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California's Russian outpost

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Not that America needs another security headache, but three hours north of San Francisco, the Russians have landed.

Or, at least, they once did.

My family and I were 12 miles from the nearest coastal town, Jenner, Calif., at a desolate place called Fort Ross. Naive visitors, me included, assume there was some explorer or fur trapper named Ross who made it here from Scotland or elsewhere in the British Isles.

But state park staff members are quick to tell you: This is Fort Russ, or "Russiye," the "settlement of Russ," where, in the early 19th century, czarist sailors came down from Alaska, and, for several decades, ran this subcolony as their final American base. Fort "Russ" was Russia's wild, wild East.

It is still wild now, a striking but desolate settlement on a shelflike plateau overlooking the Pacific. On the calm August day we were visiting, the ocean almost seemed to deserve its gentle name, stretching calmly as far as the eye can see.

The San Andreas Fault bisects the base of the hills surrounding the fort, whose Russian Orthodox chapel collapsed during the 1906 earthquake. But the chapel and the impressive 12 foot- high palisade (built with local redwoods and enclosing about 100 square yards) have been rebuilt on a grassy meadow atop the precipitous cliffs that hang over the ocean.

"Russiye" is located in rugged country, and getting there - even today - is not for the faint of heart. We had to take twisty California Highway 1 at least some of the distance. The famed roadway is a two-lane blacktop, and driving north a car has sharply rising cliffs on the passenger side and steep shears down to the Pacific on the driver's.

But Fort Ross makes the hair-raising drive worthwhile. The twin-domed chapel, built in 1824, is the site of the oldest operating Russian Orthodox ministry in North America outside Alaska. Russian-Americans still conduct services here on Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. On the last Saturday in July, dozens of costumed participants stage a living history day.

Though there were no special events when we visited, we were fortunate to connect with a well-informed costumed docent - Sarjan Holt, a woman of Turkish descent. We also spent quiet time in the somber but peaceful old chapel.

Later, we toured the fort's redwood buildings. You can also descend a cliff walk to a small cove that the Russians used as their harbor.

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