From Basin Camp, the Final Assault

Times Staff Writer

When the thunder sounds like fury And the rain begins to fall I dream the mighty crashin' Is the L.A. River's call. The sound I hear is not a dream, It's a motorcycle roarin' upstream. Ooze on, L.A. River, ooze on.

--From the song "L.A. River," author still anonymous

The dirt-bikers were tearing up the pea patch, gouging great gobs of smirch from the bed of Dayton Creek.

Dayton Creek is the stream that feeds Chatsworth Creek. Chatsworth suckles Bell Creek. Bell, reputedly, is the mother of the L.A. River. Or is it the Arroyo Calabasas?

Whatever, the Explorer was making a last-ditch attempt to run to earth the source of the river.

From Valley Circle Boulevard in Lakeside Park, west to the L.A. County line, Dayton Creek had not seemed worthy of canonization. What may once have been a warbling trout stream, even a salmon run, was now littered by rusting motorcycle parts. Even the birds had fled in panic at the howl of the Harley. For Dayton Creek, the trill was gone.

Duty-bound, the Explorer, eschewing a dirt road 50 yards to the south, continued to schlep up the dank depression, bashing through the underbrush that soon began to clog the unmade creek bed. It was a decision he would live--barely--to regret.

About 100 yards into Ventura County, a small dog hurtled out of the woods as if shot from a cannon, and made straight for the soft underbelly of the Explorer. Within seconds, Attila the Hungry was joined by three clones. Each dog was about two feet tall, with maroon hair worn punk-style and a set of teeth rarely seen this side of Transylvania.

To fight was foolish; to run ridiculous; to scream demeaning. To climb divine.

Fortuitous Fall

The Good Lord in his infinite mercy had caused a tree to fall across the creek at a jaunty 55-degree angle. The Explorer accepted the invitation with alacrity.

So, rather astoundingly, did Attila, who followed the Explorer up the leaning trunk a good 10 feet before it occurred to him that nature had not intended dogs to be tree-dwellers. Falling from grace with an unholy howl, Attila joined Manny, Moe and Jack in snarling vigil directly under the Explorer's perch.

Some months later, the dogs disappeared, summoned by a whistle far off in the wood.

The Explorer dismounted, found the dirt road and retreated to his car. Then back up the dirt road, on the theory that termites were no match for a tank.

Wrong again. Did you ever see a pack of dogs try to eat a Toyota?

With the detachment of the truly terrified, the Explorer decided on the spot that Dayton Creek was not the source of the Los Angeles River.

Not for the first time, the Explorer was tempted to abandon his quest.

Once again, though, sinking spirits were buoyed by the calls and letters, a cornucopia of enlightened eccentricity that had sustained him throughout his muzzy waltz up the watercourse. Words of wit and wisdom from the man who owns the river; the man who found Jesus there; the man who wants to sail up the river; the men who did. From the nostalgic; the historians. . . .

--Joe Campbell, a die-hard Chief Bender fan from Glendale, provided a peek at a 1926 Gillespie Guide. The map book showed the river passing through such exotic communities as Davidson City (now Carson), Hynes (Paramount), Home Gardens (South Gate) and Bandini (Commerce), and fetching up at Van Nuys.

--"Fifty years ago," Gene Lippert of Hacienda Heights wrote, "I could have shown you some real action: gunfights at the RR bridge north of Rosecrans; skinny-dipping girls; cows staggering drunk at Imperial--they ate the mash dumped into the river from the moonshine still in Downey. . . ."

--There was mild regret from attorney Raymond C. Fisher of Tuttle & Taylor: "I only wish you'd told us what that fellow (in Sherman Oaks) was seeing through his binoculars." (Would you believe Halley's comet?)

--A rare sour note, along with a conciliatory bumper sticker, from Lewis MacAdams of Culver City: "I have a problem with your gently mocking tone. . . . The Friends of the Los Angeles River is a very recently formed organization whose goal is to bring the river back to life. . . . It doesn't have to be treated like a sewer. . . ." (Needless to say, the Toyota now heralds the "Friends of the Los Angeles River," a logo that has drawn skeptical stares and an out-and-out contretemps with a passing driver, who rolled down his window to suggest a subtitle: "Sons of the Ditch.")

--Gerald Rusk of Oceanside remembered camping by the river with Troop 2 in North Long Beach--in 1915!--while Mary Hart of Los Angeles recalled "the river bed turning black with polliwogs. It was fun to come home with a mass of frogs' eggs and watch them grow feet and become frogs (or toads; I never was sure which)."

--And then there was Gerald (Red) Meade, who dropped by one day to rap about the river and casually mentioned that he owned a chunk of it. . . .

. . . Nobody owns the Arroyo Calabasas now. Miguel Leonis did, but he died.

Had the Explorer chanced upon the creek--another likely source--in Miguel's day, he would have had a lot more to contend with than a posse of poodles. Leonis, a Basque smuggler on the lam who became "King of Calabasas" in the 1880s, did not take kindly to trespassers.

A mercenary army of Indians and Mexicans kept the area free of riffraff, for a while, anyway. When Miguel died--crushed under his wagon on Cahuenga Pass after taking lunch in Beverly Hills--there went the neighborhood.

Golfers now freely roam the streets of Calabasas. Tennis players. Crepe-eaters in Bermuda shorts. Miguel's pad still stands, though, lovingly restored by the Leonis Adobe Society, which also maintains the tiny stretch of the arroyo that slaked the king's thirst.

Incongruously spilling out of a pipe just north of Calabasas Road, the clear, cold brook bobs and weaves among impassive rocks, exchanges confidences with an overhanging willow branch, feints at a stray squirrel, chats up the birds, gives a last look over its shoulder and exits under the Ventura Freeway with an audible sigh.

An irresistible little reach, and a classic candidate for sourcedom, if only one could follow the pipeline across the road and up into the Santa Monica Mountains dividing Calabasas and Topanga.

South of the street, no creek. Only another depression--a recession, really--suggesting what might have been had Miguel Leonis hung in there.

--Red Meade is not giving up his piece of the Porciuncula--at least not until the price is right. Meade still owns 4.16 acres of the river, "bottom and sides," at the end of Glover Place in the neighborhood known as Frogtown. He has the deed to prove it, too, and the property-tax bill: $49.82 annually.

It's part of a 60-parcel land purchase Meade made about 20 years ago. "They asked me, 'Do you want the river too?' I told 'em, 'Sure, throw it in.'

"(Ex-Supervisor) Baxter Ward wanted to put pylons on it. (Los Angeles City Councilman Marvin) Braude wanted a bike path. Hey, let 'em buy it. I'm a tough old Irishman. I'm not giving anything away."

--Suggestions poured in, too; invitations; hints. Vernon's William Davis, Good Humor Man turned amateur geologist, suggested an underground tour of La Cienega Boulevard: "It's a vast tunnel. You could run four subways and Curtis Sliwa from Melrose to Ballona Creek." S. Shankman of Los Angeles had another suggestion: "When you get to the end of the river, why don't you just keep going?"

--Tom (Lewis) Lambert and Bob (Clark) Denny of Hermosa Beach forwarded an impertinent claim. They had been the first to trace the river from mouth to source, way back in '84, and they had the photos to prove it. There are Lewis and Clark, paddling a rubber raft past the Queen Mary; bartering beads for gasoline at an L.A. service station (singularly unrewarding); portaging their raft over the forbidding San Fernando Valley hills; triumphantly planting the Stars and Stripes on Canoga Park. . . . Semi-trepid, the pair had finally been done in by a guard gate in Bell Canyon. Close, guys, but no cigar.

--A similar claim was staked by John Lajeunesse of La Crescenta, who wrote, "I've been to the source, and it's beautiful." It is, too, if Lajeunesse's photos are to be believed--sylvan pool, waterfall, nimble naiads in skin-tight shorts. Site: Angeles National Forest, on the theory that the Tujunga Wash is the "longest tributary of the L.A. River." By the same premise, the Missouri, is the source of the Mississippi. The theory doesn't hold water, but the photos are gorgeous.

--A third pretender, documentary film-maker David Vassar, was seduced by the same Siren. Vassar's "source" is a ledge of melting ice 12 miles above Big Tujunga Dam "in the shadow of Mount Pacifico, 7,144 feet above sea level."

The fruit of Vassar's labor--"River in Disguise," airing at 7:30 Friday on KABC-TV, Channel 7--is ingenious, inaccurate and enchanting. When the director yelled "Cut!" he wasn't kidding, a Vassarectomy that transforms a grungy gulley into the Danube on the first day of spring. Don't miss it!

For a day, the Explorer dithered, then decided to make at least a perfunctory pass at Tujunga, the temptress with the power to cloud men's minds. He should have stood in bed.

Enthusiasm waned even before arrival at Hansen Dam, a sort of final powder room for the mossbacked wash. Primary waterway of Arleta, just west of the dam, was the imaginatively named Pacoima Diversion Channel, a stolid brown trough with all the allure of a peeled mummy.

The "lake" behind Hansen was not much of an improvement. Drooling in from the north was Lopez Channel, which at least had a nice ring to it. A clinker, as it turned out.

In the creek bed, two spindle-shanked hares, a croaking frog (or toad, as the case may be), a species of spiky burr vicious enough to ice Alexander Hamilton, and an authentic Indian moccasin, made in Taiwan.

Tujunga, schmujunga.

The Tujunga snipe hunt had cost the Explorer a precious day. He vowed now to rise on the morrow at the crack of noon for one final assault on the source, come hell or high water. (Take hell and give the points.)

Against all odds, the Explorer had grown to love the mucky old river. Now, with the end in sight, he had no regrets. He had called it as he had seen it, and what he had missed had been supplied by Those Who Had Gone Before.

--Gladys Singleton of Santa Barbara remembered a close encounter with a bear, about 50 years ago, on the river bank east of Lankershim Boulevard near Universal Studios. "The river certainly ain't what it used to be. Then again, neither am I."

--"In 1919," Joe McGuigan of Laguna Niguel wrote, "I talked with Jesus and an Angel under the Spring Street Bridge. Other boys in our group were Domingo, Tamalio and Johnny Flocca. The older boys would allow us to swim in their pool between Spring and Broadway if we would first add 10 rocks to their dam. Later, we'd pick up a little change by selling river cress for a nickel a bunch. . . ."

--"You missed the boat," Bill Wyllie of Playa del Rey wrote. "Our boat. It's specially constructed (sails enhanced by wheels) for travel down the L.A. River. We call it the Kant Liki. Cargo will include bourbon, gin, absinthe and an inflated inner tube, just in case water is encountered. . . ."

Water was encountered three-quarters of the way up Bell Canyon, spring water by the taste of it.

Below, just west of Valley Circle Boulevard, the creek bed was dry, muffled by clean white sand. Now, a stream, transparent as a 2-year-old, snaked around the smooth rocks.

It looked like a source. It sounded like a source. It smelled like a source, it tasted like a source. (Don't try to understand; explorers just know these things.)

It was the "barrier"--a gate operated from a guardhouse--that had thwarted Lewis and Clark of Hermosa Beach. The duty officer, Sgt. Campo, was kinder to the Explorer (wracking sobs help) and once inside, the reason behind the security became evident: Bell Canyon, an exurb perched high in the Santa Susanas, has to be the most beautiful community in Greater Los Angeles; a tranquil duchy that makes Bel-Air look like Brooklyn.

From its topmost thoroughfare, Saddlebow Road, the Explorer marveled at the tableau: Elegant homes widely spaced over an emerald mountain. Sleek horses in whitewashed paddocks. On the peaks, natural outcroppings of rock, posing like half-finished Greek statues. Nature on a lunch break.

And the source? Ah, the source. . . .

Like the tines of a leaf rake, a dozen brooks fanned out from Bell Creek, far below. A score, a hundred, each trickling in from the amphitheater of cliffs at the summit of the canyon.

Anticlimactic, perhaps, but there it was.

At Valley Circle Boulevard, the Explorer, spent, turned right, back into the smog. A half-mile south, he passed Bell Creek for the last time.

Fifty yards farther he hit the brakes, hard. What was Bell Creek, the vile Valley ditch, doing so far south of Bell Creek, the crystal Canyon creek?

From Reseda, the river had extended due west to Canoga Park. From there, Bell Creek, straight as a sty, had also extended due west until it vanished under the boulevard, only to reappear, beatified, at the mouth of the canyon. Might there not be yet another branch, due west of Valley Circle?

There might, and there was.

At the outset, progress was impeded by the usual gallimaufry of junk. In the creek bed, a garbage-can lid; a ski mitten; a Douglas 60 racing tire; a tube of denture adhesive paste, used only once; a snappy leather briefcase, converted into a condo for centipedes.

A mile or so west, a huge chain-link fence stretched from horizon to horizon, bisecting the terrain from the southern hills down into the gulley and up again into the north mountains. A Christo construction in the middle of nowhere, embellished artistically with an unusual number of rather snazzy "No Trespassing" signs.

Anything worth protecting is worth exploring, of course, and beyond the fence was a landscape worthy of Gainsborough, surpassingly serene.

Up a gentle rise, the creek diminished in direct proportion to elevation. So did the trees. Magnificent unpruned oaks gave grudging ground to graceful willows. The willows in turn yielded to scrubs, then a broad meadow of pale green, sequined by pink and lavender wildflowers no more than a half-inch high.

The brook was only a foot across. Then six inches, then three. . . .

The Explorer arrived at the end of the creek simultaneously with the law.

A security guard in a Jeep had driven out of the hills, and stood waiting, hand on his holster.

"How did you get in here?" he demanded.

"Over the fence," the Explorer replied--disarmingly, he hoped.

"Didn't you see the signs?"

"Oh yes! Rather nicely done, don't you think?"

In spite of himself, the guard broke up.

The Explorer explained his mission. The guard explained that this was private property (owned by a bank, what else?) and that the Explorer had best clear off, "rather pronto."

"The next guy might not be so understanding," the guard said. "Besides, it's clouding over."

The Explorer looked up. A raindrop brushed his cheek.

Another fell to earth. Then a third and a fourth. The rain formed a miniature puddle. The puddle filled up and spilled over its edge. A tiny trickle flowed downhill, making straight for the creek.

The Explorer had found his Source.

It hasn't any whitecaps It hasn't any fish And just to see one ripple would be my fondest wish. It just hauls its load of sad debris From the sewage pipes to the mighty sea. Ooze on, L.A. River, ooooooze on!

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