Jenner with Jono

It is pleasant to contemplate a day of paddling on the river, especially when the weather is forecast to be warm and sunny. Such contemplations are sweetened further when plans include a paddling companion. This morning as I readied my kayak, the day’s plans promised all these pleasures in full measure.

Last Saturday, Jono Hale and I had visited the Laguna Foundation Headquarters in Sebastopol, California to attend a lecture/slideshow presentation about River Otters by Megan Isadore, Executive Director of the River Otter Ecology Project.

Jono and I decided to go out to the Russian River in hopes of spotting and otter.

We got an early start today, a good thing as the Jenner launch ramp was very busy on this President’s holiday weekend.

Jono at Jenner 2:15

Jono paddling towards the mouth

Jono, for those who don’t know, is a paddler’s paddler. He has paddled his way into the record books. Among his many achievements is one of the first (the first?) kayak trip out to the Farallon Islands which lie about 30 treacherous miles outside the Golden Gate Bridge. Jono accomplished this the honest way—without chase boats.

He’s also a fine paddling companion, full of stories ranging across a wide assortment topics.

We got down to the mouth in a few minutes. A group of mergansers had collected near the mouth which was crowded with harbor seals and cormorants.

Merganser at the Mouth 2:15

Merganser near the mouth of the river

Near the mouth, we passed a cypress tree that held a great blue heron. Somehow, herons seem too big to perch and nest in trees. But they don’t think so, apparently.

Heron in Cypress Tree 2:15

Heron in cypress

An osprey perched at the top of another tall cypress tree nearby. Osprey have recently returned to the Russian River Estuary. Their whistling call was like music announcing the arrival of spring. This individual took a good long look back at the camera.

Osprey in Cypress

Ospreys have binocular vision, as this photo shows. Their vision must be much better than anything we humans can see, even with the help of our best Zeiss units.

We paused briefly before heading up the south channel on the back side of Penny Island in hope of seeing an otter.

Jono to Penny 2:15

Jono heading for Penny Island

The otters were not in any of their usual haunts along the south bank of the river so we continued up under the Highway One bridge towards Willow Creek. No otters were around, but we had plenty of company from the harbor seals and even some sea lions, who, I think, were looking for a midmorning steelhead brunch.

Sea Lions near Willow Creek 2:15

Sea lions swimming near Willow Creek

As we approached the shoreline of Willow Creek Environmental camp, a great blue heron posed at the edge of the water, almost in silhouette.

Heron on Shore 2:15

There’s something dignified, almost regal in that posture.

We paddled almost to the end of Freezeout Road and were starting to get hungry. I was disappointed to have come almost four miles upriver without seeeing an otter.

Then Jono said, “Dan look! An otter is swimming right at you.”

Sure enough, a single river otter swam close by my kayak and climbed out of the water. It spent a few minutes grooming itself, much as a cat would do, preening its fur with its tongue. The auto focus on the camera was acting up. Out of scores of photos, here’s the best.

Otter on River Bank 2:15

The otter finished gussying himself up and got back in the water, heading upriver. Jono and I followed the otter for a little while before deciding it was time for us to have a break. We pulled our boats up on a rocky shore and enjoyed a lunch made even more pleasant by warm sun and conversation.

Bob, Jono, Dan 2:15

Bob and Jono, each legendary in their own right

On the way back we encountered Russian River’s resident wildlife expert Bob Noble, who paddles in this estuary more than just about anyone else. I was pleased to introduce these two fellow estuarians to each other. We enjoyed a brief conversation. Bob told us to be watching for more cormorants, now that the hatchery has released smolts into the river. Sure enough, we saw plenty of cormorants. One of the groups assembled on the gravel bar in the lee of Paddy’s Rock:

Cormorants 2:15

Hatchery fish make for an easy meal because they were raised in the relative safety of a hatchery and aren’t as wary as they need to be to escape predation by the cormorants.

Jono and I got back to the launch area which was jammed with visitors and cars. We got our boat on our cars and went out for some tea and coffee at Cafe Aquatica. We talked mostly about sailing, a shared interest.

It was a fine day on the estuary.

Laguna Foundation

River Otter Ecology Project


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