Standing on a beach, at the LA River

December 17, 2008 § Leave a comment

Old-timer Don Mullaly gave me a wake-up call the other day.  He’d received mail announcing a public meeting for a project that would connect Universal City to the LA River.  Wouldn’t it be great, he thought, if they understood how that area had been used by the young folks back before channelization?  Perhaps this data could help with planning, he said to me.  

Through the groggy fog that comes with answering the telephone before you’re really ready to, I understood something else:  Don’s LA River story really needed to get posted.  Alas, It’s been a few weeks, and the meeting has come and gone, but finally, finally, here’s Don’s great tale of going to the beach – at the LA River.  

The Los Angeles River near the Lankershim Boulevard Bridge, circa 1944-46

by Don Mullally

LA Public Library, Photo 28404.

Los Angeles River at Whitsett gives a sense of the LA River that Don knew as a child. Source: LA Public Library, Photo 28404.

As before, my friends and I reached our destination using the Hollywood to North Hollywood Park streetcar line.  We exited the line somewhere near the Lankershim Boulevard-Cahuenga Boulevard junction; then walked down Barham to the river and bridge.  To reach the northern shore we either forded the river of walked over the bridge.

The location we sought was a beach about a hundred and fifty yards east of the bridge. The beach was about 150 feet long, 35-45 feet wide and enclosed on the backside by a 3 foot high flood control fence made of 3 inch vertical steel pipes linked together by heavy duty large holed fence wire. Most of the poles had been bent by the force of deep and fast running water.  Much of the fence was obviously buried in sand and branches.

The beach itself was gradual and very gently sloped into the shallow northern half of the river.  It was composed of sand and water-rounded chips of shale.  The beach was not painful to our bare feet.

Once on the beach we stripped off clothes down to our swimming suits.  Time was spent swimming, wading around, skipping flat stones, sun bathing, exploring, and looking for small animals.  Dense forests and brambles of shrubs and willows restricted us to the beach and that part of the river.  Immediately beyond the wire and pole rap-work was the border of a golf course.  We entered the golf course on occasion.  Finally I was almost hit by a flying golf ball.  We then retreated from the golf course and never returned.

On the other or south side of the river was a steep bank of soil.  A large pool of deep and fast water was next to the bank.  We deemed this water to be unsafe and never crossed the river to the other side.  At our location the river was approximately 40 feet wide.

East of the beach was a dense forest of impenetrable trees and shrubs.  The vegetation stopped us from going down river.  

To the west was a bridge, and west of the bridge were marshes, pools of water, emergent wetland plants, and the usual dense streamside forest.  All told, the river was much wider than 40 feet.  We didn’t enter that environment either.  The beach was the only place deemed open or safe.  We weren’t daredevils.

On the beach we found wild native Pacific Pond turtles, Western toads, and not much else in the way of land animals that I remember.  All turtles were turned loose.  In the river were mergansers (fish eating ducks), other kinds of ducks, and mud hens.  All ducks and shore birds flew away when we came down to the beach.  Shore birds frightened away included herons, killdeer, sandpipers, egrets, and other species.  Small fish were in the river.  I should have done some fishing but didn’t.  Bullfrogs were croaking (honking) in the deep water area.  Who knows what kinds of fish were lurking in the deep water!

The river water was cool, not warm.  Because of the gravel on the beach, animal footprints were not seen.  Nor did we see small, medium, or large sized mammals of any kind.  The wildlife was wild and stayed out of sight.

Three or four hours on the beach in the sun gave me painful sunburns.  None of us ever became ill from being in the river.  Canteens and lunches were brought and we didn’t drink river water.

LA Public Library, Photo 28245

Don's beach by 1949. Source: LA Public Library, Photo 28245

In conversation, Don noted that, although he didn’t observe spadefoot toads, tree frogs (chorus frogs), or red-legged frogs in the LA River, “at one time red-legged frogs were a dime a dozen.”  I asked him if his parents had a problem with his excursions to the river.  He replied, “my parents had gone off the farm, they were used to kids going off and getting into everything. Crime was practically nonexistent – parents didn’t have to worry about that. Older people would tell the kids, ‘better look out or the fool catcher will get you’ – meaning, you are a fool if you go into water that is too deep, too fast, or if you go to the edge of cliffs, etc.”

Don closed his story by noting that, ironically, he took a job with a contractor for the Corps of Engineers while they were concreting the river.  “Conservation of the river and the fate of the vegetation and animal life in it barely entered my mind.  While working, my vision was on the San Gabriel Mountains across the valley, and I wanted to be up in them.  I was so thoughtlessly stupid helping the placement of the river in concrete and not thinking of the consequences!”  It takes a rare willingness for self-reflection to be able to look back and say something like that.  And for that, Don, and for all your fiery letters since then, in defense of the remaining streams, I thank you.

Don’s tales of Tujunga can be read here.

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