Gentle waves slap the hull of the kayak as the paddle dips into the river water. It’s a world away from everyday life, but it’s an experience that doesn’t require a passport or a visa. It’s as close as Sonoma County’s Russian River or downtown Napa, and it’s just one of a wealth of opportunities on the water for North Bay residents seeking a change of pace close to home, whether it’s to pass a vacation relaxing or spend a few days satisfying a craving for adventure.
Towering redwoods, mountains and warm sunny beaches are some of the highlights of a 10-mile canoe or kayak trip down the Russian River from Forestville to Guerneville. “It’s just magnificent in terms of the beauty, and the wildlife is awesome,” says Linda Burke of Burke’s Canoe Trips, a business that’s been family-owned and operated for more than 50 years.
The downstream journey takes about three-and-a-half hours, but lots of people take their time and make it a whole day, observing the wildlife, picnicking, sunbathing on the beaches or swimming. “You can make as many leisurely stops as you want,” says Burke. The company has its own campsite with hot showers, clean restrooms, drinking water, picnic tables, dressing rooms and fire rings, so paddlers can even stay on shore overnight to enjoy the river’s sights and sounds after dark.
Paddlers don’t need experience, but they should let the staff know if they’re first-timers when they check in. “If they’ve never canoed or kayaked before, they should draw it to our attention,” says Burke. “We can give them some basic instructions and a paddling demonstration.”
Participants should be five years old or older and able to swim well; two adults per canoe minimum (maximum capacity is four people per canoe). “It’s just good, good fun,” says Burke. “There really is something for everybody."
On the other side of the Mayacamas, enjoy Napa Valley’s Kayaking History Tour, which begins near “Jack’s Bend” and navigates the Napa River through the city’s historic downtown area including the old Chinatown. Justin Perkins, who grew up in Napa, has been a guide for 15 years and has spent extensive time researching the area’s history in depth as well as learning about all the wildlife. “I’m able to share the rich history here. It’s the heart of what we do,” he says, adding that he reveals some of “Napa’s most provocative secrets.” Tours take about an hour and a half and, afterward, people are free to explore on their own. “It’s a tour and a rental in one,” he says.
Perkins recommends that people planning to visit wineries go kayaking first so they can enjoy the peaceful environment the river offers early in the day. “In the morning, it’s often like a mirror,” he says, with reflections on the glassy water. Above all, he encourages visitors to have fun and suggests making kayaking one part of a larger Napa experience. He’ll even recommend lodging and once helped a group of women plan a whole day for a bachelorette party that started with kayaking. “What we do is really unique. It’s really so much more than a tour,” he says.
A quaint waterfront, a view of San Francisco and sailboats running with the wind are among the attractions that draw visitors to the picturesque Marin County city of Sausalito.
Call of the Sea offers the thrill of sailing aboard Seaward, a classic, 82-foot staysail schooner, on Friday Sunset Sails (which are adult-oriented), and Sunday Family Sails on select dates from April through November.
Passengers can either relax and enjoy the bay breeze or get into the action, talking to the captain, asking the crew questions and assisting with the lines. “Anybody can help. Our crew is very educated,” says Program Director Erika Dwyer, explaining that they know all about seamanship and the bay’s ecology, in part because Call of the Sea’s primary mission is environmental education for students in grades three through 12. Sights include the San Francisco skyline, the St. Francis Yacht Club, Angel Island and Alcatraz. If the tides and weather are right, Seaward will sail under the Golden Gate Bridge.A Coast Guard-certified vessel, the schooner is available for charter and can comfortably accommodate 40 people on day sails and 12 on overnight trips.
Call of the Sea is currently building a traditional, 135-foot wooden tall ship, Matthew Turner, in a big tent at the Bay Model Pier. “We're adding that to our fleet,” says Dwyer, who encourages people to visit and see the ship under construction, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Saturday.
For people ready to get their toes wet, “Stand up paddling is really taking off,” says Mitch Powers, program director of Sea Trek Kayak and Stand Up Paddling Center at the Bay Model Pier. “There’s a romance about stand-up—a sense of adventure. Because the board is similar to a surfboard, but bigger, you really get a much better view than in a kayak,” he says, explaining that from the stand-up position, it’s easy to see below the surface and catch sight of bat rays, leopard sharks and other sea life.
He believes stand-up paddle’s appeal is its simplicity and says, “You have a swimsuit, a board and a paddle. Many people just want to get on the board and go.” He recommends lessons to learn the proper technique, however. “They’re much better served if they take a lesson. It’s a powerful stroke if you’re doing it right,” he says. “With proper technique, it’s easier to control the board when the wind picks up.” And when done correctly, it provides a great core workout.
Powers finds Sausalito ideal for stand-up paddle, because the ocean swells rolling in under the Golden Gate Bridge don’t make it to Sausalito, the hills protect against the west wind, there are no major shipping channels, and the currents are very reasonable because Richardson’s Bay is so shallow. “When the wind comes up, it’s more chop than ocean swells,” he explains. Even so, when it’s windy, he often recommends kayaks instead of stand-up paddle. “You don’t have to deal with balance, and you have a lower center of gravity,” he says. People who are active and reasonably fit can do either, but [stand-up] is best when weather conditions are favorable. For both sports, he prefers mornings, because boat traffic is lighter, and the wind doesn’t come up until the afternoon. “Mornings can be as flat and calm as any lake,” he says.
Sea Trek offers tours as well as lessons and rentals, and its Sausalito Scenic tour is popular with kayakers. “It’s calm and mellow,” says Powers. For the more adventurous, its Paddle the Gate tour goes under the Golden Gate Bridge and along the shore of the Marin Headlands. And its Full Moon tours are popular for both kayakers and stand-up paddlers. Both activities are wonderful ways to see the scenery and get exercise. “I’m a big advocate of getting out on the water with paddle sports,” says Powers.
Big waves are the lure on Marin’s Pacific coast. Drew Reinstein, co-owner of 2 Mile Surf in Bolinas as well as Sonoma Coast Surf Shop in Petaluma, explains that Bolinas is the best place for beginners, because land on three sides provides shelter, so the swells from the ocean are gentler. “It’s nice, soft waves for learning how to surf,” he says. For more seasoned surfers, he recommends Fort Cronkhite and Point Reyes, where the surf is bigger.
Newcomers can rent gear from one of the shops and take lessons from Nick Krieger at Bolinas Surf Lessons, a partnership business. Lessons are based on the tides, and it’s best to check the schedule and book a lesson online. Reinstein recently saw a mother with a 5-year-old venturing out for the first time and says children are welcome, but they must be able to swim well, focus and be comfortable in the water.
Learners meet at 2 Mile Surf Shop and head to the beach 500 steps away, where Krieger gives a 20-minute class and determines the comfort level of participants so he’ll know how to place them, depending on the surf and group size. He then coaches them in the water. Reinstein says that when people stand up for the first time, they’re excited and tend to stand erect, so they fall (it’s better to stay low). It’s all part of the learning experience, however. To hone their skills, some people take a lesson, then rent gear and practice on their own. Others take more lessons. Whichever they do, Reinstein advises, “Go have fun in the water. You might not stand up right away, but you can have fun.”
Whale watching is an unforgettable experience. “It’s exciting to see the animals up close,” says Capt. Rick Powers of Bodega Sport Fishing Center in Bodega Bay. The season for spotting California gray whales is December through April, during their annual migration from the Arctic to Mexico and back, and “It’s a pretty amazing migration,” says Powers, who offers two trips per day.
The three- to four-hour trip in the morning or afternoon is always within sight of land, and “You never know what you’re going to see,” says Powers, adding that blue whales and orcas sometimes appear. Last season, “We had a 100 percent rate,” he says, with whale sightings on every trip. His advice: “Bring food, beverages and a camera, and just come out and have a ball.”
In addition, Powers takes out fishermen throughout the year. Excursions are a full day, and something is always available. It can be salmon, rock cod, ling cod, halibut, Dungeness crab, albacore tuna or even giant Humboldt squid—whatever’s in season. All the gear except for fishing licenses is available at the center, and captains are licensed and give instructions, so fishermen don’t need experience. “People shouldn’t be intimidated,” says Powers. “It’s a wonderful way to get out on the ocean and bring back some wonderful food.”
Freshwater fishermen can head to Lake Sonoma or Lake Berryessa to cast their lines into quieter waters. A reservoir formed by the Warm Springs Dam in the northern part of the county, Lake Sonoma offers some of the best bass fishing in the state, and the Department of Fish and Game operates a fish hatchery at the entrance, where visitors can learn about Coho salmon, steelhead and Chinook. It’s also a mecca for watersports, including sailing, windsurfing, motorboats and waterskiing, which are limited to a designated area.
Lake Berryessa, located east of Napa Valley, is also a manmade lake, with rainbow trout as well as bass for fishermen and great blue herons, snow geese and loons in the southeastern area near Monticello Dam to tempt birdwatchers. It’s also popular for kayaking, jet skis and other watersports, including houseboating.
Pleasure Cove Marina offers a variety of houseboats for people seeking a sojourn on the water. “A houseboat is a really cool experience. It’s hands-on work, but fun,” says Matt Harvey, regional vice president of Forever Resorts, which operates the marina. Two families or several generations of one family might share a boat. In a new trend, Harvey sees baby boomers that went houseboating when they were young returning to share the experience with their grandchildren.
“We have people who’ve never driven a boat before,” he adds, but staff members provide training. “We have a pretty thorough orientation process,” he says. In addition to houseboats, deck cruisers, ski boats, fishing boats and kayaks are available for the day. Regardless of the length of stay, “It’s a chance to slip away from the chaos of every day,” says Harvey. “Lake Berryessa is a beautiful place.”
Water lovers have choices galore, and people travel from all over the world to enjoy them in Northern California. Local residents, though, have an advantage—most can find fun afloat within an hour of their front doors. Even better, short travel time gives them more time to have fun on the water and make the most of their vacation days. It’s tourism at its best.
The Marin-Sonoma coast is ideal for watching California gray whales as they travel from their feeding grounds in the Arctic to their calving area in the warm waters of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula and back. The huge mammals swim relatively close to shore as they navigate their way through the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, and whale watchers who prefer to stay on dry land can catch the spectacle of the world’s largest migration from excellent vantage points. The Point Reyes Lighthouse and Chimney Rock in Point Reyes National Seashore are two of the best places in Marin for spotting whales, and Bodega Head in Sonoma Coast State Park is also a prime viewing location.
Trekking the Bay
Get a bird’s eye-view of the bay and learn about its ecology, geography, topography and history at the Bay Model Visitor Center in Sausalito, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 1.5-acre hydraulic working model of San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Visitors can go on a self-guided tour with a map showing points of interest or take a one-hour audio tour, which is available in several languages. Groups of 10 or more can make reservations for guided tours with a ranger.
The Bay Model Visitor Center is located at 2100 Bridgeway, Sausalito.
Take the Plunge
The RCP Tiburon Mile open-water swim draws competitive swimmers from all over the globe, but it’s open to anyone who wants to take on the challenge, whether it’s for personal satisfaction or to share an experience with the world’s best.
On race day, swimmers hit the water at 9 a.m. in Angel Island’s Ayala Cove and make their way across Racoon Strait to downtown Tiburon in a swim that measures one nautical mile (approximately 2,000 yards). The race has four categories—elite, wetsuit, team and age groups, with 13 to 18 years old at one end of the scale and 60 to 99 at the other. The fastest swimmers, who are sometimes Olympians, do the crossing in less than 25 minutes, while more leisurely contestants can take their time and stay in the water for up to an hour. Swimmers compete for cash and prizes, and the event is also a fund-raiser for Hospice By The Bay as well as the Pulmonary Hypertension Association this year.
The swim takes place on Sunday, September 20, 2015. For more information, go to www.rcptiburonmile.com.
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Located at 1410 Neotomas Ave. in Santa Rosa,NorthBay biz magazine is a monthly business-to-business publication covering Napa, Sonoma and Marin counties. This year, the magazine is celebrating 43 years of continuous operation. It originally hit the stands in 1975, when it was called Sonoma Business, and only covered Sonoma County. Norm and Joni Rosinski and John Dennis, acquired it in 2000 and changed its name to cover an expanded market. Today, the magazine is part of Amaturo Sonoma Media Group. More here..