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Paddling From Atwater Village to Silver Lake, Or How To Kayak The LA River

A spot dubbed "the pond" at the end of a kayak tour of the L.A. River. (Ari Saperstein/LAist)
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Every summer, the city opens up the Los Angeles River for public access. During this time, you can enjoy a number of recreational activities, including fishing, hiking and kayaking.

Yes, kayaking in a waterway widely known for concrete, homeless camps, car races, E. coli, rogue inflatable flamingos and trash might not seem like something that aligns with your vision of water sports, but it is an actual joy. And it is a thriving natural environment with flourishing wildlife and medium-sized rapids (and twice-weekly water quality status updates).

We decided to go up the creek with a paddle and learn how to navigate the city by water. Here's everything you need to know about kayaking the L.A. River.

Where Do I Begin?

First things first: You can go about your kayaking excursions solo or with a group.

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There are a few companies that offer tours, two of which are named, confusingly, some variation of "LA River Kayak." Whichever one you choose, a trip will run about two-and-a-half hours and range from $40-$75. You can also join one of the free "community paddle" meetups and special programs offered by the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority.

If you want to go on your own, all you need to do is bring your kayak to one of the designated drop-in points where non-motorized boats are welcome, and stay within the boating boundaries.

Having often seen kayakers try to pry themselves unstuck from concrete and rocks, I opted for a guided tour. For my trip, I went to the Elysian Valley section with LA River Kayak Safari, because they offer tours on weekdays.

Follow The Leader

My trip was led by Steve Appleton, owner and head guide at LA River Kayak Safari. Tour sizes range from seven to fourteen kayakers; ours was a full house. We had kayakers of all different levels and backgrounds.

The family that kayaks together stays together. Steve Appleton runs an L.A. River tour company with his family. (Ari Saperstein/LAist)

On one end of the spectrum was an outdoor educator and a group of polyamorous bodybuilders who had taken a tour the previous summer; on the other was an 8-year-old girl and a pair of 40-something sisters from Texas. In the middle was me. The guides assured us we'd all do fine.
Before we paddled, we pedaled! Our group biked about a mile up the LA River Bike Path from the tour group's homebase to get to the drop-in site (at Rattlesnake Park, right off of Fletcher Boulevard). There, we got all the essential gear -- helmets, lifejackets and paddles. Standing along the river bank, Appleton gave us a kayaking tutorial wherein we learned how to hold the paddle correctly (the concave side should be facing you and the convex side facing away), along with all the basic strokes.

A Rocky Start

As we launched our kayaks, I thought the guides would have us start at an easy section. I thought wrong.

As we attempted to navigate around boulder after boulder, the first part proved to be the most difficult. Left and right, people were getting their kayaks stuck atop rocks, with guides intervening to pry kayakers free. Soon enough, we all became experts on the art of turning a paddle into a crowbar.

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Ducks, Herons and Egrets — Oh My!

As we made our way through Frogtown, the city soundscape faded away and in its place was a slew of natural sounds: flowing water, wetland grass rustling in the wind and many, many, many birds.

A flock of ducklings made their way single-file between our kayaks and a snow-white egret stood motionless on a sandy patch, making eye contact as we floated by. As the ducks squawked and the egret croaked, one bird call stood out above all else: the blue heron's. It's something that I can only describe as a prehistoric cry -- which makes sense, considering the herons have proto-bird features and look like dinosaurs. Seeing and hearing the heron was worth the price of admission.

Rapid(s) Transit

Around the halfway mark came the rapids. When I asked Appleton how hard they were, he said that they were "class one-and-a-half to two rapids." I had no clue what that meant, but I figured it was probably kayaker-speak for "not easy."

I took my phone from its high-tech waterproof case (a sandwich bag) and looked it up. As it turns out, rapids are rated on a scale from 1 to 6. "Class II" rapids are defined as ones that need "occasional maneuvering" and have "rocks [easily passed] by trained paddlers."

As we approached the rapids, I wondered how the newly trained might fair with rocks.

Steve Appleton stands to demonstrate the average depth of the water along a stretch of the L.A. River that is open to public kayaking. In some sections we went through, it was only a foot. In others, it was 13 feet. (Ari Saperstein/LAist)

Thankfully, the guides knew where every rock was, so we didn't have to. The rapids are like a small roller coaster -- a short quick thrill that's scarier than it looks. We all made it to the other side, safe and sound.

Still Waters Run Deep

Much like Lady Gaga in "A Star Is Born," our last turn took us far from the shallows into the deep end -- 13 feet deep. Or at least that's what Appleton estimated. He tried to touch the river bottom with his paddle to no avail.

They called this section "the pond." The waters were still, there was a warm breeze and it was brimming with wildlife.

For a moment, you might forget you're in one of the biggest metropolitan hubs in the world. I certainly did.

Or, at least until that helicopter flew overhead.