Pacific Swell

Southern California environment news and trends

Kayaking on the Los Angeles River: Can't get over it

Sometime soon on the radio you can hear me talking about kayaking on the LA River. KPCC has done LA River stories so many times - my friend, colleague and the former holder of this position, Ilsa Setziol, did a lush 5-part series back in the day - but as I'll explain we're a long way from this story being over.  

My trip was last Saturday at 10 AM; I took along a college friend with whom I kayak once a year. George Wolfe gave us paddlers our marching orders, alongside some Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority guys. It's not that long ago that he was leading a 3-day trip down the river illegally - trying to convince people like the Army Corps and the EPA that it was one.  

These pilot-project trips (into which I lucked, like everyone else, by clicking furiously at 7 AM that Tuesday) put in at Sepulveda Basin, under concrete, but in a soft-bottomed area of the river. We sign waivers, and wear helmets and life jackets. It's a condition of our presence, and I got the impression from our trip leaders that the Army Corps and federal authorities were incredibly concerned about this. 

The first few of us broke the glassy surface, and had a chance to look around - dragonfies and damselflies danced around us in midmorning clouds. Herons appeared on branches above us, as if on cue. The trip's geared toward making beginners comfortable. Gave me time to notice the rich smell of the river, the algae and plants, the sediment. 

In The Wind in the Willows, Ratty says, "Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats." Yep. 

River lovers have cleaned up the mile-and-a-half in use, but the lasting remnant of civilization in the river are plastic bags. They cling to branches, swept and stuck into place in winter months, then stranded there year round, weathered, beaten, resembling in the end something spectral, a fragment of costume someone might wear in a Haunted Mansion ride to suggest a ghost. (The ghost of consumption!)

Though the sounds of traffic and Saturday-morning soccer in the nearby park dissipated as we sank down into the water, we remain in an urban area. London has the Thames; Boston has the Charles. You see people messing around in boats, sure, but swimmers? Not the best idea, even in those rivers with more noble reputations.

It's hard not to admire the artistry of the under-bridge graffiti, even though the MRCA guys said they had on other occasions confiscated taggers' cameras who had taken pictures of their handiwork for reference. Between the soft-basin start and the top of the dam, where we pulled out of the water, we "shot" three rapids. The river widened, deepened, narrowed, sped and slowed, but it still seemed of a piece with itself, with nature, and the city. Now that I'm an LA convert from San Francisco, I love this place, and I know the river has a lot to do with that.  

Like Kevin Roderick over at LAObserved, I read the New York Times article today. And sighed a little - I'll be even later to the party than Jennifer Medina, when my story's finally on. When I moved to L.A. four years ago, I thought I was already late to the game even doing a single story on the river. But among the people in the 10 o'clock party last week, some were river advocates who had chomped at the bit to get out here. More were newbies. Even my good friend Heather T. Roy, who naturally is deeply familiar with the entire body of my work, had questions about wildlife and about the length of the river, and the designation.

I've talked carp with Rabe at the river, stood along it to talk about Griffith Park fire recovery, reported on the Pasadena Museum of California Art's exhibition on the Ulysses Guide to the LA River, and covered its designation as navigable under the Clean Water Act. But Saturday's trip served to remind me that journalists, too, never step into the same water twice.

Another friend, Matt Eddy, has a saying I love: "Never don't go." So it should be in the river. I'll try to remember we're a long way from everyone knowing everything there is to know about that place. Also, to wear sunscreen on my legs. Every time, Molly, every time.  

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