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Boating on the L.A. River

August 1, 2010 | 10:55 am

 A journey of discovery on the L.A. RiverEnvironmental activist George Wolfe has always believed the best way to know a river is to kayak it. So when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently designated the entire Los Angeles River a "traditional navigable waters," he organized an expedition.

Toting a waterproof first-aid kit and a sack of binoculars, Wolfe led seven people clad in T-shirts, shorts, sun hats and life vests to a lush, eight-mile stretch of river bottom near Griffith Park known as the Glendale Narrows.

Awaiting them downstream were quiet pools draining into noisy chutes, strewn with shoes, clothing, shopping carts, tires and plastic bottles, and shaded by cottonwood trees, cane forests and cattails. Plastic grocery bags snared in tree limbs rustled in the breeze. The river was running warm, greenish and, as one of the kayakers put it, "smelly as old socks."

Normally, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, which have operated the river for decades as a flood-control channel, would not allow such a voyage because of safety and water-quality concerns. In this case, however, they would neither approve nor deny a boating permit pending clarification of what was allowable in the river under the new EPA designation.

Wolfe's party took advantage of that legal gray area, launching at dawn on a recent workday in one canoe and five brightly colored kayaks just south of Los Feliz Boulevard in Atwater Village — one of the few stretches of the Los Angeles River that has a soft bottom and still looks like a river.

It is a rambunctious urban patch of rumbling water, serene greenery and occasional homeless encampments, framed by slanting concrete walls rising to electrical power-line towers, set to an endless soundtrack of freeway traffic. Paddling on the murky water, the kayakers surprised hundreds of shorebirds and waterfowl. Huge carp darted past like bronze torpedoes.

Wolfe aimed for the trip to be a floating exposé of what the river has become and its potential as a recreational area and nature preserve. In addition, he wanted to gauge the prospects of a program to conduct tours under the auspices of the River Project, a nonprofit organization.

"I've already got a name for our program -- L.A. River Expeditions -- and a waiting list of about 200 people wanting to take a trip with me," said Wolfe, paddling into the current.

Read more: "A journey of discovery on the L.A. River."

-- Louis Sahagun

Photo: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

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