GUERNEVILLE, Calif. — Christian Duval, a sort of self-styled Indiana Jones of the river country, was on a one-man mission of mercy.
He bounded out of his rusted pickup truck, the one with the alien sticker on the bumper, and strapped on a sleeveless black wetsuit, complete with Bowie knife buckled to the belt.
The problem: A friend laid low with some "exotic ailment picked up in Thailand" was holed up in her low-lying apartment, cut off from town Tuesday by the slowly rising Russian River. The power was out. The swift-flowing, thick, brown water was seeping up the walls. And she didn't have a single candle.
"If she ended up in the dark, in the water, it would be scary," Duval said, smashing on a hat, tucking candles into polypropylene and preparing to submerge. "I'll walk until I have to swim."
It takes a lot to move people here along the lower Russian River, to get them out of their houses and stores, to pry them out of their pubs and into their cars. With the river threatening to rise as much as 10 feet above flood stage Tuesday, only five people had checked into the nearest emergency shelter by noon.
They're tough out in the greater Guerneville area, population about 8,000, 70 miles north of San Francisco. They've been through this before--and much, much worse. So what if the river floods at 32 feet and the Office of Emergency Services warns of water levels this day of 38 and 41 feet?
On Tuesday, the schools were closed. The power was out in a damp checkerboard. The purple brontosaurus at the miniature golf course was waist-high in water. The enterprising women at the Chamber of Commerce were figuring out just what to charge journalists for the use of a desk and an electrical socket. The water slide at J's Amusements was disappearing an inch at a time as the river rose.
But downtown Guerneville--just 35 feet above sea level--teemed with locals in knee boots and slickers. They weren't leaving, not by a long shot. Nope, they were looking. And stocking up at the Safeway, comparing notes and arguing the finer points of moving furniture away from water.
At the bar of Main Street Station Ristorante: "The creek was up," and "Yeah, the tree just came crashing down!" and "Well, in 1995. . . ."
On the phone at the Chamber of Commerce: "Richard? Judy Boyce. Fine. Did you get your sand bags?" and "I don't know if I'll get to the meeting. It depends on if I get stranded," and "I may have to take the computers home with me. . . . If the furniture weathers, we've got insurance."
Wander down 1st Street to Frank Howard Allen Realtors, where the Russian River laps at the back lawn in little brown waves. On the counter you'll find a stack of postcards with the headline "Where the Russian River Floods."
It's an advertisement--an odd way to sell houses--boasting in an alarming shade of purple the times the river really burst its banks. Like Jan. 1, 1997, when it crested at 45 feet, and Jan. 9, 1995, when it hit an alarming 48. At 48.5 feet, the water breaks into the sheriff's station.
And then there was the Big One, the one they talk about in reverent tones, the one that really was a flood: Feb. 18, 1986, when the river rose to 49.5 feet and even the highest point in this low-slung town was at least 18 inches under water and the rest of the place, well, you can only imagine.
Because on Tuesday morning, when the river was about 10 feet lower, there was Adriane Goldsmith on Neeley Road, gazing forlornly at the soaked pavement as it disappeared near her dainty heels.
She had just gone over to the market a couple of hours ago, she said, puffing a cigarette, shoulders hunched in her hip-length fur. And now, well, she's only a block or so away from her house, but she's stranded.
"I came over to get supplies, because we didn't have any candles," she said, as neighbors gathered nearby. "I bought a lantern. I needed water and food. . . . Now I just can't get back."
Too bad she wasn't as enterprising as landscape gardeners Peter Belsley and Dan Fisher. They needed supplies, too, bread and beer and milk and food for Franklin, their ailing cat. So they drove their canoe to the water's edge and paddled across what had stymied Goldsmith.
"That's sort of pioneering, isn't it?" asked a satisfied Belsley.
Ceramic artist Greg Sherrod had the same idea earlier in the morning, when he piled the last of his belongings--a ficus tree and a refrigerator's worth of food--into a friend's canoe and paddled to his pickup truck on higher ground.
This nasty weather novice was out of here, driving to drier land, abandoning his kiln to a rapidly flooding duplex. Once most of his stuff was safe, and anything left likely covered by disaster funding, Sherrod said he was kind of looking forward to the deluge that could come by the weekend. "Come on flood!" he rooted from the warmth of his incense-scented truck. "Is that all you got, Mother Nature?"