After years of indifference, Healdsburg on Saturday took the Russian River and back under its wing -- and into its heart -- at the inaugural
More than 800 attendees -- including about 350 canoe and kayak racers -- launched a new chapter of appreciation, caring and majesty for the formerly languishing river and beach.
"Rivers are really bloodlines for the community," said Elliott Doss of Healdsburg, a race volunteer and a fisheries biologist for the state Department of Fish and Game. "From these kinds of events, you're going to have groups of people of all ages becoming very attached to the river.
"When people love the river, and communities take ownership of the river, then it's much harder to let the river be abused," Doss added.
, who helped maintain the county's regional park at the beach, said Saturday's event was "really exciting," he said.
"This is the kickoff of a really important year on the river," McGuire said Saturday.
Earlier this year, McGuire, a former Healdsburg city councilman, and city officials inked a agreement to finance the annual dam construction and maintenance that allows the beach and park to stay open. Prior to that, both the beach and the regional county park were theatened with closing due to lack of money.
McGuire said the success of Saturday's event portends well for a July 23 inaugural Water Carnival at the river -- an event McGuire said he expects to become the Russian River's signature annual festival.
"We want to bring back the traditional parade on the river -- something we haven't had for the last half-century," McGuire said. "It will be a family-friendly event, with activities for the kids and an aquatic flotilla and wine barrel races.
"The [Healdsburg Memorial] bridge will be closed for two hours for the flotilla," he said. Sponsorships for the water carnival itself have already been covered, McGuire said.
"One hundred percent of the proceeds for the [July 23] event will go to run the park," McGuire said.
One-third of Saturday's event proceeds, expected to total close to $20,000, will also go to maintain the park and the beach. The other two-thirds will go to event sponsor Russian Riverkeeper, which will earmark the money for kids outdoor programs, said Bert Whitaker, Memorial Beach park manager.
"I think this event is hugely successful," Whitaker said. "It's been a long time since we've had events like this at Memorial Beach."
Whitaker was one of about 200 racers who opted for the shorter of the two races Saturday, a five-mile "Rio Race."
"It was a blast," Whitaker said. "It's good to see almost 200 people out on the water on a Saturday morning -- there was definitely a buzz going on."
Misha Riszkiewicz of Sebastopol, one of about 150 who paddled the longer, 15-mile "Bridge to Bridge" race, said it was "a beautiful stretch of river," he said.
Riszkiewicz and wife Susan Starbird, paddling a double kayak, won first place in the double kayak division for the long race.
Other division awards included first, second, third men's and women's for both long and short races, family teams, business teams, "best decked out boat" teams, "best team costumes," and others.
Click here to see the final race results, posted Tuesday, May 10.
"Everyone I talked to said this is awesome," said organizer Lollie Mercer, owner of event sponsor River's Edge Canoe and Kayak in Healdsburg. Other key organizers were Liz Keeley and Don McEnhill of Russian Riverkeeper.
Healdsburg Police Reserve Officer Steven Cox said there were no problems with attendees abusing alcohol -- unlike in years past when beach and river events were venues for excessive drinking. On Saturday, beer and wine were sold at festival booths at the park, but sales were carefully monitored by security guards and police.
"So many controls were set up because of the past history [of unruly behanvior connected to alcohol) at the beach," Cox said. "I've been a police officer in Healdsburg for 30 years -- this couldn't have been done 30 years ago."
After some discussion and reassurances about security from McEnhill and Keeley, to serve alcohol at the event. No alcohol was permitted during the race.
Healdsburg-based band The Cahoots treated attendees to an amazing series of cover sets -- one of which included unannounced guest appearances by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and guitarist Ry Cooder. Hart is the husband of Sonoma County Regional Parks Director Caryl Hart, Whitaker said.
Santa Rosa songstress Lisa Forkish sat in for a few knockout songs. At one point, the music was so in sync, that band leader Don Imhoff of Healdsburg said: "Are we in Sonoma County? This feels like Yoshi's [a jazz and blues bar in Oakland)."
Phil Trowbridge, whose father, W.C. "Bob" Trowbridge, was the first person to organize canoe operations on the Russian River at Healdsburg Memorial Beach decades ago, said he was pleased to see a comeback.
"This is super," Trowbridge said, beaming. "Everybody is so happy and exhilarated about the river.
"The river," Trowbridge added, "is what makes everything work."
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