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
On the cell, the water scientist continued unfazed about "duration of exposure." If you worked in a plating plant making car batteries day after day, you'd be exposed to toxins all the time, exceed your threshold, but this -- running the L.A. River -- is . . . I interrupted: So what's the danger of a one-time exposure? Damn if I'm going to die in the name of satire.
I cursed myself for letting Denis talk me out of bringing down my breathable Gore-Tex chest waders from Dan Bailey's in Livingston. (Denis thought if I fell in the L.A. in chest waders, I would drown.)
"Look," I said, unmoved by the science pep talk. "Let's just stay here at EATS drinking orange juice until Big 5 opens. Then I'll run over and buy a pair of cheap fishing waders. And we can continue."
"The front nine is tough, but we're almost at the back nine, already," said Rick.
"This is crazy!" said Melanie. "It really is."
"I get paid for being crazy," I said, "and I can't leave my work at home."
Miraculously, as we were all being stupid with hidden agendas, Denis returned holding a pair of brand-new lime-green Cabela's chest waders, which he said he had bought years before and forgotten about in his garage. They fit me perfectly.
It was time for a return to the river.
We prepared to launch at Elysian Valley, just upstream from the Fletcher Bridge, near Dodger Stadium. The main channel was natural bottom, littered nicely with rocks and small islands hairy with an aggressive, bamboolike exotic from Morocco, Arundo donax, imported to control erosion, and since run amok. Full-blown Arundo donax looks the way Johnny Rotten did on a bad hair day. But it looks good, too. At least, the ducks seemed to like it. Catfish and talapia dimpled the surface. Native sycamores and cottonwoods lined the tops of the channel above the long, angled and completely barren concrete walls.
In order to speed flow during the rainy season, the Army Corps of Engineers routinely bulldozed the Elysian stretch clean as a poodle's tooth, until the mid-'70s. Then environmental groups sued to stop them, citing the Clean Water Act, which states that a river may not be so callously maintained. The city's Department of Public Works and the Army Corps of Engineers (not to mention the bulldozer companies) howled that the Mighty L.A. was not a river at all, or no longer one, while conservationists argued that it certainly had been, once upon a time, and could well become one again.
Semantics were at the crux of the matter, as they so often are, and nature, in her own linguistic way, seemed to be on the side of the enviros. The return of vegetation, of birds, of ugly but living fish, so soon after bulldozing, was, to me, remarkable.
We were greeted at the launch by Lewis MacAdams, a poet, a writer for Rolling Stone (and this paper), and founder of Friends of the L.A. River.
"Our goal is to pull out more concrete," smiled MacAdams, who wore a black T-shirt with a white "NOTHING" emblazoned across the chest and blackout sunglasses with white bulging "froggie" frames, possibly in honor of our next takeout, Atwater, or -- as it's better known in some circles -- Frogtown. MacAdams, a hipster for any millennium, evinced an air of calm superiority and inevitable media victory.
"Under the concrete, the Los Angeles River is laughing," he said. "What you are doing by running the river is telling the steelhead it is all right to return," and, to the canoe, he added, "I dub thee Gray Runner. Give my regards to Long Beach!"
I jumped in the Gray Runner. No time to respond that it was a faded red.
We had beige water ahead.
"Careful," said Denis, at the first curve. "I need to set up a line to get through those rocks. When there's not much flow, it's real hard to read the rapids."
"Denis, the water's 12 inches deep."
"There's a pour-over . . ."
"That's a drip-over, man!"
Arguing thusly, we tested our paddling skills till the end of Taylor Yard, where river lovers want to create a 243-acre park and holding-pond complex that would slow the river, replenishing the water table below, something that sounded wholesome and obvious and full of recreational possibilities. On a rainy weekend, the channelized L.A. sometimes sweeps as much water into Long Beach Harbor as the whole city uses in a year. If the river were artfully slowed, banks terraced, trees planted in flood-fast wire root buckets called gabions, diversionary weirs laid down, L.A. would not have to buy so much of its water, competing with Las Vegas and ugh! San Diego. Taylor Yard is owned by Southern Pacific, which is willing to give it over, with appropriate compensation, I was told, but city officials, with a vision of jobs and votes and concrete, are more likely to make an industrial park instead.
We rounded a bend and there stood the Glendale Freeway, crossing the Santa Ana. It was a stunning architectural tableau, Frank Lloyd Wright meets the slime. Arching steel. Pounding concrete. Below, the river concentrated itself in a new center slot that looked fast and deep. We positioned the canoe. Soon we were rodding along at maybe 10 mph before paddling (the paddles had paddles now), but the groove was unexpectedly shallow, all of 18 inches. Though I was distressed, yet again, to have been talked out of my beautiful touring kayak, I contained my cheap-thrill-seeker's anger: For this was the place where Los Angeles began, a place of reverence. We paddled into the confluence with the Arroyo Seco, site of the original L.A. pueblo, now an unmarked graffiti hole.
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