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.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Week 29 : Tomales Bay To Bodega Bay

Amy and I started our week by continuing our walk up the east side of Tomales Bay. "Bay" is a misleading description as it is a long flooded valley rather than a traditional seaside bay. But it is beautiful, and when the sun is setting there are some delicious views across the strip of calm water towards the low hills of the peninsular. You can get a good impression of the calm and tranquility of this wonderful little spot by looking at the video clip of the Tule Elk Preserve which is part of the "Sunrise Earth" on-line project. But as you listen to the birds singing and watch the elk peacefully grazing along the banks of Tomales Bay, just remember that the mighty San Andreas Fault line dissects the bay. Calm and tranquil it may be, but it has a greater capacity for destruction than anything so far cooked-up by mankind.

Leaving the coast behind we follow the old route of the North Pacific Coast Railroad inland, heading for the small town of Tomales (population 210). This place has been known as "the beautiful little town of Tomales" for over 100 years. Little seems to have changed and the locals seem proud of the fact. If you visit you learn that the local population is made up of "a mix of third generation ranching families of Irish, Swiss and Italian descent, and a diverse group of new families attracted to the quieter pace, family-oriented values that Tomales offers". Tomales boasts that it is the only community in Marin County that has retained its turn of the century rural community integrity. "Our community pride is contagious", declares the website and I told Amy about the claim. She doesn't always hear very well (it's all that fur in her ears) but she obviously picked up the word "contagious" because she stepped very carefully until we hit the far side of town.

Just north of Tomales you come to The William Tell House which claims to be Marin County's Oldest Saloon. It's an odd little place which seems to stick out from the background scenery like a sore thumb (or given the legend behind the name, like a sore head). The website has a section headed "history" so I turned to that to find out about the history of the saloon. Unfortunately it just gives you the history of William Tell rather than the story behind the saloon which, I a sure, would have been much more interesting. Equally, the website has a section entitled "Beer" which simply has a list 22 different wines which are available. Sounds like an odd kind of saloon to me - no idea what William Tell would have made of it.

A few miles further north and you cross the County Line, leaving Marin County behind and entering Sonoma County. Sonoma is the southwestern county of California's Wine Country region with over 250 wineries. Agriculture of all kinds is the main business of the county : in 2002 Sonoma County ranked as the thirty-second county in the United States in agricultural production. Amy and I were looking forward to walking its length : for Amy agricultural land means wildlife to chase after, for me wineries mean happiness.

After crossing the County Line, Highway 1 turns westwards and in a couple of miles passes through the small township of Valley Ford. In the nineteenth century the future of Valley Ford looked bright. It was an important railroad stop and it was beginning to gain a reputation as a commercial and industrial centre. There is a small website dedicated to the history of Valley Ford which contains an extract from the 1877 book "Historical and Descriptive Sketch of Sonoma County, California" by Robert A. Thompson.

"In 1876 P. E. Merritt opened a new grocery store in the place. J. Parry opened a tin shop, and John Hunter opened a meat market. With her railroad facilities, fine climate, and rich and productive surrounding country, why should not Valley Ford continue to grow and prosper?"

But it didn't. In 2007, with a population of just 60, it is smaller than it was 130 years earlier. The railroad is long gone and the main street is given over to a few craft shops and galleries. You pass through it without a second glance. Somehow, Valley Ford missed the bus to the twenty first century.

We continue along the main road towards the coast and by the end
of the week reach Bodega Bay. There is a neat link between Bodega Bay and Capitola through which Amy and I passed some twelve weeks ago. If you have been following our adventures carefully you will remember that an invasion of birds at Capitola gave AlfredHitchcock the idea for the film "The Birds". Wanting a remote but beautiful coastal location to film the story he came north to Bodega Bay. It's a beautiful spot, with its fishing boats and rocky coastline. It made a suitable spot to celebrate the end of our week's walking. So, one sunny afternoon, Amy and I sat on a wooden jetty and watched the birds circle overhead. I turned to Amy and said : "I wonder what would happen if ....", but that's another story.