Another postcard sent by my sister last year features a bit of northern California’s Russian River near where our father grew up; he was born in Santa Rosa and we’ve seen home movies of his and his brother’s exploits tubing, fishing, and sailing on the river when they were young.
The Russian River springs from the Laughlin Range about 5 miles (8 kilometers) east of Willits in Mendocino County. It flows generally southward to Redwood Valley, then past Calpella, where it is bordered by U.S. Route 101, to join the East Fork Russian River just below Lake Mendocino. From there the Russian River flows south, past Ukiah and Hopland, and crosses into Sonoma County just north of Cloverdale. Closely paralleled by U.S. Route 101, it descends into the Alexander Valley, where it is joined by Big Sulphur Creek. It flows south past Cloverdale, Asti, and Geyserville.
East of Healdsburg, Maacama Creek joins the Russian River. After it makes a series of sweeping bends, the Healdsburg Memorial Bridge carries Old Redwood Highway over the river just upstream of U.S. Route 101’s Healdsburg crossing. It receives water from Lake Sonoma via Dry Creek. The river turns westward, where it is spanned by the Wohler Bridge, and it is joined by Mark West Creek north of Forestville, followed by Green Valley Creek to the south. The river passes Rio Nido and Guerneville. In that area, State Route 116 parallels the river, bordering it past Guernewood Park and Monte Rio.
Austin Creek enters from the north before the River passes through Duncans Mills. State Route 1 crosses over the river before it flows into the Pacific Ocean between Jenner and Goat Rock Beach. The Russian River estuary is recognized for protection by the California Bays and Estuaries Policy. The mouth is about 60 miles (100 km) north of the San Francisco Bay’s Golden Gate bridge. It drains 1,485 square miles (3,846 km²) of Sonoma and Mendocino counties in Northern California. With an annual average discharge of approximately 1,600,000 acre feet (2.0 km³), it is the second-largest river (after the Sacramento River) flowing through the nine-county Greater San Francisco Bay Area, with a mainstem 110 miles (177 km) long.
The lower Russian River is a popular spring, summer, and fall destination for navigation and recreation. It is very safe at that time for swimming and boating, with a gentle current. The river is dangerous in the winter, with swift currents and muddy water.
The river was originally known among the Southern Pomo as Ashokawna, “east water place” or “water to the east”, and as Bidapte, “big river”. Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo and his expedition may have made it as far north as the Russian River in November 1542, before storms forced them to turn back south towards Monterey. The earliest European name for the river, Slavyanka, appears on a Russian-American Company chart dated 1817. In 1827, the Spanish called it the San Ygnacio, and in 1843 the Spanish land grant referred to it as Rio Grande.
The river takes its current name from Russian Ivan Kuskov of the Russian-American Company, who explored the river in the early nineteenth century and established the Fort Ross colony 10 miles (16 km) northwest of its mouth. The Russians called it the Slavyanka River (Славянка), meaning “Slav River”. They established three ranches near Fort Ross, one of which — the Kostromitinov Ranch — was along the Russian River near the mouth of Willow Creek. The redwoods that lined its banks drew loggers to the river in the late 19th century.
According to the United States Geological Survey, variant names of the Russian River include Misallaako, Rio Ruso, Shabaikai, and Slavyanka.