By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Normally, one braces by sticking the head of the paddle at right angles into the current, to steady the boat, but our paddles have no heads. Schure had cut them off, and pounded 12 to 14 steel-headed nails into the ends of the wood. We weren't bracing. We were whacking the cement bottom with ninepenny poles. The L.A. is such a special river, it demands its own paraphernalia.
Nature is amazing, however. The upturned cart "rocks" collect organic debris, grasses, algae layered upon plastic bags, garden dirt spotted colorfully with candy wrappers and pieces of captured Styrofoam cups. Weeds and weedy flowers sprout through the cells of wire mesh.
"We're going to get wet!" yelled Schure.
This proved mere hysteria.
This was not, after all, the Carnage Maker, a stretch of the Zambezi below Victoria Falls where sporting folk strip off all their clothes and surf 16-foot Avon Expedition rafts backward in the standing waves until they are actually catapulted toward the basaltic rim by the insane flip of the water. The water was, like, 18 inches deep, and I doubted there were any tigerfish or Zambezi Delta sharks swirling in the muck.
"Let's run it," I said.
The sluice that so concerned Denis served as the riprap gate to theSepulveda Basin stretch. After the sterile trough so far, this was like entering the gates of Eden. Suddenly the cement ended; the bottom became dirt. Trees, not concrete embankment, flanked the river, and birds appeared -- marvelous, unexpected birds: snow-white cattle egrets, thick-bodied night herons, great blue herons, even kingfishers, those pushy, jaunty, white-collared minnow catchers with the short, gravelly call and so cheerful as to banish urban depression.
I wondered what all this bird life found to dine on, but maybe that was what the floating Del Taco boxes were all about.
The sudden splurge of water that feeds this stretch of river -- as much as 100 million gallons a day -- comes mostly from the nearby Donald C. Tillman sewage-reclamation facility. Denis explained that the reclaimed sewage (which he and the FOLAR people told me is of "near-drinking-water quality") is high in nitrates and, therefore, nutrients, which allows the algae to bloom, and algae is the staff of life, or certainly smells as if it is. We paddled through cattails and ersatz marshland and urban flood detritus festooning the willows: bicycle tires, blue and red plastic balls from McDonald's toddler-gyms, strips of what I hoped wasn't toilet paper, the occasional large squirrel.
I was cheered.
Sepulveda Basin was a taste, if that's the word, of past greatness and future possibilities. Until 1938, when the channelization of the 52-mile Los Angeles River was begun, steelhead disported themselves, as remnant populations still do today in Malibu Creek. The irony (not a word to be used lightly in this diary) is that the designers at the Department of Public Works over the decades built their concrete coffin on top of the old bed of the original Rio Los Angeles. We were descending a ghost river, then, and the thought made me giddy. Or perhaps it was just time for lunch.
We beached the canoe and waited. I hoped we wouldn't be knocked dead by the golf balls. Balboa, Encino and Woodley golf courses occupy corners of what in any other city would be a treasured urban park with a human name like Golden Gate, Fenway or Sacajawea, not a porcelain phrase from the Kohler people like Sepulveda Flood Control Basin. Los Angeles is a place where engineers have held sway over poets, and for far too long. There may be other problems with Southern California today, but that's probably the main one.
We called for the support crew, but couldn't make the cell phone work. After 20 minutes, I pulled my way through sycamores and surprised egrets to the â picnic area. Natkin, a master of logistics, arrived momentarily in the expedition's Hertz Jeep Cherokee. We tried to call the others on the cell again, but the thing still wouldn't work.
"Let's call my lawyer," said Natkin.
Sweating in neoprene under a Fatty Arbuckle sun, I dialed Rick's lawyer. We got him. "You're running that polluted piece of sh -- " began Rick's attorney, and then the phone went dead. I found it odd that our cell phone worked only to call lawyers, and entertainment lawyers at that, but this was L.A., unfamiliar terrain, at least to me. Then Natkin insisted on coming along. Schure immediately questioned his white-water experience.
"I've never been in a kayak in my life, but it sure looks easy!" Rick replied.
Do you recall how the last U.S. president from Southern California thought he was a veteran of World War II, because he had the lead in This Is the Army and also Hellcats of the Navy? Rick's the same way. He thinks he went to Vietnam because he wrote The Boys in Company C. When Denis, who is about 2 feet shorter and 80 pounds lighter than Rick, but who, I think, really did serve in Nam, asked Rick if he was a veteran, Rick replied, "I am a Vietnam War movie veteran, Denis."
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