Fort Ross
The Natural Environment

The Natural Environment

iris macrosiphon

© 1998 Fort Ross Interpretive Association (Fort Ross Conservancy)
ISBN # 1-56540-355-X

In 1811, Ivan Kuskov chose a fine site on a wide California bluff for the Russian-American Company’s distant outpost. The lands were influenced not just by that bluff, but by a complex of topographic features. The bluff on which the fort stands is a young coastal marine terrace. Below are rugged sandstone and conglomerate rocks and cliffs, a sandy beach and offshore islets. Two small harbors give entrance; beyond them the vast Pacific Ocean insured the Russians first look at any invader from the sea.

Behind the fort, a backdrop of grassy hills rises quickly as a steep wooded slope, covered first with Bishop pines, broad-leafed trees and shrubs, then with giant evergreens and tan bark oak trees. The first ridge of the Coast Range, also a marine terrace, reaches a height of 1,600 feet and parallels the sea. It formed a long natural boundary for Fort Ross, as it would for the Mexican rancho which followed it.

The lands here are watered by small creeks and springs, fed by the area’s heavy winter rains, which flow out of the hills into the sea. Kuskov chose one of the few sites with a year-round stream, now called Fort Ross Creek. Ten miles south of Fort Ross is the Slavianka (now Russian) River. This, the only river in the area, may have been a disappointment to the Russians. It is low in summer when its mouth is blocked by sand; it is only navigable seasonally by small boats or rafts.

The northern California coastal climate is not harsh, especially compared to Sitka, from whence the Russians had come, but it is not suitable for the intensive and productive agriculture they planned. Freezing temperatures are rare here, as are very hot days. The growing season is very long, but is severely limited by overall cool temperatures. Heavy, salt-laced fogs and screaming northwest winds in summer, and strong wind and rain storms in winter diminish the area’s ability to produce good crops.


The Sonoma coast does not have much level ground for farming, and Kuskov was no doubt attracted to the terrace for its agricultural possibilities. The Fort Ross terrace is the youngest (somewhat over 80,000 years old) of a series of ancient wave-cut structures lifted up from the ocean floor. In 1812, just as it is now, the terrace was probably covered with grasses over the yellow clay soil. These grasslands have been modified many times as different human groups have inhabited them. For several thousand years, Native Americans harvested seeds here for food, and burned the fields in the fall to keep them open and to encourage their food plants. In the ranch era, the grazing of sheep and some periodic field burning also helped keep these ancient grassy plains open.

Today, shrubs and small trees also inhabit the young terrace; coyote bush, bush lupine, bracken fern and wax myrtle dominate. The low-lying Pt. Reyes ceanothus with its dark blue flowers is found on the terrace. Foot-tangling vines of the small native blackberry and the introduced Himalaya blackberry thrive, as does poison oak; both are savored by deer. The Russians and other settlers of the nineteenth century tilled these same fields and planted wheat, barley and potatoes. They also introduced foreign annual grasses with their agriculture, which largely crowded out the native bunch grasses. Later the terrace was grazed, sometimes too heavily. Without grazing, the grasses could soon grow to be as “high as a horse’s chest,” said one man early in this century.

The state flower, the poppy Eschscholzia californica, is one of the most obvious wildflowers. It was named by Adelbert von Chamisso after his colleague Johann Friedrich Eschscholtz. Both scientists visited California in 1816 on a Russian round-the-world scientific exploring expedition. Lupine, orange monkey flower and Indian paintbrush prefer the cliffs and roadcuts. Purple Douglas iris forms extensive mats on the hills and fields. It is beautiful to observe, but crowds out the pasture grasses, spoiling fields for cattle grazing.

The terrace soils are sandy and easily worked, but need heavy fertilizing for agriculture. The topsoil is shallow and underlain with impermeable clay. Small resident birds and mammals are numerous—blackbirds, rabbits, gophers, moles, mice and deer. The Russian-American Company found to its dismay that these creatures can destroy crops very quickly. The grassy terrace is inhabited by other animals which also enjoy man’s crops and livestock. Raccoons feast in orchards, as well as on any scraps left in a campground or on a back porch. The gray fox is becoming more common again; many dens of pups can be found in the area. Local foxes and skunks, both striped and spotted, have been known to raid chicken houses. Providentially, the skunks also dig out pesky ground-nesting wasps. The ring-tailed cats, small mammals once trapped along with foxes, raccoons and skunks, are also now more common. They are splendid climbers and predators of birds. Small groups of feral pigs, a legacy of the Russians and later ranchers, roam the foothills. Fort Ross has its own herd which plows up the grasslands and steals apples from the old Russian orchard. The small coastal black-tailed deer are usually numerous enough to become pests and destroy gardens not heavily fenced. Their fawns are preyed upon by bobcats, which are often seen in daylight hours in the foothills. Mountain lions are more secretive, but a few are resident on the coast after many decades of scarcity. There are even signs of black bear, which, heavily hunted in the early ranching days, have been rare until recently. Coyotes are common inland, but are seen here only occasionally.

Many songbirds are found on the terrace—the house finch, blackbird, Steller’s jay and several kinds of sparrow predominate. In the summer, gold finches (wild canaries) feast on thistle heads, and hummingbirds are much at home on the coastal terrace. Towhees, nuthatches and valley quail raise families in the brush. At least five kinds of swallows come in the spring to nest, often raising two or three families. In the winter, robins and juncos are common. American egrets and great blue herons hunt in damp places on the terrace.

Black shouldered kites, kestrels and red-tailed hawks hunt overhead. Other large hawks are also found—harriers, red-shouldered hawks and an occasional golden eagle. There are shouldered hawks and an occasional golden eagle. There are several species of owls. The mischievous black raven is a predator and, like the turkey vulture, a scavenger. Both are year-round residents. Like most areas of our world, Fort Ross has lost bird species. The California condor lived here well into the last century. Native Americans valued its feathers, and William Benitz once reported having shot one.

Small amphibians and reptiles also like the grassy terrace. Several kinds of lizards bask in the sun. There are no rattlesnakes on the cool coast, although they like the higher, warmer elevations. Garter snakes are common, however, and are welcomed in gardens. Rubber boas and gopher snakes occur more rarely. Frogs and toads are becoming rare, with the exception of the small, noisy tree frog, Hyla.

The notorious wood tick gets the most publicity of local bug life. Several varieties are common, and they do bite, very uncomfortably. Lyme disease occurs here, but more rarely than on the Atlantic Coast. Sow bugs and earwigs are very populous, although not always welcome. A few mosquitoes live near standing water right on the coast; they thrive on the ridge above. Honey bees find the coast climate too cool, but bumble bees, Bombus voznesenskii, thrive. They were named for Russian scientist I. G. Voznesenskii who visited Fort Ross. California’s flies and spiders like it here, and in summer beach flies sometimes get wafted up to the terrace from mounds of decaying seaweed on the sands below.


The Bishop pine grows close to the ocean and is often shaped by its winds. It is a quick-growing opportunist, spurned as food by deer. It fills in open fields easily after fires, or when lands are no longer grazed or farmed. Thus Bishop pines have become quite dominant on the coastal plain in the last few decades. Alder and willow flourish along the local streams, and redwoods venture quite close to the shore on the damper, protected slopes. Two tree varieties introduced during the ranch era have become overly successful around the fort—the Monterey cypress and Australia’s eucalyptus. Although invaluable as windbreaks, they do not reflect the true historical vegetation of the fort as it was when the Russians lived here.

As the land rises, leafy trees and shrubs take over, and are soon mixed with evergreens. Manzanita, buckeye, maple, madrone, California bay or pepperwood, salal and huckleberry seek out particular habitats. Salmonberry and thimbleberries grow in sunny corners. Columbine, not eaten by deer, likes shady places. Oaks provide dark cover and a deep carpet of leaves on steep creek banks. The tan oak, valuable to the Kashaya for its acorns and to the ranchers for its bark and wood, occurs from the lower slopes to the ridge tops. The silk tassel tree, Garrya, can also be seen in this community.

The magnificent coastal redwood, of course, was not ignored by the intruding Russians of 1812. They built their entire compound with its yielding, soft, red planks, which they laboriously cut and hauled, at first without help from draft animals. The redwood forest community is an impressive and awe-inspiring one. The trees are immensely tall, long-lived and self-renewing. They love the foggy coast and thrive farther inland even during hot dry summers. In spite of heavy timber harvesting by the Russians for three decades, and by Dixon and Call later in the century, they have sprouted anew from their old stumps. Now that the redwoods have been preserved by the Parks Department, they are growing to a size that will impress our descendants. In the heavy needle bed under the redwoods grow a variety of small interesting plants, among them several ferns, wood sorrel (Oxalis), trillium, and adder’s tongue. Calypso orchids live under Douglas firs. The heavy duff and moist atmosphere create an ideal situation for mushrooms and other fungus. Wild azaleas seek out spots of light in the heavy tree cover.

Other cone-bearing trees also exist on the edges of the redwoods. Douglas fir and grand fir are the major components of the mixed evergreen forest which continues up onto the coastal ridge. In the lower canyon of Fort Ross Creek can be found a few samples of the less common California nutmeg. Named for its nutmeg-like cone, it is actually related to the yew.


One natural feature of which we are very much aware today is the San Andreas Fault, California’s major earthquake rift zone. The fault, which runs along much of the length of the state, passes through San Francisco and Tomales Bay and comes ashore two miles below the fort, then runs northeast of it and through the old Russian orchard. The fort itself lies on marine sediments to the seaward side of the fault. These sediments were deposited underwater forty to sixty million years ago, and have moved from the south about three hundred miles up the California coast. The western block is still moving along the faultline; San Francisco’s earthquake of 1906 was the result of such motion. This western block is completely different from the Franciscan formation to the east. Near the orchard are small sag ponds, depressions along a fault which often become filled with water in winter. Fences were offset and trees broken in the 1906 earthquake; this evidence of the quake can still be seen today. No severe earthquakes have been experienced here since 1906. It is thought that this section of the San Andreas Fault moves significantly only every 200 to 300 years.


The Pacific Ocean is the dominant agent in the climate and topography of the coast. It can be a ferocious force, with long, strong swells, high winds and wide tidal fluctuations. And it is cold—50° in summer, a little warmer, 54°, in the winter. From November through February, storms coming in off the ocean bring almost forty inches of rain, often in heavy downpours brought by gale-force winds. Occasionally, strong local hurricane-like storms occur. At least twice roofs have been torn off coastal dwellings, including that of the Call house early in this century. These storms cause streams to erode their banks, trees to be uprooted, and cliffs to crumble. The rocky shores are battered and their marine residents often dislodged and thrown onto the beaches with mounds of kelp, driftwood and flotsam. It is a beautiful shore, but not always a hospitable one. Over the years residents on the Fort Ross coast have had many battles with the local climate and weather conditions.

There are a few offshore rocks near the fort. One large group of islets is a seasonal home to two kinds of sea lions. Both the large buff Steller’s and sleek, dark California sea lion can be seen seasonally fishing or just lolling in our offshore waters. Smaller rocks host the nests of seabirds—chiefly gulls, murres, oyster catchers and cormorants. Some low-lying rocks serve as hauling out spots for harbor seals, especially in summer. A sizable colony of these appealing mammals inhabits the sandy mouth of the Russian River ten miles down the coast. Other marine mammals are casual visitors. Solitary young male elephant seals, part of a recovering population, can sometimes be found resting on the sandy beach at Fort Ross. The sea otter, the mammal which brought the Russians to Fort Ross in the first place, is no longer resident here. One must travel south to Monterey to see these beautiful creatures with their too-valuable fur. Solitary otters are occasionally seen near Fort Ross, however, so perhaps it might be worthwhile to be observant!

Offshore, but often visible from land, are even larger mammals. Gray whales migrate south from the Bering Sea to Baja California from December to March. After calving, when they make the return journey, they are closer to shore and thus more easily seen. The males return first, beginning around April, followed by the females and young. Occasionally a solitary gray will linger along the coast during the summer, feeding in the shallow water. Lately, a group of blue whales has been seen every fall at varying distances from shore; they winter off Mexico and Costa Rica. Humpback whales make occasional appearances, as do fin, Minke and orca whales. Shy harbor porpoises can sometimes be seen quietly rolling in the water, their backs breaking the surface.

For over a century, salmon, lingcod and many varieties of rockfish have been avidly sought by people fishing off the rocks or from small boats. Though still a rich area, the waters here have been greatly depleted. Quantities of marine bones and shells were found in the archaeological excavations of the North Pacific and Native Kashaya sites outside the stockade.

Marine plant colonies are especially productive on this part of the coast. Mats of the bull kelp, Nereocystis lutkeana, named for Russian sea captain Fedor Litke, form each spring and summer just offshore, to be broken up by winter storms and piled on the beaches. The palm tree-like Postelsia was discovered by and named for a Russian scientist in Alaska, Aleksandr Filippovich Postels. It covers many lower rocks where there is especially strong wave action. The feather boa kelp, Egregia, is also very common. Low tides reveal quantities of bright green sea grasses. Tide pool rocks are encrusted with colorful pink coralline algae. Many seaweeds were included in Kashaya culinary tradition.

The Northern California rocky intertidal zone is famous for its diversity of plant and animal life. Many colorful and intricate tidepool inhabitants can be observed by any curious person. (They are protected, of course, but looking is always allowed!) Most of the edible intertidal invertebrates and plants which the local Kashaya gathered—abalone, mussels and limpets—can still be found. Sea stars and chitons, being less edible by humans, survive in great numbers. Large, offshore sea urchins are rarer and smaller than before, as they are currently being heavily harvested; intertidal urchins are still plentiful. Young fishes also make their homes in the tidepools.

The Pacific waters off Fort Ross are rich in bird life. Immature brown pelicans fly north each spring, feeding as they go, and head south again in the fall. Migrating flocks of geese, Brant and many shorebirds are to be found. Great blue herons hunt from rafts of kelp, and are permanent residents along the shore, as are varieties of gulls and other nesting birds. Loons are temporary visitors. The powerful osprey fish just off shore, and can be seen in spring and summer carrying their catch (or nest material) to their nests high in snags in the forest. Most of these fishhawks fly south for the winter, but occasionally one will winter here.

There are no major natural harbors on the American Pacific Coast between San Francisco and Puget Sound, Washington. Kuskov chose Bodega Bay with its small outer harbor for his larger shipping ventures. Soon thereafter at Ross he found a shallow cove, lightly protected from the summer’s northwest winds. The Russians called this Little Rumiantsev Bay and used baidarkas and baidaras there to transport goods from ship to shore. Above its sandy beach were the Russian boatworks and shipways, as well as a smithy. Just northwest of this bay is a deeper cove, protected by the rocky headland now called Northwest Cape. Here small ships could anchor, except during southern winter storms. This cove was the site of the later ranchers’ stone wharves. (The larger Russian ships continued to anchor at Bodega Bay.)

The isolated site of Colony Ross on the northern California coast served well for the Russian-American Company’s purposes. It was also, and still is, a very beautiful place. Wild and wind-blown, it maintains a great variety of plant and animal life, from the sea’s bottom to the tops of the redwoods. Unlike many special places we have endeavored to preserve, Fort Ross is fortunate to have been saved with its surrounding lands almost intact. The Russian colonists, whom we have commemorated in establishing this monument, would find much here to recognize today.