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The world in a hard shell: John Thompson of the North Bay Rowing Club calls the Petaluma River the best rowing water in the region.

For decades, the Petaluma River has been the lifeblood of Sonoma County's second-largest city. Once a haven for paddle-wheel steamers and barges transporting timber and bags of flour from the docks behind the Golden Eagle Mill (now the site of a busy shopping center) to San Francisco, this man-made slough has been sorely neglected in recent years, the source of costly flooding and a repository for pollutants. That could all change dramatically now that plans call for extensive development along its banks. This is the first of a two-part series on the Petaluma River.

Life on theWater

A long, lazy trip down the Petaluma River--a day in the life of the folks who live, work, and play along this meandering waterway

Text By David Templeton/Photos By Michael Amsler

SOMEWHERE up there, hidden behind a moist canopy of low-hanging clouds, the sun is rising over the Petaluma River. A gray morning light gradually spreads along the slippery brown-green surface of the water, now being gently pebbled by a thousand drops of falling rain. Down by the Foundry Wharf, an old riverfront mill that's been converted to upscale offices, there are signs of movement.

The tide is low, revealing the shiny silt-slick banks of mud, riotously marked by the gluey footprints of shore birds and muskrats. A mitten crab sidesteps through a rotting tire, coated with ooze, that protrudes from a spot near the boat-launching dock.

On the dock, nine pairs of tennis shoes stand freshly emptied, silently soaking in the drizzle. A small yacht is moored nearby. Its occupants--resident watch-persons for this bit of the river--are just beginning to stir, sending soft muffled mumblings out along the water, where sounds commingle with the unmistakable bump and swoosh of oars on the water.

Bump-swoosh! Bump-swoosh! Bump-swoosh!

The source of these sounds turns out to be the owners of the orphaned shoes: a hardy handful of rowers, out on the water for their ritual morning workout. Half a dozen racing skiffs--some with one rower, others with two--skim serenely down the waterway in a graceful and elegant waterborne procession, like mysterious water phantoms parading in the mist.

Several mornings a week, the brightly colored skiffs and racing shells of the hard-working, early-rising diehards of the North Bay Rowing Club can be seen here, usually working the six-mile stretch from the turning basin, half a mile north of the Foundry, to Gilardi's Landing five and a half miles to the south. On occasion, valiant rowers will venture all the way to San Pablo Bay, negotiating a picturesque, though largely unappreciated, 15 miles of truly remarkable river.

The 16-year-old club boasts 50-plus members, men and women, young and not so young.

This morning, however, there are only eight of them, racing south down the river in single file. The rowers face north, effectively traveling backward.

After a few moments, a ninth boat skims by.

"This is the best rowing water in the North Bay," enthuses longtime rower John Thompson, who leans into his stroke, then pulls easily back as his oars propel him swiftly across the water. "It's 15 miles of clean, flat water with no waves. In rowing, you don't want any waves."

Patiently coaching the first-timer who shares his two-man skiff, the articulate Coast Guard engineer has let the other rowers speed on ahead while he takes a practice trip up to the turning basin. Slicing through the water, just inches above its murky surface, Thompson guides the craft by way of a small rearview mirror extending from his headband.

Master storyteller: "The waterfront has a tendency to attract colorful characters," says Petaluma Marina harbormaster Wayne Kipp.

The short stretch from the turning basin to the Foundry is usually a highly populated one, though all is quiet now. Even the D Street drawbridge, normally singing with the rumbling percussion of passing cars and trucks, is mostly silent. There's no sign yet of the anonymous homeless man who's been sleeping beneath the bridge of late--only the bright orange and purple flowers he's recently planted in the hollowed-out bowls of the wooden pilings beneath the bridge's control house. Farther down, the massive crust-bottomed barges and towboats of the Jerico Products construction company, a common sight along the river, are harbored end to end. Across from them is a row of rotting pilings and planks that serve as the back door of the historic Bar Ale feed company, with its corrugated metal siding.

A large "For Sale" sign hangs above the water.

Someday, if city planners have their way, this part of the riverfront will be lined with upscale shops and restaurants, pristine offices, luxury apartments, and walkways. For now, it still bears the marks of the bustling waterway it was for nearly a century until water commerce declined around the mid-1950s.

Though all of this is surely familiar to anyone who's explored the riverfront by foot, Thompson and his fellow rowers are privileged to view these sights from the middle of the river. From this vantage point, the river's vibrant atmosphere, thick with the ghosts of old Petaluma, seems especially strong.

AT THE FOUNDRY--a once dilapidated pile of old metal and brick buildings, now a pleasantly refurbished complex of offices and commercial quarters--the river begins to resemble some otherworldly avenue, lined with a motley assortment of oddly parked cars. Here, of course, the cars are actually boats and houseboats, some in shiny shipshape, others in advanced states of decay and berthed at a small dock. The castlelike image of Shamrock Materials' giant rock mill looms in the distance. The rust-red hulk of an old paddle wheeler floats semi-sideways in the drink; nicknamed The Duke, it was reportedly once used in an old John Wayne film. The spectacular craft was intended to be the replacement for the Petaluma Queen, the famous but troubled Petaluma tourist boat that was relocated two years ago to the Napa River. Those plans were abandoned, and The Duke sits forgotten, eerily entombed in dust and cobwebs.

A new housing complex features a flower-lined walkway right along the river to the south of the Foundry; a woman is out jogging this morning, trotting through the rain with a lanky Labrador galloping beside her.

Thompson speeds past all these sights, now intent on his rowing form. As he maneuvers beneath the towering Highway 101 overpass, he stops suddenly, letting the skiff glide to a stop. He stops to look around, pointing out the odd rotating railroad bridge designed to swing across the river when needed.

A short jaunt from here is the Petaluma Marina.

The tidal currents gently pull the skiff southward, easing Thompson and his student out from under cover of the overpass. It seems to have stopped raining. The other rowers now begin to return from their excursion farther downriver. Gracefully wielding the oars, Thompson turns the boat around and heads back to the dock.

THE PETALUMA River, ironically enough, is not technically a river at all. It's a tidal slough, an estuary of San Pablo Bay, surrounded by a vast saltwater marsh to the north. Its brackish water rises and falls as the bay's tides pull it out of a winding, twisting course before sending it all back up the slough again. Unlike real rivers that rid themselves of sediment--and pollutants--as they flow from their source to their final destination, the Petaluma River, so named by an act of Congress in 1959, merely fills and empties at a slow pace, constantly churning up mud as it does so.

Thus the infamous brown-green color.

Before Spanish explorers stumbled upon the channel in 1776, the area was peopled by Miwoks and Pomos, who for centuries had thrived along the marsh's rich and fertile waters. A major breeding ground for fish and migratory birds, the area was rediscovered in the mid-1800s, this time by hunters looking for meat to send to the burgeoning gold fields. A hunter's camp was set up near the northernmost tip of the slough. That camp eventually became Petaluma. Over the next 100 years, the channel became one of the busiest waterways in the West, constantly trafficked by steamboats and barges running food and game, grain and eggs, and a significant number of cobblestones--pulled from quarries in Penngrove--down to the growing metropolis of San Francisco. To make things easier for the barges, which had a difficult time maneuvering through the Petaluma slough's twistier turns, a handful of cuts were dug into the channel just south of town, effectively straightening out the river. Dredging is necessary from time to time to keep the waterway from silting up and becoming unnavigable.

After World War II, when Highway 101 was constructed, the river was no longer the best mode of transportation, and business soon declined. A small amount of remaining barge commerce was just enough to keep the government interested. The act of Congress that bestowed the "river" designation was a necessary legal step to ensure that federal money would continue to pay for the exhaustive dredging efforts. For a time, the river became a mere dumping ground for local businesses: a smelly, polluted trickle of water behind Petaluma Boulevard--and a convenient place to build in the floodplain.

By the mid 1970s, so much shoaling had occurred that a large island of silt had formed in the middle of the river's turning basin. Around 1976,
fueled by a surge of bicentennial enthusiasm, enormous efforts were made to repair the river and recapture some of its former glory. These efforts have been mostly successful. Yachts sail up and down the river again. The marina is undergoing an expansion, and a nearby resort hotel is planned. Clubs like North Bay Rowing have taken to the waters in droves.

Yet to this day, it is a constant struggle to keep the river from becoming too shallow. And there are other concerns as well: fish are no longer plentiful, owing in part to the silt and in part to alien mitten crabs that are eating the smaller bait fish. Though the days are long gone when raw sewage was routinely flushed into the river, lingering fear of contamination still keeps most people from so much as touching the water. The shallowing is beginning to take its toll on yachters, many of whom are once again reluctant to enter the turning basin for fear of becoming grounded.

Especially among the river people, folks are beginning to fear that the Petaluma River is once again being neglected.

River keeper: David Yearsley acts as an environmental watchdog.

THE RIVER PEOPLE are a remarkably mixed lot. Their ranks include tugboat pilots, barge workers, boat dwellers, weekend yachtsmen, kayakers, joggers, photographers, painters, nature enthusiasts, canoers, fishing pole-toting kids, duck hunters, and commercial fishermen. The last group, fishermen, divides into those who claim to eat the fish they catch and those who insist they'd never dream of it. There are the homeless who make their beds near the river, and sometimes on it, taking possession of abandoned boats that cling to the banks a mile or two south of the downtown area. Utility workers visit often, mending the docks and reinforcing the riverbanks with concrete and wooden pilings, while taking time now and then to raise the D Street bridge for passing boats. Environmentalists sometimes patrol the river, keeping an eye out for ecological wrongdoing, as do the Sheriff's Department and the Coast Guard and, mainly for recreation and training, the hardy young Sea Scouts.

Then there are those who merely come to the river to sit and watch.

River people, by and large, have little in common save their collective fondness for this muddy meandering waterway. They know the river's drawbacks better than most, yet are often the first to defend its sometimes sullied honor.

"It's a nice river," says Nancy Wright, one of the rowing club's avid early-morning river riders. "It's just brown."

"The silt makes the water slimy," admits Greg Sabourin, founder of the club. "But it's still a beautiful river. It's not as bad as it's maligned to be. As far as pollution goes, the water quality of this river is better than a lot of other bodies of water in the North Bay."

For the most part, recent environmental reports bear this out. A 1999 study of insecticides in the river, conducted by Petaluma's Baseline Consulting, revealed low-level traces of diazinon (banned from lawn products last week by the EPA) and chlorpyrifos, common residential pesticides, but concluded that these toxic agents currently exist at levels too low to affect fish and plant populations.

A 1996 study conducted by Sonoma State University's environmental studies department indicated that the water quality of the river has markedly improved since the 1980s, when massive fish kills were common. Though the study confirmed the drastic reduction of fish populations in the Petaluma River, it pointed to increased upstream filling as the primary culprit--nothing that would cause mutations like three-eyed fish, a surprisingly common joke among longtime river people.

The environmental watchdog Bay Keeper has sued on several occasions in recent years to stop auto dismantlers in Penngrove and other areas along the northern stretch of the river from allowing water tainted with heavy metals to drain into the waterway.

"I've seen some weird things in this river," says Petaluma fisherman Doug Tucker. "I've seen pink jellyfish. I've seen sea lions. I even saw Humphrey the humpback whale up at the Marina. But I've never seen a three-eyed fish. Not yet."

At high noon in the turning basin behind the downtown, Tucker is shooting the bull with Don Bayer. The unofficial "boat cop" of the basin, Bayer lives aboard his fishing vessel, the Mahalko II, commonly moored near where the Petaluma Queen once docked.

In the evenings, passersby often see him out on his deck, amiably chatting with anyone who'll stop. On warm days, he's been known to pull out his barbecue and cook the fish he caught earlier out in the bay.

THE PETALUMA turning basin isn't a bad spot to sit and relax at the end of a day. The oblong feature is encircled by local eateries and other businesses, some with patios that reach the water's edge. A series of walkways and docks stretch from the parking lot of the Golden Eagle Shopping Center, down along the water, and over to the River House restaurant on the opposite side. There, a mysterious sculpture rises 20 feet into the air. Resembling a pair of crab arms, or perhaps a set of melting spoons, the stone-gray structure is intended, says Tucker, to represent two people dancing.

"That's what they tell me anyway," he says with a laugh.

It is only midweek, and there are an even dozen boats here, with a handful of resident boat people out on their decks, talking, reading, or working. It's high tide, so most of the mud is hidden beneath the water. A few hours from now, the docks and some of the boats will be resting on a shiny bed of slime.

Bayer points across the basin to the Petaluma Yacht Club. On the weekend, he says, up to a dozen yachts will be moored there. "But I remember the days when there would be hundreds of yachts in this turning basin," says Bayer. "You could walk across the river, stepping from boat to boat. But now the river is so shallow [from siltation and lack of dredging] that people are afraid they'll run aground."

He shakes his head.

"This river is steadily, slowly going into garbage," he laments. "I remember catching stripers and salmon right here in the turning basin."

"I caught a 15-pound bass here less than 10 years ago," agrees Tucker. "I've caught salmon, striper, and sturgeon in this river."

"But not lately, because of the silt," adds Bayer.

"And the crabs," concludes Tucker. "Little by little, this river will be dead of fish."

The two men have plenty of ideas about how to fix the problem, their main solution being better and more frequent dredging of the basin.

"But the city doesn't seem to care," says Bayer with a shrug. "The politicians don't live down here, so they don't know what's really going on. But I do. I'm up and down this river every day.

"A lot of problems could be fixed," he insists, "if the city would only listen to the boat people."

MATT HODGES is on vacation. Therefore, he is fishing. "Whenever I get some time off, I get the fever," he says. "I'll be here all week long." With a big plastic bag full of anchovies, Hodges--joined by his wife and son and a few of his friends from the East Bay--is fishing from a comfortable little public platform, constructed at the place where C Street meets the river.

Hodges may have the fever, but his friends aren't catching it. They haven't been catching any fish either, so they're packing up to leave.

"There aren't any fish in there," grouses one of the men. "And I came all the way here just to catch one of those famous three-eyed fish." Everyone laughs.

After they leave, Hodges points to a spot in the middle of the river.

"My brand-new fishing pole is down there somewhere," he says. "I was fishing here yesterday with a brand-new pole. It was the first time I'd used it. I had a line in the water and the pole standing up against the railing. All of a sudden the end of my pole dipped way down, and I thought, 'OK, finally I have a big one.' But it wasn't a fish. It was a duck," he laughs. "A duck was flying by and hit my line. Before I could catch it, the whole pole went over the edge. So it's down there somewhere. The duck wasn't even hurt."

Hodges, who has lived in Petaluma his entire life, has returned here often.

"I've been pulling fish out of this river forever," he says. "But the last couple of years, it's really gone down. I used to go through a bag of anchovies in an hour. This bag is still almost full." He pulls up his line. The bait is gone.

"Crabs," he sighs. "The crabs take the bait before the fish can find it." As he begins to thread another anchovy onto the hook, a blue heron flies over and lands about 10 feet away. Seeing it, Hodges breaks into a big smile.

"I come here to fish," he says, "but I also come down here just because I like it. It's a pretty nice place to be."

By midafternoon, every hint of rain has burned away. As one travels south, it's become a bright, sunny spring day along the river. At the Petaluma Marina--a man-made cove just south of the railroad bridge--a slight breeze is blowing among the rows of neatly harbored boats. The sprawling business center, a series of large adjoining three-story office buildings, looms above the water.

Near the harbormaster's office, alongside the marina's launching ramp, a tall, bearded fellow bends over, looking at something in the water. He wears grubby, disheveled jeans and a red bandanna that makes him look like a pirate. He is talking to a pair of ducks. "Now you show up," he scolds, waving an empty brown paper bag at them. "I just gave my last piece of bread to the seagulls. Next time don't wait so long."

With that, he ambles away across the parking lot.

"The waterfront has a tendency to attract colorful characters," says Wayne Kipp, the marina's harbormaster since 1993. "Waterfronts have attracted wanderers of all kinds since the beginning of time."

There are a number of such "colorful characters" who frequent the marina, admits Kipp. He affectionately refers to them as the Wharf Rats. "They're always kind of interesting to talk to," he says.

Kipp describes his job as being "part Jack-of-all-trades, part hotel manager for boats." He oversees the docks, collects launching fees, maintains the facilities, operates the fuel dock, and spends a lot of time talking about the river.

"Everyone who comes down here ends up having very strong opinions about the river," he says. "And they are very happy to share them."

The marina is a popular spot to launch recreational vehicles onto the river, from pleasure craft to fishing boats, jet skis to inner tubes. The stretch of river just south of the marina is perfect for such activities. In spite of concerns about the river's health, Kipp says a lot of people still come to play on the river.

"On a hot day," he calculates, "I see 60 or 70 people go down this ramp."

BUT NOT ALL of the river people are looking for recreation. Some, like the flower planter beneath the D Street bridge, are simply looking for a place to sleep. According to John Records of COTS, a local homeless service program, the river has been host to a large number of homeless people over the years.

"The river is one piece of the larger ecology of homeless people and how they meet their needs in the community," says Records, whose nonprofit agency operates a shelter on the south end of town, just across the boulevard from the river. "There are few remaining low-income housing options in Petaluma, and the river can provide that. Some people live on boats and some camp along the water. People are very resourceful. They often acquire inexpensive boats, sometimes even nonfunctioning boats, and they live on them along the river. It's like living in a trailer."

Such situations, Records admits, create sanitation problems that need to be addressed.

"There's certainly been ongoing concern in the community about people living along the river," he says. "So there's a constant turnover. People will camp for a while in one place, and the authorities will pretty much leave them alone until someone in the community complains; then they are told to move on. So they find another place to camp."

Occasionally, people will move into abandoned boats, of which there are plenty along the river. An elderly couple fortunate enough to have their own powerboat are often seen docking at the turning basin, loading up with groceries at the nearby discount grocery outlet, then motoring back downriver to wherever they've been living. "It's a matter of balance," says Records. "We must somehow balance the needs of the homeless--who should be able to use the river along with the rest of us--and the needs of the rest of the people in the community."

The bottom line, he says, is that the homeless who've found a way to live on the river have something they can't get from living in a shelter.

"They have privacy and safety," he says. "And even a sense of dignity that comes from being allowed a degree of self-reliance. That's a good thing."

South of the marina, the Petaluma River widens significantly.

This is the part of the river that most people never see, since it can't easily be glimpsed from the land. On the east side is Haystack Landing, the site of a ramshackle Victorian and a long series of barge docks, junkyards, and construction storage areas. Intermingling with these are ancient, dilapidated houses, some on stilts that dip into the river, which bunch together alongside houseboats that look like giant wooden blocks floating on the water. In this stretch are also a surprising number of rotting hulks, former boats that have dragged up onto the mud to decompose.

Across the river from this hypnotically crumbling aquatic corpse-yard is the city-owned Shollenberger Park, with a walking-jogging path that wraps itself around a migratory bird sanctuary and runs along the river for about half a mile. The path is much trafficked by bikers, joggers, birdwatchers, and dog walkers. From benches along the water, onlookers can watch the spectacle of Jerico barges attempting three-point turns in the channel, preparing to dock at their southern landing across the river. The city plans to connect the popular park with the nearby marina.

After a few large twists and turns, and close to the Marin County border, the architectural decay all but disappears for a while as the river enters a stretch that is mainly rural, with extensive wetlands and marshes. Fog-caked hills, lush and tree-dotted and pretty as a postcard, stand majestically in the distance. Herons and hawks and ducks and Canadian geese glide in for their watery landings or rise in a cheery blast of tumult from the grass.

Running more or less parallel to Lakeville Highway, the river now flows past a series of farms and pastures on the east and grassy marshlands on the west. A random derelict vessel or a few collapsing buildings are the only structures close to the water. A few miles later, a motley grouping of structures appears on the left, growing in number and joined by a boat or two until Gilardi's Landing materializes like something out of a John Steinbeck novel.

KNOWN MAINLY as the roadside location of Papa's Taverna Restaurant--a popular Greek eatery that draws weekend boaters from Napa, Marin, and San Francisco--Gilardi's Landing provides a well-used entry to the southern stretch of the river. Along the water is a haphazard throng of docks and ramps, tiny fishing platforms, and ancient shacks that appear to be barely standing. Just inland is a surreal village of eccentric houses, many with optimistic yards festooned with whimsical decorations.

Today, the area is mostly deserted, except for one boater attending to his docked vessel--and an energetic pair of women who've come to the landing this afternoon, sketchbooks and paint boxes in hand, to paint the river.

Dorothy Porter of Petaluma and Cornelia Watley of Belvedere gleefully refer to themselves as "the Monday-morning painters." They travel the Bay Area in search of picturesque places to stop and paint. The paintings that aren't framed and hung in galleries--the two artists have jointly held several shows over the years--are collected in handmade books having covers of corrugated cardboard.

"This is one of our favorite spots," says Porter, letting her eyes sweep across the view before her. "We both have lots of pictures of the river."

"Look at the colors!" exclaims Watley, gesturing at the marshes and hills. "Today is fabulous! All those greens and violets and sienna."

"Those greens are marvelous," Porter chimes in. "And look at all the shapes the trees make. It's a painter's paradise."

"And when we come here," adds Watley, "we don't have to bring a lunch. We can eat right here."

"Altogether," smiles Porter, "it's a perfect arrangement."

DAVID YEARSLEY eases his small powerboat away from Gilardi's Landing, careful to observe the 5-knot speed limit until he's a sufficient distance from the area. As soon as he begins to pick up speed, leaves the river proper and speeds into the narrow Donahue Slough, bordered on both sides by tall grasses.

We have entered the Maze.

Yearsley is the Petaluma river keeper. Supported by the San Francisco BayKeeper Foundation--an organization of environmental butt-kickers dedicated to protecting California's waters--Yearsley patrols the Petaluma River and its surrounding marshland and numerous ancillary waterways. Following up on calls to BayKeeper's hotline, Yearsley collects evidence of deliberate or accidental polluting, unlawful agricultural waste, and other environmental crimes. He reports his findings to BayKeeper. If there is sufficient evidence of wrongdoing, the organization will inform the offender of their involvement.

If the charges are not taken seriously, BayKeeper may file a lawsuit.

It is an effective strategy that has already repaired environmental damage at hundreds of sites throughout the North Bay. Yearsley, a professional cabinetmaker, volunteers his time on the river.

Today he is patrolling the marsh, his favorite--and surprisingly the least explored--segment of the Petaluma River.

"This is the largest remaining natural marsh on the West Coast," he says, turning left up another, even narrower, channel. "This marsh is a nursery for striped bass. It's so wound with sloughs that it acts as a filter for the bay. This is a very valuable resource."

And a hauntingly beautiful one, besides.

The muddy banks are so cracked and buffeted by nature they seem to be lined with a thousand smooth round cobblestones. Pickleweed grows everywhere, along with high salt grasses and gum plants, pepper plants, and cord grass. Dozens of century-old structures, cabins, and duck-hunting blinds are rooted here and there in the marsh, most of them nearly disintegrated.

The marsh--adjoining an area once proposed for an Indian casino, replete with visiting riverboats--was a duck hunter's playground before most of the ducks moved on in the 1960s to other feeding grounds. Though hunting is still allowed here during hunting season, few hunters bother to come out anymore since the area is accessible only by water. Additionally, the siltation problem that threatens the river is equally present in the marsh. Some channels have completely filled in.

Still, there are hundreds of acres of marsh here, crisscrossed and interlaced by so many smaller sloughs and channels that unless novices take a map, they are sure to get lost. Yearsley dreams of repairing the marsh, cleaning out the garbage that has accumulated over the years, and establishing an official "water trail" through the channels.

It will have to be a well-maintained, well-marked trail.

Yearsley has explored most of the marsh, and even he finds surprises every time he comes here. "The marsh," he says with a grin, "is ever-changing."

Case in point: Rounding a sharp bend, he comes upon a mass of boards and wires, partially floating in the water but anchored deeply enough that it can't be moved out of the way. He's blocked. "That's new," he says, maneuvering the boat around to go back the way he's come. Once out in the Donahue Slough again, Yearsley ventures deeper into the marsh before turning down a channel he's never explored before.

"You feel like you're a discoverer every time you come out here," he says, happily. "That's one of the wonders of this place. Think about it. We're less than a mile from the road, but it feels completely removed from the stresses of civilization. The Petaluma Marsh is a gem."

Suddenly, Yearsley comes face to face with another obstacle. A capsized, partially submerged boat is barring further exploration of this channel. Yearsley stands up and appraises the situation. This is part of his job, locating foreign materials that are clogging the waterways. His own boat is already carrying a load of discarded whiskey bottles and trash some hunter or fisherman left behind among the grasses.

The sunken boat is a more serious problem. It will have to be removed at a later date.

"That's another thing about this place," he says. "A whole lot of stuff comes here to die. I don't know how it all gets here. But it gets here."

And that's that. The tide is beginning to fall. Soon the waters will recede and many of these channels will be little more than alleys of mud. Turning his powerboat around, Yearsley begins once more to weave his way out of the Maze, out of the marsh, back to the river.

MOST RIVER PEOPLE don't fall in love with the river all at once. It happens gradually, little by little. Love tends to grow at a pace commensurate with the amount of contact you have with the river. The more you discover about the river, the more it works its way into your life. You come to the river by necessity, or out of convenience, or by sheer coincidence. And then the river works its weird magic on you.

Not surprisingly, the magic runs deepest in those who've grown up on the river. Therefore the youngest of the river people will be the ones to defend and protect the river into the next century.

"Introducing young people to the river," says skipper Barry Thorsson, "is among the most important things we can do for the river."

Thorsson is sitting in the pilothouse of the Compass Rose, watching his able crew of teenagers steer the enormous launch southward down the Petaluma River and on to the East Bay. Outside, the day has grown windy. Sunset, still 90 minutes away, will bring a very chilly evening.

These are the Petaluma Sea Scouts, a coed affiliate of the Boy Scouts that has been working the waters of the Petaluma River since 1927. Yet somehow this river-based unit is not all that well known.

"We're the best-kept secret in Petaluma," jokes Thorsson.

In Sea Scouts, teens learn all the standard knot-tying, radar-reading details of seamanship while serving as the crew on the their very own boat. Boasting a crew of 12 kids (the majority of them young women), the Compass Rose--a refurbished 1969 Navy torpedo retrieval boat--is on its way to Alameda for a big Sea Scout regatta that will last three days.

"This is all run by the kids," says Thorsson proudly.

His daughter Rose, the ship's boatswain, relays orders from the skipper to the rest of the crew, all busy at various assignments. Casey Marketos is stationed outside in the wind, fulfilling her duties as the bow watch. Mainly, she's eyeing the river for boats and other obstructions in their way. Here, about two miles from San Pablo Bay, the river is choppy and wide, almost 90 yards from bank to bank.

FROM THE DECK, all there is to see on either side of the river is gorgeous rolling pastureland, hayfields, an occasional dairy, and a vineyard or two. An old green wreck of a boat appears on the right, smashed into the west bank. A little bit later, an upended couch is spied along the east bank.

The crew points this out and laughs.

"How does this stuff get here?" someone asks. "You sure see some weird stuff out here."

There follow numerous jokes about three-eyed fish, while inside the pilothouse Rose is leading a chorus of "Old MacDonald Had a Farm." Amanda Lefler sits nearby tying a half-hitch. Occasional yachts and other craft pass by in the opposite direction, headed toward town, gleefully tooting their horns. The Marin County hills draw closer. The Compass Rose is reaching the end of the Petaluma River.

Steven Trickel sits happily at the stern, cracking jokes.

"This is an interesting river," he acknowledges, turning his face into the wind. "It's fun to hang out on it. We all like the river a lot."

They like it. A lot. Of course they do. After all, these kids are river people. They like the river.

And they're learning to love it.

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From the June 15-21, 2000, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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