River rambles encourage Angelenos to spread the word about the Los Angeles River

The city of LA's Carol Armstrong offers river history to tour participants.
The city of LA's Carol Armstrong offers river history to tour participants.
Molly Peterson/KPCC

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In the final weeks of summer, more than a hundred people have kayaked or canoed down the Los Angeles River. The trips are possible because federal agencies have determined that the river is a navigable waterway. KPCC's Molly Peterson took a trip and found that in what most people see as a concrete canal, the water’s fine.

In The Wind in the Willows - a book I loved as a kid - the character Ratty says, "There is nothing- absolutely nothing- half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats." L.A. River Expeditions founder & activist George Wolfe says Ratty’s human counterparts – including me - have set off in boats from Encino's Balboa Park since mid-August.

"Some of the words that people have described in their experiences: stoked, people use excited, motivated," Wolfe says, his live jacket dripping, between trips. "Yeah, glee, awe. Surreal is another one that comes up. The juxtaposition between the human garbage that's left behind and the really beautiful stretch of the river that - some people say I've lived here my whole life and I never knew this existed," Wolfe says.

We put in at Sepulveda Basin, under whizzing cars on a stretch of Balboa Boulevard. "Tell me how to do this like I'm a baby," one newbie kayaker says. Squeals of fear become peals of laughter. When we break its glassy surface, the river grants us silence and room to get the hang of paddling. All in, we knock our boats into a cluster for a talk.

"If there's a story about the river, it's how personal it is," the city of L.A.'s Carol Armstrong says. She has jumped into a kayak, too. Armstrong says city leaders like Antonio Villaraigosa and Ed Reyes and federal officials feel close to these waters. "All these people – now that they are in positions of power to do something about it – are."

Three years ago, L.A. County sheriffs' helicopters circled activists who boated on the river. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ordered kayakers, including George Wolfe, out. Now, Armstrong credits Wolfe with helping to turn the tide.

"George feels really personally connected to this river," Armstrong says. "He went on this river on a really important expedition that his wife documented by video and that led to a really important decision last year."

Wolfe guides us, along with river experts from the L.A. Conservation Corps and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority. "Go right in it, stay in the center and stay low," one guide says. "Absolutely perfect!"

(That's me. I'm perfect!) We travel down three rapids in the obstacle portion of the day. Guides pull out boats through a narrow rocky channel; we land up among some bright green flowers – duckweed, George Wolfe tells me. It's vivid, Kermit-bright, and we duck our paddles into it to see what happens.

A woman named Heather T. Roy paddles up. She's a real estate agent; her friend brought her to the river. (That's me.) "My favorite thing I saw was a pair of snow egrets and one huge great blue heron," she says thoughtfully. "I didn't know anything about the river. I didn't know it was designed to flood, I thought when it flooded it was a problem. And I didn't know how pretty it was. It's really pretty."

Laminated guides in our boat let us track some of the hundreds of native birds and dozens of invasive shopping carts. Park Ranger Fernando Gomez offers the occasional description of the scene – and vigilantly monitors our helmet use and our safety in this soft-bottomed, sometimes rocky stretch.

If you do happen to tip your kayak over, your canoe. the one thing we ask of everyone is don't panic. You're wearing your personal flotation device, and better yet, you may just want to stand up! His deadpan earns laughs from tour participants.

With fewer than 300 public spots on these tours, organizers are sticking to modest goals: keep boaters out of trouble, and show them the river's possibilities. George Wolfe hopes access to the river will expand next year. "Glendale Narrows, Elysian Valley would be the next logical step. It’s a beautiful stretch; you see more of the human life there. It really should be a boon to the city, where tourists come and look forward to doing it just like other cities."

Paris has its Seine. London has the Thames. New Yorkers don't often jump into the Hudson or the Gowanus canal. Angelenos can already run along, walk along, picnic along the L.A. River, as people do in those cities. Trip leaders say that right now it's enough of a gift to glimpse that river from a different angle than they were able to before.