Rolling on the LA River

Orange Line in Encino

It was 90 degrees at 10:00 a.m. when I stepped off the Orange Line in Van Nuys. A perfect day for the beach, as one might say in L.A., or for the pool, or for positioning yourself directly beneath those little misters you can find at finer restaurants in the Valley. But I was about to embark upon a very different Los Angeles experience, one that I’d guarantee a large percentage of the city’s population doesn’t even think is possible. I was heading out on a two-hour kayak trip down the LA River.

Taking the Orange Line to the put-in point was probably the best possible way to be re-introduced to the river itself. Of course I’m plenty familiar with the LA River of my neighborhood, one of the few places where the concrete chute gives way to the “soft-bottom” riverbed. But even this somewhat naturalized area still has those massive cement walls on either side and, for most of its run, the 5 freeway roaring alongside. Where does the river actually look like… a river?

Sunflowers

The only view most people get of the river

The answer is up here, where it crosses Balboa Boulevard in Anthony C. Bellenson Park. Although this corner of the Sepulveda Basic Recreation Area is by no means the edge of LA—it’s surrounded on every side by suburbia—it does start to feel like this is the place where the city starts to lose its grip on the landscape. As I crossed into the park the scrubby chaparral made for a very convincing transition from strip mall to wilderness, as clinically insane joggers and only slightly less crazy bikers swooped around me on the various rec paths in the shimmering heat.

In almost every other part of LA, the river creeps up on you. You can’t be blamed—thanks to the marvels of engineering, sometimes the river is only a few inches across. By the time you’re over the bridge, you realize it was the river and not a railroad crossing/parking lot/another freeway. Blink and you missed it.

Not here. I could feel it before I saw it—a cool, damp breeze ruffling a ribbon of trees below me. When I stepped over the bridge and turned to face it, I almost gasped. It was a real river. And it was gorgeous.

My first peek at the river up here

The walk down to the river

The Paddle the LA River initiative launched last year as a pilot program after the Army Corps of Engineers began allowing small, guided tours in the Sepulveda Dam area. I had missed out on tickets last year so I was at my computer the moment tickets went on sale last month, hoping to grab a ticket. The entire season sold out in a matter of minutes. There’s a waiting list, but I’m guessing you could just show up on any day they run tours and see if they have a cancellation (one person didn’t show up for our trip, and I’d hardly think they’d turn away your money). My trip was $50 and included a kayak, life jacket and helmet. Steep for your typical river trip. For a ride down a river I thought didn’t exist? Priceless.

The tours are run by the LA Conservation Corps, a fantastic nonprofit that trains at-risk youth in environmental and conservation skills around the city. (These are the same folks who helped build an LAUSD school garden with GOOD.) Our trip leaders weren’t hard-core REI-card-carrying totally extreme outdoorsmen, brah—they were Angelenos who been taught how to kayak and trained to be ambassadors of the river. I would say that’s some pretty awesome job creation. Plus these guys are running three tours a day, several days a week, IN THIS HEAT. And they were funny. I applaud them.

LACCC folks

Waiting in the shade

After a brief safety lecture, and a few questions—Is it deep? Not really. What if we fall in? In most places, you stand up.—we were introduced to our crafts. When it was my turn, I stepped over some rocks into about thigh-high water, straddled the kayak, grabbed my paddle, and I was on a boat in the LA River.

The water was perfectly still, with no discernible current. I slowly paddled myself upstream, into the cool shade beneath the Balboa Boulevard bridge.

I know a few of you might have some critical questions at this point since in order to kayak the LA River I also WADED into the LA River: Was it gross? Were there condoms floating in the water? DO YOU HAVE SOME KIND OF BACTERIAL INFECTION NOW? 

And we're off!

Quite peaceful

Answer: No. It was as cool, clear and refreshing to wade in as any stream. (Swimming, although tempting, is still not recommended per the EPA.) In parts of the channel, the river was indeed too deep to see much further than my paddle, so I had a few moments of imagining “what lies beneath” (carp, apparently). But for much of the trip we floated inches from a sandy bottom strewn with gravel bars and boulders.

In fact, as soon as we left the shadow of the bridge, as the greenery swallowed up the banks completely, there were few cues that we were even in a city. Besides the splashes of our paddles, the only sounds were from the planes buzzing us from the Van Nuys Airport, a few miles away. And we had flybys of a different sort: dozens of birds flew over us, swam alongside us, or otherwise gracefully acknowledged our presence as we floated by. (Hard to see, but a snowy egret is that little white V on the middle left of the photo.)

Shopping cart islands

Shopping cart art

Of course, urbanity crept in here and there, but in blissfully poetic ways. Dozens of shopping carts—why are there so many shopping carts?—that had rolled from aisles into isles littered the banks. There were places where the shopping carts had been there so long they had twisted and rusted and disassembled and buried themselves into little abstract sculptures in the sand so it was hard to tell where Target’s property ended and where the river began.

Even the trash—mostly plastic bags, ahem, but I did see some t-shirts, balloons and a Mexican serape—which hung in the trees high above us, was oddly beautiful. Thrashed through the swollen channel, bleached in the punishing sun, the shredded sheets fluttered in the wind like weathered Tibetan prayer flags. And they served as a stunning reminder of how deep and fast the river runs in the winter.

Loved the sandy, rocky bottoms

Portage

It wasn’t smooth sailing the whole way. Due to low water and our historic proclivity for needing to control the river, we had to make three portages, over barriers both natural and man-made. A few of these were done while we stayed in our kayaks and our fearless leaders simply pulled us up and over the obstacles. But one portage gave us a chance to disembark, take a nice scramble over the rocks and queue up in the pool below as they sent the plastic boats over the slick rocks.

As I stood there waiting for my kayak to come down the chute, happy to stand with my feet in the water, and my shorts dripping onto my legs, I realized that although I signed up for the trip for environmental reasons—to find and support this mysterious wild river—it turned out it was more about hanging my feet over the edge of the kayak and splashing myself with the paddle while I silently made eye contact with a blue heron. Yes, I wanted to help revitalize the river but this fun—this was the reason why.

Final stretch

Narrow channel

As the temperature crept towards 100 that morning, I thought about an issue that’s been plaguing me during this heatwave. Our public pool system is broken: There are too few pools in the neighborhoods that need them, and the ones that exist aren’t open nearly long enough—LA’s public seasonal pools were actually scheduled to close last Monday for the summer; it was only after an uproar they decided to keep them open until Labor Day. And if you’ve lived here long enough you know that most of LA’s hottest days happen in September and October. (Although this August will be tough to beat. Literally, as I type this, sweat is pouring down my face and pooling on my keyboard.)

Yes, we have miles of ocean where people can cool off, but the beach isn’t accessible for lots of LA. The river literally carves right through the middle of the city—and through some of the lowest income neighborhoods in the city. Yes, the LA River should be clean and healthy for all the reasons that any urban river should be clean and healthy. But it should be swimmable and boatable to truly serve its residents—especially on these achingly hot, brutally bright dog days of summer. And that’s why making the river look and feel like this—but cleaner!—has to be a priority.

Orange kayak

The paddle crew

I thought about our youngest kayaker, who had never been on a kayak. He started the trip a bit hesitant to climb into his wobbly craft, but by the end was paddling confidently. We need this wild river to flow through our neighborhoods for people like him. We need more kayak trips and swimming holes and rope swings and fishing ponds to give us a little wilderness relief for those who don’t—for those who can’t—leave town.

Can you imagine a series of “pocket beaches” that would run the length of a revitalized river, offering swimming lessons? A “lazy river” section designed just for tubing? How about sunset paddles ending with a cocktail at the boathouse? (Because every boathouse on the LA River will have a bar serving locally made wine, beer and spirits.)

The river’s revitalization plan taps into a few of these ideas, as well as other design elements to keep the river from going into its annual devastation mode (the reason we have the concrete walls in the first place). I know the Terminator parts of the river make it seem like this goal is so far away, but here, as I paddled this breezy stretch, it really didn’t seem all that impossible. At all.

Under Burbank Blvd.

End of the trip!

Towards the end of our trip, I joked that I might miss the takeout point and I’d have to kayak all the way home to Silver Lake (although I’d be in for one hell of a portage around the Sepulveda Dam). It wasn’t as facetious as it sounded: A group of river advocates have paddled the entire length of the river to prove its navigability (I talk more about it in this article about the LA River’s future). And after we debriefed, I learned there’s talk of starting another kayaking pilot program in the Glendale Narrows soft-bottom area, right near my house. Suddenly I could see myself taking a break from my sweltering office—like RIGHT NOW OMG SO HOT—and heading down to the river for a quick lunchtime paddle.

It was 102 by the time we got off the river at 12:30, but it didn’t feel nearly that hot to me. I waited for the Orange Line with soggy shoes, soaked shorts, and a huge smile, my day transformed by a trip down my local river.

Leaving Sepulveda Dam

More photos of kayaking the LA River.

How you can help: If you took a trip in the last year, or even if you didn’t get a ticket this time around, take a moment to leave a comment asking the Army Corps of Engineers to extend the program, to create longer itineraries, to open this opportunity up to more Angelenos. At $50, it’s not currently affordable for much of the population (although they do have programs they do with schools that get more kids on the river). You can also get involved with FoLAR (Friends of the LA River), which holds clean up days and other events, and also runs advocacy campaigns to increase public access to the river.

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  • PeopleAreReallyDumb

    “Even the trash—mostly plastic bags, ahem, but I did see some t-shirts,
    balloons…” – Why not take a minute and clean some of that stuff up??
    Or is it the dirtiness of the area that attracts you hipsters to this type of activity in the first place? Let’s hope you didn’t come home with a staph infection.

  • Carren_Jao

    This is right by where I live and I love it :) You could really forget you were in the middle of the city in this part of the river (except for the plastic bags and stranded supermarket carts), which is why this is priceless :)

  • Save The Los Angeles River

    This program is an extremely dangerous profit making venture. It is destructive to the wildlife that tries to live in this chemically treated sewage water, it is dangerous to those who participate in this program, and to those who read all this propoganda about it and think it is just wonderful and that they too can do it on an inner tube, a rubber raft, tire or whatever. Monkey see monkey do. It is only a matter of time until this gets out of hand and someone is severely injured, or killed. This has happened before with the illegal fishing in the river that these people advocate. A young man became trapped under a piece of concrete and drowned six years ago in the river at Taylor Yard. Look up and read the reports of this death and figure out how much it cost the taxpayers to rescue his body. You mention the $50 price is currently affordable to much of the population. But they can and will with the amount of publicity this is getting and it will end in tragedy. As for school kids would you really want your child to boat in treated sewage water?? Have any of you folks who think this is so great seen of the homeless people who wash their clothes in te river and bathe in it????? Have you seen the sores and boils they get???? You are not doing anybody a favor by your glowing report, and neither are the groups promoting this.

  • Alissa

    Absolutely, PeopleAreReallyDumb, we did pick up all the trash we could reach. I should have mentioned that. And I’d love to see you at the annual LA River cleanup I mention in the last paragraph, it’s where a lot of this kind of positive action happens. Let me know if you need more information!

  • http://twitter.com/LCinLA Linda Coburn

    Your article was very well written, and funny to boot. I, too, tried to get tickets the first time when they sold out so fast and on the second release of tickets I was again too late, plus there were lots of inconsistencies in the pricing so I decided to wait. But your article has me again hankering to do this! To this who say that this is dangerous, are you KIDDING ME? It’s more dangerous to drive a mile on any southland freeway. Shoot, it’s more dangerous to cross the street!

  • Elizabeth Aquino

    What a fantastic, educational post! I had no idea — thank you for informing us, and I look forward to supporting this project and perhaps even taking a kayak ride myself!

  • Try a Paxil, Debbie Downer.

    Since you are clearly an expert on our river, it’s ecology and history, besides throwing rocks at others and being negative how do YOU propose “saving” the Los Angeles River, then? What does our “saved” river look like to you? What are YOUR solutions and whose efforts are you supporting (clearly you aren’t on the side of Friends of the L.A. River, so who ARE you on the side of)? Far more importantly how are *YOU* (clearly such a passionate activist!) helping to achieve ANY active goals to make our river better? YOU DO REALIZE that were it not for these kayakers the river would not be protected by the EPA and the clean water act, yes? So would you rather it wasn’t???

    Ignorance and apathy are the biggest problems with our river… We live in a city where most residents don’t even know we HAVE one. River tours are building an incredible and much-needed awareness… and the positive change in our river’s future from two years ago is mind blowing if you just took time out from being pissy to open your mind and learn more about it.

    Simply being superior and complaining in a bitter and patronizing way on the Internet is NEVER going to make ANY aspect of the world a better place for anyone. It just makes you a bigger part of the problem, not a part of any solution.

  • Try a Paxil, Debbie Downer.
  • http://twitter.com/avoidingregret Sandi Hemmerlein

    Great post, and I totally agree with you. I thought it was really fun too – especially scooting over those rocks – and I’ve always appreciated the strange industrial beauty of the river, including those plastic bags hanging high in the trees. (Which, by the way, come off the streets in storm runoff and are carried down the river, not necessarily placed directly into the river as a dumping ground.) Thanks for sharing!

  • Pingback: Kayaking in my neighborhood | A Walker in LA

  • Alissa

    Thanks Linda! You should check out the new system for this year: http://www.awalkerinla.com/2013/05/28/kayaking-in-my-neighborhood/ There isn’t a wait and it’s in a very different but also great part of the river!