Marty Roberts Productions hills_2 hills_3

Published on October 20, 2002 © 2002- The Press Democrat

BYLINE:    Gaye LeBaron

With all the bad news about the Russian River -- the flow is diminished, the salmon and steelhead are disappearing -- it is comforting to note that, in its fifth year, the celebration of the river has come into its own.

The annual fall festival -- 35 events in 10 days last month -- was successful beyond the wildest dreams of its founder, Kay McCabe. There was the publication of Simone Wilson's new book about the river,
Marty Roberts' expanded video about the river, historical presentations, workshops on water quality, seminars on taking care of our creeks, kayak and canoe trips, birding hikes, music, poetry, you name it. If it could be done on or about the river, it was done in September.

And it wasn't just a handful of river-huggers either. The presentations drew overflow crowds.
More people were turned away than could fit into the room at the Sonoma County Museum when the video ``premiered'' and Kashia Pomo Otis Parrish and SSU scholar Stephen Watrous talked about Native Americans and the Fort Ross Russians.

The crowds were something of a surprise and almost an embarrassment of riches for the dedicated organizers, who rallied around McCabe in 1998 when she came back from a trip to Ireland talking about the celebration of the River Shannon. We needed to honor our own river, she told friends. And the annual celebration was born.

In truth, it's probably about the 8,005th celebration of the 110-mile stream that the Indians called Shabaikai, meaning ``long snake,'' the Spanish first called Rio San Ignacio and later Rio Ruso, and the Fort Ross colonists named Slavianka, which means ``little Slavic maiden.''

Because all of us -- ever since the first Native Americans sang their songs to nature as they harvested willow roots for baskets along its banks -- have celebrated the river. Each in his or her own way.

ONE OF the many things I've learned about Sonoma County in all the years of listening to its voices is that nothing -- I mean nothing -- turns on the nostalgia like a mention of ``The River.''

In her book, where the stories are told in some 200 photos and captions, Wilson defines ``The River'' as ``the region of redwoods and riverbanks'' between Forestville and Jenner. I suspect she will hear from some up-streamers, starting with those whose memories are of water carnivals at the Healdsburg bridge, dances at Camp Rose and roller skating at Palomar on the river side of Fitch Mountain.

It is ``The River'' to everybody from Mendocino County's Potter Valley to the sea. And none will be denied their memories, their personal celebrations.

Some are of the rituals of being young in Sonoma County, usually on the first warm days of springtime, heralded by murmurs in the hallways of the junior college, and even the high schools, whispers of: ``Let's meet at Hilton after class'' or ``Hacienda Bridge at 2 p.m.''

And sure enough, by mid-afternoon, there would be a group that belonged in Mr. Rothert's botany lab or Miss Rhodehamel's lecture on Plato's ``Republic,'' off on a field trip for ``River 1A,'' sitting on the beach, wiggling their toes in the sand and thinking happy thoughts about the summer to come.

THERE ARE the celebrations, also, of the summers of the '30s and '40s, when surely the sun's rays were purer, the nights were warmer and the breezes were all soft, caressing the dancers who fox-trotted and jitterbugged to the music of the big bands on the moonlit outdoor dance floor built over the river at Mirabel Park, or at Rio Nido or The Grove in Guerneville.

There's a nice moment in the video when Healdsburg native Lee Engelke (who died in June, at the age of 81) recalls his teen-age summers of the 1930s when, without money to pay admission to the dances, he sat ``on a great big redwood stump'' near the bandstand, outside the windows of the Rio Nido dance hall, with his pet bulldog at his side, and listened to the big bands.

``I heard some of the best music! I'd sit there until they quit playing. Night after night. That's a very fond memory.''

The music apparently lingered along with the memories because I noted in Engelke's obituary that he played piano for a Dixieland group called, appropriately, the Russian River Ramblers.

The river was definitely the place to be for the young men of the Roaring '20s. As centenarian Barney Barnard remembered it, with a sly smile for the video camera: ``Those secretaries would come up from San Francisco and they needed a country boy to dance with.''

Vintner Lou Foppiano tells of meeting his wife, Della, at a dance at the river. ``In those days you didn't bring your girlfriend along. You didn't have enough money.''

Della's brother and my good neighbor, the late Frank Bastoni, liked to tell how he met his wife, Lorraine, at a river dance.
River stories are often love stories. Sometimes, looking through the file of letters I have received through the years, whenever I wrote about the river, it seems that there's a story behind every redwood tree. The young lovers of the 1920s and '30s met the girl or boy from the next town. But the summer loves of the wartime '40s often paired lonesome soldiers with hometown girls.

The world was expanding. Soon it would be so big that jets would carry vacationers to Hawaii and Mexico and the resorts of The River would fall on hard times. But the memories, as the sign at Rio Nido told us, would ``linger.''

THE CELEBRATIONS are also memories of the abundance of wildlife that delighted fishermen and bird-watchers and every child who ever tracked a turtle from rock to rock.

In the video, Elinor Twohey talks from her vantage point at Jenner about the egrets and the osprey and the harbor seals -- ``always lots of seals, including the period when there were lots of fish.''

And master birder Mike Parmeter speaks fondly of yellow warblers and ``the yellow-breasted chat we would hear singing at night from our house on the river.'' Others tell of ``thousands of cranes'' gathering in the pine trees on a hill near the Wohler Bridge. Carolyn Mullanix D'Elia compares the river of her childhood to ``Tom Sawyer's Island.''

Raford Jones, who grew up on a hop ranch on Westside Road, talked to me five years ago about the river he once knew.

``When I was a little kid ... I'd swim, using a breaststroke, very quietly, into this lagoon and when I'd stand up in 8 to 10 inches of water, I'd see the perimeter of the lagoon just vibrate. The water weeds just vibrated with pollywogs and bullfrogs and big fish.''

No stories have sadder endings than those of the fishermen. In the video, biologist Weldon Jones talks of the time when the Russian ranked third in the state's fisheries. ``In 1942,'' he said, ``a fellow named Taft wrote that he thought there were 800,000 steelhead in this river.''

Healdsburg teacher Leroy Danhausen has collected many of the fish stories, including the one he told me about the legendary Virgil Sullivan, who was considered the best fly fisherman on the river.

In the Depression years, ``Virg used to fish for food,'' Danhausen said, ``not only for his family but for several neighboring families. His mother sent him one day to catch as many steelhead as he could so they could be smoked for future use when the fresh runs were over. He went to the mouth of Willow Creek, where he had the most fabulous day of fishing in his life. He caught 27 steelhead in one morning on hand-tied flies of his own creation.''

He could have caught more, Sullivan told Danhausen, but his arms were tired and cramped. The fish were so plentiful and so eager that they were even taking his fly when it hit the water on his back-cast.

``No one,'' Danhausen said, ``will ever experience a day like that again.''

MANY STORIES. Many memories to celebrate. There are flood stories that range from tragic to miraculous, stories of who saved what and what went down the river, lost forever, only to turn up in wondrous ways. There are also the stories of who got in and got out of Guerneville while others were reporting themselves ``stranded'' and forced to spend the night at Gori's Tavern.

There are fire stories, too, in addition to floods. The great fire of 1923 swept through the river canyon, almost to the sea. And The Grove, with its dance floor that circled a redwood tree, and a cluster of canoes burned in the 1960s, along with Gori's Tavern and the rest of its downtown Guerneville block.

The images in Wilson's book, from the earliest Joseph Henry Downing photos of the 1870s to the floods of the 1980s, encompass all the celebrations, all the memories -- the beaches crowded with sun-burned teen-agers, the dance halls, the canoes, the loggers, the campers, the rafters, the cyclists, the fishermen holding salmon and steelhead.

Wilson has collected the pictures.
Roberts, in her video, has collected memories, including Bob Schneider talking about skinny-dipping, Orvan Berry recalling the peak of the sawmill prosperity in the postwar building boom of the 1950s, and Charlotte Anderson's tale of riding the family horse into the river and letting the kids dive off its back.

It's clear from both the book and the video, as well as from September's successful river festival, that if loving the river will solve its problems, there is hope.

Simone Wilson's book and Marty Roberts' videotape are available in the Sonoma County Museum's Wild Oat Gift Shop. (707-579-1500)

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