Great Russian River Race gives paddlers a common cause

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They came to paddle, but many who took part in Saturday’s Great Russian River Race said the keyword wasn’t “race” but “river.”

More than 200 paddlers joined the morning event, propelling kayaks, paddleboards and other watercraft downriver to Guerneville. There, a party awaited them around the finish line at Johnson’s Beach.

Some of the racers paddled as far as 8 miles from Steelhead Beach near Forestville. Others took a shorter course of about 4 miles from Odd Fellows Park.

“I’m out here to support the river and I’m out here to have a good time,” said Cindy Taylor of Santa Rosa.

Taylor and her adult daughter Lacey, also of Santa Rosa, watched on shore as the first batch of participants, the stand-up paddleboarders, set off from Steelhead Beach about 11 a.m. Soon thereafter, the mother-daughter duo launched their kayaks and joined the second and final group of long-course racers.

Now in its sixth year, the Great Russian River Race is sponsored by the conservation group Russian Riverkeeper. The aim is to foster a love in people for the river, whose main stem winds from Lake Mendocino near Ukiah to the Pacific Ocean at Jenner.

“We think one way to do that is to get them out and allow them to enjoy the beauty of it,” said spokeswoman Kate Wilson.

This year’s race drew participants from the Bay Area, Sacramento and Fresno. Some wore silly headgear — the horned helm of a Viking or a Zorro-like hat with red pompoms. Others added a kilt or grass skirt to their attire.

John Walsh, a paddleboarder from Mendocino, said he regularly takes part in races on Northern California lakes and rivers. He characterized Saturday’s competition as low key.

“This one’s just mostly fun, just a nice day on the water,” he said.

Under overcast skies, Saturday’s event took paddlers close to vineyards and vacation homes. But the more common views involved redwood-lined hillsides and lush riverbanks. At Johnson’s Beach, a wide gravel bench near a historic truss bridge, the celebration included a folk rock band playing on a covered stage. Meanwhile, near the shore the brightly costumed members of the Hubbub Club marching band of west Sonoma County offered up their version of “Down by the Riverside.”

The winner among the long-course kayakers Saturday was Carter Johnson of Sausalito, who finished his 8-mile trip in a little over one hour and three minutes. The first boat to cross the finish line for the short course was 18-year-old Zachary Alva, who finished 4 miles in slightly more than 49 minutes.

Alva, who is about to graduate from Credo High School in Rohnert Park, said he entered the race on the recommendation of his coach from the River Town Racers kayaking club in Petaluma.

“Also, the river’s so beautiful,” he said.

For Alva, that alone was enough reason to get out and paddle.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or On Twitter @rdigit

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