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Woman of the water: Suki Waters

Friday, January 18th, 2013 | Posted by

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.

  • SonomaSuzie

    Fabulous article, Andrea! Quite fascinating… I lived in Jenner for a summer in the 1990s, and loved gazing over Penny Island – had no idea of its history and earlier name. Thank you for this. Suzie

  • William Graham

    Andrea, I am the 70 year old son of Marie Santos Graham and second cousin of Dawns Gitchell. I would like to set some facts straight in respect to Auntie Jo and my family. First of all, Auntie Jo was born on a sand bar at the forks of Kid Creek and Austin Creek on December 25, 1904, not at Goat Rock. My mother, Marie Santos was born at the Goat Rock village on December 14, 1914 to Joe and Nora Santos. Joe was from Guam, he was a stowaway on a Russian sailing ship that landed at Fort Ross, he was 12 years of age. Suki’s family never owned the land, so how can you lose something you’ve never had?
    Marie, sister Rita, Pio, Ernie were sole dependents . Marie, Pio and Rita paid the taxes from 1942 after their father’s death, all four brothers and sisters agreed to sell it. This had nothing to do with European uncles… I do not know what she is talking about with the sea and a battle and what uncle’s equipment… a dream?
    The Santos didn’t sell to state parks, they sold to the Utah Mining Company in the mid-60’s. Utah Mining then sold to Hardwood Corp in the mid-70’s, then Hardwood traded to the state parks. There were 46-48 people that had a claim to the land, only 4 received benefits.
    Suki, stop throwing Grandma Marie under the bus.

    • http://watertreks.com Suki Waters

      Wow Cousin Bill, No harm was meant to anyone here.

      I can think of no person that would want to throw sweet Auntie Mary under a bus. She is beloved to us all. In short articles some things can be taken slightly out of context. Of course there are longer timelines with many things that can’t be included in short articles. Things just happen, and they can be interpreted or misinterpreted in several ways. That does not mean that anyone in the family meant any harm. It is true however that many people were upset about dredging out the island including environmentalist. The sea did end the debate by sucking the dredging equipment away. And, I do believe that everything happens for a reason even if we don’t know why at the time.

      The overall point is, we love our family, our history and the land. This includes our Great Grandpa Joe, who stowed away on a Russian ship at age 12 and became quite the seaman. His experiences lead directly to the success of the family farm and providing fish, dairy and produce, not only to Jenner but to the communities upstream as far as Monte Rio and Cazadero. And remember the photos of Uncle Pio with the giant octopus at the beach? Some of the old oars from the fishing boats, are now on display at Cafe Aquatica. We do share such an interesting family and history. I’m making huckleberry pie for the community holiday dinner. You should come. Have Jimmy give you a hug for me and hope to see you soon.


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Andrea Granahan is our Bodega area correspondent.
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