Owens River Odyssey

(Ed’s note: This article originally appeared in C&K’s 2010 Beginner’s Guide issue.)

By Paul Lebowitz
Published: January 10, 2011

“This is not going to be your average kayak trip,” Keith Franson says as we roll along the dusty scrub-lined track leading to our put-in. “Some people can’t see the beauty.”

The landscape is sparse, austere, empty and open, all except for the narrow slash of green that cuts through the center of the valley. This is the Owens River, the only flowing water in the vast California valley that shares its name.

The river is both old and new. Old as the majestic crest of the ancient Sierra Nevada Mountains that rise to the west–Mount Whitney’s craggy spires just peeking over the rim of the valley from over the shoulders of lesser peaks. Snowmelt from these mountains once filled the river’s banks to the brim each spring.

But that hasn’t happened for nearly a century. Since 1913 nearly every drop of Owens River water has been diverted to Los Angeles, through the system of aqueducts built by William Mulholland and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The thirsty metropolis emptied the water from 60 miles of riverbed. Crusty hardpan replaced the vast salt lake once plied by steamboats laden with silver ore from the mines of Cerro Gordo.

After a decades-long legal battle, a court ordered the LADWP to leave a small portion of water in the river, and in December 2006—after tiring of paying $5,000 per day in fines—the big city finally relented. With the turn of a valve, life flowed back into the valley’s main artery—at least as much life as the court-mandated baseline flow of 40 cubic feet per second allows.

“Here we are,” Franson says as his car bumps to a stop along a grassy river bank. He and two paddling buddies, Alan Carrasco and Johnnie Vick, amble out to set up their boats. These paddlers aren’t spring chickens. Carrasco has seven decades under his belt; his family was among the first to homestead in these parts. Vick, pack of smokes safely stashed in his T-shirt pocket, sold off a successful local antiques dealership some years back. Both are relative newcomers when it comes to kayaking. What they lack in experience they make up for with enthusiasm.

All three are members of the Eastern Sierra Kayak and Canoe Club, loosely headquartered at Franson’s shop in sleepy little Lone Pine, where he sells antiques, pottery, quilts and kayaks. Desiccated Lone Pine is an unlikely location for a paddle shop, but it caught on well enough with area locals to justify founding the club just before LADWP turned on the tap at the aqueduct diversion damn.

Franson watched and waited as the river reclaimed its course. The parched earth drank greedily of its flows, but by July 2007 the latest incarnation of the lower Owens had established its current mellow personality. Although the river is in no hurry, its existence quickened pulses at the new club. The members made several exploratory forays, navigating a lazy twisting track already edged by thick green growth along the formerly desolate banks.

“The river has changed every day since,” Franson says as we launch onto its narrow expanse a year later. Downed brush and logs form blockages, as do other things—Franson and company once discovered the carcass of a steer at the place they now call Dead Cow Corner. Rarely does the river that formed the broad Owens Valley cut a new channel here in its lower reaches. It’s too cramped, its anemic flows insufficient to the task. This is a river that needs to stretch its muscles.

Franson can’t say how far we’ll manage to travel against the lazy current. In the valley’s searing summer heat and abundant sunshine, the newly abundant water-hungry vegetation grows fast.

Vick quickly jumps into the lead position, effortlessly paddling his rigid plastic 12-foot Hurricane (“I thought, Why not buy it? The price will only go up,” he says of his impulse purchase). He’s only carved a couple of corners when he’s stopped dead in his tracks.

“It doesn’t look good. I’m not sure we can make it through,” Vick says, gesturing at the dense mass of reeds choking the narrow river channel. Then like a kid, the well-seasoned Owens Valley local plunges into the living fence, pulling himself along hand over hand until his royal blue shirt and bright yellow kayak fade from view. It isn’t exactly paddling but it does the job. Within moments the green monster has swallowed the wiry Vick whole.

“The current just isn’t strong enough to keep the channel open,” Franson says. “Forty cfs, it’s really not that much. DWP says they release more water in the spring. When? I don’t know.”

Just then we hear Vick’s muffled voice calling us to come ahead. We scrape our way through the wavy stalks that rise high above our heads. There’s scant room to swing a paddle. Finally the green veil parts, revealing once again the murky dark green face of the river.

Franson pauses to parcel out a few cold ones. As we slurp our beers–it’s only 10 a.m., but hot enough it might as well be cocktail hour—I ask the oldest member of the group how Owens Valley residents feel about LADWP.

Looking thoughtful, Carrasco answers in an even tone. “They’re both good and bad. There wouldn’t be much work without them. The jobs are good,” he says.

“If LADWP hadn’t bought the water rights we’d look like Victorville now,” Franson chimes in, referring to the mess of suburban sprawl that sits on the edge of the Mojave Desert just east of Los Angeles. Perish the thought.

We forge on, forcing our way through the tangled brush where it grows close. Before long each of our boats and our bodies are coated in woody chaff, yellow pollen and tiny green insects. There’s a constant hum of life, the sounds of birds chirping and the rustle of unseen creatures scurrying away from our passage. Only yards away lies a desert plain, but it feels as if we’re in the deepest jungle.

“The new water is great for the birds. The fish are coming back too. It doesn’t look like much but it’s wonderful,” Franson says. I ask what it means to the tourist economy of the two-stoplight town.

“Maybe in a few years. For now, only the locals know about it,” he replies.

We wend on, finally fetching up against an impenetrable thicket less than a mile as the crow flies from our put-in. There’s no way around the blockage; the banks are dense barriers of green.

“Maybe next time we’ll bring a machete. Who would know?” Franson says, possibly joking. Yet the threesome isn’t the least disappointed in their scant progress.

“This is the farthest we’ve made it along this stretch yet,” Franson says as Vick and Carrasco return his smile. The group is happy they still have new frontiers to explore, challenges to overcome and mysteries to unravel.

The Lower Owens isn’t your typical river, nor are Vick and Carrasco your average novice paddlers. But there’s natural beauty here in abundance for those who know where to look, and healing renewal brought on by a mere 40 cfs trickle of water. It’s not all it could be, and never will be what it was. But it’s still something special.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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