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
Blum, who has been with the DPW 35 years, believes the L.A. River will look different in coming decades. "Its upper edges will be softened, blended into open space and parkland. The social costs -- moving people from the banks -- and the economic costs will be great, in the billions of dollars, if we elect to remove lots of concrete . . . but if we can . . . still carry the same volume of storm water, and leave the concrete, it's feasible."
Natkin had told me he had his ownview, which was more Hollywood paranoid: "If there were parks and bike paths, lots of people would use this stretch, and they would then see what goes into this river. Secrets could not be kept. Nobody in power wants parks here." I knew he was wrong, but I'd accepted a second dose of amoxicillin that morning just in case. It began to seem like a good idea as we paddled into what the daily papers would soon declare to be a major pollution spill.
It occurred in the vicinity of Wardlow and Pacific. Suddenly, there were a dozen men in white Dr. Denton pollution suits, and long tanker trucks both up on top, on the river's rim, and below, beside us, on the apron. The spill, though it scared me in terms of carcinogens, turned out to be nothing but unrefined waste oil and water from a working oil field we could not see.
We must have been a funny sight ourselves, two bright sea kayaks plying the L.A. River in the midst of a Star Wars cleanup, and there was no way to paddle farther, since the Ocean Blue Environmental Services people had closed off the river.
Denis, on his own, towing his kayak, fell headlong into the soup. The supervisor offered to help carry my kayak -- Perception Aquaterras weigh about 77 pounds -- and together we hefted the thing around the cleanup area, to a put-in off some tall riprap rocks and waited for Denis. He looked like a drowned cat, but he was still game. No way out, now, anyway, save a Compton cab.
First descent and flying!
Around Artesia, the river widens, turns brackish. We saw our first pelicans. Producing oil wells pumped, river right, and then the sight of generic skyscrapers, â mirrored mosaic terra cotta marbled tops. It could have been Minneapolis or Seattle or St. Louis, but I knew it was Long Beach, and my paddle dug deep into the water.
The riprap on the left was almost like a breakwater. A white cat, skinny and feral, padded along, stopped and stared at us, then turned back to the three coots it was optimistically stalking. We were adventurers in plastic kayaks, stoked on endorphins. The sudden sea breeze mixed with the diesel fumes from the container trucks. Bubbles ooped up from the bottom, which was deeper than paddle length. Every so often a fish broke the surface, probably not a trout. I was ready for the Mumm's, at least the orange Gatorade. The pilings have barnacles on them now. I smiled at Denis. We'd been an odd couple for three days, had our little tiffs, but neither of us had drowned or dissolved, and we were almost there.
We stroked. The L.A. rolled on, straight as tube pasta. Then a broad curve to the left, and sweet-god-a-mighty, open ocean, blocked only by the Queen Mary. Three immense smokestacks, lipstick red, tipped with black, above an opalescent white superstructure sitting on a curvaceous dark hull. I raised my paddle over my head and rodeo-whooped. Denis was embarrassed.
But it was an achievement, I knew.
We'd taken a beaten, polluted, ugly, misunderstood and reviled ribbon of engineer's concrete, and treated her like the real river she once was. We'd brought the dead to life: made a historical first descent. Shown the steelhead the way home, as MacAdams said.
Under the concrete, the Los Angeles River is laughing.
I'm laughing, too. Now I'm back on a more traditional river, shall we say, the Yellowstone, gazing out the window of my office-cabin as I write this. It's snowing, high-altitude pellets, March hail, we call it up here. I hear honking. It's not traffic. It's geese, a cloud of 20 Canadians rising off the river and in midflight deciding which way to fly, upriver to Yellowstone Park, or across the winter stream to Farmer Gamble's field of tasty stubble barley. Up on a tall broken-top cottonwood above the river sits a bald eagle with hot dreams of a goose dinner.
I'm not saying the Mighty L.A. will soon be overflown with geese and bald eagles -- someone might eat them. But after my brief visit to the wilderness of Southern California, I am dumbstruck with the possibilities, with how far the L.A. has come and what could easily be. Imagine -- if you will -- The Mighty Trickle as a greenbelt of open space stretching down from the mountains to the shining sea, the river lined with willow and the same Western species of cottonwood that we have up here, also replanted, and sycamore, and bike paths, and rollerblade lanes, and the occasional skateboard jump, and maybe even diaper-changing tents for young families (or maybe not), but definitely streamside cafés and enhanced real estate values. With a minimum of argument and a bit of civic reordering, Los Angeles could enjoy its own riparian Central Park, a beautified river that might one day join rich to poor, and new to old, with good effect.
I know I've got my waders.
Steve Chapple is the author of numerous books, including most recently,Confessions of an Eco-Redneck: Or How I Learned to Gut-Shoot Trout and Save the Wilderness at the Same Time.
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