Saturday, 27 October 2007

Week 30 : Bodega Bay to Fort Ross

Amy and I continue up the west coast, flirting with Californian wine country to our right and the the ever-cooling waters of the Pacific to our left. Just north of Bodega Bay is Salmon Beach where the waters of the Salmon Creek meets the Pacific. This spot is noted for its good surf. According to the Wannasurf website, the wave quality is good and the wave type is "beach-break" (whatever that means). I tell Amy but she is not impressed. "The swell starts working at three foot and can hold up to ten foot" I say. She is still not impressed. "And it is very sharky, with several attacks here in the last ten years". I have her full attention at last, but whether she views the promised sharks with fear and trepidation or as a potential source of protein I am not sure. We watch the surfers for a little while but nothing very exciting happens and nobody is eaten by a shark so we move on.

We are travelling along the wonderfully scenic Sonoma Coast State Beach : 16 miles of rugged headlands and craggy coastline which, according to the State Park website, "offers a wealth of opportunities for wholesome fun". I suggested to Amy that the concept of "wholesome fun" was possibly a contradiction in terms, but she was unmoved by such displays of clever wordplay. She has seen a sign listing some of the wildlife native to this coastal area and it included squirrels, rabbits, foxes and skunks. The first three are old friends of hers and amongst her favourite things to chase. She had never come across skunks but is confident that they will be equally fun to terrorise. I don't enlighten her : it will serve her right for ignoring my witty repartee.

The northern edge of the State Beach is where the Russian River flows down to the sea. Near the mouth of the river is the tiny town of Jenner and just outside the town is the River's End Inn and Restaurant. Amy and I stopped for lunch. She settled down to the Duck Confit Sandwich (slow roasted duck served with a cranberry-cherry chutney and set on a toasted on ciabatta roll served with fries) whilst I had the Fish and Chips in Ale Batter. The brochure states that the restaurant caters particularly for people who are "searching for renewal", which, I assume, is some kind of California-speak for "people who are hungry". There are only a hundred or so citizens of Jenner but it has a community website which many a big city would be proud of. I was able to get up-to-date on local news (so sad to hear about the bridge to the Community Centre), access the database of local recipes and even sign an on-line petition to the Attorney-General of California over something or other.

What with the Russian River and, a little further north, the Russian Gulch, you get an idea about one important influence on this part of the Californian coast. However, it was not until Amy and I reached the end of our week's walk, at Fort Ross, did we discover the full extent of the Russian influence on this bit of California.

The settlement of Ross, the name derived from the word for Russia (Rossiia) was established by the Russian - American Company, a commercial hunting and trading company chartered by the Tsarist government, with shares held by the members of the Tsar’s family, court nobility and high officials. Trade was vital to Russian outposts in Alaska, where long winters exhausted supplies and the settlements could not grow enough food to support themselves. Alexander Baranov, the manager of the Russian-American Company, directed his chief deputy, Ivan Alexandrovich Kuskov, to establish a colony in California as a food source for Alaska and to hunt profitable sea otters. After several reconnaissance missions, Kuskov arrived at Ross in March of 1812 with a party of 25 Russians, many of them craftsmen, and 80 native Alaskans from Kodiak and the Aleutian Islands. After negotiating with the Kashaya Pomo people who inhabited the area, Kuskov began construction of the fort.

Records show that after 1812 there were from twenty-five to one hundred Russians and from fifty to one hundred twenty-five Native Alaskans at the settlement at any given time. The number of the Kashaya, who came to work as day laborers, varied with the seasons. Records indicate the presence of only a few Russian women in the colony (the most prominent of whom was the wife of the last manager); "creole" and Alaskan women were somewhat more numerous. However, during the life of the colony, a number of Russians and Alaskan natives married California Indian women—Kashaya, Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo—with the consent of tribal and Company authorities. The children at the settlement, who made up about a third of the residents by the mid-1830s, were almost all considered as "Creoles," born of these ethnically mixed unions.

By 1841 the settlement's agricultural importance had decreased considerably, and the local population of fur-bearing marine mammals had been depleted, so the fur trade was no longer lucrative. Following the formal trade agreement between the Russian-American Company in Sitka and Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Vancouver, the settlement at Fort Ross was not needed to supply the Alaskan colonies with food. The Russian-American Company consequently abandoned the settlement, and it was sold to John Sutter, a Californian entrepreneur of German-Swiss-French origin.

Little now remains of this little bit of Russia in deepest America other than the old fort which has been well preserved. Amy and I had now been on the road for 30 weeks. We had seen Southern California and part of Northern California - just as we had expected. But we have now also seen a little bit of Russia, a welcome if unexpected treat.

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