Kayaking down the Russian River with Russian River Adventures

Picture a river as smooth as glass, perfect 60-to-70-degree weather, surrounded by luscious green trees and bushes, and laughing and enjoying yourself as you float down the Russian River with your best friends, your family, or in my case, just me and my son.  That’s what I recently had the pleasure to do with Russian River Adventures.  We booked a full day inflatable kayaking adventure, packed a lunch, and let Russian River Adventures take care of the rest.  

Blue kayak on the Russian River

My son loves all sorts of aquatic adventures and is constantly asking to do kayaking or paddle boats.  But my husband can’t swim, and my daughter is a bit of a princess (she doesn’t mind going if she doesn’t have to do any work).  I had done this one before when the kids were little (and when I was in better shape and with good friends who were more athletic than me).  I knew it was something my son would like, and I knew it was something we could do that the others wouldn’t enjoy as much. 

Booking the Trip

Russian River Adventures makes it easy to book your trip online.  You can choose from the full or half day option, and the car valet service you want.  Where you exit the river is several miles south of your entrance.  Prior to Covid, there was a shuttle that would bring you back to the starting point.  Now, you can either choose to have one driver drive a car to the end, and then get shuttled back by an employee, or for an extra $10, you can leave your key, and they will drive your car to the ending point for you.  You make all these selections online.  Then, once it’s all paid for, you get an email confirming your purchase!  You have up to the Thursday before (for weekend trips) to cancel for a full refund.  After that point, you can receive a credit to reschedule, but with a 50% penalty. 

Arrival

We chose to do the full day inflatable kayak adventure, so we needed to be at headquarters in Healdsburg at 10am.  We arrived around 9:30 am.  We had to park, and then check in.  They usually text you the online waivers prior to the trip so be sure to look out for and fill those out beforehand, otherwise you waste a lot of time filling them out onsite (like I did).  Here they took our keys for the car valet option (We chose to have them drive the car to us), and then gave us a wet/dry bag, and child sized life vests.  The push-off point is actually a 10 minute walk from headquarters, but the Russian River Adventures team will drive down any bags you don’t want to carry on the walk. They quickly gave us instructions on how to walk down to the river edge, and then we were off.  It’s a short 10-minute walk across a picturesque bridge to the river.  Everyone is taking off at once, so there is little chance of getting lost as you are walking in a big group. 

Young man walking across a bridge

Safety Instruction

As you get down to the water edge, you can see the inflatable kayaks down by the river.  They are shaped like kayaks but act like rafts.  It’s a great way to toe dip in kayaking, but in an easy way.  Once everyone was down by the water, the attendant gave everyone a couple of quick safety lessons.  He talked about how to paddle, the landmarks to look out for, how to avoid tipping over, and obstacles to watch out for (I really should have paid closer attention to this part).  Most importantly when we needed to be done.  Russian River Adventures asks you to be out of the water by 5pm, however, if they do not actually charge any late fees until 5:30 pm.  He points out all the places you can find their number and recommends making sure at least one of the phones has full charge to call when you hit the gray rock, the landmark about 45 minutes of paddle time from the takeout point.  Then, you can put on to the adult sized life vests if you want (bigger kids like my son can wear an adult sized life vest, but all children under 13 are required by CA law to wear a life vest when on the river).  Then you are encouraged to push off and head down the river!

People listening to an instructor in front of blue inflatable kayaks on the Russian River

The Kayaking Trip

To be honest, the start is nothing short of comical.  You can tell who the experienced people are, they get on their inflatable kayaks and smoothly start heading down the river. Then…Then you have the families and groups like us.  The first mile pretty much consisted of us spinning in circles, floating backwards, doing large zig zags down the river, and often getting out and pulling the raft over more difficult spots because it was shallow and just easier.  I thought it was hilarious.  My son got a little frustrated, but soon enough we got into a rhythm and were making smaller zig zags down the Russian River (we never managed a straight line). 

Young man rowing in the front of an inflatable kayak on the river

Due to the dry winter, we had, the river was low and there were several places where the water was a bit faster moving than the rest of the river.  Most times, this wasn’t a problem.  Sometimes, it meant getting out and pulling the raft.  Sometimes, it meant the current would push you into an obstacle such as a downed tree in the river or into the bushes in the side of the river.  Generally, this isn’t a big deal, but it can cause for some tricky situations.  It’s important to work together because that’s how you get out of them.  We had one instance where I made an error steering, and the current shot us into the bushes on the side.  We knew the drill at this point and ducked and used our hands to keep the branches from our face.  Unfortunately, this was a mature tree, and the branches were not flexible.  I hit a branch that didn’t want to move, but the kayak under me did.  I found myself in the water a second later and sported a nasty bruise for a week from my fight with the branch. My son was quick to get out and help me (I was never in any danger, more embarrassed than anything), and did a great job of pull the kayak out of the bushes and getting us into a safer area.  Another time, we got stuck on a tree in the middle of the river, but with some clever use of the oar, and working together, we were able to get ourselves around it without having to get out of the boat. 

Young man pulling an inflatable kayak in the river
Pulling us out of the rocks…

You are encouraged to take your time, floating down the river, and we did just that.  We pulled off in a nice beach to sit and eat lunch and take a rest from the rowing.  Another time, we pulled off because there was a nice deeper area, and my son wanted to get in the water and swim a bit.  We saw groups pull off and have beverage breaks, swim breaks, and food breaks.  It’s intended to be a nice leisurely trip, and it’s certainly was. 

A young man walking and swimming in the Russian River

Further toward the end of the trip, the water gets deeper, sun is past its peak so it’s a little cooler, and you get these amazing reflections of the beautiful nature all around you off the water.  You can see big trout and other fish swimming underneath, the ducks swimming along looking for food, and the birds singing.  It’s a quiet time, and we had a nice time talking, just my son and I, about how life is changing for him in middle school, and what I’m excited for him as he grows. 

The trees reflecting off the glass like water of the Russian River

At the end we were tired.  I’m not going to lie, 9 miles is quite a distance, especially for two people who haven’t been as active. I had to give up steering at the end because my shoulder was starting to hurt (I have since been diagnosed with frozen shoulder.  Apparently, kayaking for 9 miles did NOT help it).  My son was tired, and especially a little frustrated after figuring out how to row in front, having to figure out the steering and take on the brunt of the rowing at the end.  But at 4:40, we saw the Russian River Adventure attendants waiving us on to the beach and found out we weren’t even the last ones. 

A young man and his mother at the bank of the river

Tips

This was a great trip, and a great bonding experience with my and my son.  But there are a few things I think are important to know before taking on this trip. 

  • The full day option is 9 miles.  Its 3-4 hours of paddle time alone.  You usually take longer because you float, you take breaks, etc.  They give you about 7 hours to do the trip.  But it’s hard work and you will be tired at the end.  But if a couch potato with a bad shoulder like me can make it, I have faith you can too.  There is a shorter, 3.5 mile option, but it does not start until after 1pm. 
  • There is a learning curve, even if you have not kayaked or rafted before.  These act a little different than both, so while having experience has advantages, know that I even saw some experienced people struggle at bit at the beginning
  • Only bring what you don’t mind getting wet or absolutely need.  The wet/dry bag will only carry so much.  And It’s next to impossible from keeping the water out of your kayak. 
  • Pack a good lunch, plenty of snacks, and LOTS of water.  The sun gets hot.  You can either rent a cooler from them or bring your own smaller soft size cooler to put in the wet/dry bag. 
  • Don’t forget sunscreen.  And when picking your outfit, you might want to think about tan lines.  I…did not…
Legs with weird tan lines
  • A waterproof phone case is essential for this trip.  I insisted on my son and I having it, and the phone inside at all times.  That was a huge life saver when I got knocked out of the kayak.  My phone was fine. 
  • Water shoes are also essential for this trip.  You will have to walk in the river, which has mossy rocks, sand, and dirt.  Make sure they are shoes that stay on with a back, not flip flops. 
  • Don’t be afraid to call for a rescue.  Yes, it’s an extra fee, but I guarantee that the staff would rather you call for a rescue than try and make it yourself.  The staff was telling me that the previous week they had to wait until 8pm at night because a group that didn’t realize what they took on, refused to quit, and wanted to make it back on their own.  They ended up paying the late fee, but the poor staff ended up waiting several extra hours. 
  • Pay for the valet service.  It’s an extra $10, but that means you aren’t waiting for one person in your party to drive and be brought back.  That’s an extra ½ hour of time. 
  • There is no reception at the pull-out point.  The attendant was great about directing us back to 101, but if you can, pre-plot the course in your phone and download the offline version or bring a paper map.  You will not be able to count on Google. 
A trestle bridge crossing the Russian River
Beautiful area at the end…but no reception

Yes, it was tiring, and a little longer and harder than we expected.  Yes, I sported a nasty bruise and a sore shoulder for a while afterwards.  But I would still do it again in a heartbeat.  It was a fun adventure.  It was different than what we normally do.  It was beautiful, and quiet, and a whole day off devices where I just got to talk and hang out with my son.  He’s almost 12 and starting to disappear into that world of his friends, middle school, and general teenager-dom.  This is a day and an adventure he’ll always remember.  The serenity could be felt, it was so peaceful and beautiful.  I got him all to myself and got to bond in a way we don’t normally do at home. It was worth every penny, every pain, and every whine at the end. 

Kayaking down the Russian River with Russian River Adventures

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