Kayaking Northern California’s Russian River

Kayaking on the Russian River is fun in an inflatable water craft. (Melanie Radzicki McManus)

The river is totally quiet today, except for the occasional sound of our paddles dipping into the water to steer us around a branch or rock. The weather probably has something to do with it — it’s cloudy and a bit nippy out. But I don’t mind. We were promised a relaxing float down the river, and that’s exactly what we’re enjoying.

I’m doing a whirlwind tour of California’s famous wine-soaked Sonoma County with my daughter, Molly, who will soon be attending graduate school in nearby Davis. If you like the outdoors, we were told, a trip down the Russian River is a must.

The 110-mile Russian River has been a vacation destination for the past century. Winding southward from Mendocino County’s Laughlin Range, it takes a rather sharp hike west near Healdsburg, eventually emptying into the Pacific Ocean. “There’s no other river like this anywhere close to the Bay Area,” says Larry Laba. “It’s gentle and provides a perfect family-friendly float.”

The Russian River south of Healdsburg is great for floating. (Melanie Radzicki McManus)

Laba is president of Soar Adventure Group, which operates the Russian River Adventures tour we’re on. His trips start in Healdsburg and end four or nine miles downstream, depending on whether you’ve signed up for the half- or full-day option. River’s Edge Kayak & Canoe Trips, the area’s other main outfitter, shuttles clients upstream either five, 11 or 16 miles, then lets you drift back down to Healdsburg (the five-miler), or guide your watercraft around challenging obstacles (the 11- and 16-milers). The latter trip requires experience and Class II skills.

In Your Bucket Because …

  • When you’re in California wine country, this is the place to kayak.
  • You want to kayak with your dog.
  • Good for kayakers, water-lovers, nature enthusiasts, especially birders.

Paddling the Lazy Russian River

As Laba promises, the river in this stretch south of Healdsburg is calm and easily navigable. Even better — since Molly and I have little kayaking experience — the signature blue, inflatable kayaks his company provides are a cinch to handle.

Floating on the Russian River is a popular outdoor activity in Northern California. (Melanie Radzicki McManus)

As we float down the curving river, lined with cottonwoods and willows, tiny birds dart back and forth while funny-looking, fuzzy-headed ducks frequently appear in front of us, paddling in formation. They’re Mergansers, Laba’s assistant, Doug, later tells us, and they’re always out on the river.

Suddenly I spot an enormous figure in a nearby tree. “Stop paddling,” I whisper to Molly. As quietly as I can, I unfurl the top of the dry bag and pull out my camera. I train it on the blue-gray, rather prehistoric-looking avian, then begin snapping just as it majestically lifts off and heads down the river, its wings nearly skimming the surface. “I think that was a great blue heron,” I say.

The Trip Ends Too Soon

Russian River Adventures normally sends out 10 to 15 kayaks per day, a not-too-big number that keeps the river in this most-secluded section quiet. It also makes it easier to spot the wildlife — not only the herons and Mergensers we see, but also turtles, otters, osprey and more.

Most people who rent a kayak for the day or afternoon tend to dawdle, stopping on the numerous gravel bars to have lunch, swim or just relax. It takes them several hours to reach the take-out point down the river. If you paddle the entire way, however, you’ll be finished pretty quickly. And that’s no fun, Laba says.

You might see a Great Blue Heron when you’re kayaking on the Russian River. (Melanie Radzicki McManus)

We don’t intend to race down the river, but we’re so engrossed in the scenery, the water and the birds that we don’t realize we’ve actually been paddling nearly the entire time. Oops. Sure enough, we soon see Doug sitting on the shore, waving us in.

Before heading back to town, Doug hands Molly a handful of smooth, flat stones, perfect for skipping. As she tosses the stones at the river’s surface, I warm my feet on the rocky shore and listen to the river burble past. Relaxing, indeed.

Practicalities

  • Locals say both river outfitters offer a good experience. Choose Russian River Adventures if you’re looking for a less-crowded experience, and/or a trip that allows dogs (full-day trip only). Opt for River’s Edge Kayak & Canoe Trips if you’d prefer to paddle a traditional canoe or kayak, or want a more challenging experience.
  • You really do need to wear water shoes like they advise. If you wear sandals, stones and gravel will get in them.
  • To truly enjoy the wildlife, bring binoculars and a camera.

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