Racing on the Revitalized Los Angeles River

LA River Race celebrates return of an iconic waterway

Photo by Gary Leonard | Hyperion Bridge is in the background

Photo by Gary Leonard | LA River Race. Hyperion Bridge is in the background


I’m lucky. I live 30 feet from the Los Angeles River in a neighborhood popularly known as Frogtown, after the gang that once controlled it.

The neighborhood is its own little world, carved into a crescent by the Golden State Freeway on the west, and the river to the east. I live on Barclay Street, the crescent's southernmost tip.

From my window I can watch the newly sanctioned kayak safaris emerge from the riverbed after their two and a half mile run down the so-called Glendale Narrows Recreation Zone.

The river usually runs at about 50 cfs in the summer, when its water comes exclusively from Los Angeles’s two riverside reclamation plants.

It’s a brutal run. Consistently low water levels and concrete combine in a way that is bad for boats and backs. I know this first-hand, after leading scores of trips down the stretch for LA River Expeditions, one of the outfitters permitted by the rangers who run the park.

LA River Expeditions lost so many boats last summer due to cracks and leaks that they decided to take a hiatus, retreating to another flat water section higher up the 51-mile river. But the group returned in grand style, with Labor Day weekend’s LA River Boat Race on a particularly boatable stretch of the Narrows.

I was one of the organizers. My fellow UCLA Kayak instructor Brendan Nelson was another, along with George Wolfe, head of LA River Expeditions.

Readers of this magazine may remember George as the guy who took a dozen kayakers down the full length of the LA River in 2008. The documentation of that trip helped gain the river protected status under the federal Clean Water Act and sparked the now booming revitalization movement around the river. C&K was there when he took one of the first legally sanctioned groups of paddlers down the river last summer.

George and Brendan scouted out a three-quarter mile loop for the race. Topped by a section with a short stretch of several features, the final two-thirds was flat water, the last bit of which was upstream.

Photo by Matt Gush  |  Performance artists The Mud People explore man's relationship to water as women's advanced winner Liz Brackbill races by.

Photo by Matt Gush | Performance artists The Mud People explore man’s relationship to water as women’s advanced winner Liz Brackbill races by.

Our special event permit allowed us to have 100 boaters, and we wanted a full turnout. So we opened the race to novice boaters–many of whom would be on the rented Tribe sit-on-tops–and I worried that the pushback of the final section would wipe some of them out.

It did. Not everyone finished. But over 90 did, competing in categories carved out by gender, skill and age.
Many booked in advance online, taking the race very seriously. Some like, men and women’s advanced winners Brett Duxbury and Liz Brackbill scouted out the course in advance, taking a number of trial runs.

As one outfitter who competed on a SUP noted, “There are some real boaters here.”

But others, like filmmaker Flannery Lunsford and his friend Jenn Hall arrived as walk-ins, using the race as a chance to check out the river for the first time.

“We were getting on the freeway to drive the Angeles National Forest for a picnic,” said Lunsford. “We had to take a detour and saw something going on the river. We decided to check it out.”

Clad in Largely-black and white vintage clothing and dark sunglasses, the couple were certainly the best dressed among the boaters.

But as Lunsford noted, it seemed to be in the cards. He was wearing waterproof shoes.

Photo by Anthea Raymond | filmmaker Flannery Lunsford and his friend Jenn Hall arrived as walk-ins

Photo by Anthea Raymond | filmmaker Flannery Lunsford and his friend Jenn Hall arrived as walk-ins