River kayaking: L.A.'s best-kept secret?

River kayaking: L.A.'s best-kept secret?
Kayaking on the L.A. River. Storm drain source, Idaho feel. (Chris Erskine / Los Angeles Times)

I've always liked slow-moving rivers — mirrors to moonlight and literature, our first and best interstates, running over rocks, as Norman Maclean so deftly put it, "from the basement of time."

So what am I doing in the San Fernando Valley, a mile from the junction of the 405 and 101? Running a river, baby. Wall of trees to my left. Wall of trees to my right. Dozens of species of chattering birds. Minnows doing button-hooks beneath a ribbon of urban drool.


Honestly, if someone blindfolded and plopped you down here, without your having chugged the freeways, without your kicking up a stampede of dust when you parked along Woodley Avenue, you might think you're in Idaho.

Welcome to the Los Angeles River, America's least likely recreational area. And the hottest ticket in L.A.

Here's how the human mind half-works. As soon as something becomes difficult to get into — a club, a concert, a celebrity courtroom — more people than ever want to get in, based very much on the fact that they can't.

As such, these L.A. River kayak trips have become one of the most exclusive activities in town.

"Soon as they posted the tickets, they were gone," says Andy Villegas, a freelance animator who was later able to snag a ticket through Hidden Los Angeles, a site that organizes group outings.

"It was my first time kayaking," he says of the trip. "So easy. I'd definitely do it again."

That L.A. has a navigable river at all surprises many folks. All they see is the concrete culverts poured decades ago to prevent mass flooding. It looks more like the runoff of a Jiffy Lube than a great American river. For years, it was a river that only an empty beer can could love.

That's the surprise and the wonder of the L.A. River, for there are stretches — a mile here, seven miles there — where the bottom is soft and the shadows, the deep earth tones are a cinematographer's smeary dream.

Somehow, sourced as it is from storm drains and a treatment plant, the water sparkles over rocks. Herons and hawks work the shorelines.

And dozens of anxious Angelenos in kayaks explore a part of the city many didn't even know existed.

For a long time, this river really didn't. The comeback story is filled with drama and detail. To prove its worth, a renegade band of kayakers ran the entire 51 miles of the river, sometimes stopped by police. One of the organizers, aU.S. Army Corps of Engineers whistle blower, lost her job.

Then last year, a seven-week pilot program began. This year, it expanded to nine weeks and some 2,000 participants, in carefully spaced two-hour group trips (individuals are still not allowed).

The next step? George Wolfe of L.A. River Expeditions, one of two organizations running the trips, says he'd like to see the seven-mile Glendale Narrows open up.

The movement is part recreational, part environmental.


In a high school algebra class Wolfe assists with, he and his students calculated that the equivalent of 1,541 Rose Bowls of free fresh water flows out to the ocean each year. Proponents say that would be better spent replenishing aquifers and feeding trees and wildlife along the way.

Only a few militants see the river reverting to the pre-concrete days. Yet, there is enough interest and technological savvy to allow at least three stretches modified for recreational use.

Of course, water quality remains dicey. Dark-eyed and bayou-like, it is nothing close to the candy water of the Eastern Sierra.

"Had your tetanus shot?" friends asked when I told them I was going to run a river that features 12,000 storm drains.

"Got your hazmat suit?" asked an editor with a smirk (editors with smirks pretty much run this place).

Like I always say, friends are so overrated. Editors too.

So, I'm out on this unlikely kayak trip, quietly stirring this chestnut coffee. Kayaking here is different from the sea, where you work more furiously against waves and current. This is more like the soft strokes of a parent patting a tired child to sleep.

But is it worth the wait?

Overall, yes. Is it thrilling? No. Satisfying? Sure.

It's the surprise setting — this tunnel of trees in the parched valley — that makes the unmasking of the L.A. River so alluring.

Our own Little Muddy, once hemmed by history, on the verge of breaking free.