Kayaking on the L.A. River, I'll Be Back

06/30/2015 07:11 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2016

"How was your weekend?" asked my sister calling from her car in the pouring rain on the East Coast. "Great. I went kayaking on the L.A. River."

"What? I thought the river was dry in the Summer."

Yes and no. With the state suffering through the most severe drought on record and everyone from Central Valley farmers to L.A. homeowners cutting back on their water usage, the image of kayaking on the Los Angeles River may seem counterintuitive.

But in fact it's not. Especially if the river you are kayaking on is largely reclaimed water that has been treated upriver at the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in Van Nuys. Thanks to the recognition that this reclaimed water can be used to replenish our local watershed, Tillman, which has the capacity to treat 80 million gallons of wastewater a day, contributes to a river capable of hosting kayaking as well as fishing and birding.

I had been meaning to kayak the river for sometime so when landscape architect and long-time L.A. River advocate Mia Lehrer offered me the chance to join her group on a trip I was there.

Mia's company's work on the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan aims to transform 32 miles of the largely concrete-lined river into public green space. Over time, "the regional open space network will provide trails, parks, and bikeways along the length of the river" transforming the sometimes industrial eyesore into an emerald necklace of sorts for the City of Los Angeles.

According to LA River Kayak Safari which operates the kayaking trips, the majority of summer-time flow in the river along the Frogtown (Elysian Valley) stretch is treated water released upstream in the San Fernando Valley. The water that comes out of the Tillman Plant is near drinking water quality water and is tested to be safe by the EPA. The Los Angeles River is also fed by natural springs and runoff.

In 2010, the federal government designated the Los Angeles River a navigable waterway, affirming that the River's tributaries qualify for Clean Water Act protection.

Beginning in the 1930s, while much of the river was enrobed in a concrete straightjacket, the length through Frogtown was spared thanks to "a high water table and the dynamics of the river's bends around the local hills which left a soft-bottom creating an environment for aquatic plants, fish, birds, and humans." But enough about the science of recycled water. kayaking on the Los Angeles River is fun and everyone should try it.

The three and a half to four hour trip starts with a bike ride from the south end of Frogtown at Oso Park along the L.A. River bike path to a spot a few miles north where we put in the kayaks. Our trip was led by two experienced and patient guides who bracketed the group at the front and back. In all, the trip covers two and a half miles of river including some modest white water, lots of bird life and a combination of the native and non-native plants and trees that have come to call Los Angeles home. Aga, a knowledgeable guide who grew up in Poland and now calls the Best Coast home, recommends afternoon trips as the birding is better. A beautiful Snowy Egret graced us with its presence as we ran the middle stretch of the river.

L.A. River Kayak Safari is closely allied with Friends of the L.A. River which operates The Frog Spot, an open air event space and environmental education center along the River bike path at Benedict Street. After the trip we stopped in for live music and beers and to learn more about the river and rapidly changing Frogtown. Since for now their food choices are limited, try the tacos sold out of a house at Newell and Blake a block away.

With rafting companies on the Kern River struggling to survive the drought, it was fun and educational kayaking on the river that Arnold Schwarzenegger immortalized in Terminator 2. I can see smart European tourists in droves, as well as locals, out enjoying the river. One thing is certain.

I'll be back.

Yours in transit,