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400 paddle in the Great Russian River Race

The Great Russian River Race gets under way Saturday in Healdsburg.

Kent Porter / The Press Democrat
Published: Saturday, May 4, 2013 at 6:31 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, May 4, 2013 at 6:31 p.m.

Jill Alger had glimpsed bits of the Great Russian River Race from her house on the river bank for two years before she knew exactly what this odd mix of paddlers was about.

But she jotted a note on her calendar anyway. “I want to do that next year,” it said.

True to her word, Alger was among 400 people who took to the water on Saturday for the third annual race, recruiting her buddy Michael Miller to join her in a two-person canoe in pursuit of glory.

Alas, victory eluded their grasp, but they were pleasantly surprised by how swiftly they completed the race course, despite a few minor crashes along the way.

“We started passing people, and then I knew we were rocking it,” Alger, 56, said with a smirk.

Competitors of all ages and abilities took part in the event, a fundraiser benefiting the Russian Riverkeeper's Clean Campus Clean Creeks program at Healdsburg High School, as well as contributing to maintenance of Memorial Beach, the town's public swimming hole.

The race has raised between $15,000 and $20,000 a year, coordinator Kate Wilson said.

But it also “brings people out to one of the most beautiful river in the world,” said creator and first-time competitor this year, Tony Hansen.

“You really want to get the community out around the river because they're more likely to protect it,” Hansen said.

Participants paddled one- and two-person kayaks and canoes, as well as stand up paddle boards - a smattering of them in the kind of costumes increasingly common to public races.

Paddleboarder Michael Melville of San Lorenzo had on a family kilt and a sort of improvised checkered keffiyeh to protect against the hot sun, while Hansen sported a Norse helmet with red pigtails and his 7-year-old daughter, Sophie, donned a seafoam green mermaid skirt for the competition.

There were two course options: the 15-mile Bridge To Bridge reserved primarily for expert and professional competitors, running from the Alexander Bridge to Healdsburg Memorial Bridge; and an easier, 5-mile run from starting at the Rio Lindo beach in Healdsburg.

With so little rain in recent months, the river is running low, meaning boaters encountered rocks and shallows at points that required a bit of maneuvering. Race organizers provided help at numerous spots along the way, as well.

The flow was low enough, that about half the field of professional racers — worried about damaging their expensive boats — actually dropped out beforehand, Russian Riverkeeper Don McEnhill said.

Patrick Campbell, a Bloomfield resident, gauged the river's flow by the fact that it took him 16 minutes longer to run the race this year than two years ago. “Not a lot of water,” he said.

Santa Rosa resident Parry Shoemaker, 70, had to walk twice but had a great time anyway with her younger sister, Kitty Angell, of Healdsburg.

Shoemaker said her husband has been talking about posting their two-person kayak on CraigsList. But now, she said, there's no way she'll permit it.

“Here's this fabulous river,” she said, “and why aren't we on it more?”

(You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.)

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