LA River Kayak Safari

LA River Kayak Safari


Los Angeles neighborhood activists work to reclaim and establish a recreational park with a kayaking adventure in the L.A. River, yes, that L.A. River!

LA River Kayak Safari
Singular magazine’s Kim Calvert goes kayaking for the first time with L.A. River Kayak Safari. From the photo you’d never believe this is in the middle of Los Angeles. Photo by Grove Pashley.

One thing you need to accept right away: you’re going to get wet. There’s no way to climb into a polyurethane kayak in swiftly running river water and then navigate between boulders, through whitewater zones and around tight corners and hope to stay dry. And no, I’m not talking about some Utah or Colorado adventure; I’m referring to a kayak trip down a two and a half mile stretch of the Los Angeles River, just northeast of Dodger Stadium in an area known as Elysian Valley.

This summer is the first time that this part of the river, usually closed to public access, has been opened for recreational purposes for a three-month trial period. City authorities are watching closely to see if it’s actually viable to convert this stretch of the river into a park that can be enjoyed by city residents.

LA River kayak safari
The Los Angeles River is reclaiming its natural habitat in between the 5 Freeway and the Metrolink rail yard in the Elysian Valley neighborhood of Los Angeles. Photo by Kim Calvert.

It was an opportunity that LA River Kayak Safari founders Steven Appleton and Grove Pashley jumped on. Appleton, an artist and president of the Elysian Valley Riverside Neighborhood Council, and Pashley, an entertainment photographer and fellow neighborhood activist, both live in the area and have been working to improve the Elysian Valley neighborhood for several years.

With just four weeks to prepare — secure permits, get liability insurance, buy kayaks and beach cruiser bikes (you bike to the “put in” point in the river), get a cargo van to haul it all to and from the river, along with life vests, helmets and paddles — Appleton and Pashley officially opened for business on May 27.

“We just went for it,” Appleton says. “We wanted to make it happen and did all the paperwork, did a website and bought everything we needed with our credit cards. I earned a lot of airline miles doing that.”

Elysian Valley neighborhood activists turned LA River Kayak Safari tour operators: Grove Pashley and Steve Appleton
Elysian Valley neighborhood activists turned LA River Kayak Safari tour operators: Grove Pashley (left) and Steve Appleton. Photo by Kim Calvert.

With the 5 Freeway running parallel to the river on one side, the Metrolink train yards on the other and low income housing in between, it’s hardly the place one would expect to find a green belt with a recreational waterway. Appleton and Pashley are used to getting raised eyebrows when they tell people about their new business venture. But they assure doubters that the L.A. River is on the mend and safe to paddle with its reclaimed water that passes EPA safety guidelines for “incidental contact.”

Appleton says that in the 1930s, Los Angeles County paved miles of the river’s bottom and banks with concrete to control flooding. By the 1960s, freeway expansion and pollution left it looking more like a big street gutter than a natural waterway. But nature fought back. A natural bend in the river created a place for sediment to build up, eventually creating a soft dirt bottom for plants to take root.

Still, the river remained off limits and it wasn’t until environmentalists like Heather Wylie, who illegally kayaked all the way down the river to prove it was a navigable waterway (and lost her job with the Army Corp of Engineers in the process) that the L.A. River was recognized as “navigable” by the Federal government. With that came protection under the Clean Water Act, and since then life has flourished in the part of the river still not confined to a concrete liner.

That’s the part of the river where Appleton and Pashley take people for a three-hour kayak adventure, guiding participants in bright red kayaks, life vests and helmets  for a paddle past ducks, egrets, lush plant life and over rapids that are rated “whitewater Class II.”

LA River kayak safari 7
A Saturday afternoon group from LA River Kayak Safari triumphantly reaches the end of its river adventure. Photo by Grove Pashley.

“The feedback we’ve gotten is really positive,” Appleton says. “Most people say they never realized something like this was even here and they’re surprised when they see all the wildlife. Others get excited about the possibilities that this could evolve and expand into something like Central Park in New York City.

Appleton estimates that by Labor Day when the three-month experiment ends, they will have taken some 1,600 people on an LA River Kayak Safari.

“When you’re on the river it’s hard to believe you’re in the middle of Los Angeles,” Appleton says. “My personal aspiration is that this will become a place where people can come and experience nature and it will become something that will benefit the people who live in the Elysian Valley community and the entire city.”

Copyright © Kim Calvert/2013 Singular Communications, LLC.

Kim Calvert, editor of Singular magazine.
Kim Calvert is the editor of 
Singular magazine and the founder of the SingularCity social networking community. An outspoken champion of people who are living their lives as a “me” instead of a “we,” Kim oversees the creative direction and editorial content of the magazine and online social networking community. She secures contributors and is responsible for maintaining the fun, upbeat, inspirational and often-humorous tone of Singular, a lifestyle guide for successful single living.

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