It is a hopeful day at the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area, calm and clear enough to suggest summer is on the way. So Joseph Valle and his 6-year-old cousin Reno show up around noon, all smiles.
With much clanking and clattering, they pull Reno's bicycle from the back of their truck. Valle laces on a pair of skates.
"Family time and exercise," the Van Nuys resident said. "Knock off two birds with one stone."
Beyond the parking lot, over a string of low hills, they find an unusual sight in the midst of the suburbs.
Thousands of acres of greenery. Enough for golf courses and ball fields and a man-made lake where coots float in clusters.
Even on a Monday, runners and skaters and cyclists crisscross this basin at the heart of the San Fernando Valley. Walkers follow the cement pathways that wind through shade trees. Some folks prefer to rest on benches or sleep in the sun.
"It's a city park but it really has. . . a lot of outdoor features that you would associate with big county parks or state parks," said Jack Foley, a professor of leisure studies and recreation at Cal State Northridge.
"The golf courses, the bike path, the wildlife," he said. "This park has been a real gift for Los Angeles, one of the jewels of the city."
A gift of unfettered motion, a break from the hard lines of urban existence, the bank queues and boulevards, the store aisles and freeway on-ramps.
A jewel as brilliant as sunlight on the water.
"It's a stress reliever," Valle said. "You can't beat it."
By definition, recreation can be anything that refreshes the body or mind, any form of play or amusement.
For Chris Curry and Niki Thomas, that means a lazy lunch. They make their way to tiny Lake Balboa, stick a night crawler on a hook and cast their line.
The Ventura and San Diego freeways pass nearby, as do Victory Boulevard and White Oak Avenue. Planes fly low on approach to Van Nuys Airport. But Curry and Thomas might as well be a million miles from the city.
"We just wanted a little outing," Curry said. "This was the place to come."
It doesn't even matter that the lake is stocked with catfish. Curry throws back anything he catches.
"Too much work to clean them," the 29-year-old North Hills man said. "I'm here to take it easy."
Stretching some 2,100 acres, the basin can accommodate several park areas and various levels of exertion. It all begins with the 108-acre wildlife reserve at the southeast corner, were bird watchers can stroll quietly around a sheltered lake.
Moving west, the action increases.
Woodley Avenue Park has fields for archery, flying model airplanes and playing cricket. Next come the three golf courses--Encino, Balboa and Woodley--and the bicycle paths around Lake Balboa. The Hjelte Sports Center features softball diamonds. The Balboa Sports Center has tennis and basketball courts as well as soccer fields.
Finally, the Encino Velodrome stands at the basin's western edge. The odd-looking cement oval was the site of the 1968 U.S. Olympic Trials and still attracts world-class cyclists.
"People do a little bit of everything here," said Jon Kopitzke, a park facility manager. "They like to get outside."
Don Bossett used to spend his free time agonizing over putts on the golf course. One day, he noticed radio-controlled sailboats on Lake Balboa.
It seemed to him like a more restful hobby: "Just stand under a shade tree and sail your boat."
Now, the 57-year-old chauffeur agonizes over the monthly races held by the Lake Balboa Model Yacht Club.
"You get frustrated," he said. "So you come out here and you practice your butt off."
Think of the basin as the Valley's own patio drain.
It is a low spot in the land, a depression that draws runoff from surrounding neighborhoods during torrential storms.
After a devastating flood in 1938, the federal government took control of the basin and designated it a flood control reservoir. As such, it can be built on or paved over to only a limited extent.
Thus, the Valley gets a federally protected green space nearly 2 1/2 times the size of New York's Central Park.
Los Angeles city officials have seized upon the opportunity, leasing 1,600 acres and reshaping it into their vision of a modern urban park.
Early parks--such as the private gardens at Versailles or the Parque de Madrid in Spain--were largely decorative. It wasn't until the turn of the century that designers began to use landscaping as an encouragement for exercise.
The Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area has come together, bit by bit, in this way.
A playing field here, a walking path there.
"It's an incredible amount of acreage and there are a lot of choices," Foley said.
But freedom has its cost.
Lawns have replaced indigenous plants. Facilities bring parking lots and restrooms. The 26-acre Lake Balboa--with its surrounding playground and pergolas--has obliterated agricultural land where geese once fed on post-harvest stubble.
Foley is often critical of such development. He misses the "sense of a pastoral area" the basin once enjoyed.
In this case, however, he believes officials have acted wisely. The proof, he said, can be seen in the crowds that flock to the basin every Saturday and Sunday.
"Even on weekdays," Kopitzke said. "There's a lunch-time rush and an evening rush."
For the year ending September 1997, more than 2.3 million people visited the recreation area, city officials said. That's an average of 6,500 visitors each day.
"A lot of the research shows that people want some connection to open space," Foley said. "There's just a need to have open space where you can do something that is not structured.
"Clearly, the [city's] philosophy there is rolling lands, a lot of free movement."
Nothing seems free about the movement of a woman who jogs, red-faced and panting, around the Encino Golf Course.
And the city has plans for even more recreation facilities: a roller hockey rink, another wildlife area and a bike path that stretches all the way to Warner Center.
Nate Massion prefers a more moderated form of exercise. The 78-year-old Sherman Oaks man comes to the basin three or four times a week. He usually meets a friend.
Sometimes they walk the path around the lake, which they know stretches exactly 1.3 miles.
Sometimes they head for the wildlife area where the vegetation and a sheltered pond attract some 200 species of birds.
"Egrets and cormorants," Massion said. "Canadian honkers, too."
A bald eagle was spotted there last December. It is a place of peace and quiet.
"Get away from the traffic, no houses in sight," Massion said. "The only thing that's disturbing are the planes flying over."
But even this can be overlooked on an exceptionally sunny morning. Massion leans against a fence post and stretches his legs, preparing for his daily constitutional.
"What the heck," he said. "We're not living in the Garden of Eden."