Portola, MacAdams & Kayaking the Los Angeles River

Elysian Park Plaque along Portola Trail

Elysian Park Plaque along Portola Trail

On August 2, 1769, Gaspar de Portola’s expedition camped alongside the LA River and named it in honor of the feast day “Our Lady of the Angels of Porciuncula.” On this day, 245 years later, I stepped deep into the Los Angeles river for the first time, kayaking down the river in the Sepulveda Basin. While the river has lost much of its original beauty, this stretch makes one forget all the concrete further down and imagine how it must’ve looked when Portola first  laid eyes on it. 

Father Crespi, part of Portola’s expedition, took copious notes in his journal as they camped near present-day Elysian Park. Father Crespi documented the scene along the Los Angeles River on August 2, 1769, reprinted by Blake Gumprecht:

Crespi “marveled at the ‘great amount of trees’ and the ‘very large, very green bottomlands’ that spread out on both sides of its banks as far south as he could see, ‘looking from afar like nothing so much as large cornfields. He noted the presence beside its channel of great thickets of brambles, abundant native grapevines, and wild roses in full bloom. Sage was plentiful near the river, and the calls of turtle doves, quail and thrushes filled the air near the camp. It was ‘a very lush and pleasing spot, in every respect.’ he wrote.”

On August 2, 2014, I kayaked the Los Angeles River for the first time. Also for the first time, I stepped into the Los Angeles River. I was giddy as water enveloped my ankles and then my legs as we waded through the knee-deep river to board our kayaks. I paused for a moment to see if Los Angeles River water felt different than any other kind of water…nope, felt just like water.

After about 15 minutes in the kayak (and 15 minutes of repeating “please don’t tip over. please don’t tip over. please don’t tip over”), I eventually fell into a paddling rhythm. I did steer myself into the bushes several times but clumsily managed to navigate my way out. A small happy family canoed past our group with two tweens paddling up front and the dad sitting tall in back with his authoritative paddle. A little five-year-old outstretched her arm over the water, feeling the ripples underneath her fingertips watching us as we passed. I thought how lovely to start an affection for the Los Angeles River so young. Our small kayak group (which included Mickey Cantor, founder of the Los Angeles Conservation Corps) meandered down the river, surrounded by trees, brush and egrets. To the uninitiated, this peaceful spot might seem surprising in the midst of the big sprawling city, especially with the 101 Freeway in easy distance. In fact, a satellite view shows that we were actually kayaking between golf holes. But you would never know it as trees, brush, egrets and dragonflies were all we could see.

Los Angeles River at the Sepulveda Basin

Next time, I plan to ask about all the names of everything, like the names of trees and location spots. Like L.A. Creek Freak says, “naming means connecting with place.” When L.A. Creek Freak paddled this stretched of the Los Angeles River in the Sepulveda Basin, he wrote:

Incidentally, I was really happy to hear LACC and MRCA folks calling out new river place names: “cattail alley”, the “little grand canyon”, the “sandbar beach”. It warms my creek freak heart that these folks are out working on and in the river every day, and to do this, they’re learning and knowing the place. This knowing includes naming… and naming means connecting with place, and coming up with words to describe place.

Lewis MacAdams, poet laureate of the Los Angeles River, has talked often about the importance of narrative in the battle to reclaim the Los Angeles River from its “concrete corset.” On a recent Pomona College panel about the history of the river, Lewis MacAdams said “Naming power is one of the fundamental things that human beings can do.” He recounted his conversation with Harryphoto (31) Stone, Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, in which every time Stone referred to the river as a “flood channel,” MacAdams corrected him with “river.” Eventually, the two men went back and forth as kids:

Stone:  A flood channel
MacAdams: A river!
Stone: A flood channel!
MacAdams: A river!
Stone: A flood channel!
MacAdams: A river!

In that spirit, I am happy to proclaim that I kayaked a RIVER (not a flood channel) on August 2, 2014…the same river that Gaspar Portola and Father Crespi named 245 years earlier.

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