LAKE MENDOCINO — A large deer bolted from hiding in the dense brush along the Russian River, where tall cottonwoods offered summer shade, their leaves fluttering in the afternoon breeze. Blue and green herons took flight overhead.
Close by were rural homes, vineyards and industrial yards just east of Ukiah, but all were hidden behind nature’s unbroken green wall, affording a band of 15 kayakers a sense of seclusion on slow-moving water the color of pea soup.
This collection of paddlers — public officials, farming representatives, environmentalists — are accustomed to conducting business in sterile meeting rooms. But starting here near the base of Coyote Dam holding back Mendocino County’s largest reservoir, the group was exploring the notion that the best way to begin forging the river’s future is to don shorts, T-shirts and life jackets and spend a day — three in all actually — descending the water way.
“It’s a rolling conference on the water,” said Craig Anderson, executive director of LandPaths, a Santa Rosa-based conservation nonprofit, leaning back in his blue kayak, drifting in the current. “You feel like you’re really in the place, really stepping back in time.”
Wednesday’s trip from the foot of Lake Mendocino to a ranch south of Ukiah marked the start of the “Headwaters to Ocean Descent,” organized by LandPaths and Russian Riverkeeper and led by Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore, with the first three-day float this week and two more segments planned in September and October.
On Saturday, kayakers are scheduled to float from Hopland to the Cloverdale River Park, concluding the first segment.
The public is invited to participate in the final two days of the river trek from Monte Rio to Jenner from Oct. 8 to 9, with a mass campout at Casini Ranch the night of Oct. 8.
“The whole idea is to create awareness, a camaraderie,” Gore said. “Let’s get out of the stinkin’ conference room and talk about the river. We all have a connection to it.”
The float trips are intended as a buildup to a river stakeholders’ summit, billed as the Russian River Confluence, in May.
Since the voyage couldn’t start in the river’s summer-dry headwaters farther north, about two dozen people gathered Wednesday morning in a grassy field above Forsythe Creek, which traverses Ridgewood Ranch off Highway 101 near Willits.
River stakeholders — including public officials from Sonoma and Mendocino counties, tribal members, conservationists, Sonoma County Water Agency and Farm Bureau representatives and landowners — gathered in a circle to introduce themselves and offer thoughts on the importance of the 110-mile river that spans and sustains two counties.
“Water is life. We’re made of water,” said Martina Morgan, vice chairwoman of the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians, wearing a necklace of abalone shells from the coast. “We are completely connected to the water. The river gives life.”
Grant Davis, general manager of the Sonoma County Water Agency, which taps the river to supply drinking water to 600,000 North Bay customers, called the gathering “a watershed moment.”
Many who oversee the river’s management, regulation and health hardly ever visit, said Sean White, Ukiah’s water and sewer director, recalling meetings he has had in Sacramento. Some were with “people who’ve never seen the Russian River.”
White, who has swum, fished and floated the entire river, said “you see something different every time.”