Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

And so we reach the true wilderness, the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area. Actually, it’s only wild right around the river, and only for about two miles. The rest is part wild marsh teeming with birds, and part recreation venues of various kinds, and part … golf. Yes, no less than three of these 18-hole monsters take up about half the available land (which looks to be about half the size of Griffith Park, but all on one level), their sand traps and greens mottling the satellite picture like acne begging to be squeezed. I guess you either understand golf, or you’ll never get it. Lee and I don’t get it. All that wasted land, all that wasted water to keep it green. If you’re going to golf, why not do it in a natural landscape, with stones and cactus and dust and dirt? Like I say, I don’t get it …

Up LA River Part 12: setting off for the dam

We parked on Woodley Avenue, just off Burbank Boulevard, which was the first available parking place. Spots are scarce close to the river itself. In fact, aside from the parking lots at the baseball diamonds and goddam golf courses, there’s not much parking at all along the streets. So we’d be traveling quite a distance today for only a small gain on the river quest.

Up LA River Part 12: blue heron 1

We set off onto one of many dirt paths that lace through the marshland, heading east toward a little lake whose name I’ve been unable to discover. It seems like it ought to have a name, because it is beautiful, largely wild, hard to get right down to the water, but that’s okay, because that would probably scare the birds, of which there are plenty. There was a great blue heron preening himself in the shallows, and Lee managed to get a good picture of him from quite a distance.

Then it was under a tunnel that brought us to even wilder territory, and soon to the base of the dam itself. It’s an earth fill dam … actually rock fill, not a very steep slope but it looked treacherous, a good place to break an ankle. But there was a gravel road that slanted up the side and we took it to the top. Naturally the dam itself was fenced off—who knows when some crazy terrorists might decide to dynamite a dam with no water behind it?—but we were able to see the spillways. Then down the side and back on the path and we were looking up at the dam from the bottom. Over to the river … and what I noticed, with a slight creepy feeling, was that the river was flowing toward the dam. I knew it would, of course, but looking up at the spillway at least 20 feet higher than our heads, and the dam itself much higher than that, I realized that all this land, stretching out a long way in either direction—it must be four miles long, and this was the place where it was highest … the engineers who built this thing contemplated a day when the spot we were standing on would be at least 20 feet underwater. That included the little lake, all the paths, a big plot where somebody was growing corn and vegetables, the baseball diamonds, the golf courses and clubhouses, Burbank Boulevard, Woodley Avenue … everything. Wow. It wouldn’t fill in an hour or even a day, I guess, and there was no rain in sight and no rain expected until at least December, but it was a sobering thought. This is where all the excess water from a really torrential rain in the West Valley would collect, be pinched off at the spillway and then drain at a controlled rate into the miles of river we’d already walked, so it wouldn’t overflow its banks and inundate the communities of Burbank, Glendale, and points south.

The city of Los Angeles has put a lot of work into what is essentially a big holding tank, but I guess most of it would survive being underwater for a few days, with minimal cleanup needed afterward. Maybe it would even drown a few of the more determined golfers. It’s an ill wind that blows no good.

Up LA River Part 12: wild 1

The only path open to us took us almost back to the car, but we didn’t feel we’d made enough progress, so we crossed Burbank and headed northwest again along a path that was badly eroded at first. Now we were entering on the only part of the LA River that is truly wild, in the sense that it’s not banked by concrete. What’s the point, if it’s going to flood anyway? The only problem … it’s surrounded by trees and brush so dense that it’s hard to get much of a look at it. Maybe we can portage in a canoe next time …

Soon we arrived at the thing I’d most wanted to see on this walk, which was a model airport. That is, a tiny airport for tiny planes. Some of them not actually so tiny, but all radio-controlled. It was amazing! There was a guy with a couple of helicopters, and another who had what looked like little jet planes. I didn’t know they could make jets that small, but they had no props, and when he flew one it made a distinctly different sound from the propeller jobs. Couldn’t have been a rocket, could it? Those burn out too fast.

I’d thought you’d just go there, start up your plane, and take off. Not so. There was a long list of rules and regulations, as I suppose there must be. There were stands for setting up, taxiways, and piloting areas. Many rules of flight. Well, these rigs aren’t cheap, you’d hate to have an in-flight collision.

And I was impressed. These guys were good! They could do anything you’d see at an air show except close-order flying, and some of the little planes could do things the bigger ones just couldn’t do. We wondered if all these guys were real pilots, or if they just flew models. Nice for the city to provide a place for them, though. Notice on the picture that it looks just like a real airport from the air. Those round areas are for the old-fashioned fly-by-wire types, I think, the ones where you stand in the middle and fly in a circle. The one time I tried that I got dizzy in about thirty seconds. Nobody was flying anything like that today.

Up LA River Part 12: skater mom

We decided to head home the long way around, skirting one of the golf courses up to Woodley again. There was a concrete bike path, in-line skaters, including a woman who was pushing a double stroller while skating. Soon we passed a sign that said there were cricket pitches across the street. We drove back and sure enough, there were two fields for playing that most un-American of sports. I mean, does anyone really understand cricket who didn’t grow up playing it? I imagine the same could be said of baseball …

On the way home we tried the barbecue at Mr. Cecil’s on Ventura. It’s good, but overpriced. If you want good BBQ in LA, go to BBQ King on Sunset at Figueroa, or Huston’s on Cahuenga between Hollywood and Sunset. Both are no-frills, down-home, and reasonably priced.

Lake Balboa

We began again at the model airport. More guys out there today, including a whole contingent of helicopter pilots.

It was a fairly grim day. Not much to see. The funny thing is, we were on the one stretch of river that is wild, not tamed between banks. But the wildness is so wild that we couldn’t see the river at any point from the path that ran alongside it. Lee ventured down a trail and caught a glimpse, but it was too steep for me. So we shambled along a dirt path with trees on our left and a golf course on our right. A few guys were carrying their golf bags, but most drove electric carts. They’d chip onto the green and then get into the cart to drive to the edge of the green. I half expected them, if they missed the putt, to drive a little closer to the pin for the next shot. They call this exercise. They call golfers “athletes.” Hah! Bullshit!

Saw some cottontail rabbits. Where there are rabbits there are foxes, but we didn’t see any. There are multitudes of birds in this recreation area, including swallows, and purple finches, and one finch with a yellow belly that wouldn’t let me get close enough for a good look. I trudged on.

Up LA River Part 12: feeding bird at Balboa Lake

Eventually we came to Lake Balboa, which is very pretty and full of people. I could see paddleboat rentals on the far side, but no one was renting. Since there are no footbridges across the river and the golf course cut off any possible retreat except three sides of a square mile of fairways and greens and assholes with clubs, we had no choice but to retrace our route, step by dreary step. When we got back to the car there was an ice cream truck tinkling by, and Lee got an ice cream sandwich and I got a drumstick with chocolate and nuts on it. The high point of the day.

Tomorrow can only be better.

Bugs, Buses, Bow-wows, and Bullshit

Onward to Encino.

We parked by Lake Balboa and made our way to the path. Ducked under Balboa Boulevard, and the path petered out. But it was possible to walk along the top of the slope that led down to the river, though I had to take it carefully. Uneven ground, gravel, lots of low shrubs abuzz with bees. To our left, the last wild part of the river. To our right, a vast green grass farm. No, not that kind of grass. Lawn grass. Sod. The kind they strip up, roll, and deliver to your barren yard so you can waste valuable water stolen from upstate instead of planting hardy desert species native to this area.

Up LA River Part 12: pile of stink

The other thing this grass needs other than stolen water is manure. Lots and lots of manure. There were piles of bullshit, cowshit, horseshit … I can’t tell by the smell, but the smell was quite sharp. Just about knocked us off our feet as soon as the wind shifted a little and started blowing our way. Holy cow! Let’s get out of here!

Along about then the bugs began to gather around us. Now, I’m no wuss when it comes to bugs. I grew up on the Texas Gulf Coast near Beaumont, where the farmers have to put lead weights on the feet of their livestock so the skeeters don’t fly off with them, where the DDT sprayers came by every evening and we were glad to see them. And Southern California is relatively free of flying insects. I sit outside a lot, and I’ve seldom seen a mosquito, and only a few tiny moths. But the flies were all over this part of the trip, the sort who like sweat and like to buzz around your head. I’ve seen far worse, but still, it was an annoyance.

We finally came to the end of the unimproved path, marked by a homeless encampment or a garbage dump, it was hard to be sure. Whoever these people were, they were living in trash. They weren’t around right now, which was good, as a crew from LA DOT had a big truck and were hauling the stuff away. Some homeless folk are fairly crazy, and have been known to take offense when you disturb their garbage. Usually we are sympathetic to their plight, but not this time. It just goes to show you, there are different types of people in all social strata, including the bottom. We’ve seen homeless camps that are neat and tidy—at least, so far as you can be neat and tidy when living under a bridge down by the river—and we’ve seen pigsties. Mentally ill? Hopeless? Who cares? It needed cleaning up. I made a vow. If I ever find myself living under a bridge, I’ll keep my laptop clean, my liquor cabinet in order, and my crystal stemware polished. Bedbugs will be required to wipe their feet. Rats will be told to dispose of their cigarettes in the ash trays provided.

Up LA River Part 12: concrete again

Beyond the busway was concrete again. It was amazing. It cut off just like that. It was as if somebody had taken a big long loaf of wilderness, cut it off sharply with a big bread knife, and laid it along two miles of the river.

The busway is something I’ve never seen before except here in Los Angeles. It seems like a great idea; why aren’t there more of them? It’s called the Orange Line, and it runs from the North Hollywood subway station all the way through the Valley to Warner Center on the western edge of Los Angeles. It’s two lanes wide, and only the big articulated buses run on it, with the stations widely separated. Because the buses have no car traffic to contend with, it’s only slightly slower than a subway train, and one hell of a lot cheaper to build.

Up LA River Part 12: John Varley fence dogs

On the other side was a good path again. Soon we were passing the Sepulveda Basin Off-Leash Dog Park, which is much larger and much nicer than the one in Griffith Park. Big dogs dominated, but there were a few Jack Russells and a Sheltie. Some of them had barking problems—the owners shouting “Stop barking, Fido!” as if that was going to do any good. But mostly it’s a good idea to have a place for these big fellows to run and play. The little Sheltie seemed very interested in a St. Bernard and a Great Dane. Dream on, kid. You’d need a ladder to mount ‘em.

Then we came to the end of the line, and it was quite definitive. There was a locked double gate and a high cyclone fence, and White Oak Boulevard. There was no gap in the fence anywhere. Tantalizingly, just a few feet away, was our route back to the car … but there was just no way. I don’t think I’d have climbed the fence even in my youth, as it had those sharp twists of wire at the top. We watched the dogs for a while, just inches away, then turned around.

Up LA River Part 12: blue heron 2

Back home past a National Guard Armory, which seemed to have a lot of 7-Up and orange soda cases sitting in the sun, then into Balboa Park, where a great blue heron was standing on the grass. We got within about twenty yards of him before he began to cautiously stalk off. Lee got a beautiful picture.

All we have left upriver now is Reseda, Winnetka, and Canoga Park. We figure we can finish up in two more days of walking … then it’s downriver, through some fairly frightening communities. We’ll see how that goes.

June 15, 2007

© 2007 by John Varley; all rights reserved