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My family and I took to the Laguna de Santa Rosa by kayak recently–we hadn’t managed to get out earlier in the spring and knew we had little time before the water level dropped too much. We put in at the Occidental Road bridge amidst a thinnish patch of Ludwigia hexapetala, the invasive water weed running rampant in the Laguna de Santa Rosa/Russian River watershed. We had last paddled this stretch of the Laguna three years ago and encountered a mostly clear channel except for a relatively small area just south of the Santa Rosa Creek confluence. While the waters under the bridge were clear, we couldn’t go south — not only did Ludwigia fill the channel, but an impassable clump of water pennywort (Hydrocotylespp.) blocked the way as well. Clearly the weeds had flourished since the last control efforts a few years ago. They were a daunting omen for what we would encounter ahead. Nonetheless, we began paddling downstream toward Guerneville Road.
We found a narrow channel of clear water — sometimes barely so — and a multitude of birds to distract us from the sometimes difficult paddling as we negotiated the thicker patches of Ludwigia. Great and snowy egrets in breeding plumage dotted the marshy edges; black-crowned night herons flew from the trees on the banks as we approached; marsh wrens trilled from the willow and wild rose thickets; and occasional mallards quacked in the distance.
Although the entire Laguna and its watershed have been drastically altered over the past 150 years ago, this stretch of the Laguna has been more obviously changed. Until the early 20th century, a number of large bodies dotted the Laguna between Cunningham (a few miles south of Sebastopol) and on the Russian River, including Lake Jonive, a favorite boating and swimming area of early Sebastopol (pictured on this blog’s banner). By the 1920s, the Laguna lakes were largely gone, largely a victim of siltation from agricultural erosion. By the 1950s, long-standing efforts by farmers to drain and control the Laguna were underway with a new channel constructed by the Laguna de Santa Rosa Flood Control District following property lines between Occidental Road and Santa Rosa Creek (just south of Guerneville Road). Plans by the Sonoma County Water Agency to extend the channel to Sebastopol never came to pass because the County and the City of Sebastopol began to recognize the Laguna’s value, but many acres of brush and trees had been cleared all along the waterway — a continuation of the massive deforestation that took place during the 19th century as oaks were cut for charcoal and land converted to agriculture.
Once the political climate had shifted, the California Dept. of Fish and Game (DFG) took control of the former flood control district lands and a portion of the lands have returned to marshes and ponds. In addition, a large shallow lake formed just south of the SCWA’ s Delta Pond wastewater treatment reservoir after floodwaters breached the low dikes around a drained field. The current ponds and lake hold much less water than those 150 years ago, but are filled with wildlife.
It was with great relief that we left most of the ludwigia behind as we paddled into the shallow lake. In addition to all the waterbirds we’d seen earlier, now we saw (and heard) grebes, coots, cormorants, osprey and geese. Then we spotted the grand prize — a bald eagle perched on a dead oak at the far corner of the lake. We slowly headed for the tree, trying not to splash too much. The eagle took off when we were about halfway there, then circled back, landing on the same branch. We kept going and got within 50 yards before it flew away again, this time heading north and out of sight.
We found one more treasure before we paddled back toward the channel and home — I spotted a small mass of vegetation and mud floating in the midst of a thin patch ludwigia. When I looked more closely, I noticed a slightly speckled, grayish egg cradled in the middle. We later found a second nest and when we asked a birder friend, she told us we’d found a pie-billed grebe nest.
The way home wasn’t much easier than our journey out, despite the faint path we’d left through the ludwigia. My wife took our son’s kayak and he sat in the front of the two-person kayak. He waded/swam through a couple of the thickets (both the air and water were warm that afternoon and the water considerably clearer north of Occidental Road) and perched on the front while paddled, his arms dangling in the water. Our epic finally came to an end as we passed under the bridge with hundreds of cliff swallows wheeling overhead and darting into their nests.
This year’s Gravenstein apple crop — at least in my mother’s organic orchard — was great. The late spring and cool summer meant the apples ripened up later and we didn’t engage in the annual cider making ritual until the end of August.
This year was probably my 35th year of making cider and my son and his friends are now old (and strong) enough to do a lot of the work. My family uses an antique oaken cider press that is probably about 100 years old. I’ve had to replace a few minor parts, but it still works great and we always have a blast cranking out the delicious juice.
This year we made roughly 20 gallons of cider. My family took a little over half and the other families took the rest. We freeze most of the cider, but we made enough to boil a few gallons down to syrup for a maple syrup alternative. When my father was alive, he would always make enough to drink with breakfast the entire year, though he preferred a blend of Golden Delicious and Jonathan apples that was a bit too sweet for my taste. Even with some of our cider going to syrup or used for mulled cider at Christmas, we often have trouble getting through everything we make and some portion of cider will start to ferment in the refrigerator. I like this mildly fizzy, alcoholic drink almost better than the fresh, though the feeling is not shared by my wife.
As I was setting up for this year’s party, I had to pull a dozen wooden apple boxes from under my mother’s house. As I dragged them out, I bumped against a crate of dusty champagne bottles that took me back to when I was in high school and college and I had gone into business as a cider maker. I made 20-30 gallons each summer and fall to sell as well as for my family to drink. I never got rich selling cider, but some summers I made between $60 and $80, which seemed like a lot at the time. My customers were quite loyal and some would contact me each summer to see if I had any cider for them yet.
By the time I was in college, my friends and I were becoming interested in making alcoholic beverages. We schemed about a way to take advantage of my experience in making large quantities of cider and having the apples and equipment. We started out modestly, using a 5 gallon glass carboy that had been stored away under my family’s house, and with some champagne yeast and a fermentation lock, made passable hard cider.
Our initial success spurred us on to greater aspirations. One of my friends obtained an old top-loading washing machine and set to work. He pulled out the agitator and dropped a plywood disk studded with nails pointing up. He replaced the lid with another piece of plywood pierced with a length of 4″ diameter PVC for a feed tube. The drain line ran to a tub in the back. We washed everything as thoroughly as possible, then set the washer on spin cycle and let it rip. We dropped the apples in the tube. The nails instantly shredded them, bits of apple shot out the top and through gaps at the edges, but juice started gushing out the drain tube. We were laughing so hard we could barely keep loading apples.
Fast forward a few weeks and we had a lot of cider fermenting, even after one of the carboys exploded in my friend’s garage (causing it to smell like a brewery for months). Another friend supplied us with several cases of champagne bottles he’d snagged while helping cater some weddings. Another friend, David Lee Ingersoll, created a label for us and English Hill Cidery was born.
English Hill Cidery’s product wouldn’t have won any awards, but it was drinkable, at least after the second glass or so. We consumed most of it over the next year or two, but we had made so much that I don’t think we made more before we had all finished college or moved on. Many years later, a few bottles are still sitting at my mother’s house. I haven’t mustered the courage to open a bottle and they’re probably best remaining as museum pieces.