Rapidly Loving LA’s River

By Joyce Amaro, LA Stormwater

I have been intrigued by the Los Angeles River since the 1970s when, as a young girl, I was traveling up the 5 Freeway in Elysian Valley and noticed painted cat faces peering out at me from the river’s storm drain outlets. My fascination with this river has only grown since. I’ve walked along its banks. I’ve biked its path. I’ve photographed its wildlife. I’ve worked to educate Angelenos about keeping pollutants out of it for more than 20 years. I’ve watched it become a raging torrent during winter storms; a stream during dry, summer months. I’ve crossed it too many times to count, driving to work daily up that same Golden State Freeway where my curiosity was first piqued almost 40 years ago. So, when the chance to kayak the Los Angeles River in Elysian Valley presented itself, I jumped at the opportunity to get on the river.

One afternoon in late June, twelve adventure-loving souls and I met at Oso Park to take the Sunset Kayaking Tour offered by LA River Kayak Safari. After a short orientation, we were off on our beach cruisers, riding single-file up the bike path to our “put in” point, 2.5 miles up the river. As we rode up the bike path, I noticed that most of the river was hidden by 20-foot tall, thick reeds known as Arundo Donax, an invasive cane-like plant. I was excited to discover what was behind that green wall!  We hopped off our bikes just south of Fletcher Drive and walked down the embankment to two rows of bright, red kayaks.  After donning life vests and taking part in a brief demonstration on paddling strokes, we were off, sent down the river one-by-one with the immediate and nerve-wracking goal of threading our kayak through two large granite rocks set in the middle of Rattlesnake Rapids, the first of many Class 1 rapids that we would encounter on our trip. As we kayaked down the LA River over the next three hours, winding our way through alternating section of small rapids and calm pools, I was struck not only by the natural beauty I found on this very urban river but by the life lessons I discovered as well.

The force of the water moving me down the river humbled me. Our guides repeatedly told us, “Don’t fight the water! Simply go with it!” – even if that meant going down rapids backwards! We were advised to wait until calmer waters before turning our kayak around.  Isn’t this true of life? Sometimes all we can (and should) do during life’s tough times is hang on. Life’s calmer waters are for “righting our kayaks.” 

I found myself entranced by the river’s hidden beauty. At one point, we kayaked through a section our guides endearingly called “Pirates of the Caribbean.”  As we floated through calm, slow-moving waters, I smiled to myself, realizing that we were completely hidden by two walls of Arundo that reached a full 15 feet into the sky. I easily imagined coming across a crude raft tied to the reeds or spying Jack Sparrow lurking behind the giant canes. I mused that beauty can be found just about anywhere. Mix in a bit of imagination and, voila! A magical experience! I just need to slow down and look.

The number of rapids we encountered during our journey left me awestruck! Again and again our guides expertly shepherded us through the river’s rocky sections. As they encouragingly shouted, “Keep left!” or “Hard right!” we clumsily maneuvered our way between, into, around, and (more times than not!) over rocks. Just when I thought we were finished with the “rockin’ and rollin’”, we’d come upon another section of rapids, which meant yet another opportunity for me to use my very-recently-acquired paddling and “reading the water” skills, a necessity if you wanted to avoid getting stuck on a rock! Oh, to have the talent to better “read life’s water,” expertly navigating around its inevitable rocks!

It was with a mixture of accomplishment, relief and sadness that our journey ended just north of the confluence of the Arroyo Seco and the LA River. We hauled our kayaks out of the river, stretching our sore shoulders, arms and hands while excitedly chatting about our once-in-a-lifetime adventure! We congratulated each other on successfully navigating the waters (and rapids!) of the LA River. Not one of us had tipped our kayak completely over or fallen in – quite an accomplishment for a group of novice kayakers! And, as we carried our kayaks back to Oso Park, sloshing our way down the bike path, we each shared the sentiment that is sweeping over Los Angeles. We are rapidly loving LA’s river!

Photo courtesy of Roxy Gonzales.

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