By KATIE WATTS / Petaluma Towns Correspondent

“After this year’s Petaluma River Cleanup, we got a call,” Steve Jette says, “from the head of security for the Outlet Mall. He said, ‘Thanks for cleaning up the river, but you forgot about us.’”

Jette, 65, is a member of the Petaluma Wetlands Alliance. He headed upstream to check out the phone call. What he found was “one of Petaluma’s undiscovered gems.”

The Petaluma River is a river in name only, christened in 1959 by the national government so it can receive federal funds for dredging. It is a tidal estuary that winds through the city. At the upper end, it borders the Outlet Mall on the east. A pedestrian path runs close by, between the parking lot and the water, but when Jette arrived almost no river was visible: only lustily overgrown brambles. What could be seen of the river looked in places like a soggy trash heap, including rusted hunks of a 1967 Corvair.

This wasn’t right, he thought, so he set off on an on-going, one-man clean-up crusade. “I come out here and just do it.”

Navigating bureaucratic hurdles took months. Jette explains the tangle: city, county, state and federal governments are responsible for different areas. “The flat walking area is city. The banks and streambed are county. The water itself is federal. The state Fish and Game Department dictates matters of the critters.”

The city does some work in the area, as does the county, but they’re strapped and can’t do as much as they would like.

Finally, in early September, Jette began. It was daunting. He stands on the path pointing to a bush, six feet away. “It took 20 minutes to get to that bush.”

A former ironworker, Jette has worked with ropes and heavy equipment. He also spent six months on an old square-rigger, sailing around the Pacific Ocean, so he knows his stuff when it comes to ropes and timbers, heavy equipment and safety. In addition, “I’m a woods and rivers kind of guy.” And, as a chiropractor, he knows how to keep his body safe.

His rewards are quiet, but meaningful. He spends time in the fresh air and gets plenty of exercise. He watches animals and birds that make the area their home. To that end, he says, “I’ve left a lot natural so the little creatures have a spot.”

A small car part Steve Jette found on the river bank.

He shares his days with otters, birds and ducks. Glancing at a young, male red-shouldered hawk perched in a tree on the opposite bank, he smiles, murmuring, “Oh sweetie. What are you doing? Looking for lunch, I’m guessing.” Proving him right, the hawk suddenly swoops down. “It’s a nice treat to see a hawk.”

Farther on, he spots a small titmouse. He says they perch nearby and chirp when he’s ready to leave. “It’s their way of saying thanks.”

Now, in winter, it’s a good time to explore this peaceful area. Jette estimates the water is 5 or 6 feet deep in places, with natural dams and ponds, plus small waterfalls that dry up when the rainy season ends.

Although Jette has done a great deal of work, there’s more to come, especially on the north end. “I’ve nicknamed it The Nightmare,” he says.

He will wait until summer, after the water’s gone down. “I’ll have to go through it one thorn at a time to see what’s there.” His goal is to clear the river so kayakers can paddle all the way to the Corona Road bridge. He already knows that beyond the bridge “it’s not as bad.”

Jette does this old-school and hands-on. He won’t use a chainsaw – “the birds wouldn’t dig it” — so he works his way through mats and tangles using a handsaw, pruners and clippers. After four months, he says, “I’ve gotten to the point where I can handle blackberries without gloves. At first, I was shredded every day.”

Still, his hands and forearms look as though he wrestles regularly with a dozen litters of kittens. Fortunately, he seems to be immune to poison oak.

In terms of what has been cleared, “the Outlet Mall river border is 400 yards long, and it has yielded 40 cubic yards of wood chips.” He chops up overgrown trees and bushes, “hooks them up with the truck and stacks them up.” Afterward, the Petaluma Public Works Department and the Sonoma County Water Agency haul away the debris. “I couldn’t do it without them,” he says.

Doing this on his own, Jette says, can make him feel like the Lone Ranger. But working the area, getting to know it so well, he becomes protective of it. During the holidays, he stopped working because there were so many people at the mall, even though few know the river is there. “Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Do you want it to be discovered?’”

The annual river cleanup is set for Saturday, May 4. Those who are interested in helping can watch the papers for announcements.