The once-polluted and often ridiculed Los Angeles River is now open to kayak and canoe adventures. City officials and the Army Corps of Engineers are running a pilot program that allows people to explore the river.
In the South American rain forest, I once paddled in a dugout canoe through the lush Amazon River, filled with pink dolphins and flesh-eating piranhas. So the thought of navigating down the Los Angeles River at first seemed almost ridiculous.
Most of the 51 miles is a trickle of water in a concrete ditch, a sewer leading to the Pacific Ocean, a Hollywood setting for drag races and car chases.
But the other morning, I found myself in a two-person canoe on a stretch of the river from Van Nuys to Burbank. I had to hold my recording equipment and camera, so L.A. City Councilman Ed Reyes did all the paddling.
"Just pretend we're in Venice," he joked, as a guide began singing, "When the moon hits your eye, like a big pizza pie..."
This part of the L.A. River can get waist deep. There's dirt on the bottom, and willow trees and sycamores bursting through the concrete along the banks. Officials want more of the L.A. River to become like this: a wildlife habitat.
Reyes has invited fifth-graders from a L.A.'s Leo Politi Elementary School to explore with us.
"You guys ever been on the river before?" he asks the 10-year-olds.
"No," they shout in unison.
"The reason you're so special," he tells them, "is you're the first group of students that will be able to say, 'I was on the river and did not get arrested.' It's legal to do this."
A Fast-Flowing River
Three years ago, environmentalist and writer George Wolfe paddled the river in a suit and tie.
"This was to draw attention to how crazy commuting is in L.A.," Wolfe explains from the bank of the Ballona Creek, which was once part of the L.A. River. "So here was this guy who got so fed up he leaves his car on the freeway and he gets in a kayak and goes from his home in Valley to Long Beach."
As head of a satirical website called the LaLa Times, Wolfe featured the prank on a YouTube video. Later, he helped lead a "Lewis and Clark"-type expedition through the entire 51 miles of the L.A. River "to demonstrate that it was navigable so that it could then be protected under the Clean Water Act, which was in jeopardy at the time."
Wolfe, who now leads L.A. River Expeditions, says his research helped spur the Environmental Protection Agency to federally protect the L.A. River. He credits the Army Corps of Engineers with green-lighting the kayak pilot program.
Engineer John Sweeten says it's a change in perspective for the corps.
"Decades ago, we tried to keep everybody out of the river, cause it's very dangerous," he explains from his office downtown. "This river's designed to flow way faster than anything you've ever really experienced in nature."
The Army Corps built the channel from the 1930s to the 1960s in order to control flooding. So now, when it rains hard, just six inches of water in this river can move so fast, it can knock over a 300-pound person.
Signs Of The City
Back on the water, Councilman Reyes recounts to the children how he and his brother used to explore the L.A. River back in the 1960s.
"We used to get rubber tires and pieces of wood and we'd just float," he says.
One of the kids asks Reyes: "What did you use to paddle?"
"Our arms," laughs Reyes. "The water's a lot cleaner today than it was then."
Reyes says maybe they shouldn't have gone into the water after all.
Even though environmentalists regularly clean up this part of the river, there are still signs we're in the city. On the river banks, used plastic bags hang from the branches, which have graffiti tags carved into them. Spray paint cans, Styrofoam cups and water bottles bob on the water. Rusty shopping carts submerge from the murky riverbanks.
"It's all part of the urban slobber," Reyes says. "It sounds disgusting, but it makes people think."
During our two-hour trip, guides from the California Conservation Corps helped us down the rockier parts, what they called "rapids."
In the shallow stretches, we got out and walked. There was one more natural section without concrete they dubbed "The Grand Canyon."
We saw a foot-long carp, a cover of coots and a siege of herons.
By the end of the trip, when I finally started rowing, the children had counted 32 discarded shopping carts. And one kid, Arvin Gonzalez, was fearless enough to jump in the shallow river.
He says the water was cold but also warm, and I ask if he think it's clean.
"I'll swim in it," he says as he smiles.
What will he tell his friends about the L.A. River?
"It was really fun," he says, adding that he'll tell people to not pollute in the streets. "If it rains, the trash goes in the drain pipe; the trash ends up in the river, then the river will take the trash to the ocean."
These kids from L.A.'s Pico Union neighborhood rarely get to spend time in nature. It may not be the Amazon, but they say this was the best field trip ever.