Observing Los Angeles

LA River opens a visitor's eyes

lariver-kayak-folar-fb.jpgBritish readers of The Guardian got a glimpse the other day of a Los Angeles they may not have known about. West Coast correspondent Rory Carroll became the latest journalist to take one of activist George Wolfe's kayak tours on the short stretch of unpaved Los Angeles River in the Sepulveda Dam Basin. Carroll makes some cogent observations — he knows that this summer's sold-out paddle trips are symbolic, hyped and perception changing all at the same time — but first he has to find the place. Even though the river bank has been available to visitors on foot and bike for decades, he has a couple of amusing exchange:

A scorching morning in the San Fernando valley and I am driving up and down Balboa Boulevard, parks and fields either side of the motorway, lost. The talking GPS on my dashboard has lapsed into silence, defeated by an arcane destination with no zip code. I spy a park attendant emptying a bin and pull over to ask directions. He eyes me, baffled. I wonder if he is deaf and repeat the question. He still looks confused. "Did you say river?" Yes, I reply. Where is the river? He shakes his head. "What river?"

I find an elderly woman with a straw hat walking her terrier and ask the same question. She looks puzzled. "What river, honey?" The river I am supposed to kayak, I reply. She looks at me compassionately, as if I have sunstroke. "I don't think you're in the right place."

But I am. Swishing below, all but invisible from the park and motorway above, is the Los Angeles river. A river with water, fish, tadpoles, birds, reeds, banks, a river that flows for 52 miles skirting Burbank, north Hollywood, Silver Lake, downtown and Compton and empties into the Pacific Ocean at Long Beach. A regular river, except that to most Angelenos it's a secret. I ask three other people and receive the same blank looks until finally a park ranger confirms that, yes, there is a river at the bottom of a ravine all of 150ft away.

Carroll gets that the river course here is not exactly natural and carries a mix of treated sewage water, street runoff and perhaps some groundwater, littered with debris and boxed in with non-native bushes and trees. But still, he writes, "advocates are on to something when they say it can transform perceptions of LA."

The sense that this is something special returns as we moor our boats and slosh ashore, inspecting plants, a turtle shell, a cascade, before resuming the journey....We saw nothing that would excite David Attenborough. But we glimpsed another LA, one not consumed by automobiles, or turned into a strip mall, where nature and human optimism thrive in a watery realm, an ever so slightly mystic river.

And that's something. He also renders the history of Wolfe riding down the river armed with a film permit a few years and thus proving that it's a navigable waterway, which altered for the better the legal status of the river. Having walked beside the kayaked piece of river a fair bit, I'm more intrigued by things going on downriver and on tributaries like the Tujunga Wash. The old waterways are slowly being brought back into the city's life. But this symbolism, even semi-authentic, is still fun to see, especially through the eyes of an outsider

Previously on LA Observed:
Rolling (roiling?) on the river
Floating a stretch of the LA River
Observing the LA River
Vandals at the river
Rethinking environmentalism on the LA River
Where is the LA River, exactly?

Photo: Paddle the LA River on Facebook

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