Petaluma Parks: Steamer Landing, hiding in plain sight
On a windy afternoon at Steamer Landing Park in downtown Petaluma, gray clouds are stacked up to the north, casting a shadowy hue across the sprawling landscape. Defying the sun-blocked cloud-cover overhead, the land itself fights back with exuberant explosions of green grass, and red and gold flowers. The river plays its own part, here and there reflecting the large, puffy-grey shapes in the sky, intermittently mirroring the flight path of birds whose aerial journeys crisscross the slowly moving water of the afternoon tide.
“This is absolutely the best time of year out here,” says Stephanie Bastianon, Executive Director of Friends of the Petaluma River, which largely maintains this part of the McNear Peninsula, established as a public park in 1996. Best known as the location of the annual summertime Rivertown Revival, when thousands of revelers gather on the spot, Steamer Landing is actually open year round for people looking for a splash of natural beauty. “In the spring, it’s green, everything all round is gorgeous, the flowers are coming out,” says Bastianon. “By the time the Revival happens, everything is brown. This is the time to visit.”
The entrance to Steamer Landing Park has to be searched for carefully, as from D Street, it appears to be a driveway to some rusty industrial complex. Located on Copeland Street, just across D from the transit hub, the little drive takes you to a sweetly designed parking area and “vista point,” with a railing overlooking the channel, some picnic benches, and a delightful circular flower bed complete with an appropriately nautical boat suspended as a sculpture. While that might look, to many visitors, like all there is to Steamer Landing Park, a gate just to the west opens onto a dirt road leading into the heart of the 9.7-acre open space treasure.
“The park gets birdwatchers, dog-walkers, families, and people looking for a bit of the natural world right in the middle of downtown,” says David Hansen, a longtime volunteer out at the park. “It really gets quite a bit of use, especially on weekends.”
Before the health emergency, there were a number of weekly events and gatherings at the barn. Later today (a Thursday in early March) there will be a meeting of the Friends of the Petaluma River. On Sundays, the organization has been sponsoring Boating at the Barn, a free event where visitors can check out various boats and kayaks to use in paddling about and exploring the river.
Hansen was the first General Manager of the Sonoma County Open Space District, back in the 1990s, when the matching grant program was established to create funding for the purchase of undeveloped property that could be converted into parks. So he was involved when Steamer Landing was officially transformed into a place for the public, and the home base of the Friends of the Petaluma River, a nonprofit founded by the late David Yearsley.
“I was the General Manager in 1996 when a matching grant was awarded to the city,” Hansen says. “What the district got out of it, other than helping the city out, was an easement over the property, to restrict anything but park development. The match for the city was to develop the park and maintain it.”
Along the channel are a series of interpretive displays, leading to the now photogenic barn that has been dubbed the David Yearsley River Heritage Center.
“The barn was not there originally,” says Hansen. “It was a livery stable, built in the early part of the last century, making it over 100 years old. It used to be downtown, in what’s now called the Theater District. There’s a little history spiel on a display near the barn,” Hansen says. “The barn was actually cut in half and brought over here in two pieces.”
Hansen was on the board of Friends of the River until 2008, around the time he retired from his job with the county.
“I’m still involved in a big way, though now I’m just a volunteer,” he says.
Hansen points out a number of small trees, just a handful of years old, all of them planted by volunteers with Friends of the Petaluma River.
“Our obligation is to not only maintain the barn, but the general surroundings,” Hansen explains.
At a loud honking sound erupts from the sky, he turns to watch a flock of Canada Geese flying low and loud, blending with the sounds of traffic and the bell of the arriving SMART train not far away. It’s a perfect reminder of how natural and urban environments can overlap and become part of the same larger landscape.
“Every evening, around dusk, we get a bunch of egrets flying up the river toward the turning basin,” Hansen says. “We’ll be having a meeting, and suddenly this flock of white birds come swooping by. It’s amazing. Then, of course, in the morning, they fly back down the river. It’s quite a thing to see.”
For such a relatively small spot, intentionally left wild over almost all of its acreage, there is quite a lot to explore at Steamer Landing Park. With open bicycle access, a single port-a-potty, and a handful of picnic areas, the place is deliberately inviting for those who need to spend a few minutes or an hour out of doors. Though quiet in the spring, when the rains tend to lessen visitor-ship, Bastianon says the place undergoes a dramatic transformation in the summer months.
“During the summer things get pretty busy out here, beginning with our TransHumance event in May, where we have sheep grazing out here for about a week or so,” she says. “Earlier in the month we generally have our river cleanup event, where a couple of hundred people come out to pick up trash up and down the river and various creeks around town.”
Those events are, under the circumstances, highly likely to be canceled. Interested residents should always check the Friends of the Petaluma River website for updates and new news.
“It’s a beautiful spot,” says Bastianon. “And a lot of people don’t even know it’s here. That’s part of its beauty, in a way.”