I had to get to the bottom of this Russia thing.
What better way to track their dealings than to go to Fort Ross on the Sonoma Coast, site of the southernmost Russian settlement in the U.S.? The Russians began building the fort and settlement in 1812, the result of explorations from their established territory in Alaska and the Aleutian Islands.
The fur trade in Alaska had thinned, and having little luck raising sufficient crops to feed their colonists in Alaska, the Russian-American Company, a trading arm of the Tsar, chose a small cove above Bodega Bay to moor their ships, build a fort and replenish the fur trade and food stocks for the Russian colonists.
There were plenty of cannons and sentries with flintlocks in those early days, but this was a commercial outpost, not a military one. Though the armaments remain, I don’t think we’re under threat: The California State Park system officially took over the fort in 1962, after it had stood as a state historical monument since 1928.
That history is richly detailed in the park’s museum, which is chockablock with exhibits and period artifacts. Colorful explanatory panels explain the rich cultural mix of the period: At any given time, the settlement housed 25 to 100 Russians and 50 to 125 Native Alaskans, who mingled with the local Kashaya, Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo, who worked at the camp. (And by “mingled” let’s be clear: Marriages made the fort and its surrounds merry.)
Today, the stockade grounds are still striking, with peak-roofed blockhouses at two corners and rough, but sturdy structures in its interior. The buildings have a solidity and, in the cool fog when we visited, a solemn feel. It’s perhaps not quite as sturdy as you might imagine: Only a few original structures remain, having undergone various renovations due to the recurring marine dampness and seaside storms.
I couldn’t detect any Russian listening devices in my tour of the settlement, probably because the Russians abandoned it in 1842, despite having had fair luck with agriculture, cattle, fur tanning and ship-building in and around the fort. The Russian-American Company sold all its assets to “Captain” John Sutter of Sutter’s Mill fame, and it changed hands a number of times before becoming a state property.
It’s good fun to walk outside the fort grounds and over the various trails of its 3,400 acres, with dramatic cliffside views of the coves and their roiling waters below. It’s easy to think that sentries in the wee hours might have stolen outside the fort walls to sneak a smoke while overlooking the waves. No one ever did invade the fort, other than the moon and stars.
Satisfied that there was no fake news circulating at Fort Ross, I thought I might catch some stealthy Russians off guard at lunch. And what better place than the Russian House #1? Just a half-hour or so south of the fort, this restaurant has giant picture windows facing out to the Russian River, and lots of interesting objects inside, from a large harp and a piano to colorfully illustrated Russian books.
The restaurant was founded by Tatiana Ginzburg, who holds a PhD in transpersonal psychology, among other mindful pursuits. That mindfulness is evident in the philosophical readings on the tables, and in the payment structure: patrons pay what they please for their meals.
That caused some discomfort among my companions and myself, whispering at the table about what was reasonable remittance for the good, hearty food, which included vegetable soup, a kind of tomato-y salad, goulash, earthy bread, a salmon and rice dish, potatoes and vegetables, tea and more, offered buffet style.
We were able to sort things out without too much trouble, helped by the gracious good cheer of our hostess, who also happened to be named Tatiana (and which I will now name my car). Odd as some aspects seemed, I liked the feeling of the place. Given all the community gatherings and spiritually-oriented meetings that take place there, so does its coastal community.
I must admit, we didn’t find any traces of suspicious Russian activity on the rocky Sonoma Coast. But judging from all the fun we had, we’ll need to return and look more closely.
If You Go
Fort Ross State Historic Park: This historic park on the Sonoma Coast, 11 miles north of Jenner, is open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily; the grounds are open from sunrise to sunset. Wander at will, or take a private tour — in English or Russian — by reservation only. Parking is $8 per car. 9960 Highway 1, Jenner; www.fortross.org
Russian House #1: This Russian restaurant is open daily at 19005 Highway 1, Jenner; www.russian-house1.com
Fort Ross: The Russians Were Here! (And It’s OK)