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Bill Lynch: Salmons’ return to Valley spawns Golden Bear memories

I-T reporter Christian Kallen reported last month that a Kenwood resident who lives on Sonoma Creek in Adobe Canyon had seen dozens of salmon spawning in the creek. Kallen noted that the resident was just downstream from the Golden Bear Lodge.

Once one of the most popular creekside resorts in the Valley of the Moon, Golden Bear Lodge ceased to exist when a fire gutted its main building in February of 2003. Prior to the fire, a group of local owners including local architect Victor Conforti had formed a partnership and were trying to develop and reopen the historic structure on Adobe Canyon Road a short distance from the entrance to Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.

The venerable local resort served local residents and visitors for the better part of the 20th century beginning as a hunting lodge in 1905. It was closed in 1996, but in 1999 several local businessmen, including Conforti, Rick Derringer and Jon Early, attempted to bring it back to life. Their efforts attracted intense opposition from neighbors who live in the heavily wooded canyon. They felt the noise and traffic of the lodge would be a nuisance. But in 2001, the county over-ruled the neighbors and gave the new resort owners permission to open.

The restoration project limped along until the February 2003 fire apparently put an end to it.

I remember Golden Bear Lodge in its better days when it was a favorite spring and summer swimming spot for locals and a destination resort for vacationers. I learned to swim there.

Closed most winters, it usually opened in March and stayed open until November.

Every spring, the owners would build a temporary dam made mostly from creek rocks and create a big swimming hole. The icy cold waters of Sonoma Creek flowed slowly through it and you could see native trout swimming in the current. Unlike Luca Brasi in “The Godfather,” I didn’t sleep with the fishes, I swam with them.

I recently found an old clipping from a July 1950 issue of the I-T that reported a family picnic there that includes me, my mom and dad, and my grand aunt and uncle, Celeste and Walter Murphy, and relatives from San Francisco. Such gatherings at the lodge were quite common in those years. For many decades afterward, I enjoyed returning to the Lodge for special dinners.

On every occasion, the memories of my youth there came back.

I loved that dark, wooded and mysterious canyon. I was fascinated by the trout I saw in the pools near the lodge. When I was old enough, my dad took me trout fishing upstream from there.

Before Sugarloaf became a park in 1965 its 1,500 acres was owned by the state as part of Sonoma State Hospital. By the time I started fishing in the canyon the property hadn’t been farmed for decades. It was a wild and unspoiled place.

Local fishermen and hunters could walk in from the end of the road virtually any time they wanted.

The further you walked upstream, the more it resembled a temperate rain forest of ferns and moss covered trees. The creek’s clear, clean, cold pools allowed rainbow trout fry to prosper. In the winter they’d head downstream to the ocean where they would grow into steelhead, then return a few years later to spawn.

Although silt has filled in many of those pools, and there seems to be less water in the creek, salmon and steelhead still managed to make it back to their ancient spawning grounds when our winter rains are heavy enough.

The recent story of the salmon there made me smile and remember those days when such a thing was so normal, it wasn’t newsworthy.