It was a blood-red dawn over Canoga Park High School when we launched, with few hippos and not a crocodile in sight. We were about to attempt a source-to-mouth run down the L.A. River, probably the most maligned, ugly, channelized piece of moist concrete in the United States. Earlier explorers had attempted pieces of the mighty river, most famously Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2 and Willem L. Petersen in To Live and Die in L.A., but they had not gone the distance. We would.
There would be rapids, of course, but the rapids did not scare me. I had brought along my rollerblades. 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.
Denis Schure, my local guide and a white-water expert for the Sierra Club and Friends of the Los Angeles River (FOLAR), threw the 16-foot Perception Chinook touring kayak against the top of the chainlink fence beside the Canoga Avenue Bridge, and I climbed over, using the padlock above the "No Trespassing" sign as a foothold. I had to smile.
I live in Montana most of the time. My land backs up to the Yellowstone, the last free-flowing river in the Lower 48, and I journeyed its length for my book Kayaking the Full Moon. I spent portions of the last three years paddling the Zambezi for another book. So far, the L.A. did not quite remind me of either. At this point (as at many points), the Los Angeles River looks like a long and somewhat slimy swimming pool, empty and without end. After the Zambezi, I needed a challenge. Of course, my mind was still open.
We laid the big green kayak down against the concrete point where the trickle of Bell Creek joins the greasy meander of the Calabasas, virtually under the high school -- the official start point for the Los Angeles River. This curved slip of cement resembles nothing so much as the famous prow of the Titanic. Tape rolled and cameras clicked. But it was just a photo opportunity. When I tried to paddle forward in the strangely cold water, the boat scraped bottom. The commotion set some crows to cawing, and a mallard couple rose off the algae and flew between a set of royal palms. It was painfully obvious. Our historic journey would have to begin with a portage.
I should not have worried. By midmorning we would be paddling through egrets, cruising above hardy talapia (fish). By early afternoon, the police helicopters would find us, at the Laurel Canyon tributary ("Fellows, if you wouldn't mind stepping out of the boat . . ."). Tomorrow, in the chemical slide between Bell and Bell Gardens, we would be menaced by 14-year-olds with shaved heads and inexpertly applied tattoos. Day 3 would find us in the midst of a headline-making pollution spill. Roll on, Mighty River, roll on! I didn't know if our streamside bard should be Woody Guthrie or Snoop Doggy Dog. Then would come that glorious sight -- the Queen Mary, flags flying, at our final takeout, Long Beach Harbor.
Clark and Lewis had done the Yellowstone, the Missouri and the Columbia; Kane and Chmielinski the Amazon; but we would conquer the Mighty L.A., symbol not of wilderness, but of its absence, of its extirpation, of all that had gone wrong with Western civilization (unless you count Henry Hyde and Madonna). I felt humbled as we strapped the boats to the roof racks and drove -- this is L.A., people don't walk when they portage -- to Reseda Park, where our journey would begin in earnest.
There were many animals along the bank at Reseda. I identified them immediately as dogs: Afghans, Labradors, the occasional standard poodle peeing on a succulent. Here, we switched to an extremely funky red canoe. Schure, the guide, had insisted kayaks would be damaged in the rock gardens ahead. The floor of this canoe looked as if it had dueling scars. The cracks had been repaired with gobs of clear resin.
There was enough push by now, what with the runoff from Brown's Canyon and Aliso Creek, to go boating, especially since the gathering trickle was confined to a channel no wider than Dennis Rodman is tall. The support crew waved: Melanie Winter, FOLAR's executive director and a former fund-raiser for National Public Radio, who would be in charge of cell-phone communications, and my old friend Rick Natkin, a screenwriter whose Studio City house I was staying in.