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Winter paddling is bliss on the Petaluma River

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I moved to Petaluma from New Jersey 10 years ago and, fascinated by the Petaluma River and the opportunity for year-round outdoor exercise, immediately joined the North Bay Rowing Club. I cheered the fact that I’d never need a gym. Gradually, though, I’ve come to appreciate the subtle seasonal changes, and recognize that winter is indeed its own season, even on the Petaluma River.

To gauge the winter people- powered boating scene, I polled members of several local boating clubs, as well as Eve O’Rourke, who supervises the Friends of the Petaluma River’s Sunday Boating at The Barn program. O’Rourke told me that 75 percent fewer visitors show up in the winter months.

While fierce winter wind or extremely low tides cancel the program for the day, volunteers give the same instructions every season, explaining how to get in and out of boats and how to detect the direction and velocity of the wind. When it’s blowing, visitors are sent into the wind for an easier paddle back. O’Rourke says that “the best thing about boating in winter is that you’re boating in winter.”

On a recent Saturday morning, I visited Lokahi at the Petaluma Marina, where a six-person Hawaiian outrigger canoe went out under a cloudless blue sky, then I drove over the D Street bridge, under which young members of River Town Racers, the K1 racing kayak team, were in the middle of an endurance workout and then on to the North Bay Rowing Club on 2nd Street.

There, 16 NBRC masters were heading out in two eights for a 90-minute row. Sam Medeiros, Lokahi’s head coach, scratches his head over why they can’t seem to field more than two canoes for winter practices. Lokahi, one of 21 clubs in Northern California, has a strong kids’ program, and invited anyone who was interested to come to the blessing of the canoes at the Marina on March 10. The season began on March 12.

Member Matt Taylor calls paddling the ultimate team sport, and Jim Hanson notes that paddling “teaches all the other (sports) concepts: working together and being accountable to each other and to yourself, without the contact. It’s an experience you can take throughout your life.” On June 16, Lokahi will host a sprint in Alameda’s Sea Plane Basin.

Depending on the type of boat, winter can be either challenging or way more fun than the more temperate seasons. Susan Starbird, River Town Racers’ head coach, says “lightning and high winds are the only things that cancel our practices.” But dark early morning practices require headlamps and back-of-head lights, reflective clothing, life jackets, and greater caution because of low visibility. Kayakers race once or twice a month year round, the biggest winter event being the Cow Patty Pageant on the Estero Americano on Feb. 24, held rain or shine.

Cath Caddell, K1 racer and mom to teen paddler Jasper, notes that winter wildlife is a great reason to spend time on the water now.

“We saw a family of river otters the other day,” she tells me. Starbird says, “large flocks of egrets coming upstream at twilight to their roosting trees are more conspicuous in winter. On calm winter evenings, their reflections are beautiful.”

As far as paddlers’ behavior goes, Caddell says, “the winter toughening of will makes the team more cohesive. We talk about having done a winter of paddling as a badge of honor. The other day it was going to be 33 degrees but it was a mild 39. Nonetheless the high school boys hosed down (with cold water) before heading to school.”

Starbird says the racers willingly fall in the frigid water as they practice standing up in their particularly tippy skinny kayaks. On sunny midwinter days, though, they may be spotted bare chested.

Let these intrepid boaters inspire you to take that winter walk, maybe along the river at Schollenberger Park, and wave at your fellow outdoor voyagers on the water.