Visitors to Northern California wine country who enjoy nature and a modest amount of exercise should carve out a few hours to paddle the picturesque and serene Russian River. For more than a decade we have made it a goal to canoe the river at least once a year; this year we found ourselves a few weeks away from the end of the season with no trip under our belt. We invited our friends Jim and Lisa to join us and were not surprised that they said “yes” as they are usually up for anything. Because we enjoyed the trip so much with Lisa and Jim, we returned a week later and paddled the river again – our first time doing the trip twice in one week.
There are several access points and rental concessions along the Russian River but our go-to place is Burke’s Canoes located on River Road in Forestville. They have a large selection of canoes that can fit 2-3 adults or a couple of adults and 1-2 smaller children.
Burke’s also has a private beach from which to launch.
All paddlers need to bring is something to eat and drink and sunscreen; Burke’s supplies the essentials.
Perhaps the best part of experiencing the Russian River with Burke’s Canoes is that they have architected a specific paddling journey that is enjoyable for both the experienced and casual paddler. From the launch beach to the spot where paddlers meet Burke’s return shuttle bus is about 10 miles. Generally it takes 3 to 3 1/2 hours of paddling to cover the 10 miles, and more for those who stop to picnic (something we highly recommend).
Thrill-seeking adventurers will need to go elsewhere to get their adrenaline fix as the Russian River is slow-moving and downstream motion requires nearly non-stop paddling. We met a couple of guys that had recently paddled a section of the American River whose rapids were rated Class-3 and they were surprised that the effort level required on the Russian River was much greater than the more volatile river. As veterans of the Russian River we know it moves very slowly and there are no real rapids. Failure to paddle results in moving very slowly downstream; in fact, when the wind kicks up on the second half of the 10 mile trip, failure to paddle can result in the canoe moving backwards.
This is not to say that the 10-mile trip is without perils, obstacles or hazards. To the contrary, there are quite a few spots where fallen trees, islands, sand bars, bridges or debris create swirling tides and eddies that can be perilous. Thankfully we managed to stay 100% dry on both of our trips this year but we must confess that we have overturned the canoe on multiple occasions in the past.
Without a doubt the scenery along the 10-mile course is some of the most beautiful in all of Sonoma County. Above the river there are towering trees that frame the banks of the Russian River.
Paddlers will see quite a few fish in the river along with many species of birds that prey on them. Some of the most common species that we see on the Russian River are great blue herons, snowy egrets, mallard ducks, cormorants, common mergansers and turkey vultures. Occasionally paddlers will see turtles sunbathing on a rock or fallen log.
Over the course of our many Burke’s trips we have worked out what we consider to be the ideal routine: paddle for about an hour and a half and then find a shady spot to stop the canoe for a picnic. Napping is also recommended for those who are not in a hurry to finish.
After the picnic and/or nap break, it often takes a bit of time to get back into the swing of things again as muscles have settled and the body has gone into “rest mode.” Five or ten minutes into the trip, though, the body gets back into the groove of things . . . just in time for fatigue to start seeping in. Towards the end of the 10-mile trip the wind from the ocean starts blowing upstream fairly briskly, creating the sensation that the canoe is going two strokes forward and one stroke back. Perhaps the hardest mile is the last one, a combination of the physical impact of 9 miles of paddling, the wind, and the psychological impact of not knowing exactly where the end of the trip is.
Even after taking the Burke’s trip more than a dozen times we never quite know which bend in the river will be our last. “I’m sure it’s around the next corner” we say hopefully, and often incorrectly. Just when our patience is waning and we think we cannot paddle any longer, we see a sign that makes us paddle just a little bit harder.
When paddlers beach the canoe and get out, employees from Burke’s stow the canoes, life jackets and paddles. All that remains is waiting for the Burke’s bus that takes paddlers back up-river to the location where the trip began.
The Burke’s Canoe season ends in a few days and the Russian River will become the “rushin’ river” very soon as fall becomes winter. No canoeing or kayaking is permitted on this stretch as the water becomes very volatile and really does move quickly and dangerously. Memorial Day will mark the opening of Burke’s Canoes again for those that want to see a different slice of Sonoma wine country.
John & Irene Ingersoll
October 4, 2017