Kayaking down the L.A. River is not for the faint of heart. Can we change that?

Trees rise from a stretch of the Los Angeles River in the Glendale Narrows on a Memorial Day kayaking trip.


The tea-hued waters of the Los Angeles River were running knee-deep and mostly free of harmful bacteria recently when George Wolfe stepped into the belly of a bobbing, 16-foot canoe.

“Let’s go for a ride,” the environmental activist said as he shoved off from a concrete bank in the Glendale Narrows. Soon, he was slamming, bouncing and sloshing over a soft bottom section of the river that cuts across Elysian Valley, about five miles north of downtown.

Under gloomy Memorial Day skies, Wolfe led two separate kayaks on a three-mile journey down an urban wilderness of rapids, placid pools, preening herons, homeless encampments and trash snared in the highest limbs of cottonwood trees.

The kayaks passed carpets, mattresses, tires, shopping carts, shredded clothing, water bottles, an occasional motorcycle helmet and Eric Kenyon White, a 59-year-old who lives along the river. He was using a large brush to slather his name on the city’s adjacent bike path in eight bright colors of paint.

A man in a canoe and a woman in a kayak hold paddles and wear life vests in a river.
Omalina Wolfe and her father, George, during a recent kayaking trip on the Los Angeles River.
(Eric Thayer / For The Times)

Wolfe had organized the expedition on the opening day of the river’s kayaking season to call attention to an issue that has long galled conservationists.

A decade ago, the city touted a $1-billion plan to turn this stretch of the river into something resembling its natural state. Yet today there are few visible signs of an urban oasis blossoming from the muck.

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“The city’s new vision for the river created a lot of excitement,” Wolfe said. “What’s happened to it since then? Not a lot.”

One thing has changed, however: Several thousand people annually kayak the stretch near Griffith Park, and another one several miles to the north in the Sepulveda Basin, largely because Wolfe proved it was possible.


For the record:

10:15 p.m. June 22, 2023Photo captions with a previous version of this article referred to the Glendale Narrows as Whittier Narrows.

To launch an audacious conservation campaign, and for the sheer hell of it, Wolfe was among the first to paddle a boat down the 51 miles of the L.A. River.

A dirty carpet wraps around the trunk of a tree in a river.
A discarded rug clings to the base of a tree in the Glendale Narrows section of the Los Angeles River.
(Eric Thayer / For The Times)
A waterfowl, left, and the bow of a kayak in dark, dirty water.
A curious water fowl surveys the Los Angeles River, left, and the bow of a kayak floats on dark water, right.
(Eric Thayer / For The Times)

That was back in 2008, when the stunt risked fines and jail time. Instead, it helped inspire proposals for turning the concrete-lined channel surrounded by freeways, power lines and railroads into a natural and recreational resource.

Posters at Los Angeles International Airport featuring then-Mayor Eric Garcetti kayaking on the L.A. River proudly stated, “Welcome to Los Angeles. Where nature catches you by surprise.”

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Wolfe wistfully recalled when he and a team of fellow explorers were preparing to undertake their unprecedented and unauthorized three-day float down the degraded river in kayaks and canoes one July morning in 2008.

Lewis MacAdams, founder of the influential conservation group Friends of the L.A. River, showed up just before they launched and handed Wolfe an authentic-looking passport to the L.A. River.

People in a canoe paddle along the Los Angeles River.
A canoe floats down the Los Angeles River.
(Eric Thayer / For The Times)

It was a symbol of cooperation among people with the same goals. “We go with you in spirit,” MacAdams said.

In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deemed the river navigable and subject to the protections of the Clean Water Act for its entirety, from Canoga Park to Long Beach.

A year later, the Corps of Engineers permitted kayaking along soft-bottom stretches north of downtown.

In 2014, the Army Corps recommended approval of the city’s ambitious plan to restore habitat, widen the river, create wetlands, and invite new commercial and residential development.

The plan includes the yet-to-be-developed Taylor Yard project, which sits on 42 acres of riverside property that Los Angeles bought in 2017 for $60 million.

A shirtless man in striped shorts walks along the Los Angles River.
Eric White, who lives along the Los Angeles River, walks along the bank as a bicyclist pedals across a shallow portion of the river.
(Eric Thayer / For The Times)

Adjacent to Taylor Yard is the Bowtie Project, the yet-to-be-developed state park on 18 acres of industrial land along the river’s edge.

A long-awaited federal river revitalization project north of downtown approved by the Army Corps of Engineers and estimated to cost $1.3 billion is still largely in the planning stages.

“When it comes to restoring the L.A. River, there’s been a lot of posturing, and not much to show for it,” environmental activist Tim Brick said.

“It’s completely frustrating,” said Julia Meltzer, a community activist and founder of Clockshop, a nonprofit arts organization in Elysian Valley. “The problem is this: a bureaucratic stalemate among government agencies that can’t agree on anything.”

A sign on a bank of the Los Angeles River.
A bent informational sign rises on a bank of the Los Angeles River.
(Eric Thayer / For The Times)

Officials, however, insist those projects and others are on track, albeit moving at a slower pace than anticipated.

“We are proceeding thoughtfully and carefully,” said Deborah Weintraub, chief deputy engineer for the Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering. “I know it is taking time, but we are moving forward.”

Progress has been muddled by the overlapping jurisdictions of agencies including the cities of Los Angeles, Glendale and Burbank; Los Angeles County; the Army Corps; the state Department of Fish and Wildlife; the state Department of Toxic Substances Control; and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority.

In addition, Weintraub said, officials have encountered “severe levels” of contamination at some project sites that “could pose human health risks.”

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“We still don’t know what it will cost to clean up Taylor Yard, which operated for more than a century as an unregulated railroad industry center,” she said.

Beyond all that, project engineers are challenged by “whiplashing shifts” in extreme weather caused by climate change.


The explosive growth of Los Angeles after the turn of the last century, followed by catastrophic flooding in 1914 and 1938, prompted city officials to transform the river into a channel designed to flush stormwater to the Pacific Ocean as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Nearly the entire river was paved over, except for a few spots where the water table was too high.

A man in a canoe grins as he holds a paddle above the waters of a river.
George Wolfe grins as he leads a kayak expedition along the Glendale Narrows.
(Eric Thayer / For The Times)

Today, the algae-coated river channel is too hot for native fish. But beneath the ripples, the river is full of non-native voracious eaters: bullfrogs, crayfish, Amazonian sailfin catfish, red-eared slider turtles, African clawed frogs and carp weighing up to 6 pounds.

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Back on the river, Wolfe’s daughter, Omalina, 18, kept a steady pace in one of the trailing kayaks. The group of boaters, who included four journalists, scrambled over boulders, plunged down frothy rapids, pulled their way through tunnels of overhanging willow branches, and occasionally leaped overboard to drag their boats over slimy shallows.

Along the way, Wolfe pointed out the handful of new riverside amenities and commercial developments that offered a glimpse of a more appealing future.


They include the big, bright orange $27.2-million Taylor Yard Bridge, which allows people to walk or bike across the river from the communities of Cypress Park and Elysian Valley, and new restaurants and apartment complexes that were built to face the river channel, instead of turning their backs to it.

“They’d have a much better view if some of this trash was hauled out of here,” Wolfe said.

The excursion concluded under the 110 Freeway, where the soft bottom comes to an end near the confluence of the river and the Arroyo Seco.

Pulling his canoe ashore, Wolfe reflected on the tenacious spirit that many conservationists believe is necessary in the campaign to re-wild the river.

MacAdams, who died in 2020, liked to say, “When steelhead trout return to the L.A. River, our work is done.”

A man strides across a shallow section of the Los Angeles River.
George Wolfe strides across a shallow stretch of river.
(Eric Thayer / For The Times)

In the meantime, Wolfe’s new coming-of-age novel, “Into the River of Angels,” aims to stir the passions of adventurous Angelenos.


The nonprofit he founded in 2011, L.A. River Expeditions, has put more than 10,000 people on kayak tours of the channel. This year, it created a fund to help cover the costs of low-income people wanting to get onboard.

“One of these days,” Wolfe said with a smile, “floating the L.A. River is going to be on most people’s bucket lists.”