also evidence of his heartfelt belief “that there’s no such thing as riparian areas that are irredeemable.”

“Back in 2005, 2006, it would have been almost impossible to envision what we ended up creating,” McEnhill said on a recent tour of the new downtown landmark.

“It’s been a labor of love,” Park Manager Victoria Wikle, a Villa Grande resident, said.

The project, still guarded by a chain-link fence, is set to open by May 11, with a grand opening scheduled on June 27, McEnhill said.

Its completion is part of what some say is a bit of evolution underway in Guerneville, with several businesses, such as neighboring Johnson’s Beach, changing hands, and a renewed effort to enable the town to appeal to a broader range of clientele that it has in the past.

Town booster and public relations specialist Michael Volpatt, who also owns a Main Street restaurant and specialty food market called Big Bottom Market, said what he calls a local “renaissance” simply reflects a collective spirit toward improving and beautifying Guerneville, and that extends to its parks and watersheds.

Developing the park, said local real estate broker Herman Hernandez, “adds a very, very strong environmental feature” to some of the changes downtown.

The elongated, 5-acre property located on the north shore of the Russian River between the downtown footbridge and the crossing of Highway 116 served as a tent-cabin resort for summer tourists in the first half of the 20th century, McEnhill said.

But it’s prone to flooding during periods of high rainfall and “was wiped out” in 1955, prompting is owners to just walk away, he said, leaving little but the concrete footings for the tent cabins behind.

Over the years, the area became a collection point for unwanted appliances, mattresses and trash, and a gathering place for those with nowhere else to go, some of whom camped there for months on end, using the land at the river’s edge as both trash bin and toilet.

“Basically, 50 years of neglect” is how McEnhill sums it up, enough that the locals dubbed it Liquor Store Beach.

When it landed in the hands of the family of the late Bertram Horne, a San Francisco businessman who took ownership through collection on a debt, there was no one who would take it because of the condition it was in and its location in the flood zone, McEnhill said. Not even park and open space interests were willing to be saddled with it when McEnhill and his board took the plunge and accepted it as a gift in 2005, he said.

The decadelong conversion of the site from a place to be avoided to a lure for locals and out-of-towners alike began with large-scale workdays aimed at making a dent in the debris and unwanted plant life that filled the property.

Volunteers in those early days sometimes worked around occupied encampments and outdoor latrines. Occasionally, a sheriff’s deputy would do a walk-through first, recalled longtime volunteer Katherine Smith of Guerneville.

“It was quite amazing. It was very rustic,” Smith, 68, said. “I mean, they had told me they were finding carburetor parts in the tree tops when they started — from the floods. It was quite a mess.”

But taking on “a little bit at a time” made it seem less overwhelming, as the weeks turned into months, then years, for a core group of workers who met every Wednesday at the park.

The park reflects the work of “well north of 3,500 individuals,” McEnhill said, including about 2,500 who showed up for special work days, about 1,000 who gave their time on at least six occasions, and 30 to 40 people on the Wednesday crew who are “the backbone of the place,” McEnhill said.

Workers have removed more than 16,500 pounds of garbage — including box springs, carpets, bikes and car parts, even most of a Volkswagen Squareback — and more than 20 tons of invasive non-native plants.

Investing $541,725 in the project, all of it from grant funds received from the Sonoma County open space district, Russian River redevelopment and the California River Parkways Program funded under state Proposition 84, the park now features pathways that offer a little something different at each turn, designed by the San Francisco landscape firm of Ron Lutsko and Associates.

Features include a river overlook; a custom-designed steel framework etched with silhouettes of riparian wildlife; birdhouses designed to cater to the needs of nine different species; a bat “condominium” that can accommodate 100; bee poles with nesting sites for important pollinators; and concrete paw prints in a stretch of pathway that reflect the actual foot placement and gait of local wildlife.

One of McEnhill’s favorites is an interpretive station with sluice gates and concrete models of different terrains that helps children understand how runoff and sediment shape and shift a river’s course.

There’s also a small meadow planted with native species at the base of two huge Sacramento sycamore trees where a decaying Douglas fir log offers visitors a close-up view at decomposition. The log was one of several lengths of a dead tree that was cut down, but then scattered about so nothing “would go to waste,” McEnhill said.

He said he’s had a few problems with skateboarders marring concrete surfaces, though most are now textured, and recognizes that the removal of the chain-link fence at the project’s completion will leave the new park somewhat vulnerable.

But McEnhill and others said they’re hoping the community takes pride in the place and works to safeguard it.

“We’ve just let people know,” he said, “you’re welcome here, but please follow the rules.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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