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Small Wonders: Yes, a river runs through it

August 19, 2011|By Patrick Caneday

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.

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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.

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