Relaxation: Summer Fun on the Russian River


Summer Fun on the Russian River

It’s summer time, and you know what that means…time to go to the River!  Summer in Sonoma County is the perfect season to get together with friends and relax along the Russian River.

The Russian River (so named for the Russian Ivan Aleksandrovich Kuskov of the Russian-American Company who established the Fort Ross colony in the early 19th century, though they called it the “Slav River”) is the largest river in the county and begins about five miles east of Willits and travels south towards Healdsburg before turning westward through Forestville and Guerneville, before it flows out to the Pacific Ocean between Jenner and Goat Rock Beach.  It supplies thousands of residents with water for irrigation.  During the winter season, the river is fed by storm runoff and can become treacherous.  But by late spring, the flows have usually tapered off, and the river would run dry if not for the water supplied by the Van Arsdale Reservoir on the Upper Eel River.  Every April, water is redirected from the reservoir to the Russian River Valley for irrigation.  This is good news for everyone who wants to enjoy some fun on the river.

There are many ways to enjoy the serene waters of the Russian River:  from the shore it creates beautiful views, but if you really want to enjoy the river summer style, try jumping in by swimming, canoeing (or kayaking), and inner tubing.

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It’s time to get wet!  Though the water in the Russian River is not as clean as river water in the Sierras, it’s much warmer and gentler.  For some swimming in a natural body of water can be a refreshing and spiritually revitalizing experience, for others it’s just plain fun!

In Sonoma County there are two beaches staffed by Regional Park lifeguards which are perfect for kids or beginning swimmers. The first one (though not on the Russian River) is the Spring Lake lagoon in Santa Rosa, and the other is at the Healdsburg Veterans Memorial Beach on the Russian River.  Johnson’s beach on the Russian river is also open to the public.  Most beaches and portages along the river, like Steel Head Beach near Forestville, are completely un-staffed, and you swim at your own risk.  So it’s a good idea to practice in a pool to assess your strength, stamina, and ability before you take to the open water.  The city of Santa Rosa offers water safety training, and life guarding classes (and beginning swim lessons for adults and children), so you can take your own “lifeguard” with you.

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If you are not a strong swimmer use a life jacket or other floatation device.  Know when you are getting tired and don’t take risks with your life.  Know your abilities.  Never swim where the current is too strong for you, and always swim with a buddy.  Also, never jump off a bridge.  And if you do decide to take a risk like jumping off a rock or a rope swing, check your landing site (from in the water) first to make sure it’s deep enough.  Every year there are injuries and worse at the river; don’t be one of them.  This said, with a little safety, you and your family and friends can have a ball splashing around and can even bring the dog (in many places)!



If you are not much for swimming, you might want to try canoeing down the river.  It is a lovely way to spend a summer day and make memories you won’t soon forget.  It’s a great way to see wildlife.

There is something uniquely relaxing about turning off your phone, getting outside, and letting Mother Nature surround you in a verdant embrace of natural beauty.  Along the ten-mile trip from Forestville to Guerneville, you will see cool redwoods, warm beaches, and lots of birds.  I might even recommend you take along a pair of binoculars so you can see wildlife up close.


On our trips down the river we have seen lots of wildlife including fish, birds, insects and mammals.  We have seen ducks, vultures, egrets and blue herons, hawks, ospreys, kingfishers, cormorants, and we were dazzled by the close-quarters aerial acrobatics of friendly swallows.  There are also some beautiful butterflies and dragonflies.  We have seen deer and even spotted river otters.  Last weekend we spotted a bobcat at a steam outlet at the ocean, so they are likely in the area as well.

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Canoeing Tips

  • Bring sunscreen, hats, a cover up incase you get to much sun and wear clothes you don’t mind getting wet (perhaps a bathing suit underneath in case you decide to get out and swim)
  • Bring food and water, it takes longer than you think
  • Keep your items in plastic bags in case you take on water
  • Wear water-proof shoes or sandals in case you have to get out and walk

Canoeing is a good all year activity on the river.  In the summer you may have to portage (carry your canoe over rocks or shallow places) over some shallows.  Also be careful of whitewater, especially in the more northern sections.  In the winter you should be aware of water levels as well.  There are some class II-III rapids above Cloverdale.  The Russian River can flood during and after storms, especially in the winter and spring seasons, so be sure to check river flow levels at before you go.

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If you are new to canoeing or don’t have a small boat of your own, you can rent one from Burke’s Canoe Trips, just a mile north of Forestville.  Paddles, life jackets, and the return courtesy shuttle service are all part of the canoe rental fee. This makes your job a lot easier (see our earlier article on taking the canoe to Lake Sonoma), but having your own boat is great too.  A word of caution:  canoes do tip over.  But unless you do something stupid, like standing up or leaning waaaay out over the side, you will most likely not tip over, and they can be fairly easily righted, once you’re able to stand.   But I still recommend bringing a waterproof camera, or at least a zip-seal plastic bag to keep your camera dry; water does sometimes get into the boat.  (You’re on a river; so you can expect to get a little wet!)  Going down the river in a canoe can be a fun, serene way to enjoy a summer day.

Inner Tubing

Tubing on the river is a lot of fun; it is the perfect combination of the above activities.  You swim a little, you float a little.  Basically, the idea is to relax and enjoy the river from the comfort of your inner tube or floating lounge.  You drift along the current admiring the redwoods and blue sky, then pop into the water for a quick swim anytime you get hot or the mood strikes you.  Ahhhh perfect!

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This is what you will need:

  • Inner tubes
  • (Swim-suits, waterproof hats, sunscreen)
  • Rope
  • A drag bag (with snacks, etc.)
  • (possibly water shoes)

We’ve put in by Healdsburg and in Guerneville and after few trial runs, we have figured some things out.  Here’s how we did it.  We dropped off most of our group along the Russian River, just outside of Guerneville.  We then parked one of our two cars about a mile downriver, right near the dam at Summer Bridge.  We then joined the rest of our team upriver, and made our way to the water.   At the water’s edge, we tied all the flotation devices together with lengths of clothesline, so we could ‘tube in a loose flotilla.

(Tip #1:  Inflate your inner tubes after you get to the river.  Unless you have a LOT of room in your vehicle.  And make sure everyone has their own inner tube.)

We also put some snacks in a zipped-tight plastic bag.  We put these snacks, bottled water, and sunscreen in a “drag bag”—a mesh bag that we tied to one of the larger inner tubes—so it could drag along behind us on the river, and thus keep the drinks nicely chilled.  (Tip #2: Consider bringing an extra inner tube for your drag bag.  It’s much easier to get your gear downriver when it displaces less water.  And don’t eat and swim too close together to avoid cramping.  Bring a resealable ziplock bag for your trash and leave nothing behind to keep the water clean and the wildlife happy.  (See also the Russian River Watershed Cleanup website.)

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Once we were all set to go, we hopped on our ‘tubes and floated out into the river.  We lounged about for about twenty minutes, letting the current take us downriver.  When we looked around to see how far we had come, we realized that we had floated about fifty feet from our original starting position. (Tip #3:  Inner tubes do not move very far or very fast on the Russian River around Guerneville in the summertime.)  Realizing that we were averaging about 0.002 miles per hour, we decided to give the current a hand, and began hand-paddling our tubes downriver toward our appointed destination.  (Tip #4: Reapply your sunscreen.  You may be out there longer than you think.)

(Tip #5:  Timing.)  Start your ‘tube-ing adventure closer to the middle of the day, rather than late afternoon.  The fog can decide to roll upriver in the evenings along the Russian River, and it tends to get a bit chilly on the water once the breeze is blowing, or there are shadows on the water.

The best thing about ‘tubing is that you can do it all:  take it slow, get exercise, have a snack, see wildlife, and when you are ready, take a swim.  No matter how you decide to enjoy this beautiful resource, be kind and respectful of the river and all in it and on it, and you will have a really great day!

By Peter Rogers and Nadja Masura