June 02, 2013

Photo Essay: Go With the River

[Last updated 9/1/23 11:02 AM PT—video embed added at bottom]

On Memorial Day, a 2.5 mile stretch of the Los Angeles River opened up for public recreation, including non-motorized boating. This is the first time the public has been able to legally use their city's river without making reservations, acquiring permitting, or buying pricey tickets from private concessionaires.

Since I am a scaredy cat when it comes to water sports, and I'm not cocky enough to brave the LA River alone, I still paid a tour group to take me out on a kayak last week.

Like the area around the Sepulveda Dam (where I kayaked last year), the Elysian Valley section of the LA River is also soft-bottom, here where the concretization ultimately failed because the concrete was broken apart by the strong rushing waters coming down the flood control channel and by the rising groundwater coming out of the aquifer.

It still has those concrete banked sides, though, allowing for a relatively easy put-in at the launch point at Rattlesnake Park near Fletcher Drive.

A painted red line serves as the demarcation between where is legal and illegal to walk.

Even at the launch, the water was really rushing downstream, unlike the relatively placid experience we'd had last year in the San Fernando Valley. I wouldn't have to paddle much to push myself down this part of the river.

But this part sure is rocky, and it basically has a forest growing up in the middle of it, full of willows and cottonwoods and bamboo and cattails. That means it requires much more navigation on the part of the kayaker, a lot more articulation of the kayak, and a lot more negotiation of narrow spaces.

Even on a day like Friday, when the water was inches higher than the day before, I could feel the constant scraping of rocks against the side and underside of my vessel, which would occasionally crash land on top of a rock and come to a screeching halt, or just gently sidle up and get wedged between two rocks. When pushing off with a paddle or a hand or a foot out the side of the kayak failed to dislodge me, I became a master of the booty scoot. And when that failed and I became marooned on some geologic formation that had arisen from the riverbed (or just hadn't been submerged enough by rising waters), I got a helping hand from one of my tour guides. Luckily for me, because of another group's cancellation that morning, I ended up getting a solo tour, on which I was the only patron among three guides.

I didn't really want their help, though - or, I didn't want to need their help. I wanted to do it myself. I wanted to be able to do it myself, despite the fact that this was far more advanced kayaking than I had ever done in the past.

As I watched our lead guide paddle furiously over the first set of rapids, and presently get dumped out of his kayak into the river, I wasn't sure I could. But when given the choice to walk my kayak over the rocks or try to ride them out, I only chose to portage once, emboldened by my guides who told me, "You can do this." Besides, with the water rushing past my ankles, and my rubber soled feet slipping on the rock slime of the riverbed below, I didn't want to feel like I was fighting the river. I just wanted to go with the river - to go wherever the river was going to take me.

And that technique actually turned out pretty well for me. Instead of feverishly maneuvering my paddle left and right through the rapids as you see whitewater rafters do, I got a strong and steady headstart to get over the rocks, and then I just went with the water. I let the river take me down the path of least resistance - which is the way I wanted to go anyway - and dump me out at the bottom where it was clear.

My biggest problem? Stopping. Unless I was shipwrecked on a rock, I couldn't figure out how to not go, sometimes sailing ahead of the lead guide and blazing my own trail.

After a couple of hours, we made it safely under the 2 Freeway, past the Metro railyards, to the take out point at Steelhead Park just before the 5 Freeway.

At the end, I told my guides that I'd done a lot better than I'd expected, but in a way, I didn't feel like I actually did much. It was more about what I didn't do. I didn't fight the river. I just gave myself over to it, and let it have me.

The LA River kept me in my boat, this time. Perhaps it will change its mind the next.

[Update 9/1/23] Check out the video I produced for KCET's SoCal Wanderer, which brought me back on the river with LA Kayak Safari, in the player above.

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