Spring is when the days get longer and people start to dream about kicking the job and going off on long vacation: Paris, the Greek islands, New York in June. Big-time travel is not in the cards this year. Europe is locked down. The Canadian border is shut. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say travelers should avoid going to Mexico. Even flying around the U.S. is a bit chancy.
So that leaves small-time travel. Just the other day, the Sailor Girl, my companion in small adventures, took a trip with me up to the Sonoma County coast and poked around a bit at Fort Ross.
Every schoolkid who took a course in California history knows a little about Fort Ross: how Russians in the days of the czars came from Siberia to Alaska and then down the coast of Alta California and built a wooden fort north of San Francisco in the hopes of starting a Russian colony. It didnt work out and they sailed away and never returned. Its kind of a footnote to the California story.
But Fort Ross is more than that. Its a beautiful place, built on a flat piece of land facing the Pacific Ocean. To the east is forested hill country, thinly populated even now. The fort itself is a collection of wooden buildings surrounded by a redwood wall with blockhouses at the corners. The centerpiece is a chapel built of redwood with two domes in the Russian Orthodox style. To the Russians, this was the Wild East, the very edge of their world.
Native Son with Carl Nolte
The United States, just 33 years old when Fort Ross was founded in 1809, was thousands of miles away.
Fort Ross comes with a backstory an Old World scandal involving a princess and a poet, and a whiff of modern international intrigue. There is also a Native American story that goes back thousands of years. And you dont even have to tip a foreign tour guide. Fort Ross is a California state park.
Getting there is half the fun as the travel agents used to say. Fort Ross is 90 miles from San Francisco, about a 2-hour drive.
The easiest way is to go north on Highway 101 to Petaluma, then west to Bodega Bay, a town the Russians called Port Rumyantsev, named for the czars foreign minister. Highway 1 leads north along the wildly beautiful Sonoma coast, and crosses the Russian River, the Slavyanka, the Russians called it. The last dozen miles to Fort Ross are pretty amazing: hairpin curves and sheer cliffs, a tribute to highway engineers.
Its pretty country, especially in springtime when the meadows are green and the wildflowers are out. No wonder the Russians liked it. They had hoped a colony at Fort Ross would serve as a base for fur seal and otter hunting and supply produce for their settlements in Alaska. To that end they set up satellite farms in the area, some miles away. They even built a windmill, the first in California.
Markers and plaques throughout the park describe the basics of the operation: how the fort was run by the government-sponsored Russian American Co., how the Russians used Aleut and other native Alaskan people to hunt sea otters, even in San Francisco Bay. The farming operation was much less successful, and eventually the Russian American Co. gave up on Fort Ross. It was sold in 1842 to John Sutter, who had a mini empire of his own in Sacramento.
Fort Ross was a frontier post, never very big. In 1836, there were 260 residents. A diverse lot: 120 Russians, 51 mixed- race people, 50 Aleuts from Kodiak and 39 Christian Indians.
But it had style, too. Sarah Sweedler, executive director of the Fort Ross Conservancy, likes to tell the story of Alexander Rotchev, a poet and man of letters and his wife, Princess Elena Pavlovna Gagarina. Rotchev was the last manager of Fort Ross, but maintained a household in European style on the frontier. Once when a visiting French count had made his way to Fort Ross and was a guest for dinner, the princess, who spoke fluent French, charmed him with her elegant manners, and played Mozart on the piano. Rotchev served French wine and made interesting conversation. But Rotchev was a bit of a rake: He had an affair with a servant who bore his child. One can imagine the scandal. The couple divorced when they returned to Russia. She married the wrong man, Sweedler says.
The international intrigue developed just over 10 years ago, when the great recession left California so financially strapped it considered closing state parks. Fort Ross was high on the hit list. The situation drew the attention of what was described as the highest levels of the Russian government.
That prompted Viktor Vekselberg, a billionaire, a friend of Vladimir Putin and president of the Renova Corp., to promise substantial financial help to the remnant of Russias California outpost. Vekselberg signed an agreement with then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in San Francisco, in 2010, and raised a toast to it with a glass of California-style Champagne. The Renova Fort Ross Foundation spent well more than $1 million on deferred maintenance on the park. But the diplomatic situation changed: Vekselberg and Renova were linked to a whole series of Russian intrigues, and Renova was placed under U.S. sanction in 2018. So the Russian help for Fort Ross is gone with the wind.
But the story of the place is not just about Russians. There is a very long Native American presence. The Russians got on reasonably well with the native Kashia Pomo people, signed a treaty with them and employed them in their operations. Though the Russians are gone, the Kashia are still there. Their small reservation is not far away. And now the state park is telling their story with new exhibits and a new trail being built north of the fort.
Sweedler has worked at Fort Ross for 20 years. Shes fascinated with it.
Ive stayed, she said, For love of the land and the native people.
Carl Noltes columns run on Sunday. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @Carlnoltesf
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