"Attention, kayakers!" barked the disembodied voice — presumably a ranger — from his perch on a bluff high above the Russian River where it enters the Pacific outside the Sonoma County town of Jenner. "Turn around. You are getting too close to the surf." And so we did, quickly paddling our kayaks away from the rip current. Within seconds, our Getaway Adventures guides had us pointed upstream into calmer and safer water. Although I lived in Northern California from 1975 to 1990, I'd never visited Jenner or spent any time on Sonoma County's wild coast or beaches because, as an avid whitewater kayaker and skier, I was focused on the Sierra. The town of Jenner, which has a population of fewer than 150, was a new and delightful experience.
The tab: $279 a night for a cabin at River's End, $35 for a salmon dinner at the lodge's restaurant, and $155 per person for a daylong kayaking tour of the Russian River.
River's End is all about the Russian River. My paddling partner and I stayed two nights in one of the inn's five comfortable cabins, none of which have televisions. There's no cellphone service either, so this truly is a place to retreat from the workaday world. Each morning we woke to fog obscuring the far side of the river, but when it lifted, we could see the sandy peninsula that is part of Sonoma Coast State Park. A colony of gray harbor seals lay on the beach facing the mouth of the river. We never got close to them, though, because it was pupping season when we visited in July.
My Southwestern-style king salmon melted in my mouth. It was served on a bed of black rice and fire-roasted corn with a watermelon salad and a citrus beurre blanc. My companion chose king salmon with sautéed asparagus and toasted wheat farro with a moutarde sauce. Our dinner, as good as it was, was no competition for the restaurant's stunning views of the sun sinking into the sea beyond the offshore sea stacks and other rock formations.
You can drive to Goat Rock Beach, bordering the mouth of the Russian River, but we stayed on the bluffs for several miles, then found a trail that dropped 100 feet to the sand where we picked up wave-sculpted glass. On another afternoon, we rode horses in the tawny hills above Chanslor Ranch, which offered great views of Bodega Bay. We also hiked through a grove of 300-foot-tall sequoias at Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve.
The lesson learned
Sometimes you can be too focused on one part of California. As much as I love kayaking and skiing in the Sierra, I regret ignoring other parts of Northern California. I'll be back to Sonoma County and its wild coast.
If you go
River's End, 11408 Highway 1, Jenner; (707) 865-2484. Restaurant is wheelchair accessible; cabins are not.
Chanslor Ranch, 2660 Highway 1, Bodega Bay; (707) 589-5040. $60 an hour for a guided horseback trip.
Getaway Adventures, 2228 Northpoint Parkway, Santa Rosa; (800) 499-2453