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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

The Russian River

It’s called the Russian River because there were Russian settlements on the river itself and at other nearby sites from 1812 to 1841. Home to the Pomo Indians for thousands of years, who called it “big river,” and “long snake” for its twists and turns, it is fed by myriad streams along its course.

The river springs from the Laughlin Range in Mendocino County and runs south for 115 miles through redwood forests and Sonoma County valleys, paralleling the coastline before swinging west to spill into the Pacific Ocean at Jenner. The land it flows through had been claimed by Spain since the sixteenth century, but in 1812 Spain wasn’t occupying its claim that far north—leaving it vulnerable to invasion by other nations—and the coast was enticingly rich in seal and sea otter, both prized furs. The river, which the Russians named “Slavyanka,” held abundant sturgeon and beaver.

The Russians also felt the region would be a reliable agricultural outpost for their permanent colony in Alaska, where the growing season was too short to provide an adequate food supply. They established Fort Ross, as well as other settlements around Bodega Bay to the south. Imperial Spain—and later the Mexican government—resented the intrusion, but lacked the resources to do anything about it.

For some years the Russian enclaves flourished, despite a coastal climate that frustrated attempts to farm. Low summer temperatures produced uneven yields in grain crops; fierce winter storms blew in from the sea, frequently laying waste to their orchards. In 1836 they moved inland about a dozen miles to plant a vineyard, but this effort, too, was unsatisfactory. Finally—after depleting the sea otter, and exhausted by years of trying to keep their settlements alive—the Russians gave up. In 1841 they sold their land to Sacramento Valley settler John Sutter and sailed out of Bodega Bay on New Year’s Day 1842, never to return.

Within a few years other settlers moved into the region, creating a number of logging towns but also realizing the potential of the Russian River Valley’s fertile floodplain for hops, apple orchards and vineyards. By 1891, grapes were the principal crop, with nearly 4,000 acres planted in grapevines. Early viticulturists grew Zinfandel grapes. Although many of the historic Zinfandel vineyards still produce, today the region is famous world-wide for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Currently, there are 15,000 vineyard acres, and 70 wineries, in the Russian River Valley.

Springtime through fall, the natural splendor of the lower Russian River provides perfect spots for recreational activities such as kayaking, canoeing, or swimming at the river’s beaches, hiking among the redwoods, or simply wandering through the unique towns along the river. Other attractions include reconstructed Fort Ross, the scenic shoreline at Goat Rock Beach with its colony of harbor seals, and the quaint seaside village at Bodega Bay.

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