Peaceful Paddling on the Russian River

By Chuck Graham   |   August 15, 2023

The little North Coast town of Jenner was still asleep as I slid my kayak off the boat ramp and into the glassy waters of the Russian River, a couple hours north of the San Francisco Bay.

I had a solid head start, maybe 90 minutes of paddling before sunrise would light up the tallest of the redwoods. Already though, the runnel was alive with river dwellers feasting on its plentiful aquatic bounty, fish and invertebrates teeming in the shallows and throughout its driftwood-strewn riverbanks. Wispy, low-lying fog drifted upriver, gradually wafting skyward as summer temps warmed the river wild.

Paddling beneath several ospreys gazing across the broad river from various lofty vantage points, I watched in amazement their steely eyesight garnering them one fresh take after the next. It seemed too easy for them as their continuous chirping resonated up and down the winding river.

As I continued my paddle upriver, three curious, spotted harbor seals kept pace with my steady stroke while drafting off my stern three miles beyond the mouth of the river. However, their attention was easily diverted at the second hard bend in the runnel. A gentle eddy swirled in the bend where several opportunistic double-crested cormorants efficiently knifed through schools of fish. The harbor seals joined their seafaring counterparts, that curvature in the river providing sustenance for two species normally seen in the ocean.

Hovering above the eddy was a belted kingfisher. I hardly ever see them sitting still, as they typically swoop from one leafy perch to the next. Yet, killdeer and dowitchers, mostly frenetic shorebirds, let my blue kayak drift right up to the gravelly shoreline, as they never paused from probing their beaks into the soft, gooey mud.

Thirty yards across from me on the adjacent riverbank, three young coyotes jostled. Oblivious along the shoreline, they chased one another back and forth, nipping at their exposed flanks. All that separated us was a sturdy gravel bar. Sitting low on the water in my kayak was an advantage. For 10 minutes, they chased one another to exhaustion, their breaths swirling upward into the redwoods standing tall over the Russian River.

Further upriver, it was getting crowded. One hundred tranquil yards ahead, I was soon wading through Canadian geese, mallard ducks, and preening American white pelicans in my blue kayak. Barely dipping the blades of my paddle into the serene river, the avian aquatic hardly paid me any attention as they foraged and preened the morning away.

I’d never seen so many common mergansers in one location until those several serene hours on the Russian River. During my solo paddle, I counted more than 100 of them, mostly huddling atop storm-ravaged driftwood wedged in the mud or resting along the riverbank. On the water, they remained close. They never flew off or dove beneath. Instead, they distanced themselves by running on the surface of the water.

After paddling eight miles upriver, it was time to redirect and head back to Jenner. The downriver current made paddling a low-impact cruise. At certain spots along the river, I merely floated with the downriver current. I’d drop the blade of my paddle into the crystal-clear waters and use a rudder stroke at each bend in the runnel.

At the last bend in the river, I did just that, which enabled me to float toward a bobcat hunched on a downed tree above the riverbank. It could see me coming, but it didn’t seem to mind my presence as I was silent and motionless in the kayak. The bobcat was more focused on finding food. I suspected there was a diverse menu readily available along the river.

Once past the lurking bobcat, I paddled toward the mouth of the Russian River where it converged with the ocean.

Big, sandy berms steepened from the water’s edge on either side of its wave-battered mouth. There, throngs of harbor seals lounged on the warm sand, seemingly performing planks on the steep berm. Also present were juvenile California brown pelicans bathing in the shallows.

It was here where the diversity of life thrived between river and ocean, waves crashing in the mouth but tranquility reigning supreme on the Russian River.  


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