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
Denis laughed, but he said, "If you've never been in a kayak, I don't think I can allow you on the water." To Denis, the subject was closed, but Rick was already putting on his life preserver.
"God! I love the smell of used condoms in the morning!" shouted Rick.
I had to laugh. When you're a long way from home with a guide you don't know and a friend you know all too well, probably it's best simply to let go, go with the prose, and hope it's witty.
(Also, Schure claimed he had thoroughly scouted the river, and Rick was letting me stay at his house for free remember, even if, as I learned, the swimming pool was not heated.)
"I've made some bad movies, too, Denis," said Rick, as if this had anything to do with paddling, "but the Guild will not allow you to take your name off any film for which you are paid more than $400,000."
We pushed on, Natkin wobbling in the cockpit of his kayak, never once dunking, while Schure and I bushwhacked in Schure's funky canoe.
"Look out river right!" Schure would shout.
"What for, floating orange golf balls?" Natkin would sneer, and then, "Let's count the birds, Dee-nis [Rick had discovered there was only one n in Denis' name, and was now cruelly intent on pronouncing it phonetically]: Look, a heron, an egret, a 737, a P-38!"
We all raised our gaze. Above the Audubon herons and the roosting egrets, below the Boeing 737 on approach pattern, was a hornet of a model airplane, wingspread maybe 4 feet.
We had come parallel to the Van Nuys Model Airplane Field.
Onward we paddled. Schure said that during the flood tide of 1994, he had been driving to work -- Schure is a 34-year veteran of the L.A. City Planning Department -- when he noticed cars floating below the Balboa Boulevard bridge. He had launched his canoe -- being a member of, or having a relationship with, the Swiftwater Rescue Squad -- but all the commuters had been rescued. Denis told me he had been amazed to paddle below blinking stoplights.
At Burbank Boulevard, we swirled our craft to shore, pleasure boating not being allowed through the Sepulveda Dam. Melanie and Rick drove ahead to scout the Studio City slot, while Denis and I portaged to Kester at the end of an open storm conduit.
Now Denis insisted I get down on my knees in the front of the canoe and strap my legs into an outlandish white-water getup.
"Denis, the water's only a foot deep here," I said. "If the canoe flips, I'll conk my head on the concrete bottom."
Denis was still operating on his fantasies of the L.A. River as untamed Apurímac. Still, there was a tantalizing drop. The river was now boxed by vertical walls 20 feet high. No way out. At last, the smell of danger.
Denis held the stern in the swift water, as the bow shifted. We were off, racing the fading sun for Universal City and what promised to be the wildest technical challenge of the river: The Slot (or what Denis persists in calling "a low-water flood-control channel").
The Mighty L.A. started to pump -- finally. This was one goofy roller coaster. There was an egret, another one, but soon the crows and pigeons took over. No time to gawk, lest we breach sideways against the wall. We saved ourselves with the timely whacking of our paddle-less paddles. Clackety-clackety-WHACK! The rush of sibilant water. I hadn't had this much fun since a boatman took me out below Tete Bridge in Mozambique, and told me he could only run at full throttle or else the holes in the bottom would sink the boat.
We spotted a marooned lawn chair, a floating light bulb. We passed the light bulb. Hanging vines in the Mayan manner. Then came a cascading sewer outfall -- a waterfall by any other name. It was not as tall as Angel Falls, in Venezuela, though ethereal in its own way. We swerved to avoid the indeterminate nature of its milky fluids.
Denis had insisted on our wearing neoprene to cushion against the bad rocks of the Sepulveda Basin run, since any cut there would necessitate an immediate Betadine stop. Unfortunately, wet suits work by letting in a little water, then helping your body to warm it. Though swaddled in neoprene, we were still being penetrated.
My cheery thoughts were interrupted.
"Steve, look, a police helicopter."
I stared up into the sky, whacked the paddle-pole against an onwardly rushing cement block for stability and wondered what sort of high-tax-dollar interdiction the helicopter was involved in -- drug bust? Maserati â DUI? They can't be concerned about littering a streambed. Then the huge helicopter banked and swooped low on us -- you could hear the rhythmical whap-whap of the rotors plainly -- and Denis shouted, "Relax!"
"Just relax! They want an excuse not to arrest us!"
We were at Radford Avenue, Cement Block 7.601, exactly. (The river's walls are numbered.) The American Eurocopter hovered.
Over the helicopter's speakers came a voice, a not-unfriendly voice: "DO ME A FAVOR, GUYS. STAY RIGHT THERE AND LET THE POLICE OFFICERS CHECK YOU OUT!"
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