Raising the Concrete Curtain

In its straitjacket of graffiti-tagged storm drains and ruler-straight concrete banks, the L.A. River has been a set for car chases and post-apocalyptic thrillers. Thousands of homeless people shelter in tent camps along its concrete banks. Forgotten by most Angelenos, it also feeds gray foxes, egrets, swallowtails, kingsnakes, and lush vegetation on its 51-mile course to the Pacific. Most of the river is off-limits to paddlers. Five years ago, George Wolfe led a rogue trip down the river to prove that it is not only navigable, but also worth saving. The resulting documentary, Rock the Boat: Saving America’s Wildest River is billed as “a film about Los Angeles and the Little River That Could.” Its many memorable scenes include cops in helicopters, civilians walking their kayaks, and fish stranded on concrete.

Wolfe, who has a degree in urban studies, took to this riparian underdog. “It had great potential as a rags-to-riches story,” he says, “and that’s appealing to people.”

After Wolfe’s 2008 downriver run, the EPA designated the river a “traditional navigable waterway,” thereby protecting the watershed under the federal Clean Water Act. In a coalition with various local partners, Wolfe next launched a pilot program to test the feasibility of guided, educational kayak and canoe trips on his backyard river. Last year, 2,500 people explored the river that most had previously thought of as a giant concrete sewer. This Memorial Day saw the opening of a 2.5-mile “soft-bottom” section near the megacity’s downtown to public day-use during the summer. Wolfe booked all of his available weekend trips in one day.

“It’s satisfying to be part of the rebound,” acknowledges Wolfe, and “great to get caught up in a cause larger than yourself.” As part of its mission, L.A. River Expeditions, which Wolfe co-directs, has chaperoned inner-city youths down the river, while another new outfitter, L.A. River Kayak Safari, has put locals to work. One of the frustrations for an urban outfitter is the painstaking bureaucracy, although Wolfe says, “local agencies are getting more adjusted to new ways of interacting with the river, shedding some fears of liability responsibilities.” While the river is flat and nine days out of 10, it is not to be underestimated. “When it rains,” Wolfe says, “it channels a massive volume of water moving at 45 mph.”

Wolfe’s wife, Thea Mercouffer, has not been idle either. Her 54-minute documentary about her husband’s exploits—which began as a video clip of the infamous first run—is making waves on the festival circuit. It has garnered several prizes, including the People’s Choice Award at the Wild and Scenic Film Festival. Its appeal, according to Wolfe, stems from the message that “one person—or a small group of people—can make an enormous difference.” In addition, it showcases a timely yet timeless story. “On a deep level,” says Wolfe, “we know that water is becoming increasingly scarce. Unlike the 20th century, we’re not dealing with infinite resources. How we deal with this one section, which is just a foothold, will determine if we change our ways. If we can do it in L.A., we can do it anywhere.” —Michael Engelhard