Petaluma Parks: Putnam Park’s final Sunday in the sun
“Sit awhile, See what you see, and if you can, remember me.”
Along with the name Suzanne Lipsett and the date 1996, that’s the inscription on a small metal plaque affixed to a bench overlook one of many wide, gorgeous vistas at Petaluma’s Helen Putnam Regional Park. Lipsett was a beloved Petaluma writer and editor, best known for the 1991 novel “Remember Me” and the popular 1993 collection of essays “Surviving a Writer’s Life.”
To Putnam Park’s visitors last Sunday, Lipsett’s request to “remember me” could apply as much to the park as to the author of those words. It was the last Sunday that the 216-acre recreation spot - and every other park, of every size - will be open to the public for some time, anywhere in Sonoma County. Following a sunny weekend in which huge crowds accepted the county’s offer of free parking at such sites, but significantly failed to observe the required health mandates of social distancing, keeping clear of playgrounds and picnic tables, and basic community courtesy, the Health Department has overridden the Parks Department and shut them all down as a public safety risk.
The closures will remain in effect throughout the remainder of the emergency.
It is ironic that the parks, institutions always envisioned as places of health and fitness, recreation and relaxation - and might have remained such during this time of sheltering and caution - are now deemed too dangerous for public use, in spite of the efforts of the majority of their visitors to follow the rules.
And for the most part, as observed last Sunday, most people were.
But plenty were not.
Just beyond the park’s entrance at 211 Chileno Valley Road, the small, 37-space parking lot was two/thirds full just after 10:30 a.m. The solar-operated machine that normally disperses parking permits for $7 dollars a pop was getting a rest that morning, with a paper sign - “No Parking Fee Required” - affixed with black electrical tape to the device’s gray-painted side.
Nearby is a notice proclaiming, “Launching, Landing or Operating Unmanned or Remote Controlled Aircraft/Drones is Prohibited.”
From the lot, a dozen people or so could be seen dotting the nearest sloping hillside, while just beyond and to the right of the cars, the picnic area’s play structure – a lovingly worn amalgamation of plastic slides, poles, ramps and ladders – has been made off limits, encased in orange plastic safety fencing. There’s a sign: “Playgrounds, Sports Fields & Athletic Courts Are Closed.”
Maintained by the Sonoma County Regional Parks Department, Helen Putnam Park is among the city of Petaluma’s most popular recreational destinations. The county acquired the property in 1978 (having committed $50,000 to its purchase in 1977), and officially dedicated it as a park, named for former Mayor Helen Putnam, in 1985. Putnam, a celebrated local figure, has two other parks in the area named for her: downtown’s Helen Putnam Plaza, and Cotati’s Helen Putnam Park.
The park’s numerous trails snake up and down hills, into shady wooded canopies and out onto sunbaked savannahs of grass, providing ample opportunities for hiking, cycling and horseback riding. Throughout the park are benches, like the one dedicated to Lipsett, with some of the best views in Petaluma. The labyrinth of trails bear names like Ridge Trail, Arroyo Trail, Panorama Trail, Fillaree Trail and Pomo Trail. This morning, on Pomo Trail, it’s hard not to notice that posted signs have been randomly hit by trollish vandals who’ve scratched into the “m” in “Pomo” to now resemble an “r” and an “n,” giving the trail markers a very different meaning.
“No swimming. No Diving. No Wading. Dogs on Leash. Submerged Objects. No Lifeguard On Duty.”
So warns those approaching Cattail Pond, a small splash of placid water sometimes stocked with bluegill. All around the park are an estimated five different species of oak trees, plenty of flowers and brush, and not surprisingly, a fair amount of poison oak.
It’s that itchy arboreal obstacle that makes for some tricky moments on a few of the narrower trails, where those wishing to give six-feet of clearance to passersby has to choose carefully where to step from the trail to let others pass. On several occasions during last Sunday’s busy morning, an uneasy dance was observable as many dashed and darted to give wide berth to other trail-walkers, offering a friendly thank you to anyone who granted them a similar courtesy, while others passed within inches of strangers. Several groups – not obviously from the same household, given their numbers – could be seen congregating at picnic tables in direct disregard of posted notices.
Meanwhile, overhead, hawks and ravens soared, looking down on the park, where a $200,000 grant has made several restoration and trail improvement projects possible. For the foreseeable future – and who knows how long the new orders will remain in effect – those trails will remain untraveled by anyone but the deer, foxes, skunks, raccoons, coyotes and other animals who have shared the park with humans for the last 35 years.