Taming the Wild Trickle
Photo by Debra DiPaoloDay 1 -- Assault
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.
Immediately, Denis and I were skimming along a trough, the channel so straight it was like riding a boxcar down a railway line. On the Yellowstone or the Zambezi, big rocks create the hydraulics. On the upper L.A., eddy lines and pour-overs are created by -- counting now -- a set of bent Volkswagen hubcaps, mounds of garbage incarcerated in green plastic bags, a shopping cart, a mop handle pinned inside a truck tire -- whoa! -- a veritable elephants' graveyard of abandoned Ralphs grocery transports. Is this where old shopping carts go to die? Suddenly we were bracing!
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 the Sepulveda 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."
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!"
"Let's pull the boat over, Steve."
"I am relaxed."
"Don't worry, the L.A. Weekly's battery of New York lawyers will spring us before we even have a chance to get gender-bent."
"If that kind of talk gets into print, it will set the L.A. River back 10 years!"
"Denis? I'm relaxed. Okay?"
And so on, as best I can remember it, since I put down my black minicassette-corder, not wanting it to be mistaken for a semiautomatic pistol from 100 yards up in the helicopter by an officer perhaps not as relaxed as I was. Since the water was only about 10 inches deep, though with lots of push, we climbed out of the boat, stood relatively still in the middle of the non-river river, and waited for a total of five officers to show up in squad cars, lights twirling, and interview us from over the lip of the flat-bottom vertical wall.
While all this had been coming down, the crack support team of Natkin and Winter had gotten its cell phone working, called 911 and been patched up to the helicopter pilot -- or the officer on the M-60 gun turret, I never learned for sure -- and everything was made copacetic, since, basically, everybody wants to be in a movie, and Natkin was holding a snaky-looking Canon-XL-1 digital camera (donated by my friend Jan Hartke at the U.S. Humane Society in Washington, D.C., the better to document environmental abuse or, as we might say in this case, "situations"). Also, the Swiftwater Rescue Squad had been wisely notified by Denis before we set out on our historic first descent. We had a permit, of sorts, the numbers of which Denis had splayed in black letters across a yellow placard lashed to the top of our smart-thing-to-have-onboard flotation safety bag so that anyone looking down from a police helicopter could read it: "E.I.D.C. PERMIT," EIDC standing for Entertainment Industry Development Corp. The only easy permit to acquire in a county of bureaucrats is the permit to film.
So we were completely legit. There would be no citation for Driving a Canoe Under the Influence of Laughter, or Operating a Flotation Device With Silly Paddles.
"Thank you, officers!"
They waved. We waved.
The Slot beckoned. In front of CBS Studios, it kicked in. Suddenly, the congenial flat-bottom box had a nasty groove â in the center only 4 feet wide, sunken, and 24 inches deep. All the force of the Mighty L.A. is channeled into this sluice. On the Zambezi, near the end of the Batoka Gorge, there is a similar funneling point, called Deep Throat, where supplies are lashed down as best they can be, and the rafts are "ghosted" or sent through un-manned.
We shoved the canoe into The Slot and piled in. It was like surfing a washing machine (albeit on delicate cycle). I was shouting and hollering and banging the narrow walls with the nail heads, but with a little technical whacking we managed to stay upright. Then came the first real white water of the journey (not counting Shopping Cart Rapids), an unavoidable bridge abutment in the center of the already narrow Slot.
Piece of cake!
We were plunging hard-on now toward Universal Studios -- you could almost feel the splash-over from the Jurassic Park ride -- coming up on DreamWorks, then Warner Bros., huge three-story painted images river-left of Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, Tweety and Batman. I wondered if Jeffrey Katzenberg of DreamWorks or Michael Klausman of CBS, both white-water enthusiasts, had ever attempted the swirl below their offices. But there was little time for social commentary; we were surfing -- big water! And then a miraculous occurrence, to my way of thinking: a hatch.
Thousands of tiny insects were rising off the water. Too small to be mayflies, too slow for caddis -- I should have packed a fly rod -- too late now. I captured several specimens between my teeth for identification. They were midges.
The exhilaration of The Slot did not last. Past the Smokehouse Restaurant it disappeared. The river had gathered force, but without the fast-track groove in the center, the water spread out across a widened channel -- half a football field across. We found we must get out and long-line the boat from the edges, the way river-runners on Himalayan rivers do when the run is too swift and the bank too high for portaging. Here, the problem was that the river was too shallow for floating.
Dusk began its descent. The best laid schemes o' mice and men gang aft a-gley, as they say on the Tweed. We were somewhere in the middle of Griffith Park. I imagined the lions locked in their cages at the zoo, and noted with dismay that Denis, our certified Swiftwater Rescue Guide, had no flashlight, no spare fleeces, no kayaker's strobe.
I had all these things, of course, and the arrogance that goes with being prepared. But Denis did happen to have an entire freezer Zip-Loc bag full of dark-chocolate Hershey squares, also a chilled Nalgene trail bottle filled with fresh-squeezed orange juice. We bonded.
The Hollywood Freeway strummed out of sight, over our right shoulders. We slogged a good two miles in our neoprenes. The sun set through the gloam. At first the night was a pleasant tangerine hue, then outhouse dark, but still no sight of the ground crew or the takeout point.
A mad shout from Winter and Natkin. We quickened our paces. Denis slipped on the shallow-water algae. A dozen burnished mallards, feeding silently like kings in the dark, rose off toward the Hollywood Freeway.
"Why didn't you answer my page?" Melanie demanded.
"The pager kept short-circuiting under my wet suit."
"You mean vibrating?"
"That's to tell you that you have a call!"
"Troglodytes!" moaned Mel.
The four of us humped the heavy canoe up the bank and dropped it beside a Cyclone fence. Threaded into the wire mesh were plastic flowers. Rick and I counted the bouquets: 20. Spray-painted on the cement below were the words: "Dead but not forgotin."
"Do you think someone drowned here?" asked Rick.
"Don't think so," sighed Melanie.
It would have been great to camp out in Griffith Park, but the gates were locked. Instead, we laid the campfire at the Taste of India, in Sherman Oaks. Zach, the entertainment lawyer, was invited, with his girlfriend, a theatrical producer's assistant, from Montreal, comely, I thought, in a French Canadian sort of way.
Said Zach, over chicken tikka: "So happens that I was rafting a river in Costa Rica this winter with an attorney from my office. My colleague falls overboard. We really are approaching a waterfall, about 8 feet high, doable, but not if you're not in the boat. Ha-ha. I reach out my hand. My colleague swims to grab it. I snatch it back. 'Ten billable hours,' I say. 'What are you, nuts?' Sound of waterfall getting real close. 'Okay!' he screams, 'Ten hours. Okay! Okay! Okay!' I smile: 'Ten was then, 15 is now.'"
We don't have lawyers like Zach, back on the Yellowstone. I wish we did.
Day 2 -- Mutiny
We were to begin the second day's float just off the ninth hole of the Los Feliz Municipal Golf Course at a public restaurant name of EATS, where the slogan above the grill is "Where the Food Is Mediocre." But it's terrific, see. Outside was a gorgeous day, pale autumn, crisp light, Caravaggio comes to mind. Time, a little after dawn. Natkin was on his third cup of coffee, and he doesn't drink coffee. I was not happy. Winter, FOLAR's director, fingered her cell phone. Denis, my guide, excused himself to go to the parking lot and check the tie-downs on the canoe.
This was the problem: Coming from a land of blue skies and clear streams, I am understandably a little paranoid about carcinogens, pollution and waterborne disease. And Rick had gotten some notions into his head.
He proposed, for instance, that we all wear condoms to guard against the danger of schistosomiasis. The parasite could easily swim up our dicks, he insisted. Denis had tried to tell Rick that schistosomiasis was a disease of slow-moving African waters. "You're probably right, Dee-nis," Rick had sneered. "Illegal cadmium dumping has probably killed most of the parasites in the Los Angeles River. But you never know."
What was cadmium, anyway? Something they used in the making of flashlight batteries that you wouldn't want splashed in your eyes? I had to question how helpful Rick's presence really was to the continuing success of the expedition. This morning he had persuaded me to take an amoxicillin capsule. Rick had a big bottle of the stuff in his possession. He had wanted to be a doctor back at Yale, but had decided medicine paid poorly compared â to the dream-works. A doctorfilm consultant told Rick that if you dosed yourself with penicillin before a date whose past you couldn't be sure of, then you'd be that much closer to Wellville come Sunday morning. Rick thought the same principle might apply on the L.A. River.
Bottom line: I wanted something more than neoprene between me and the river. Without waders, I was goin' nowhere till Big 5 opened, and this was a Sunday. I estimated a 10:30 put-in.
"So, let's go golfing!" suggested Natkin, and I believe he would have.
Melanie proposed -- teeth grinding -- that we call FOLAR's consulting scientist, Jacqueline Lambrichts, for reassurance. Lambrichts came on a little sleepy. It was 8 a.m. She went into a long rap about how all the water that flows into the L.A. River is treated, since that's the law, and how nobody can put bad things into a good river because they must go through the permitting process first, and how . . .
But I kept thinking about the evening news, which I had watched with interest only two days before at FOLAR headquarters. FBI agents were busting a municipal dump in Lancaster because it seemed officials were being paid off to allow illegal dumping. I told Lambrichts: Bad people don't go through the permitting process. It doesn't pay to. I want to know what's in the water, legal or not.
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.
But good graffiti. Giant post-psychedelic letters visible only to us boaters -- SLICES, BOOZM, "EROKI HAS DYE BUT LET ME TELL YOU SOMETHIN"; the truly evil blue head of a monkey 6 feet high and 6 feet across, a monkey with steel teeth (why spray-paint steel or chrome teeth on a monkey?), a raspberry beret, bad junkie eyes, giant human skulls done in cobalt blue and black and racing-trim silver, dancing.
This was spooky shit. I doubted the artists had heard of New York's Basquiat. Onward we paddled, under the bridges of Macy, Broadway, Fourth Street -- eerily out-of-place Beaux Arts creations designed by Merrill Butler, L.A.'s engineer of bridges and structures in the 1920s.
At Sixth Street, I thought I recognized the storm drain where the giant atomic-mutated ants hid away in the epic science-fiction film Them. Those ants snatched two children, and took them inside their streamside nest, to eat. The Army declared martial law, moved into the riverbed with jeeps and flamethrowers. I saw no ants today, small or mutated. There was nobody and nothing here, except a distant homeless person perched on a horizontal man-hole, across the stream, first human we'd seen for miles. The silence was beginning to get to me. It was as though, over the rim, the city of Los Angeles had been taken out by Rod Serling. This might be the center of recreational boating for the Year 3000.
Just after the first Firestone bridge, the birds began to appear. It was the most depressing part of the float. Hot glistening sweet-smelling chemical Alar-air. They were sea gulls, at first, some of them feasting on other, dead sea gulls lying upturned on the apron of concrete that flanks the center channel in a speckled mess of drying and liquid scat. Then came flocks of skimmers, or stilts, hundreds and hundreds of them, tall, orange legs, white breasts, beaky pointed sandpiper bills, rising off the shallow channel, banking as a flock. They seemed angry that we were invading their territory (though for all I know they give off with the same grating screams when they mate).
Atlantic Avenue. Downey. The surface shimmered. I covered a story here long ago, where chemical workers had been â sterilized by the pesticide DBCP. DBCP killed more than nematodes. I started a novel about it, got depressed and quit.
Maybe we should have stopped at Atlantic Avenue. Play it safe. That was Rick's advice. But I thought we could make Bell before nightfall.
It was getting dark. I saw figures on the concrete bank, up ahead, a pack of boys. They saw us and grinned, jumping like coyotes. From behind them ran a tall kid with a shaved head and black T-shirt. I could see now that he had a piece of timber in his hands, what looked like a 4-by-4. He could kill us with that thing.
"Hey, howzit going?" I shouted, all smarmy and scared shitless, as we paddled by.
They said nothing. We stroked as fast as I've ever paddled in my life. The kids seemed momentarily to be staying where they were, but in seconds they were loping like wolves after us. We were really pumping, however, and we outdistanced them. The bastard with the 4-by-4 couldn't keep up.
"I can't understand what they're shouting, Denis, can you?"
"'Fuck you,'" said Denis. "They're shouting, 'Fuck you.'"
Day 3 -- Triumph
Day 3 dawned as if nothing had happened. The vampires had gone to bed. Today, we were back in our original sea kayaks. Mine was yellow, Denis' green. It was more cheerful in kayaks. I was laughing already. The river was running fast, contained in a slip about 12 feet wide, and dropping. Strangely, the L.A. drops more in its three-score miles than the Mississippi does in 1,500.
At Long Beach Boulevard and beyond, cement trucks drowned out the skimmers with their warning beeps. This was the Los Angeles County Drainage Area (LACDA Project), currently working to raise the river's rim. Though the scale seems immense, it's the same as building up a garden wall, higher and higher. The DPW is worried that the lower river can no longer contain the floodwaters of winter.
"The San Fernando Valley was once mostly citrus," Carl Blum, deputy director for the L.A. County Department of Public Works, explained later, "and now it is almost all homes, with streets. There is much less area for water to settle. Critics forget that in two floods in 1934 and 1938, more than 150 people were drowned. That's what drove engineers -- and I have a lot of respect for this and the last generation of engineers -- who built the river. People sit here now and say the engineers should have done it differently, but these people have been protected from flooding all these years."
But to river environmentalists, the LACDA Project is a self-fulfilling prophecy. "This is like pouring good concrete after bad," says Winter. "If we had not paved over paradise, if we thought of the L.A. basin as a catchment system, the ground could take the rains. Instead, the DPW has spent a good part of the last decade propagandizing the midcities, the industrial cities, the poor cities, that a higher wall of concrete will protect them. We suggested the whole range of macro-solutions . . . but we were branded as a pro-flood lobby from the Westside."
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 own view, 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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