Members of the North Bay Rowing Club prepare to launch their boat for a morning workout on the Petaluma River. (Beth Schlanker / Press Democrat)

Five days a week, Maggie Hohle rises before the sun to get her day started right. A 90-minute row up the Petaluma River with other members of the North Bay Rowing Club gets her feeling healthy and refreshed.

She became addicted to the sport and the club in 2007, after dragging her family to watch the annual Wine Country Rowing Classic at Scholenberger Park.

“It is a real cross between a thinking sport and a physical sport,” she explains. “Each seat has its own personality, and you have to find out where you fit in.”

The club was founded by Greg Sabourin, a rower who fell in love with the sport during his time as a graduate student at Cambridge University in England. Once he returned to Sonoma County in 1984, he hoped to encourage more locals to get involved with the sport.

The group now owns about 25 boats that are stored in massive shipping containers at the simple wharf the club’s 70 members call home. The boats are available to members, who pay a $400 annual fee, and for classes.

Several coaches use the facilities to teach private lessons and help with the Sonoma State Crew Team and the club’s junior and advanced masters programs.

“It is a rapidly growing sport that is great for kids because it’s a real team sport,” Sabourin said. “You need eight kids working as one.”

The Petaluma River is close to ideal for rowing because it is 13.1 miles from Petaluma’s downtown Turning Basin to San Pablo Bay, just long enough for a marathon if racers double back on the course. It also has notable straightaways, unusually calm waters for a West Coast waterway and little traffic other than a few pleasure motorboats and the occasional barge.

After serving as California’s second busiest transport river in the early 1900s, the Petaluma River fell out of favor once railroads took over. More recent generations have turned their back on it, considering it a dirty tidal slough or ignoring it altogether. While handing out posters for club events, Hohle has encountered replies such as, “Oh yeah, there is a river here!”

Fortunately, Hohle and Sabourin are seeing a shift in perspective. Sabourin believes the influx of new Bay Area residents is helping everyone see the river through fresh eyes.

“We have a beautiful little valley here in Petaluma,” he said. “Sure, the river isn’t a babbling brook with fresh water, but it has a diversity of wildlife and possibly for those reasons it has not been overdeveloped.”

That blessing also causes problems. Almost all of the property along its banks is privately owned, which makes the river difficult to access.

For the past six years, Sabourin has been working with a group that includes Susan Starbird of the Petaluma Small Craft Center Coalition on ways to integrate Petaluma and its river.

Their goal is creating a chain of stops along the water that would act as a river trail, as well as creating a linear park that runs alongside the river. Community restrooms and water access points are included in the plan. In 2008, the National Park Service agreed to assist with the development of these two river trails.

Within the next year, Sabourin hopes to see solid plans for a rental center at the Turning Basin that would rent canoes, kayaks, paddles boats, rowboats and sail boats to local families and tourists. A more ambitious plan includes a Community Boat House for the rowing club that would include a boathouse with bathrooms and showers for members.

Sabourin said response from the community is positive. “Everyone is on board. People say ‘Hey, how can we get this done?’ It’s a no-brainer.”

Although everyone involved realizes how much work is ahead, they hope the community volunteers to help. They invite local contractors, landscape architects and any other interested residents to help keep the project moving and shape the Petaluma River’s future.

A splash of water is kicked up by an oar as members of the North Bay Rowing Club work out together along the Petaluma River. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)

The North Bay Rowing Club will host the West  Coast flat water marathon and half marathon Sept. 4, and on Oct. 23 will host the sixth annual Wine Country Rowing Classic. For more information about the club or its events, visit northbayrowing.org. For more information about the Petaluma Small Craft Center Coalition, visit psc3.org.