California's Russian outpost

Not that America needs another security headache, but three hours north of San Francisco, the Russians have landed.

Or, at least, they once did.

My family and I were 12 miles from the nearest coastal town, Jenner, Calif., at a desolate place called Fort Ross. Naive visitors, me included, assume there was some explorer or fur trapper named Ross who made it here from Scotland or elsewhere in the British Isles.

But state park staff members are quick to tell you: This is Fort Russ, or "Russiye," the "settlement of Russ," where, in the early 19th century, czarist sailors came down from Alaska, and, for several decades, ran this subcolony as their final American base. Fort "Russ" was Russia's wild, wild East.

It is still wild now, a striking but desolate settlement on a shelflike plateau overlooking the Pacific. On the calm August day we were visiting, the ocean almost seemed to deserve its gentle name, stretching calmly as far as the eye can see.

The San Andreas Fault bisects the base of the hills surrounding the fort, whose Russian Orthodox chapel collapsed during the 1906 earthquake. But the chapel and the impressive 12 foot- high palisade (built with local redwoods and enclosing about 100 square yards) have been rebuilt on a grassy meadow atop the precipitous cliffs that hang over the ocean.

"Russiye" is located in rugged country, and getting there - even today - is not for the faint of heart. We had to take twisty California Highway 1 at least some of the distance. The famed roadway is a two-lane blacktop, and driving north a car has sharply rising cliffs on the passenger side and steep shears down to the Pacific on the driver's.

But Fort Ross makes the hair-raising drive worthwhile. The twin-domed chapel, built in 1824, is the site of the oldest operating Russian Orthodox ministry in North America outside Alaska. Russian-Americans still conduct services here on Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. On the last Saturday in July, dozens of costumed participants stage a living history day.

Though there were no special events when we visited, we were fortunate to connect with a well-informed costumed docent - Sarjan Holt, a woman of Turkish descent. We also spent quiet time in the somber but peaceful old chapel.

Later, we toured the fort's redwood buildings. You can also descend a cliff walk to a small cove that the Russians used as their harbor.

Why did the Russians come? Fur and food, timber and trade, Ms. Holt told us. In Alaska, game was rare and grains too difficult to farm. By 1800, fur hunters had pushed the Alaskan sea otter to extinction. They needed the exquisitely thick, warm fur of California otters. (One square inch of sea-otter fur contains 600,000 to 1 million hairs.)

In 1812, as Napoleon neared Moscow, the Russian-American Company (RAC) raised the Romanov double-eagle flag over Fort Ross. The visitor center has a replica, along with some artifacts of the local Kashiya Indians, with whom the Russians got along and married.

Life here wasn't posh, but under manager Alexander Rotchev, it became civilized. Back in St. Petersburg, Rotchev, a commoner, had fallen in love with a Russian noblewoman, Helena Pavlovna Gargarina, whose family threatened to cut her off if she married him. But Rotchev, a poet and a translator, charmed Helena, who eloped with him. To support her, he went to work for the RAC, coming to administer Fort Ross in 1835. They brought a touch of class to "Russiye." Holt said that one guest noted their "choice library, French wines, the only piano on the coast, and a score of Mozart."

Sadly, this particular Camelot was not to last. By 1841, no otters remained, and the Russians sold the fort. The buyer? John Sutter, who, eight years later, found gold near Sacramento. The rush was on.

We spent a morning at Fort Ross, then drove a few miles north to Salt Point State Park, well known for its tidal pools. We clambered down the cliffs, wet our feet in the Pacific, and napped a bit on flat rocks.

The beaches near Fort Ross are for sand castles and sunning, not swimming. Viewed up close, the ocean is obviously rough, and official signs direly warn against getting in, declaring that the surf can be deadly. South of Fort Ross is Jenner, which overlooks the Russian River's sweeping outlet into the Pacific. The river is fed by the snowmelt from 90 miles of Sonoma mountains.

Beyond the mouth of the river, seal pups cavort near Goat Rock some of the year under the protection of park rangers and volunteer Stewards of the Slavianka (Slavianka, meaning "the little maiden," is the Russian name for the river).

At a local restaurant, we overheard some Russians talking. But, it turns out, they were new émigrés, computer engineers up from Silicon Valley for a brief vacation. Plus ça change. Wonder if they knew about their countrymen's early expansion into the US?

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