Blue Herons and shopping carts: The LA River, where nature and urban life collide


What do you think of when you think of the LA River? A big concrete drainage ditch? You might not be imagining a tree-lined natural river with egrets and herons and wild pumpkin patches.

The LA river runs for 51 miles before it empties out into the Pacific Ocean. And as it turns out, two areas along the river are open for recreation during the summer, including kayaking.

KCRW’s Steve Chiotakis took a trip with LA River Expeditions in the Sepulveda Basin section of the river. It’s right near the intersection of the 405 and 101 freeways, but you’d never know it once you get out and start paddling. 

Steve Chiotakis and guide George Wolfe kayak down the LA River. Photo by Christian Bordal/KCRW

In 2008, the Army Corps of engineers planned to strip most of the LA River from its Clean Water Act protections. To stop that from happening satirist George Wolfe and a group of kayakers launched what he calls a ‘crazy expedition’ to prove that the river was navigable. 

LA River Expeditions’ Gary Golding giving kayakers instructions before going in the water. Photo by Christian Bordal/KCRW

Previously, boating on the river was illegal. Wolfe says the only way he could get permission, without getting arrested for trespassing, was to get a film permit. 

“We couldn't get one for boating… Nobody did that,” Wolfe says. “But filming in LA — people do it all the time, so that was our entry card.”

Kayak guides call this spot along the Sepulveda basin, "Little Grand Canyon.” Photo by Christian Bordal/KCRW

Wolfe’s wife, Thea Mercouffer, is a filmmaker and she was able to get the permits needed. Eventually she made the film Rock the Boat about Wolfe’s experience.

The LA River is a birder’s paradise. You can see snowy egrets, killdeers, and great blue herons, like this one. Photo by Christian Bordal/KCRW

Two years later, in 2010, Wolfe says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deemed the river navigable and worthy of protection. “And that really launched and made possible many years later all these kayaking programs that are on the river now.” 

Despite all the beautiful foliage and wildlife, there are still plenty of reminders that urban life is not far away, including shopping carts, baby strollers, and other trash that has washed into the river from the surrounding area.

One of many abandoned shopping carts in the river. Photo by Christian Bordal/KCRW

Trash left in a tree when the river was running much higher. Photo by Christian Bordal/KCRW

Nevertheless, a quiet kayaking trip paddling in the Sepulveda Basin feels like a world away from the concrete drainage ditch known the world over from movies like “Grease” and “Terminator 2.” 

The scene from “Grease” in the LA River