Small Wonders: Yes, a river runs through it

Los Angeles is not the first place that comes to mind when one thinks of river rafting — probably not the second, third or thousandth, for that matter. But there's a group of folks hoping to change that.

When I read last week that a section of the L.A. River had been opened for guided kayak tours, I jumped at the chance. I've biked the river path from Burbank through the Glendale Narrows so many times I could lead tours myself, and I have long fantasized about exploring the murky currents up close.

Apparently, so have a lot of people. With approximately 16,000 hits to their website upon launch, the seven-week pilot program called Paddle the L.A. River sold out in 10 minutes.

Granted, with a hard-won license from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — the builder and overseer of the concrete waterway — the Los Angeles Conservation Corps is hoping to make river trips in L.A. as ubiquitous as tours of the stars' homes.

With assistance from project partners like the Mountain Recreation and Conservation Authority, The River Project and others, the L.A. Conservation Corps team has charted a 1.5-mile floating journey through a soft-bottom segment of the river from the Balboa Sports Center to the Sepulveda Dam.

To many, the L.A. River is just a polluted, concrete-walled creek strewn with garbage and graffiti. And those things are indeed apparent. But, like so many things in tinsel town, if you suspend disbelief just briefly, you may be surprised by what you see.

The lush, tree-lined stretch demonstrates that this natural resource is not a flood channel brimming with toxic runoff. Once on the water, it's hard to tell you're in the city, though you are reminded when traffic blares or planes depart from nearby Van Nuys Airport. But such things only add to this uniquely L.A. experience.

After a brief primer on water safety and kayak control, we shoved off under the early morning shade of the Balboa Boulevard bridge. I joined a group of teenage boys trucked in from distant parts of L.A., members of the conservation corps, whose mission is to provide at-risk youth with job-skills training, education and work experience, with an emphasis on conservation within the community.

It was inspiring to see teens, usually more at home on the tough surface of city streets than the uncertain surface of flowing water, up at dawn and venturing into such unknown territory.

The rumble of commuters soon gave way to trickling water, which then gave way to quiet — a quiet broken occasionally by paddles on water, howls of boys in kayaks stuck in trees, or onlookers on cliffs high above marveling aloud at the sight of boaters on the river. Rigid, unforgiving pavement gave way to sand, mud and natural riverbanks with sycamore and bamboo so thick you wished you had a machete to cut through it.

As our flotilla made its way downriver, L.A.'s blind eye was ever-apparent. Trees and shrubs festooned with all manner of unnatural ornaments — shopping bags, food wrappers, tarps and T-shirts. Half-buried shopping carts protrude from sandbars like grave markers; lost or castoff toys; Styrofoam shrapnel, printer cartridges and of course plastic bottles.

And yet, there is so much more. Rapids and falls; peace and quiet; herons, egrets and cormorants. Mallards in the water and Canadian geese in a V formation above. There were stretches of such serenity and calm, the only thing to do was still yourself and let the river carry you gently onward. When letting go, submitting to something greater, so much becomes clear.

Beneath it all, a river cries to be seen, to be appreciated. A wonder in our midst begs to be unearthed from our excess, impatience and ignorance.

Seeing those young, ill-at-ease men made me see our potential. Humans out of their element, awkward and uncomfortable and trying not to show it, battling themselves and each other, and an environment that must be respected, not forced into submission.

We are all eager and impatient in our world; all adolescents in wobbly kayaks. For concrete citizens, perhaps a concrete river is just the thing.

As Angelenos, we have to work a little harder to see the miracles all around us. They are there in abundance if we put aside our preconceived notions and biases.

No, it's not the Colorado, or even the Kern River. But it's our river, offering us a choice to embrace it or deride it. If we can turn a flickering light on a screen into epic tales of action and romance, we can turn a misunderstood flood channel into a rich, vibrant, life-giving waterway. It's already there. And the river always wins in the end.

Luckily, there are people willing to show us the way. And I met a few of them on a beautiful river running through an amazing city.

PATRICK CANEDAY is author of the book “Crooked Little Birdhouse,” available on Amazon. He may be reached at and

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