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The earliest Slavic name for the river, Slavyanka, appears on a Russian-American Company chart dated 1817.The river takes its current name from Russian Ivan Kuskov of the Russian-American Company, who explored the river in the early 19th century and established the Fort Ross colony 10 mi (16 km) northwest of its mouth.It is very safe at that time for swimming and boating, with a gentle current. Holway wrote of the Russian River in his 1917 paper "The Russian River: A Characteristic Stream of the California Coast Ranges".The river is dangerous in the winter, with swift current and muddy water. Originally, the Russian River was one of several rivers draining westward from the Mayacamas Mountains through the Mendocino Plateau to the sea, a region lifted up by tectonic forces. Being at a lower elevation, the Russian River began cutting north into the drainage area of the Navarro River.However, the Russian-American Company's Ivan Kuskov sailed into Bodega Bay in 1809 on the Kodiak and, after exploring 50 miles of the Russian River, returned to Novo Arkhangelsk, Alaska (Sitka), with beaver skins and over 2,000 sea otter (Enhydra lutris) pelts.The Russians' stated reason for establishing a settlement in Alta California was, "The rich, fertile soil [and] the abundance of seal, otter and beaver were the principal factors which favored this colonization." An 1816 report by the Russian-American Company's Board of Directors said that it was establishing a settlement to introduce agriculture.(page 33, After December 16, 1813: A report to Emperor Alexander I from the Russian American Company Council, concerning trade with California and the establishment of Fort Ross) Before establishing a southern colony at Fort Ross, the Russian-American Company contracted with American ships beginning in 1806, providing them with Aleuts and their baidarkas (kayaks) to hunt otter on the coast of Spanish California.Water transferred from the Eel River and released from Lake Mendocino flows through the Russian River channel to withdrawal points in Sonoma County.Although this method of transport supports aquatic and riparian zone habitats, it is vulnerable to chemical contamination from transportation accidents where the river is in close proximity to highway 101 and Northwestern Pacific Railroad transportation corridors in locations like the canyon between Cloverdale and Hopland.
In 2001 the Coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) had dwindled to less than four returning spawners per year.The Russian River reached flood stage of 32 feet (9.8 m) at Guerneville about five times per decade through the last half of the 20th century.Historic flood peaks were 49.5 feet (15.1 m) in February 1986, 48 feet (15 m) in January 1995, 47.6 feet (14.5 m) in December 1955, 47.3 feet (14.4 m) in December 1964, and 46.9 feet (14.3 m) in February 1940.However, in 2007, the Sonoma County Water Agency completed a comprehensive re-evaluation of historical records, coupled with a 5-year monitoring program using underwater cameras at two fish ladders just north of Forestville.They found that Chinook always were, and still are, "a relatively abundant, widely distributed, and naturally self-sustaining population".
Recent genetic studies on steelhead collected at 20 different sites both above and below passage barriers in the watershed found that despite the fact that 30 million hatchery trout were stocked in the river from 1911 to 1925, the steelhead remain of native and not hatchery stock.