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On the Petaluma River, advocacy work grows

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Shortly after Petaluma River advocate David Yearsley met his future wife during the summer of 1994, he invited her to take part in the classic mating ritual of maritime salvage.

Yearsley, then living in Berkeley, decided it would be a grand idea to tow an old dock he found washed up along the shores of the East Bay all the way back to his “slough house” on the Petaluma River, and he wanted his then-girlfriend Elizabeth Howland to come with.

Neither would have believed the salvage mission would lead to creation more than a decade later of Friends of the Petaluma River, now one of the largest of the river’s advocacy groups.

They attached the 35-square-foot dock to Yearsley’s little wooden motorboat “Marsh Hawk,” and took off across San Pablo Bay.

The trip lasted three days, but the pair’s love for each other was cemented, and the wetlands surrounding Yearsley’s small wooden duck-hunting cabin turned into his life’s work.

He founded Friends of the Petaluma River in 2006. Yearsley died just five years later, but his legacy is strong.

“But it wasn’t just him,” Howland said. “A lot of people came together and said, ‘This town has turned its back on this beautiful river, and we need to make it the heart of our community because it is at the heart of our community.’ ”

Today, the group has grown from once-a-month canoe outings to one with a diverse array of programming and fundraising events, including the popular Rivertown Revival festival held each summer in Petaluma and its Watershed Classroom curriculum, which the nonprofit started in 2014 with the help of local public schools. Soon, it plans to launch a neighborhood adopt-a-creek program to prevent trash from making its way to the river, and eventually the bay, Howland said. Friends of the Petaluma River employs five part-time staff members, and operates with an annual budget of just under $300,000.

“Our dream is that every child in the Petaluma River area will learn about the facts of where they live, and it will give them a sense of place,” Howland said. “That they live here, and this is an important part of our history.”

One of those children took part in a Mother’s Day river tour Sunday, hosted by Friends of the Petaluma River.

Louie Price, 2½ years old, perched atop the shoulders of his father Stephen Price as the catamaran-style boat headed south along the river.

“I think obviously getting this guy involved in anything that’s going to improve the environment is important because he’s our kid, and he’s going to grow up,” Stephen Price said. “But I think being on the boat is a good way to connect with exactly what it is and why. If you’re in town, you just sort of see this and you’re like, OK, but if you go down the river, and you hear about the history and everything, it puts it in context, and you understand that it’s been part of this place for a long time. You don’t want to see it degrade.”

The Price family moved to Petaluma about eight months ago from Brooklyn, New York, and Sunday the father and son were eager to celebrate mother Lisel Ashlock Price and grandmother Lynn Price, in for the day from Nevada.

They thought the river tour would be a nice fit.

“(We want to) make sure we preserve the river for our children,” Ashlock Price said.

As the River Dolphin wrapped up the two-hour tour, a boy in a North Bay Rowing Club boat raced it back to the dock. He won.

The rowing club’s junior crew program has grown dramatically in recent years, said Will Whalen, head coach for the rowing club’s junior programs. That growth is largely thanks to the river awareness campaigns conducted by Friends of the Petaluma River, he said.

“I think a lot of people that live in town don’t really know that there’s a river here, and these organizations are getting people to get outside and explore something that’s just in our backyard,” he said.

Since the club’s founding in 1984, the number of members has grown exponentially. In Whalen’s time, the number of junior rowers has increased from about a dozen to nearly 100.

“I’m as passionate as ever, especially around the idea of our youth, our kids,” Howland said. “It’s so important that our children have the opportunity to interact with nature. I really believe to have a whole healthy life for everyone in our community, … you have to have some way to touch the earth, to touch the water.”