Los Angeles River: Kayaking, fishing come to downtown L.A.

Los Angeles River: The river is best known as a concrete backdrop for Hollywood films, but now one portion has been reclaimed as a recreation area – with perhaps more to come.

Robert Harbison/The Christian Science Monitor/File
City Councilman Ed Reyes stands in front of the Los Angeles River in this 2003 photo. He has spearheaded an effort to reclaim parts of the river and turn them into recreational areas.

The barren concrete sluice is best known as the location of the drag racing scene in "Grease" or the place where Arnold Schwarzenegger, as a leather-clad, Harley-riding cyborg, was chased by a semi truck in “Terminator 2.”

On Monday, however, a stretch of the Los Angeles River called Elysian Valley wouldn't have made Huckleberry Finn feel out of place: rushing whitewater, quacking ducks, fishermen reeling carp, and a collection of kayaks.

The opening of the 2-1/2-mile "pilot recreation zone" Monday marked the first time in 80 years that the Los Angeles River has been open for boating, and some environmentalists and city politicians hope it is only a beginning.

City Councilman Ed Reyes said at the opening ceremony Monday that the project should be a model for extended reclamation of the river in other spots. Several other officials also stepped to the mike to say they hoped Elysian Valley starts further development of much needed open space, urban parkland, watershed, trails, and wildlife habit.

“This is one of the most significant things we’ve ever done,” said Joe Edmiston, executive director of the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA), a local agency formed under state authority that manages 69,000 acres of public parkland. 

Shortly after the ceremony Monday, dozens of people were launching kayaks and canoes, tapping the soft riverbed with their oars, and letting out delighted shrieks. Four hundred yards upstream, a man grabbed two, 18-inch carp that he had reeled onto the bank. As part of the pilot program, the public can access the river without a permit sunrise to sunset every day through Labor Day.

“This is a great thing we never had,” says Anthony Ortiz, who lives in the working-class neighborhood adjacent to the river. “It was very dangerous here, and we weren’t really allowed to come next to the river. Now, it’s very nice.”

The 51-mile Los Angeles River begins in the Simi Hills, running down to and then across the Los Angeles basin until it empties into the Pacific in Long Beach. As an alluvial river, it famously wandered across the basin, constantly changing its course and causing disastrous seasonal floods. After one particularly damaging flood in 1938, the mayor of Los Angeles was recalled. Since the 1930s, the river's banks have been encased in concrete to keep it in one place.

But the city, the Los Angeles County Flood Control District, the Army Corps of Engineers, and several community groups have worked for a decade to return Elysian Valley to something resembling its natural state.

Access to the just-opened portion of the river is a sloped concrete bank on one side. The other side, however, is overgrown with lush trees and ferns. Above that cuts a train track and the skyline of distant buildings and freeway overpasses.

Jennifer Young told local radio station KCRW that she does lots of paddling in Montana and other parts of the US and is excited that this stretch is open for recreational use. “This can only bring good things to the L.A. River,” she said.

Guide groups and rental services have already launched websites. When a scenic portion of the Sepulveda Basin opened for guided tours in the San Fernando Valley in 2011, tickets were sold out in under an hour, according to reports.

“We look forward to helping the public learn about what the river has to offer,” said Chief Ranger Fernando Gomez during the Monday ceremonies.

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