Sunday on the River with a Kayak - from LA River Pix

I’ve been wanting to go kayaking down the LA River since about 2008. That was the year I stood on the shore of the river along the Sepulveda Basin and watched as kayaker George Wolfe emerged from upstream and the dense foliage and shore his craft just in front of me.

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Two Faces of the LA River - from LA River Pix

If you have spent any time exploring even a bit of the LA River, you have no doubt seen its many different landscapes and incarnations, I have found and stumbled upon many of these in my journeys to photograph it. Last week I was shooting for a client who needed some printed photos of the Sepulveda Basin to display in a nearby housing development. Most of the river throughout the Basin is pretty calm and flat-watered as it runs a fairly straight course to the Dam at the southeastern end of the Recreation area.

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Islands and skylines - from LA River Pix

A few weeks ago I posted a picture of the river taken from Vernon with the downtown skyline in the background. This photo was taken upstream at the northern end of the Glendale Narrows and shows the skyline from the other direction. It was taken with a 200mm lens from the bike path along the river. There are several locations along the bike path where you can line up the river with the skyline and get quite a dramatic shot when the light is right. I never liked how the original looked and recently redid it to capture more of the mood I felt when looking at the river the evening I took the photo.

Glendale Narrows at the Los Angeles River with the downtown skyline

The vegetation you see in the river are islands that run along almost the whole stretch of the Glendale Narrows which is soft-bottomed. In these islands there are a good number of people who live there, at least part of the year, making their home in makeshift encampments amidst the privacy of the overgrown brush and trees. Several years ago during a FoLAR river cleanup, I stumbled upon one of these encampments and met a young and very pregnant woman who was sitting there waiting for her partner to return with food and supplies. She seemed quite comfortable living there and I think I was more taken aback with the situation than she was.

I’ve wondered what the dangers are of living on one of these islands during the rainy season. It’s one thing to feel the rain starting to come down and know the river may start rising soon, but what if the rain is much heavier further upstream and the river starts its dramatic rise before you know its coming. Just last week I saw on the news some people and their dogs being rescued from a tree they had scampered up to escape the onrushing river, so I guess the answer is you don’t ever really know when the water will rise and it is very dangerous.

Vernon - from Los Angeles River Pix

I have recently started updating some older photos that I have taken, giving them a face-lift of sorts and seeing what I night have left out the first time. The shot below of the river flowing through the City of Vernon is one I just finished. Sometimes when I live with a photo for a while I start to see things I didn’t initially see when I first took the photo. I hope you like it.

I photographed in Vernon for a while as a personal project a few years ago. It is a strange place, as you might imagine from a city that boasts as its slogan: “Vernon – Exclusively Industrial.” Evenings and weekends the town is deserted and lends itself very nicely to moody, atmospheric industrial shots: old rail yards, water towers and other cool places.

vernon

That work has gotten a fair amount of attention, probably because no one else has ever taken many photos down there. Recently the French town of Vernon had a festival and celebrated by having a photo show and exhibit (including my work) of other towns around the world named Vernon. The Vernon Chamber of Commerce’s new directory will feature four of my images, including this one, on its cover.

You can see some of the previous work I did and what I wrote in a post on my Citizen of the Planet site – http://tinyurl.com/myltjea

Old Trestle Bridge - from LA River Pix

I’ve been exploring parts of the river a little further south than I have in the past and recently had the chance to shoot an old railroad trestle bridge down in South Gate. It is a wonderful looking bridge that is covered with graffiti and rust and cuts a diagonal swath across the river and bike path. On the east side is an old trailer park with manicured lawns and residents who look like they have been there a long time and like it.Train trestle bridge over Los Angeles River

The other side is more industrial and aside from an occasional cyclist or jogger, is pretty deserted. I was shooting there at sunset, something I have done at many locations over the years, but this place felt a little more sketchy than usual. I didn’t feel any better when I heard several gunshots coming from up the river a bit, right between the bridge where I was shooting and where my car was parked. Visions of my lifeless body splayed along the riverbank, a tangled mess of cameras and straps filled my mind as I wondered what to do.

I have to admit my heart was racing quite a bit as after what I hoped was a prudent period of time, I slowly crept back along the bike path to my waiting Prius, a great little car, but quite the sore thumb when it comes to empty industrial areas. All was well and I lived to shoot another day.

Kayaking the mighty LA River

The LA River is a River. As obvious as that may sound, the truth is most people don’t really think of the Los Angeles River as an actual river. They are probably more familiar with the river’s movie roles such as the Governator barreling down its corridor on a motorcycle in Terminator 2 or the cast of Grease singing, dancing and racing along its flat bed and beveled sides.

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Nurdles

I woke up this morning to the news the California State Senate failed to pass a ban on plastic bags, really sad news and a disgusting example of our government for sale. The havoc these bags cause to our oceans and waterways is devastating to fish, wildlife and ultimately us. Toxins such as Phthalates, that leach from the plastic, as well as pollutants that adhere themselves to the macro plastic particles, get into the food chain as more and more of the fish we eat mistake these macro particles for their food.

A lot of people are aware of the problems with plastic bags, but many may not know that another culprit is a benignly named little bugger called the nurdle. Nurdles are pre-production plastic pellets and resin materials typically under 5mm in diameter, that are used in the production and manufacturing of thousands of the products we use. Over 250 billion pounds of nurdles are shipped each year, and many, many of them fall off of railroad cars and ships, and then find their way to our oceans and beaches.

It is estimated that about 10% of the litter found on beaches worldwide are nurdles. I roamed a beach in Seal Beach, just south of Long Beach, to find hundreds of them lying around the beach, I can tell you the story is the same on most any other beach you might find yourself beach-combing on. Nurdles are just part of the family of plastic trash that is caught in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Gyre that wash up on our beaches and get ingested by birds and fish. Atolls in the Hawaiian archipelago like Kure and Midway are littered with plastic debris and the carcasses of albatrosses that migrate there and eat the plastic particles, and either suffocate or starve to death. The graphic example of what was found inside the belly of an albatross is courtesy of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, an organization that is doing extraordinary work in the areas of research and education concerning plastic in our oceans.

There is no easy way to wrap this up I’m afraid, passage of the plastic bag ban would have been a good start. This leaves it up to local cities and towns to institute bans, which has already started to happen in towns like San Francisco and Palo Alto, with other cities like Santa Monica and Manhattan Beach soon to follow. As long as the chemistry and petroleum industry has millions of dollars to spend swaying the votes of our legislators, it will be a long hard fought battle each time.

The Winter Rains

Last Winter's rains here in Los Angeles provided an opportunity for me to photograph something I have been interested in for a while, the difference between the normal river flow and the urban runoff created by major rainstorms. The contrast can be quite dramatic.

Ballona Creek during Rain Storm and Normal Water Flow

First a little background. The Los Angeles River is probably most famous for being in movies like Terminator, Them and a host of other films that made use of its paved banks for dramatic car chases and such. Some people don’t even realize that it is a real river, but the first settlers to Los Angeles made their encampments along the banks of the river, that is until the first rainy season, when the river flooded their camp and the rising waters of the river did what they have always done, drain the Los Angeles Basin after a rainstorm and charge down the river to empty into the sea at what is now Long Beach and Playa Del Rey.  In the thirties, the floods got so bad they destroyed many homes and buildings near the river, which eventually led the Army Corps of Engineers to pave the river in order to help the waters rush out to the sea faster with less risk of flooding. A good idea for the thirties perhaps, but in a time when we spend untold amounts of money and energy to pump water over hills and valleys all the way from the Sacramento Delta for drinking and irrigation, it makes little to no sense. So much of our rainwater could be captured and used for irrigation and other greywater uses.

Los Angeles River after Rain Storm and Normal Water Flow

Although the before and after shots of the Ballona Creek were taken on different days, I watched over a 45 minute rainy span, the waters go from a gentle flow to the raging waters that you see in the picture.

I have seen images of the LA River during rains on television, usually involving a dog being rescued or such, but I was unprepared to see it up close. Paths along the banks that I had strolled along were completely covered by the torrent, and although the color of the LA River is not what I would normally call crystal clear, after the rains it is brown, mucky, sludgy brown.

Cranes picking up garbage debris from the LA River after first rain of the season in Long Beach

Did I mention the garbage? If you stand on a bridge above the river, you can see a steady stream of plastic bags, styrofoam cups and an assortment of nasty looking debris that only minutes before had been lying peacefully on some Los Angles street minding its own business. They don’t call it urban runoff for nothing! If you ever wondered why the Pacific Ocean is filled with so much garbage, plastic and other junk, it all starts on some street in LA, Tokyo or other populated Pacific rim location, where the litter that humanity lazily disposes of, waits patiently for the rains to come and send it along its merry way down the storm drains and pipes, and eventually to the river or some other channel that leads to the ocean.

I went down to the mouth of the LA River in Long Beach after the first rain of the season last October where there is a garbage boom that attempts to collect as much floating debris as it can before it heads out to sea. After the first major storm of the season, the boom may collect over 50,000 pounds of trash. But if that is what it catches, one can only imagine how much it doesn’t catch.

Garbage boom on the Los Angeles River in Long Beach

As a photographer I am attracted to power and beauty, the LA River and Ballona Creek have an abundance of both despite some of the ugliness. But that ugliness is not theirs, the rivers are simply the repositories of our neglect and short-term thinking. There are many efforts to clean up the LA River and some long range plans to revitalize it. In future posts I will show some of the places where the LA River is still in its unpaved natural state. If we can someday bring the rest of the river back to this state, never again will anyone wonder if the LA River is in a fact a real river, it will be evident to all.