Russian River's recovery & revelry

  • by Enrique Asis
  • Tuesday May 30, 2023
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Pals in the pool at a recent Lazy Bear Weekend
Pals in the pool at a recent Lazy Bear Weekend

As summer events in Guerneville and Monte Rio return, it's worth looking back to see how Russian River venues have recovered from the pandemic and a series of floods and fires. The history of LGBTQ attractions, with insights from several longtime business owners and visitors, brings us up to date.

"It's not an exaggeration to say that Guerneville at the Russian River was the most important gay town and resort of the West Coast in the 1980s, with many gay owned enterprises, where most venues with pools have nudity as an option," said Michael Preaseau, The Woods hotel owner and manager, and a resident of Sonoma County for more than 50 years.

"There was one gay-owned entertainment establishment who had everything: rooms, restaurant and a clothing-optional pool on Armstrong Woods Road. There were many gay bars, as well as a gay bathhouse," he continued. "The Coffee Bazar started in the 1980s as a gathering location for the community and still is. Also Dino's, which later became the River Village, almost exclusively served the gay community, was gay-owned, had a piano bar, restaurant and rooms to rent."

Pool of men at a recent Lazy Bear Weekend  

Nudes news
Preaseau added that the previous incarnation of iconic Woods Hotel always welcomed optional nudity in the 1980s. The Willows, another gay-owned lodge with camping along the Russian River at a large grass area that led to a private beach, were centerpieces of the town's gay history.

"Founded in 1945, The Hetzel's Motor Lodge, also known as the Russian River Resort, was a gay-owned and operated hotel, restaurant, bar and entertainment venue," said Glenn Dixon, the Russian River Resort's CFO. "The Highlands Hotel was clothing-optional from 1991 to 2021. Even in Forestville there was a gay Sunday barbeque at the Rusty Nail."

The Woods manager Michael Preaseau  

"Gay nudity and naked pool parties were always important in gay recreational events, and in bear week celebrations," said Paul and Tim Burns, long time Santa Rosa residents.

Preaseau noted that the Highlands Hotel opened in 1991 and was clothing-optional. Ken and Lynette McLean were the proud owners for 38 years. But with a change of ownership in April 2021, a switch to a "family-friendly" operation left the gay community with no nude pool options.

In 2004, The Woods Cottages & Cabins opened in 2004, noted Preaseau, "with an offering of a unique display of different-sized cottages, and cabins surrounding a solar thermal swimming pool. We took the name from the original Woods. We were clothing-optional for Lazy Bear and some weeks in the summer."

At the request of frequent patrons, the new Woods became a year-round clothing-optional pool in October 2021.

"In reality, the nudity option is code to the gay community that we are a sex-positive hotel," said Preaseau. "The fact that we don't sell alcohol, and we have a year-long nudity option, makes us the only sex-positive venue in town. Since then, we are in high demand, especially the spring and summer."

Currently, The Woods is the only gay-friendly clothing-optional swimming pool operating in Northern California, Preaseau added. "We are also the only exclusively gay-owned lodge in town." The Woods proudly hosts the daily naked pool parties during Lazy Bear Week.

The Woods resort during the 2019 Sonoma flood  

Floods, fires and lockdown
Carl Ray, a Sonoma County resident for more than 13 years, recounted the recent series of environmental events that nearly destroyed multiple homes and businesses.

"The climate-related tragedies started in 2006 with Russian River big floods," said Ray. "The merchants, retailers, restaurants and the hospitality industry in Guerneville suffered big losses and setbacks during the 2017 and 2019 floods."

During the floods, everyone in Guerneville was evacuated, and the inundations had catastrophic consequences for town merchants and businesses.

Byron Serrano Wilson, a fireman in active duty during those periods, and a Santa Rosa resident, is now the Logistics Officer of the CAL FIRE Sonoma Lake Napa Unit.

Fireman Byron Serrano Wilson  

"These fires were of historical proportions," said Serrano Wilson. "The Guerneville population and other towns were evacuated entirely during the disaster. Two days in October 2017 were devastating. The Tubbs fires were considered the worst disaster in Sonoma County in many decades."

And in 2019, the Kincade fires ravaged the county for more than a week in October through November 6, 2019. Then, in 2020, the Waldbridge fires raged in August. During the 2020 summer lockdown and during all these fires, the entire Guerneville community had to be evacuated. The COVID-19 lockdown and the pandemic were the latest stroke in a series of devastating tragedies for Guerneville residents.

The completely renovated Woods resort this year  

Lazy Bear revived
Before and after the many unfortunate disasters, a few larger events have become quite popular, and have helped revive the economy of Russian River tourism. The Russian River Women's Weekend has been held annually for four decades and returned this year, the most recent edition May 12-14 (See our feature article).

The other big event is Lazy Bear Week. Started in 1996 by Harry Lit and a group of local bears, neighbors and bear groups in the Bay Area, the event has grown each year. Partial proceeds benefit the Lazy Bear Fund, which has raised thousands of dollars for charities and community groups since 1996.

An evening party at a recent Lazy Bear Weekend  

David Barker, a member of the Lazy Bear Week Fund leadership, briefly tells the event's history.

"In the 1990s, the gay and bear community had an important role in Guerneville development," he said. "Bear-friendly groups were a regular feature in town, especially in the summer. It's become the most bear-friendly and successful gathering in California and one of the most important in the US and the world."

Barker added that "surviving the pandemic years and lockdown made the community and the Lazy Bear Week of events stronger. Lazy Bear keeps growing, attracting crowds from all over the country and the world."

Lazy Bear Week 2023 takes place at multiple Guerneville venues July 31 through August 7.

A cozy room at The Woods  

Bringing sexy back
Another lesser-known group is Sexy Bastards, a San Francisco-based 1000-men online network that hosts two recreational spring and summer weekends in partnership with host hotel The Woods since 2021.

Steve McGown, a Santa Rosa resident and organizer, said, "The Sexy Bastards weekends are a lot of fun, and include communal hikes, three nighttime parties, naked games at the pool, picnics around the swimming pool and communal meals in local restaurants. Michael Preaseau leads a walking tour with exploration around town, into the woods and the river. It's a fascinating piece of town, gay and bear history, and is our contribution to Guerneville recovery."

David Barker of the Lazy Bear Week Fund  

Added Paul Burns, "Michael Preaseau makes it fascinating along the tour, with gay stories and anecdotes while visiting iconic areas, and other spots at the riverside."

Officer Byron Serrano Wilson, who is also a group member, said, "It's a special time in the summer with visitors from everywhere. The community blossoms and celebrate."

The next Sexy Bastards weekend is July 21-23, a week before Lazy Bear. Sexy Bastards also volunteers as a group and participates during Lazy Bear Week.

(Enrique Asis is the coordinator of Sexy Bastards and a health professional working in San Francisco.)

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