Woman of the water: Suki Waters
By ANDREA GRANAHAN / West County Correspondent
Suki Waters, 52, has an appropriate name. Suki means Little Deer in the language of the Pomo grandmother who raised her. And now she runs a kayaking outfit called WaterTrek in Jenner, earning her living from the waters around her childhood home.
Her grandmother was born Josefa Navidad Santos in the village that used to be on Goat Rock Beach. She rescued Waters from an abusive father and taught her granddaughter skills the young woman took for granted, thinking everyone had been raised that way.
Santos was a descendant of one of the “Three Sisters,” the Pomo women who ruled the matriarchal tribe before European contact. “My great grandmother was Cosiesoniamen. The Europeans renamed her Mary Pete,” Waters said with a wry smile.
“(In college,) I wrote a paper about my childhood for a professor, and when I read it aloud in class, my classmates were astonished.”
Waters described her grandmother rousing her at 4 a.m., the two of them going to a steep cliff above a sea cove and clambering down, hauling buckets and fishing gear. She remembers lying down on rocks and reaching out to rock-pick abalone, using a coffee can as a shovel to dig clams and, when the tide came in, fishing with stone sinkers tied to cotton string.
She and her grandmother would take their prizes home to clean, cut and pound and make dinner.
“Then I could take a shower, eat and get some sleep,” Waters said. “We would listen to the sound of wind and sea at night. If it was quiet, like a sleeping breath in and out, we would know that we’d be going to the beach the next morning. If it was loud and pounding, or the wind was wild, we’d go inland.”
Inland, Waters’ grandmother taught her the art of “tickling huckleberries,” a way of harvesting that does not injure the plant. She also learned to track, noticing what nature was doing around her.
Suki Waters, owner of WaterTreks in Jenner.
“I teach people how to track at Goat Rock where the prints are good,” she said. “Inland tracks are harder, so we look for scats or for signs on trees, like where a mountain lion has been sharpening its claws. It’s like walking in a city and watching the sidewalk for dog poop. You just have to be alert to what is around you.
“We all have these abilities. We just have to get still enough to remember them.”
Her family owned Santos Island at the mouth of the Russian River, what is now called Penny Island. Her aunts and uncles farmed and had animals, providing milk, eggs and produce for Jenner until 1956. Waters and her cousins saw it as a playground.
“It was my European uncles who wanted money and came up with the idea of tearing up the island for gravel,” she said. “Grandma and my aunts, except for my Aunt Marie, were against it.
“It was the sea, though, that won that battle. It took away my uncles’ equipment. To recoup some of their losses, they sold the island to State Parks. The family lost the island, but I still steward it.”
Waters runs environmental projects that include Living Classroom, a youth program for school children and Native American groups. She also is part of a group that tracks blooms of harmful algae, like the one that killed abalone last year.
Waters has done shows for KQED public television and the History Channel, and she has worked with the Center for Sacred Studies and Noetic Institute.
To fund her environmental work she started WaterTreks, a kayaking company in Jenner. She trains Sierra Club guides and teaches certificate classes in white water kayaking. And she offers tours of her beloved river to kayakers from newbies to certificated wilderness paddlers.
Although she uses Internet sources to track wind and weather patterns and checks Coyote Dam releases before she lets any clients on the river, Waters relies on her basic skills of listening and watching the river, going out to the point each day.
“Out on the water, I show people how to move with the flow,” she said. “You can’t force the river. When you are totally clicked on, you are one with the rhythm.
“Out there the weight of our heads can get us in trouble, and that’s a great metaphor for life.”
Beginners can get a real taste of the water during WaterTreks’ two-hour Park and Paddle tour, $25 single, $50 double, which includes all gear and waterproof suit. Half-day tours are $45/$65. When conditions are right, WaterTreks also has full moon and sunset tours, classes in nature meditation and shuttle service for those wanting to put in at Monte Rio and take out at Jenner.
Book tours at 865-2249 or visit watertreks.com for more info.