A Russky Homecoming

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series
By Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
October 7

We rolled out from our sleeping bags and unzipped the tents to gaze upon a new day, yet encountered a scene that closely resembled what we’d seen on the two previous mornings.

Out on the bounding main, amid a high swell and a stiff breeze. Photo by John Weed.
Out on the bounding main, amid a high swell and a stiff breeze. Photo by John Weed.
The big swell had fallen a bit and shortened its interval between crests, but the wind had kicked up to 26 knots, so the seascape remained a jumbled blue expanse, fretted and freckled with white. After brewing up coffee and breakfast, Weed and I consulted one another. Since our launch spot was sheltered and calm, and so was our prospective landing site at Fort Ross, we figured we could cover the 9 remaining miles in good order, no matter how rough they were.

“How bad could it be?” asked Weed. That’s one of his standard jokes, since you never gain your definitive answer until after you’ve committed to the run.

Obviously Not Experts!

Just before we launched, exploiting a rare burst of clarity in the coastal cell phone signal, I was able to contact our main resource at Fort Ross State Historic Park, one Sarah Gould, to tell her we were heading her way. I predicted our approximate time of arrival.

Gould laughed heartily. “Well, I just talked to a ranger, and he said if you guys were real experts, you would not even try to go sea kayaking in these conditions!”

After I rang off, I related this to Weed, and he laughed too.

Closing in on the bluff and mesa that holds Fort Ross. Photo by John Weed.
Closing in on the bluff and mesa that holds Fort Ross. Photo by John Weed.

But once we sprang free of our sheltered nook, I have to admit, it turned fairly rough. Luckily, most of the marine energy was again delivered to our sterns, but in a far more chaotic way than before. Constant pitch and yaw were themes of our open-ocean kayak dance. To move well, we needed to keep our lower backs and hips loose, and let our hulls move beneath us like living things, permitted to display wills of their own.

We saw a huge “V” of brown pelicans, more than 100, cruising southward gracefully on the winds. Weed said they were probably migrating to the Sea of Cortez. He’d often seen them nest on Baja isles.

A Petaluma class attending a Living History class at Fort Ross.
Grammar school kids from Petaluma attending a Living History class at Fort Ross. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
The nearer we got to Fort Ross, the more I thought of native Alaskan paddlers, the first kayakers to set blade in these waters, 200 years ago.

These Aleuts treated their kayaks as living beings, full partners in voyages and hunts. They built them with lashed frames of driftwood and sea lion hide covers. I’ve paddled modern versions of such “baidarkas” — they slither over seas in a more sensuous, responsive manner than modern kayaks, which are built of tougher but far stiffer types of plastic or fiberglass.

Arrival at Fort Ross

The kids fire a cannon salute to welcome our kayaks to port in the cove. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
The kids fire a cannon salute to welcome our kayaks to port in the cove. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Weed and I rounded the northern horn of Little Ruminatsev Cove (now also called Sandy Cove). A redwood stockade of the rebuilt fort loomed high on the bluff.

We heard a cannon boom. Blue smoke drifted above the sea. Tears came to my eyes. I thought of generations of voyagers welcomed to port by similar artillery salutes, and felt honored that we had been awarded a similar display.

But for a second, I had to wonder whether the year was 2005, or 1815.

We approach the beach as school kids walk down a path to greet us. Photo by John Weed.
We approach the beach as school kids walk down a path to greet us. Photo by John Weed.
As we paddled in to shore, we could see a horde of schoolchildren, fourth grade classes from McKinley Elementary in Petaluma, make their way down a path to the cove. They were present for a two-day educational event, part of the state park’s living history program. A “militia detail” among them had fired the gun.

Stephen Littlebear also stood there in traditional Aleutian paddling garb.

A Santa Rosa resident, Littlebear has for years worked with the Fort Ross Interpretive Association, a volunteer group that supports the park.

“Tovarisch!” he greeted me in Russian, calling me friend and offering a warm embrace.

Celebrating a Tradition

Stephen Littlebear, in traditional Aleut paddling garb, waits to extend a welcome. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
Stephen Littlebear, in traditional Aleut paddling garb, waits to extend a welcome. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
We all trooped up to the fort for a bit more living history. Littlebear’s handmade baidarka sat displayed on a picnic table. The craft took him 13 months of painstaking work to build. Its willow ribs are dyed with ocher and oil, representing bloody ribs of a living being. Shaped blocks represent a pelvis near the stern. Images of bear and salmon, spirit helpers, are carved into the cockpit rim. A traditional hull wrapping of cured sea lion hides, however, was impossible to achieve – since they’re a protected species. Nylon, stained with coffee and tea to resemble tanned hide, had to do.

“As I hand-built this boat,” Littlebear told me, “I could feel a kinship with everyone who has ever built a kayak. You do something in the old way, gain insight into the way old-time people thought. How they solved problems, how they made a brilliant solution they could pass along.”

Littlebear was one of the instructors for a two-day Environmental Living Program for the schoolkids. After chatting with the kids, I thanked them (“Spaceba!”) for welcoming me and Weed ashore. Then, in their Russian peasant outfits, the kids left the fort.

Littlebear, his wife, Deborah, park historical interpreter Sarah Gould, Weed, I and a few others piled into the officer’s quarters for a repast: Deborah’s homemade borscht, wheat bread and dried fish.

Teaching the Old Ways

I asked Littlebear why he put so much energy into re-creating the ways of the Aleuts.

“Been a teacher all my life,” he said. “When I was a martial arts instructor, the kids’ program was most important.

“In building an artifact like my skin boat, one faces many of the same problems as the original native builders. As you solve those, you gain insight into how they thought and felt. That’s what I seek to share. I want to explain why you must ask Willow’s permission to take ribs from the streamside groves. I want to show how the men built the frame, singing songs that helped them remember each lashing, then women stitched the cover. It took a village to make a kayak,” Littlebear said.

Baidarkas. Image from the 1900s.
Baidarkas. Image from the 1900s.
“A good skin baidarka was the Porsche of the Aleutian islands,” he told me. “I love the lines of this boat, and I very much appreciate its engineering. As I hand-built it, I could feel a kinship. You do something in the old way, gain insight into the way old-time people thought. How they solved problems, how they made a brilliant solution they could pass along.”

Exploring traditional, animist ways has been part of Littlebear’s personal odyssey. He grew up in the Deep South, unaware of his family’s own American Indian strain. But repeated visions of bears drew him to keep a dream journal, then make contact with various tribes. Finally, his mother told him, “Your great-grandmother was a Choctaw. I guess that blood will out.”

Song for a Beloved Boat

Littlebear finished our feast by reciting an Inupiat song about the close relations between a hunter and his kayak.

    “I sing to the seasI sing to my kayak

    It is part of my body,

    We fly upon the waves.

    It is my companion, my brother,

    It is my wife.

    If I die on the sea, we die together.

    If we go down together, we remain together.

    If I die an old man it will rest upon my grave,

    And still we go on together.

    And still we remain together.”

Littlebear helps Weed beach his craft at Fort Ross. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
Littlebear helps Weed beach his craft at Fort Ross. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Littlebear looked at me, and metaphorically drew a large circle that enclosed us all.

“One major thing I like to tell all the kids who come here is that history is far from dead. It lives on; it always is still being made. You and John are part of the new history of this place now,” Littlebear said.