Exploring Mendonoma

Mendonoma Coast-line by: Grainne Rhuad

By: Grainne Rhuad

With the older two kids heading off to camp we thought it might be fun to see what it’s like for a “normal” sized family (two parents, two kids) to go camping.  After much debate, mostly from the two who weren’t even going, they kept saying things like: “You can’t go there!  That’s our favorite!” and “How come you always go to the cool places when we’re gone?”  We settled on a piece of the northern California coast called Salt Point. Which as luck would have it is a place I have always wanted to go, but never have gotten around to.

The trip took us through Sonoma and wine country which was lovely to look at and made the time pass.  We winded through hills and vales of vineyards and pointed out all the “castles” which were really tasting  facilities, that we could find before heading into the redwoods along the Russian River.  Hitting the little town of Gurneyville, it was easy to see why it is selected every year for the Reggae on the River Festival.  Hemp shops were only outnumbered by re-sale clothing stores.  I counted at least 4 natural food stores and more restaraunts.  You could see the locals with their inner tubes and towels heading down to the beaches along the lazy river.  There were more sandy beaches than you could count and we decided that sometime we should come back just to stay here a couple of days and splash in the river.  It was quite enticing.

The road ended at the famous Highway 1 in a town called Jenner which consisted of a gas station/store, a few rental cottages hanging picturesquely from the cliffs and a post office which had lived its earlier life as a travel trailer.  The cottages were lovely and all faced the ocean you probably wouldn’t want to take kids there as they reminded me of the sea house the Baudelaire Children were sent to in ‘Series of Unfortunate Events’.  I wondered to myself how exciting it would be to stay in one during a winter storm.  Winter storms on the California Coast are not to be missed.

As we headed north on Hwy 1 we noticed signs for free-range cows.  I will tell you now these are not to be ignored.  The cows go where they want and those crafty little cow bridges set at intervals along the road are no hindrance to them.  Also the drop in some areas off the road is sharp, so you don’t want to swerve when you see that heifer so this is an area to slow down and take in the scenery and sea air.

A good ¾ of an hour later (it would have been quicker but we did end up waiting for a cow to lumber across the road) we sighted a Fort.  Now this had been the selling point for me.  I am big on hitting historical sites and this Fort, named Fort Ross is the last remains of Russian Occupation in California.  See before America took over California was occupied by not just the Spanish but Russians who had a good fur trade going, dealing mostly with the Chinese.

After passing the Fort we began entering forest again.  The forest was lovely and fragrant layered with cedar, fir, pine and redwood, with rhododendron, dogwood and ceanothus underneath.  The ceanothus was in full bloom making the lower parts of the forest look blue.  There were about 6 campgrounds in the area of Mendonoma; so named because it straddles Mendocino and Sonoma counties.  Some of them were primitive with pit toilets or outhouses, others had flush and one was just for R.V.s.  I always steer clear of these as they tend to attract long-term residents.  All the rest were lovely in their own way some were on the bluffs, others in the forest.  We had left on a Monday to avoid crowds and ensure we could get a space.  But we needn’t have worried as there were plenty of spaces at all the campgrounds. Most of the people there were Scoobies (scuba divers) Abalone season was in full swing.

We settled on Salt Point State Park Campground and lucked out finding a spot in a loop where nobody else was.  Surrounded by grass and trees we began to set up camp while the kids played like they owned the world and ran through all the campsites staking their claims for later Risk-like wars.  We marveled at the lack of Fog.  As we usually head towards Mendocino in the summer to beat the heat we are used to it being foggy when it is hot in the valley.  But here it was clear and a little warm.

With tents set up and our bellies properly full with pizza cooked on the campfire, we settled in to sleep while gazing up at the stars in the clear night sky.  Billy Bragg’s rendition of Woody Guthrie’s’ California Stars’ played through my head as I drifted off to dreamland.

We woke the next morning stiffer than we expected to be. The night before had held its surprises for us.  First of all we discovered that our cushy air mattress had a leak in it.  We had been hoping for a slow leak but apparently this was not to be so after filling it up a couple of times we just gave up for the night.  Not being as young as I used to be I ended up gimping around for a good hour before blood started flowing and my hip started working right.  The other thing that kept us up was the local wildlife.  As we were drifting off to sleep we began hearing noises like something out of the Blair Witch Project.  I jokingly remarked that we should get a camera and a hat and act out the scene.  This was good for a couple of chuckles but really the noise was ridiculous.  As it didn’t sound like the typical chittering sound that raccoons make nor was the sound loud enough to indicate a bear we ventured out to see what the ruckus was all about.  We had read on a sign coming in that bobcats are in the area so we didn’t want to miss the chance to see one.

As it turned out it was a raccoon after all.  Along with a Grey Fox.  They were staging a little turf war over our campsite and our tents were in the middle of it.  It was quite funny really aside from the noise.  They were behaving much like our dog and cats do at home.  After we came out and tossed some stones in their direction they took off and we didn’t hear from them for the rest of the night.  Although we would hear them hassling other newcomers later on.  We returned to our piece of hard ground for the remainder of the night.  Interesting to note the kids slept through the whole thing including us knocking each other over because we only had our shoes half on.  What does wake up kids anyway?

Since the kids were apparently tired they slept in way past their normal 6am wakeup time.  Wanting to take advantage of this I practiced my mindfulness of not peeing.  This is where I allow the thought of peeing to pass through my mind hoping I can fall back asleep before it wakes me up completely.  Of course this always results in a mad dash to the bathroom.  And on this morning it was a funny sight I am sure as my lower body was not working due to sleeping on the ground.  Imagine Frankenstein’s monster in the 100 yard dash and that is almost what I looked like.

After breakfast I announced that the most important item of business today was finding a patch kit.  But we could also go see the Russian Fort.  So lunches packed we headed off the Fort.

Fort Ross Chapel, by: Grainne Rhuad

The Fort was quite cool if you like to tour historic sites as I do.  I was impressed at how sturdily everything was built and with very little nails.  Most of it was done fitting the wood planks together just so.  On the weekends they do living history presentations but we missed out on that.  Included in the Fort were the commander’s house, a school house, two blockhouses with cannon and an Orthodox Church where services are still held from time to time. The Fort itself was established in 1812 by Ivan Kuskov, a trusted deputy of colonial leader Alexander Baranov.  Baronov was instrumental in the Russian-American trading company’s push to settle the northern west coast of the Americas.  The Name “Ross” is taken from shortened version of “Rossiya,” the Russia of Tsarist days, Ross being the generally accepted shortened version.  The intention was to settle an area in which crops could be grown in order to feed Russian settlers in Alaska.  The Russians traded with the Pomo tribe for the land and the fort was built to protect against any Spanish assault that may occur after all, the presence of Russian fur hunters in the North Pacific was what induced Spain to occupy Alta California in 1769. For forty years thereafter, development of the province continued on a gradual basis. By 1812, though, San Francisco Bay still marked the northern limit of Spanish settlement.

1812 was a busy summer, while the settlers were building their fort, Spain, France, Russia, and the other great colonial powers of the day were preoccupied with a major war. Napoleon’s army was deep inside Russia, driving toward Moscow. Great Britain was at war with its upstart ex-colony, the small but restless United States of America. Nobody was ready to block the Russian move. In fact, it was several months before the civil and military leaders of Alta California were even aware of the development at Ross, and by then it was too late. The fort was complete, and though it was made of wood, it was well armed and vigilantly manned.

The first colonists included 25 Russians, mostly men, and 80 Aleuts, or Alaskan natives. Records Show that several marriages took place between Russian men and Aleut and Kashaya women. One visitor to Fort Ross in 1828 estimated that about 220 individuals were living there: approximately 60 Russians, 80 Aleuts, and 80 Kashaya Pomo.

Only a small number of Russians actually lived at Ross, and very few Russian women (usually wives of officials) lived there. However, inter-marriage between Russians and the natives of Alaska and California was commonplace. Natives and people of mixed ancestry as well as lower-ranking company men lived in a village complex of some 60 to 70 buildings that gradually grew up outside the stockade walls.

Compared with the Spanish, the Russian colonists had little impact on the local Indian population. The Spanish forced the Indians to become Catholic and adopt western ways of life. The Russians traded goods to the Indians for help with cattle ranching, agriculture, and trapping of sea otters. Still, the Russians, along with the Spanish and the British, did great damage to the local environment by depleting the sea otter population.

Life was good on the Mendonoma coast and the only problem they seemed to have been in growing wheat, they did however trade with the Spanish missions who were all too happy to get otter pelts.   Potatoes and barley did okay as well as all manner of vegetables and fruit.  There are remnants of orchards that we ran across in several different areas.  Old apple trees that had been left untended for who knows how long, at least since the 1830’s in the middle of what is now forest.   The Russians officially pulled out at the behest of the Tzar right before the revolution. He felt they couldn’t sustain colonies anymore. Although many settlers stayed as they had intermarried with local Native Tribes. The fort was sold to Captain John Sutter in 1841 seven years before the discovery of gold made his name immortal.  It made me wonder what California would be like if they had stayed along with the Spanish/Mexican Settlers.  I always wonder about what ifs. I think it would have been better.  The Russians were gentler with the native people, integrating in a better way.

Fort Ross Look-Out By: Grainne Rhuad

After we had our fill of pretending what it would be like to live there, which at this point looked pretty comfortable to me, we headed down to the sheltered cove below the fort for lunch.  We spent the rest of the day there exploring tide pools and looking for shells, rocks and sea glass.

Now here is the thing that puzzled me.  The whole time we were there and of all the beaches we went to we only found 2 pieces of sea glass.  This is the only area of the California Coast I have been to where this is the case.  Usually there is a lot and it got me to wondering what caused it.  Probably the currents.  But this train of thought also led me to the weather.  As I stated earlier it is always foggy and cool on the coast just 30 miles north.  But here it was so different.  It was warm the whole time.  Blue skies and not terribly windy.  I wondered why more people didn’t come to this area, although I was glad they didn’t because it seemed as if we had the whole place to ourselves.  This area must have greatly enticed the Russian Settlers.

Leaving the beach in the late afternoon we found a tiny store which carried mainly ice and booze.  Funny a can of chili cost more than a fifth of triple sec there.  But they did have a patch kit=JOY!

On our second full day we decided to go up the coastline and see what we could find.  So after packing lunch and slathering ourselves with sunscreen we headed out.  Our first few stops were to state park coastal accesses which proved to be less than stellar, no surprise there.  Usually the best beaches are the “local” ones, so we drove slowly along the road looking not for markers but cut and/or bent barbed wire and foot-trails.

The first one we found was excellent for tide pools we found a lot of starfish, crabs, anemone and hermit crabs, among other clingy sea snail like things.  One of the things that we noticed was that a lot of the rocks had old oil still covering them.  We could not remember when last there was a spill in this area except Exxon Valdez but that was up towards Alaska and the Pungent Sound area.  I don’t know what spill would have impacted this area.  It’s amazing though how adaptable sea life is as on top of the crusted on oil, sea life is growing abundantly.  That is not to say at all that oil spills are good.  Just that Life Will Out.

Deciding we had enough sun for the Day we thought we would check the towns along the road.  Gualala was the biggest town we found.  The hard to pronounce name is actually the name of the Native American Tribe that originally lived in the area.  There was a grocery, nurseries, a couple of 50’s style motels; U-shaped with rooms facing the center. Chiropractors who were really reaching for business, they had road signs and coupons everywhere and a school.  There were also some bed and breakfast inns but we didn’t check them out.  What we did check out was Sea Ranch.

Sea Ranch is really a community which was planned to make low impact on the coastline while providing high comfort and accessibility.  There is a lodge there with Rooms running from $149 a night on up to prices you don’t even want to know about.  They also have many houses, duplexes and cottages for summer rental.  A bit pricey with the cheapest being $850/week but very nice and they all have beach and hiking trail access.  The lodge itself has a gift shop where surprisingly things were reasonably priced, a restaurant, and an art gallery.  The art gallery was very cool.  My favorite piece was called Palm leaf Pachyderm and was a lifelike Elephant head painted in oil on a Palm leaf.

Sea Ranch Chapel by: Grainne Rhuad

Another very cool place we visited at Sea Ranch Was the Sea Ranch Chapel.  This Non-denominational chapel was a sanctuary for prayer, meditation and spiritual renewal.  Conceived and constructed by renowned San Diego artist and architect James T. Hubbell.  The Chapel is open to all who wish to spend some time in meditation and indeed as soon as you enter you are soothed and calmed.  Even our 9 year old found herself sitting silently for about 20 minutes with no problem.  Of course the redwood benches carved just so to support your seating postures are a remarkable help. (To see more about this artist and his vision you can visit his site http://hubbellandhubbell.com/community.htm) We left there feeling relaxed and renewed.

Buoyed up by the great find we decided to stop in and check out another Inn.  This one I had seen for years in the back of AAA travel magazine offering To “Reawaken your senses…Restore your spirit…Renew your love….All at the Timber Cove Inn.”  I had actually mulled over going there in the past.  The pictures they have in the magazine and on their website are fabulous.  I am so glad that I didn’t.

This Inn is beautifully located and looks as if it was well planned. Whatever happened to bring this Grand Dame so low is an interesting story to concoct, and that’s about the best entertainment you will get. The place is full of roaming cats and raccoons. The staff behave like cats themselves, treating visitors with unabashed disdain. We stopped in to see what the place was like and wandered the grounds for a good hour without anyone making eye contact. You got the idea that nobody really wanted you to stay there. Upon entering the main lodge where the lounge is you are treated an old man hollering his opinions at the bar to a middle aged ghost who is clearly not interested in his diatribe. The “gift shop” offers great trinkets that one hopes a 7th grader created, because any other explanation is just too sad. The cat/raccoon urine smell is unbearable. And yet I found myself almost wanting to stay if only to have my very own chance at a Stephen King-like experience. All this is at odds with the great presentation that their ads display, both online and in AAA magazine. When staff are asked about the disparity they shrug and refuse to make a statement about it at all…Hey, maybe they are Zombies! Maybe it’s not something out of a Stephen King novel but rather a Scooby Doo episode.  In any case, I guess you would have to be in the right frame of mind to enjoy yourself. Don’t expect romance and relaxation. Expect oddness and gloom. Oh yes and be prepared to spend a lot because all of these cobwebs, pests, rust and zombies come with a price. $275 per night to be exact.

We left here completely satisfied with our campsite with no neighbors in sight.

Making our way back we noticed new people had pulled in during our absence.  One could not fail to notice them as they were clearly what we call “City People” They had their stereo and portable TV up.  The stereo blasting and we were glad they were on the other end of the camp.  We decided mid-week camping is definitely the best.  Later that night we knew our raccoon and fox friend were playing with them because we could hear them honking their horn repeatedly hoping to scare them away.  Funny, how raccoons don’t respond to horns the same way they do rocks.

Sea Ranch Chapel by: Grainne Rhuad