On Sept. 2, I drove to the Valley, where it was 95 degrees. I pulled my car over onto the dirt shoulder of Woodley Avenue, walked down an embankment to the Los Angeles River, slipped a kayak into the cool, deep water, and paddled away.
For most Angelenos, the L.A. River is a nonrunning joke, a glorified drainage ditch. Somehow, it’s easier to conceive of the Curiosity Rover landing on Mars, 154 million miles away, than of someone boating the L.A. River.
What few know is that Los Angeles only exists because about 230 years ago, Spaniards settled along the lush banks of what the explorer Juan Crespi called a “good-sized, full-flowing river” that had supported Tongva Indian villages for millennia.
The city grew up around the river. Until the construction of the Owens River Aqueduct in 1910, it was the primary water source for Los Angeles. Once the city fathers deemed the river unnecessary and its seasonal flooding dangerous, they brought in the United States Army Corps of Engineers to entomb most of it in concrete.
That’s what I expected to see: concrete, garbage and sludge.
We put in about a mile south of Lake Balboa. We crossed beneath the Burbank Boulevard overpass and glided between banks green with narrow-leaf willows and sycamore trees. The water was cool and deep. Small fish darted beyond our paddles. White egrets and black grebes floated past. A blue heron landed in a thicket of poplar and watched us approach.
Only two years ago, a trip like mine would have been unimaginable. The first group in modern times to ride the 51-mile L.A. River did so illegally. A Venice writer named George Wolfe entered the river on kayaks with a dozen other trespassers on July 25, 2008, and spent the next three days following its course from its start in Canoga Park down to where it spills into the Long Beach harbor, near the Queen Mary. They evaded patrol officers, intransigent Army Corps officials, angry residents and police helicopters.
Their feat was more than symbolic. By proving that the L.A. River was navigable, they ensured its federal protection under the Clean Water Act. The ultimate arbiter of the river’s fate became not the Army Corps, which had long forbade entry to it, but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which became charged with seeing the river restored into a viable urban waterway.
That’s what brought me to the river. Wolfe’s group, L.A. River Expeditions, now legally runs kayak tours on a two-mile portion of the river that is not paved in concrete.
Our group of 12 was led by volunteer guide Anthea Raymond and Dr. Joel Shapiro.
“This is a river,” Shapiro, who was one of Wolfe’s original Gang of 12, said. “Just don’t drink the water.”
We passed some men fishing for carp. Imagine, Shapiro said, this river used to be full of steelhead trout.
Yes, times have changed. Plastic shopping bags fluttered in the trees. The water eddied and flowed past a tangle of rusted metal.
“We call that Shopping Cart Island,” Raymond said.
Still, I couldn’t see the city through the dense trees and brush, or hear a single sound but the gurgling water.
Last week I went to the premiere screening of “Rock the Boat” a 90-minute documentary about the 2008 river expedition, made by Thea Lucia Mercouffer, who is married to Wolfe.
The movie is gutsy and spirited, more rock ’n’ roll than National Geographic. Mercouffer uses the outlaw river run to show how the future of Los Angeles is tied to the future of its river.
Unlike most environmental docs, this one is ultimately uplifting — it’s what happens when a band of writers, poets and visionaries refuses to settle for reality.
“I had a crazy vision to go from beginning to end,” Wolfe told me. “That took my life in an unexpected direction.”
The vision worked. Thanks in part to Wolfe, and in no small part to poet and Friends of the L.A. River co-founder Lewis MacAdams and others, the powers that be, from the City of Los Angeles to the EPA to the Army Corps, are now sponsoring a multidecade master plan to revitalize the river and its habitat and turn it into a multiuse natural resource that will be good both for business development and for recreation.
In late August, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the L.A. River Access Bill (SB 1201), ensuring public access for recreation to the L.A. River.
“This will change the course of L.A.,” Omar Brownson, a real estate developer who is now the head of the L.A. River Revitalization Corp, told me. “It can be a river and a new infrastructure for economic development.”
But it’s even more than that.
“This,” activist and writer Jenny Price said at the screening, “is a massive act of reimagination.”
Two years ago, exactly zero people had kayaked down the L.A. River. This year, I was one of 2,000. Next year, you can sign up to do it — thousands more will. A restored river will connect Angelenos, rather than divide us. It will connect us to nature, to our heritage, to our families, to one another. Restoring the river will restore our very souls.
Think of it as a meaningful coincidence that the Clean Water Act — which celebrates its 40th anniversary this week — was signed in October, the same month that Jews around the world begin to recite Tefillat Geshem, the prayer for rain.
On the concluding day of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, we chant, “… O refuse not the gift of water.”
The L.A. River is just that, a gift of water we have already been given. Now we just have to relearn to receive it.
To arrange screenings of “Rock the Boat!” at your synagogue or group, visit rocktheboatfilm.com. To see the LA River Master Plan, visit www.larivercorp.com. To sign up for river trips with LA River Expeditions click here.