Among the sounds the musicians of the Canadian band Twin heard while canoeing the Los Angeles River were chirping birds, lapping waves, rustling trees and the screeching of a police department helicopter siren. Musically speaking, the LAPD's Loud Hailer airborne siren leaves something to be desired. As it was blaring, scaring the bejesus out of everyone in earshot, you had to wonder: What's a nice folk band like Twin doing on a river like this?
The band had what seemed like a good plan: Come to Los Angeles. Buy canoes. Use them as a tour van. Paddle from gig to gig with their instruments onboard.
It's not like these guys were river newbies. They had recently canoed 248 miles of Western Canada's Assiniboine over the course of 10 days. On that trip, fans joined them in other canoes, singing and fiddling and paddling along, forming a sort of musical armada. They slept at farms. They ate corn straight from the field. A golden experience.
The band assumed L.A. would be another great water trip. All 52 miles of the L.A. River had just last summer been declared navigable by the Environmental Protection Agency. In the spots where it narrows, the band members planned to hop into the water, pick up and carry — or “portage” — the canoes. They scouted the terrain for weeks beforehand.
At night they hid the canoes at a sweet launching-off spot in San Fernando Valley's Sepulveda Park. By dawn, they were in the water, six people in two canoes: lead singer David Fort, his girlfriend, violinist Lesley Brown, and videographer Danny Louangxay in one canoe. Vocalist Ally Leenhouts, keyboardist Eva Klasser and guitarist David Enns in the other.
The voyage did not go as they'd imagined.
Probably because the L.A. River is not the river they had imagined. For one, it's not all concrete. It starts out that way, but there are green parts with fish flopping around. They are sturdy, ugly fish built for survival.
Nature and civilization are constantly at war with each other on the L.A. River. In Van Nuys, for instance, the musicians saw an entire tree sprouting through a crack in the concrete. They saw garbage — used condoms, Styrofoam cups and plastic, plastic, plastic. But intermingling with the garbage were hummingbirds, ducks, owls, cranes, coyotes and “really intense spiders.”
In some places, civilization had sprung up. The musicians floated by small tent cities of people who drink and bathe in and fish the waters.
They steered past old grates and shopping carts as if they were boulders, some rusting, some bright and gleaming, freshly shoved into the water. They passed a Dumpster sunk halfway in, still full with stuff. They passed computers people had tossed in. It was bizarre.
Fort and the band usually sing while in the canoe. But they were quiet this time, alternately taking in the surreal scenery and worrying about unexpected elevation drops. (In Long Beach, where the concrete gives way to a soft, mucky bottom, the river burbles along at 7 feet deep, with the potential to reach 16 feet, if you believe the number painted on the retaining walls. Over by the dam, it can get as high as 50.)
They paddled for six hours, letting the current take them. Then the brief but horrible antimusical interlude with the LAPD helicopter.
Fort was pensive the next day. “I feel its history. I feel its strength,” he said of the river. Also, he felt ill. The previous day was worse. He felt headachy, nauseated and fluish. At times, they were chest-deep in the river. He might have swallowed some of it.
“There's funny stuff going into that water,” he said, rubbing his stomach. Drainages pipe in from the city at various points. The concrete bed is designed to fast-track water out of the city into the ocean. A real, soft-bottom river would naturally filter the water slowly with vegetation and soil.
The L.A. River looked, tasted, sounded and even smelled funny. It smelled, improbably, like … laundry detergent. “Like fake nature,” Brown concluded.
It changes temperature, too. Sometimes, it's warm. “Why is it warm? We started early. The water should have been cold,” she said.
“It's a strange river,” said Enns.
Brown nodded. “We kept saying that yesterday. 'This is so weird.'”
“It's a really sick system,” Fort said. “The mentality is, we'll fence it off and leave it alone. People say you can't tear the cement down. It would flood the city. True. But you can incrementally retract it. Good soil can hold back floodwater. You can do flood control cleanly.”
He picked up his guitar and began to strum. “I don't want to paint this completely black, postapocalyptic picture. It's just polluted and weird right now.”
He and the rest of the band were standing on a concrete embankment in Elysian Valley, where the river runs through the Glendale Narrows. The sky was fixing to rain, and the wind was picking up. Every now and then, bits of trash drifted by in the water.
There are dangers, he added. Beautiful dangers.
Drowning wasn't too much of an issue until law enforcement showed up. By noon, the canoe had reached a wide area near the Hilton Hotel in Studio City. The musicians saw people walking dogs, scratching their chins, waving. They did not see the person who called the cops.
“It was a bit of a to-do,” said Brown, recalling the scene. And what a scene. Eight cops, two helicopters, two news crews, two canoes and six seriously freaked-out hypno-alt-folk musicians from Winnipeg.
“We started panicking,” Fort said of the Loud Hailer. “It's a shrill whistle. It's a sound that makes you feel like you're going to get shot if you don't obey. It's hard to identify where it's coming from because it's all around you.” They weren't in danger of capsizing until that very moment.
“Who are you? What are you doing?” the cops demanded.
We're Canadian, said the musicians.
Oh, said the cops, so this is all just a cultural misunderstanding.
It's hard to get straight answers about the river. It's hard to know if it even is a river. Is it a river or a flood-control system? Unsure of what to write in their report, the police and firefighters talked among themselves for a while. They decided on a citation for “loitering in a riverbed,” a misdemeanor violation of Los Angeles Municipal Code 41.22.
Fort rooted around in his pocket and pulled out the crumpled, day-old ticket. The grassroots movement wants the river to be a river again. The old guard wants to keep it as is — a network of canals.
“Under international law, to be on a river, it's not illegal,” vocalist Leenhouts offered.
Fort shrugged. “Is it illegal? We don't know. I don't think the city knows. It's unclear where jurisdiction lies.” The upward lilt of his voice made every other sentence sound like a question.
If anyone gave them clear answers, it was the fire department. Firefighters explained that rain can cause large swells of water to rush in quickly from behind and swamp the canoe. “They have a good understanding of the river,” Fort said. “They interact with it more than anyone else. Besides the homeless people.”
In the end, the firefighters helped the band lug their canoes back. “They were great. They were wicked,” Brown said. “I don't know if they were supposed to do that, though.”
The rules, like the river water, are murky.