Kayaking the Los Angeles River

Ranger Tim Pera, with the Santa Monica Mountains Recreation Conservation Authority, approaches the Sepulveda Dam during a kayaking trip along the Los Angeles River, Aug. 12, 2011. Credit: Noaki Schwartz / AP

The Los Angeles River is less associated with boats than it is with cars – the cement waterway served as the backdrop for stunt driving in 'Grease,' 'Terminator 2: Judgment Day,' and 'Gone in 60 Seconds' – but that could be about to change. Over the weekend, a 2.5-mile stretch of the urban waterway dubbed Elysian Valley opened to the public as a boating area. This stretch of Class I rapids, sandwiched between a strip of greenery and an artificial bank, hardly resembles the Salmon River, but that hasn't kept local kayakers from showing up in force. Schools of urban paddlers ride the waves toward the jutting skyscrapers at the city's core.

"The I-5 Freeway runs right next to the stretch of open river, but because of the way the trees are, you can't hear it," says George Wolfe, who famously navigated the entire 52-mile river in 2008. "It is just a surreal Los Angeles thing – highway life running next to this natural area."

Elysian Valley represents the first stretch of the river opened to the general public. Up until now, paddlers looking to make a trip down the sunburnt trench have had to sign on for trips with outfitters like Paddle the L.A. River or Wolfe's Los Angeles River Expeditions, which is perpetually booked solid. Wolfe says that by opening the river to the public, Los Angeles County and the Army Corps of Engineers have helped his city move from "the bottom of the list in terms of city boating to near the top."

The veteran guide says he's even hearing Los Angeles mentioned as a rival to Columbus, Georgia – America's most whitewater-friendly city.

"You can now see egrets, Great Blue Herons, hawks, and turkey vultures from the water," says Wolfe, adding that kayakers are likely to also see a fair number of the City of Angels' homeless, who wrap themselves in blankets along the banks.

Wolfe is currently working with Army Corps of Engineers Colonel Mark Toy and a number of community advocates to expand public access to encompass at least 2.5 more miles of water by the end of next year. Though there are certain hazards to paddling a diverted waterway – the current can hit 45 mph during a heavy rain – Wolfe says he believes that the river will become a more central part of the Los Angeles landscape as access improves.

"We've even managed to get a canoe down there," he boasts. "It takes a bit of skill but can be done."

The same could probably be said of providing Los Angeles with a sorely needed oasis, and it is only fitting that a bit player finally steps into that starring role.

More information: The new park is located near the Marsh Street Skate Park off I-5. For the moment, kayaks should be rented at the beach and trucked inland.