Get Out of Town!
A New Take on an Old Friend: Kayaking the LA River
April, 2013 - Issue #102
Having grown up just a couple of miles away, I thought I knew the Sepulveda Basin. I had ridden its bike trails, played its golf courses and ran around its parks. But I had never kayaked its river.

Yep, the Los Angeles River runs through this open space in the midst of the San Fernando Valley. When I first heard about it, I knew I had to do it. Not only so I could brag to people that I had paddled the L.A. River, but also so I could restore my credibility as a native son. I felt as if it had taken a dent since learning there was a navigable river in my childhood backyard that I had not explored.

So I jumped online and made reservations with the Los Angeles Conservation Corps as soon as they were open. The corps runs public trips four days a week during the summer. Since groups are limited to just 10 people, slots fill fast.

Another draw of the trip is an element of jaded curiosity. When you think of the L.A. River, you think of a graffiti-covered concrete channel. Or, the place where bodies get dumped in movies. Either way, expectations are low.

April and I arrived at the parking lot on Balboa, just south of Victory before our scheduled 7am departure. With helmets donned and life vests buckled, we walked to the river's edge below the street.

At first glance it looked like it would live down to expectations. A mysterious green substance covered the surface of the slow-moving water. It looked like slimy run-off. Our guides gave paddling instructions and outlined our itinerary, then explained the green stuff was actually thousands of tiny seeds. That was the first clue the river would defy expectations.

Unlike most of its 2-mile length, the stretch of water we began paddling is not confined to a concrete channel. It looks very much like a river, in fact. Lush greenery rose from the shore, blocking out traffic rolling down Victory Boulevard. Water fowl perched among the branches. Mid-channel boulders stir up sounds of white water.

We paddled the placid waters and enjoyed the serenity of being on the water. The city fell away and the river took over. Although I knew the surrounding streets well from childhood, I lost track of where exactly we were. If it hadn't been for the periodic jet streaking overhead from Van Nuys Airport, and the occasional manmade debris in the river, I would have completely forgotten we were floating through an urban area home to 1 million people.

The population puts evident pressure on the river, but the river fights back. It traps soil and plants in discarded shopping carts, transforming them into mini reefs or islands. But it's losing the plastic bag war.

The shredded wisps cling to branches, marking winter's high-water mark.

Impervious to the sun, they will hang there until the flow is high enough to reach them and strong enough to break their tenacious grip. Our guides said cleanup efforts are pointless. As fast as the bags are collected, new ones appear to take their place.

We round a bend and the Burbank Boulevard bridge comes into view. It's the end of the line and we paddle toward a sand bar. A van waits to shuttle us back to our cars, a 5-minute driving trip that took us two hours to float.

The paddle was worth every minute. More than a "been there, done that, got the tee-shirt" weekend filler, it's a worthy exploration that brings a new perspective to a very familiar place.
Eric Harnish lives in Castaic, and he has kayaked there, too.

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