Outdoor fun on the North Coast

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On a foggy Mendocino coast morning, Valerie Dueck and her boyfriend ride the rails of the historic Skunk Train through a canyon of majestic redwoods. Only there is no train in sight.

The retired Bay Area couple are aboard a “railbike,” using their own power (mostly) to traverse the 19th-century rail line where hardened men once plied the lumber trade. Pedaling in tandem, the pair glide in almost total silence save for the soft click-clack of the bike’s plastic wheels.

Dueck suddenly shatters the quiet with a hearty laugh heard up and down the tracks.

“I’m so happy!” the retired United Church of Christ minister exclaims.

For those who believe the outdoors are best experienced through the act of doing, the North Coast is awash in opportunity. Whether riding the rails, soaring high in a hang glider or floating on a river, activities abound for being more than a passive observer of nature.

Here are just a few:

‘Like a Kid Again’

For Dueck, the railbike excursion fulfilled two of her passions: cycling and trains. The Belmont woman and her boyfriend, Andy Sobieski, were among about a dozen people who joined the guided tour on this overcast Tuesday morning.

Following a brief tutorial from guide Rick Hindman, the group released the brakes on the bikes and set off along the tracks. Winding downhill, the riders crossed train trestles above Pudding Creek Estuary, where geese and other birds frolicked in the water.

Some riders booked the trip as a test of their endurance. They included Julie Marquez, a retired DMV manager from Chico who recently lost a significant amount of weight, and Pleasanton’s Randy Reber, who said the railbikes sounded like something a person in his 70s could do.

The two-seater bikes, designed and built by Skunk Train machinists, were introduced by the company in 2018 and upgraded for this year’s summer season. They’ve proven enormously popular, with tours selling out well in advance.

The bikes weigh about 80 pounds, which is considerably less than if the wheels were made of steel. Electric motors assist with every pedal stroke. Alternatively, riders can go fully automatic with a push of a button.

At speeds of between 8 and 12 mph, the bikes cruise comfortably along the track. Dueck, sporting a bike helmet required to ride, said she felt “like a kid again” on board the machines.

Hindman stopped the group at various spots to talk about the history of the rail line and the logging industry that used to dominate the economy.

About 3 miles into the 7.1-mile round-trip journey, the tracks ended at Glen Blair, near a train tunnel that once afforded the Skunk Train passage to Willits but has been unusable since 2013 due to a rockslide.

While riders stretched their legs, Hindman and an assistant picked up the railbikes and turned them around for the journey back to the Fort Bragg depot.

Removing his helmet, South Africa’s Brian Williams expressed pleasure with the hourlong outing.

“It’s different,” he said with a smile.

For more information and to reserve bikes, visit skunktrain.com.

‘It’s not sparkling blue water’

Roughly 135 miles southeast of Fort Bragg, Friends of the Petaluma River offers a free Sunday boat ride program for anyone wanting an up-close and personal experience of the tidal slough.

“It’s not sparkling blue water,” Eve O’Rourke, the program’s founder, said of the river. “They have to understand it has sand and algae in it. It has its own particular flora and fauna.”

The program runs from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Sunday when the tide is at least 2 feet high at the D Street Bridge. Participants can choose from 23 different vessels ranging from kayaks and canoes, to small sailboats. The boats are checked out from the David Yearsley River Heritage Center on a first-come, first-served basis.

Volunteers recommend boats based on a person’s experience on the water. Life jackets are provided.

That’s still not enough to calm some nerves.

“We have to assure them they’re not going to fall overboard,” O’Rourke said. “Unless they do something crazy.”

For more information visit friendsofthepetalumariver.org.

‘Plenty of places to jump off’

At the opposite extreme, hang gliding and paragliding offer an exhilarating way of viewing the North Coast from above.

Taking off from coastal bluffs or mountaintops, gliders zig and zag along updrafts, sometimes for miles at dizzying heights.

“Sonoma County has plenty of places to jump off,” said Jon James, a member of the Sonoma Wings Hang Gliding and Paragliding Club who has been taking to the skies since 1977.

For obvious safety reasons, the right equipment and training are essential to enjoy the sport. James also noted there are only two locations in Sonoma County where the club has permission to launch — Goat Rock State Beach near Jenner and Mount St. Helena.

Good flying conditions depend on a variety of factors, including location and time of year. Summer can be a bit iffy on the coast because of wind direction and fog, which can suppress thermal activity.

But catch the right day, and James said there’s nothing like flying like a bird.

“It’s a very satisfying feeling when you get a strong bump and you turn yourself into it,” he said.

To learn more, visit sonomawings.com.

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