I’m having a lot of “I’d never thought I’d see the day” days lately in LA. Like the day I rode my bike on 15 car-free miles of Venice Boulevard to the ocean, for example. Or the day when I saw the Expo Line bridges going up in West LA.
And then there was yesterday, when I went kayaking in my neighborhood.
For the first time in 80 years, the Glendale Narrows section of the Los Angeles River is opened to recreation as part of a pilot program. Meaning you’ll see people boating down this 2.5 mile soft-bottom stretch of the river—which is also officially open for fishing, hiking, and bird-watching—until September 2.
You’ll remember last year I kayaked another section of the LA River, way up in the Valley, above the Sepulveda Dam. That section could only support a few trips a week, meaning that every tour was guided and sold out almost instantly. Here, many outfitters will run trips, but you don’t have to wait for a tour. If you have a watercraft you can steer—we saw people on inflatable kayaks, canoes, paddleboards—you can ride. No tubing, which was a disappointment to this Missouri native.
I was surprised how many people, including people biking and walking along the river path, had no idea this was happening. Which is why this is really important (besides being REALLY FUN). Touring the Sepulveda Basin was fantastic but kind of a hidden secret, tucked away in a big park in a far-off corner of the city. This part of the river is so visible that you can see it from the Fletcher Bridge as well as a few different freeways. With the bike path so heavily used, plus so many people who actually live along the way, this is going to be the place that’s going to truly transform the way Angelenos see their river.
Although we were certainly not the first people ever to kayak this section—see the documentary film Rock the Boat, where a group kayaked the entire length of the LA River to prove it was navigable—we were definitely enough of a novelty to create a verifiable media blitz at Marsh Park, about a mile from our put-in. Our group was even featured live on ABC7 news.
You can see me paddling behind John Hartung’s head and taking a photo of my friend Nick as he raises his paddle over his head at :36.
When I headed down to the press conference yesterday morning I was dismayed that none of the outfitters were renting boats on-site. The rangers let us paddle around in one of their kayaks for a few minutes, which was very nice of them (and why you’ll see us in multiple kayaks in the photos), but I really wanted to do the entire 2.5-mile stretch. As luck would have it, I happened to meet a few folks from LA River Kayak Safari, run by two Elysian Valley residents, who were heading out on a friends and family preview trip that very afternoon. $65 later, I was up by Fletcher Drive, strapping on a helmet and life vest and climbing into a hard-shell, sit-on-top kayak. I especially loved their tour because after we kayaked to the end, they met us with beach cruisers (ahem, river cruisers) and we rode the bike path back to the put-in. Brilliant. Update: LA River Expeditions has also added tours.
Now, wait, I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t the beauty of this new section opening that you don’t need a guide, and you can just order up a kayak from Sport Chalet and be on your way? Well, yes, and no. Unlike the narrow, mellow, lazy river-esque Sepulveda Dam section, this part of the LA River is wide, rocky and a bit gnarly. Along most of the route the water is only calf-deep, but the river is fast and deep in a few spots and I’d say half of our group took unexpected swims. I felt totally comfortable the entire time but I was still happy to be following someone the first time who knew the way (even though we did end up taking a wrong turn once—not a huge deal for me but a little harrowing for some, who ended up picking up their kayaks and walking back upriver to the correct route). If you do go on your own, be sure to download the map and guide that shows you how to use the numbers painted along the bank to navigate. I would definitely wear a helmet due to the slippery rocks and shallow water. And unless they’ve got experience, kids should probably stick to one of the pools, like the one we’re paddling in on the news.
You may have wandered down to the river before, but being ON the river here is such a completely different experience. The water is cool and clear and fun to walk around in. This area is much cleaner than the Sepulveda Basin—maybe thanks to the awesome LA River cleanup day last weekend—and once you’re down there it feels much more untouched by humans, despite being in a more urbanized area. For the most part it’s just gravel and rocks and trees. And birds. So many birds! I saw a snowy egret snatch a giant fish from behind a rock, and watched a blue heron as it flew right over my head, with a wingspan that was easily as wide as the length of my kayak.
It’s not a perfect riparian adventure. Since we ended up scooting over lots of rocks, the river could really use a bit more water (Army Corps of Engineers, is that something you can regulate?). In some places the concrete walls coming down into the water created a bleak artificiality, kind of like the manufactured landscape of a theme park ride. A few times, the roar of the 5 was a little overbearing (the Metrolink flying by was another story; I loved that sound). And there’s not nearly enough infrastructure: a better beach for launching would be much appreciated, and the walls are kind of steep and treacherous to carry your boat up and down. In fact, some services overall would be nice; there are port-a-potties in Marsh Park but I’m not sure if they’re permanent. Someone could make bank selling water, sunblock and snacks at the put-in. There also needs to be a beer garden at the end. Or a Garlic Mike’s. I’m going to work on that one.
But these are small complaints about a huge step in the right direction. As one of our enthusiastic fellow kayakers put it, “We’re pioneers.” And that’s exactly how I felt, often all by myself, with no one else in sight, carving my way through a yet-again totally different city.
Since the first reply from many people when I said I was doing this was the incredulous EW, IS THAT SAFE?, let me tell you: It’s safe, it’s clean, it’s beautiful. And it’s going to feel awesome on a hot summer day.