For river outfitter Russian River Adventures, located in the heart of Sonoma Valley wine country in Healdsburg, Calif., adversity has come with the territory over the past few years, be it fires or COVID.
Celebrating its 20th river season, owner Larry Laba, who is also an international outfitter and IK manufacturer, has dealt with fires four years in a row, a near record flood in the winter, and operating a paddling livery amidst the pandemic.
But Laba — who also manufactures SOAR Inflatables, a custom line of inflatable kayaks, and leads international paddling trips everywhere from Costa Rica to Columbia — just keeps on solving problem after problem, just as he does when leading a first descent river trip in some faraway land.
Case in point: This year, to alleviate social distancing concerns for his shuttle service for the 9-mile Russian River trip he offers, he purchased a fleet of E-bikes, dropping them off at the take-out for customers to do their own shuttle — which just so happens to take them past some of the region’s top vineyards where they can stop for tastings on the way home.
“We’ve had to get creative,” says Laba, who usually outfits 9,000 or so people a year who take to the family- and dog-friendly Class I-II waterway. “There’s no other canoe-able river like this in the western U.S. It’s like a canoeing river you’d find in Missouri, that’s runnable all season, just an hour out of San Francisco.”
“There are tons of whitewater rafting rivers everywhere out here, but not many canoeing rivers,” he adds.
Laba says that as well as enacting COVID protocols, this past year they had to shut down on August 18 for 12 days due to a nearby fire, one of many marking a record fire season in the state.
“We had been ordered to evacuate and went to stay with my family in wine country,” he says. “On Wednesday night, my family received an evacuation warning because the Walbridge Fire (part of the LNU Lightning Complex) was creeping closer to Healdsburg.” Healdsburg is a town that has been threatened by wildfires each of the last three years.
“COVID has been a little more stressful,” he adds. “The biggest thing is you don’t know. There are tons of metrics but no one knows what the future will hold. With fires at least, you know they’re going to end sometime.”
“The virus has given us an opportunity to adapt,” he says, adding they cancelled their half-day trip this season and switched to E-bikes and car shuttles instead of having guests crowd onto buses and vans. They also staggered morning departures. “It was about half the normal number of people on the river, so people felt like they had it all to themselves.”
Laba has also spent a fair amount of time fighting to protect the Russian River. “Over the years I’ve gotten to know the politicians,” he says. “Finally, they’re on our side instead of being in the gravel companies or developers’ pockets.”
The result is a thriving business that offers people the chance to paddle and explore a pristine Class I waterway just an hour out of the booming metropolis of San Francisco. It’s a perfect day get-away, or overnight outing when combining it with a visit to a vineyard or a night in quaint downtown Healdsburg.
“The river teaches me lessons every time I paddle it,” says Laba. “Last year it taught me it knows no virus, knows no walls, knows no sadness. The Russian is an escape into a wild jungle. Stay quiet, and you’ll hear a myriad of bird calls. Search the distant trees along the river banks and you might spy an eagle or an osprey. Or perhaps you’ll see turtles kerplunk into the water from logs. The river is here to bring you joy, to smile, to cool your body and soothe your spirit.”
On the trip, you’ll walk from his headquarters downtown to the put-in on the Russian, where your craft — custom SOAR Inflatables IKs — await. From there, you’ll hop in for a leisurely guided or unguided float, the latter meaning you can take your time swimming, exploring beaches and dangling your toes in the water.
Once you reach the take-out 9 miles down, you can either hop on an E-bike to shuttle back to Healdsburg through wine country or get shuttled by Russian River Adventures. Either way it’s one of the most pristine escapes you can find — especially next to a major city.