Reflections on River Access

October 4, 2012 § 2 Comments

Sepulveda Basin: Great Blue Heron and Kayakers, Summer (painting by Joan Wolfe ©2012)

As the heat of summer slowly (hopefully) begins to wind down, so too has the second season of the pioneering L.A. River kayak and canoe excursions. The final group dropped into the River this past Sunday, an undoubtedly leisurely paddle between willows and sycamores, shopping carts and plastic bags. The 2012 installment hosted approximately 2,000 participants, an impressive increase from 2011, when the count for the pilot program was 260. The number of outfits operating on the River has also doubled and now includes Paddle the L.A. River (organized by L.A. Conservation Corps, MRCA, The River Project, FoLAR and Urban Semillas) and L.A. River Expeditions (organized by George Wolfe and the San Joaquin River Stewardship Program). I had the pleasure of paddling with both groups as a guest educator (thanks to Melanie Winter and George Wolfe for getting me out there!), a journey every Angeleno within reach of a buoyant non-motorized vessel should be able to experience at least once.

Los Angeles River at Griffith Park, Atwater Village, Fall (painting by Joan Wolfe ©2012)

Our perception of the place we call home, wherever home may be, is not easily altered. Routine breeds a familiarity that erodes our sense of wonder and attention to detail over time. Perhaps against our better judgement, human tendency lulls us into gradually accepting the condition of our surroundings, despite how inhospitable and uninspiring they may be. Although, there are still moments to be shared that offer a genuinely new perspective on a place you thought you knew. Having walked and biked along the the Glendale Narrows reach of the River on numerous occasions and, as a landscape architect, having worked on multiple projects on the banks of the River, I am no stranger to the verdant pockets that managed to dodge the concrete straight jacket. Prior to our wedding at the L.A. River Center, my wife and I took engagement photos on the River adjacent to North Atwater Park. Yet, there is something entirely different about floating on the water, looking out from instead of in at the River. It matters not that the water that flows through these remnant stretches comes from afar. The knowledge that the tertiary treated water you are paddling on began as snow in the Sierras and the Rockies, that you are essentially following the course of the Owens, the Sacramento, the Feather, the Colorado simultaneously as they collectively make their way through a foreign watershed somehow seems to migrate to the back of your mind as you lazily roll down the River. There is simply too much to see on a stretch of River that can only be experienced by boat.

Birds on the Los Angeles River at Glendale Narrows, Spring (painting by Joan Wolfe ©2012)

Sure, there are the obligatory L.A. River sights, the detritus that somehow always makes its way into the headlines in one way or another. Lately it seems to be almost romanticized. You’ll hear mention of castor bean and giant reed, fig and fountain grass, species not from our corner of the world, proverbial house guests that just won’t take a hint. But what you rarely hear about are the willows, dense thickets of days gone by, flanking you for long distances as you drift. They provide blessed insulation from the megalopolis beyond, the clogged lanes of the 101 that are but a few minutes away by foot. They provide a strange sense of enlightenment, a story told at length in the pliable branches that sway in the breeze, hypnotically whispering about meanders and seasonal wetlands and tales of sediment past. This is not the River it once was. It is a warm system that runs naked for much of its length now, the sun baking an exposed layer of water as it flows over reflective concrete. In the Sepulveda Basin, the River runs slow, less than ideal habitat for the anadromous steelhead that once made their way up the mighty L.A. to spawn. No matter; the infinite riffle that is the low flow channel will halt even the strongest fish before it comes anywhere close to downtown, let alone the Glendale Narrows or the Sepulveda Basin. There is an incredible amount of life on the River now, what must it have been like pre-channel? This is the gift a quiet trip in a kayak gives: the chance to contemplate, to sit alone with your thoughts for a while, to escape the economic gloom and the pundits and the Honey Boo Boos, to exercise your mind and then let it drift away into oblivion, all within a matter of minutes.

Los Angeles River: Waterfowl at North Atwater, Fall (painting by Joan Wolfe ©2012)

The significance of these trips is a bit difficult to overstate. The rapid expansion of the program is one of the most hopeful and heartening signs of a city re-imagined. The more folks get out on the River, kids in particular, the more the River will become part of the Los Angeles identity, something to cherish and maybe even respect. It is a gateway into the cultural and ecological history of a city known for its erasure of memory. From the EPA designation of navigability to the passage of SB 1201, the River’s got juice. Get your paddles ready and we’ll see you next season.

Big thanks to the L.A Conservation Corps, MRCA and George Wolfe for being such wonderful River shepherds. It’s L.A. River Celebration Month and tonight features the sold out premiere of Rock the Boat, a film documenting the instructive (and technically illegal) 2008 journey of a dozen Angelenos (led by George Wolfe) as they attempted to navigate all 51 miles of the River by boat.

Also, another thanks to George for sharing his mother’s artwork featured throughout this post. These paintings are printed on stationary and are available through L.A. River Expeditions (4 note cards + 4 postcards for $10). The originals are also available for purchase. Contact for more information.

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