A boat race along the Los Angeles River

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Steve Appleton, founder of LA River Kayak Safari, instructs kayakers in how to maneuver using a paddle. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The Los Angeles River often evokes the image of a concrete channel, with perhaps a trickle of water running through it.

The river was paved with concrete in the 1930s to prevent flooding.

It’s been a popular Hollywood backdrop, from John Travolta’s drag-racing scene in “Grease” to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s motorcycle chase in “Terminator 2.”

So the news that outdoor enthusiasts are holding the first-ever boat race there surprised some – including late-night host Conan O’Brien.

“Next weekend Los Angeles is holding its first river boat race. Yeah. All that’s missing is a river in Los Angeles – with water,” O’Brien quipped recently.

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Sebastian Marlow, a guide with LA River Kayak Safari, helps a kayaker get into the water. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

But in 2011, authorities opened up recreation zones and allowed kayakers to traverse a short stretch of the river.

Several outdoor outfitters have cropped up in the last few years to meet the growing demand from Angelenos and visitors wanting to rediscover the Los Angeles River.

Erin Pinkus grew up in the San Fernando Valley, and thought of the river the way lots of people do: “filthy, sketchy, smelly.”

But now, after she spent a morning kayaking on the river, she sees it differently.

“I think it’s lovely. It’s very nice,” Pinkus said.

It’s very nice because 90 percent of the water in this part of the river comes from a couple of treatment plants upstream.

The Glendale Narrows is one of the greenest stretches of the river, and it’s where the boat race will be held on August 30.

An estimated one hundred racers will paddle, kayak, or stand-up paddle on a 3/4-mile route.

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Jeremy Barofsky, left, and Erin Pinkus, celebrate conquering a particularly difficult stretch of the Glendale Narrows. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Organizers hope to attract residents from the working-class Elysian Valley neighborhood next to the water.

“You know, you still have a very mixed population, and we thought it’d be kind of interesting for youth in that neighborhood to see, wow, I could not only live next to the L.A. River, I might actually paddle on it and race, once I learn how to paddle,” said organizer Anthea Raymond, with L.A. River Expeditions.

Steve Appleton, founder of L.A. River Kayak Safari, bought a home in the area 14 years ago because he wanted to live near the water. He said friends didn’t understand his love for the L.A. River.

“Initially, the first thing you’d hear is, oh, gosh, what about my HazMat suit,” he said. “Once you get down in there and see a black crown night heron fly overhead, or an osprey catch a carp right in front of you, you realize it’s not that and it’s really quite an amazing experience.”

The water treatment plants release less water in the morning, which means the rocks can be tricky to navigate. By the afternoon kayaking is much smoother, with less of a struggle.

City officials are lobbying for a $1 billion proposal to restore 11 miles of the river north of downtown L.A., replacing some of the grey concrete with green foliage. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has given the plan its stamp of approval. That money could make a big difference in restoring the river.

With the sounds of helicopters, trains and heavy traffic, it’s hard to forget that you’re in a city while you’re on the L.A. River.

But race organizers hope their event will convince skeptical Angelenos to give the river a try.