Of Nexus and Navigability, Part 2: Journalistic Journeys

December 1, 2008 § Leave a comment


Los Angeles River navigation is a critical issue right now! It’s not just about defiant kayakers, but about ensuring federal waterway protections prevent all our waterways from further degredation. Jessica has already done one post on this, but now Creek Freak is expanding our coverage into a four part series.  If you’re not already familiar with this issue, you might want to go back and read Part 1 before reading this entry.

Part 1 – Of Nexus and Navigability, a lament for our waterways
Part 2 – Journalistic Journeys
Part 3 – The Boater, the Biologist, and the Blogs
Part 4 – Action Alert

Of Nexus and Navigability – Part 2, Journalistic Journeys

The reason that navigation is important today is due to legal wrangling over interpretations of the federal Clean Water Act and which waterways are deemed important enough to receive federal protection. For an explanation of the navigability issue, see Part 1, in which Jessica’s fills in the background and boating’s early history. Her account covers the historical records from the 1800’s.

This blog shares some 20th century journalistic forays into Los Angeles River boating. Though these accounts do offer evidence that the river is navigable, the overall tone of the articles are rather mocking – as in how big a surprise it is that anyone would be boating on such a river. See Part 3, and bringing the situation up to the present date with some wrap-up coverage of the recent kayak trips and recent developments regarding official determinations regarding whether the river is navigable or not.

Los Angeles Times boaters xxxx

April 1st 1925 Los Angeles Times Los Angeles River boating article with "Pictorial Evidence Presented to Skeptical Public.

On April 1st 1925, the Los Angeles Times ran an article entitled Scribe on Wonderful Trip: Cruises the Los Angeles from Griffith Park to Seventh Street Bridge; Skipper Admires Nature by Otis M. Wiles. In a very joking tone, the article tells the story of the intrepid correspondent and Skipper Ed’s journey in the good ship Mud Hen. Some excerpts:

“The Times exploration party set forth in a makeshift craft at eventide yesterday to explore the mystic splendors of our much-maligned river and prove to the world that it’s navigable.”

The journey through the Glendale Narrows sounds fairly nice. The article describes “tall green bullrushes” and “a staircase rapid resembling Angel’s Flight.” The river through downtown wasn’t quite as nice. The boaters encounter “several hobo camps” along the “wooded river bank.” Near the present day 101 Freeway, they pass “a city dump reeking with garbage smells … The dump was afire, clear to the water’s edge.”

“Your intrepid correspondent dumped the water out of his boots and came ashore, thoroughly satisfied that the Los Angeles River has been grossly wronged and maligned. It has water in it, contrary to all reports otherwise – wet water, cold water and muddy water. And it can be navigated. from Griffith Park to the Seventh-street bridge at least, in a seaworthy duck-boat if fortune favors the navigator in ducking rocks, bridges, sharp curves and railroad ties and sewer drains.”

Herald Examiner Boaters in 1938

Herald Express Reporters Boating the Los Angeles River in 1938

In March 1938, Los Angeles was hit with the worst floods on record. These were likely not the highest volume floods, but serious floods paired with increased development of the flood plains, resulted in widespread destruction. According to Blake Gumprecht, the 1938 floods caused eighty-seven deaths, and more than $78 million in damage, including washing out many buildings and bridges. As the floodwaters were beginning to recede, the Los Angeles Herald Express’ “Foghorn” Eldridge and “Wharf Rat” Watson (actually reporter Fred Eldridge and photographer Coy Watson, Jr) attempted a boating expedition from just below the Glendale Hyperion Viaduct (in Atwater Village) to the river’s mouth in Long Beach. Similar to the 1925 Times article above, their accounts mockingly echo adventure writing of their day. They didn’t quite get to Long Beach, but made it only about a half-dozen miles to take out in downtown Los Angeles. Photo above courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Herald Examiner Collection. Additional expedition photos are available there and in Arcadia Publishing Images of America series book Los Angeles River by Ted Elrick and the Friends of the Los Angeles River.

LA Times blah blah blah

March 2nd 1958 Los Angeles Times Los Angeles River Boating Expedition Coverage

A later descent is chronicled in a March 2 1958 Los Angeles Times article Timesmen Explore Los Angeles River by Charles Hillinger. This tells the story of the reporter and cameraman who, in a 5-man inflatable boat, paddle bravely exploring the Army Corps of Engineers’ newly-completed concrete structures.

The Timesmen have difficulty putting in at the start of the river proper, behind Canoga Park High School. “Too shallow.”

They make their way downstream before putting in at a vague location: “Finally, in the heart of the city, we launched our boat.” From a later description that they took out around Firestone Boulevard after traveling “10 miles in five hours,” their put-in spot was likely near the Arroyo Seco confluence.

Boating down the concrete river, they describe “Deep water – a foot and a half – and we floated down the stream at a fair clip.” They run into issues in Vernon where “[m]ud and rocks dammed the main middle stream.” They walk and boat further until giving up around the Rio Hondo confluence where they give up “bogged down on sandbars, hiking through knee-deep mud.”

The pair rounds out their exploration by driving along the river. They describe visits to Sepulveda Dam, the east San Fernando Valley, and the Headworks Spreading Grounds.

In 1999 the LA Weekly ran a cover story Taming the Wild Trickle: A Gray-Water Adventure on the Mighty L.A. by Steve Chapple. Chapple, who kayaks the Yellowstone and the Zambesi, teamed up with Friends of the Los Angeles River’s longtime boater Denis Schure to make 3-day descent of the Los Angeles River from Reseda to Long Beach. Here are a couple of excerpts:

“This wasn’t white water, anyway. It was more like gray water. But runnable. Let me emphasize that. There was enough flow in the Los Angeles River from recent rains to make an experimental first descent possible, yet not so much that we would have to worry about Ralphs shopping carts tumbling end over end in the rainy-season roil and whacking us upside the head. This was a historic moment.”

“We rounded a bend and there stood the Glendale Freeway, crossing the Santa Ana. It was a stunning architectural tableau, Frank Lloyd Wright meets the slime. Arching steel. Pounding concrete. Below, the river concentrated itself in a new center slot that looked fast and deep. We positioned the canoe. Soon we were rodding along at maybe 10 mph before paddling (the paddles had paddles now), but the groove was unexpectedly shallow, all of 18 inches. Though I was distressed, yet again, to have been talked out of my beautiful touring kayak, I contained my cheap-thrill-seeker’s anger: For this was the place where Los Angeles began, a place of reverence. We paddled into the confluence with the Arroyo Seco, site of the original L.A. pueblo, now an unmarked graffiti hole.”

Earlier this year, the US Army Corps. of Engineers only designated two stretches as “traditionally navigable waterways.” These two stretches were: 1) the estuary below Willow Street in Long Beach and 2) the Sepulveda Basin. While none of the articles above describes every inch of the river as navigable, they do record journalists boating in stretches that the Army Corps hasn’t designated as navigable.

Next: Part 3 – The Boater, the Biologist, and the Blogs


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