Shall we gather at the river, The beautiful, beautiful river, Gather with the saints at the river That flows by the throne of God. --Ancient hymn
In Long Beach, they go with the flow.
On no other stretch of the alleged Los Angeles River do more people gather to frolic on its shores, test its tepid trickle, slither on its slime.
Saints they may be, appearances to the contrary. Or at least saintlets: For the young, rivers, even fake ones, have an irresistible allure.
The gatherers, then, are kids for the most part, but there are regular people too: joggers, bicyclers, skulkers, sunbathers, fisherpeople, waders, dogwalkers, even the odd muckraker. They gather mainly in Long Beach because the river is actually a river there, shallow but wide, with a discernible flow.
A mere mile or so north of its mouth, it narrows to a stream, then a creek, finally a joke.
For a stretch, though, there is an honest-to-God riparian rhythm to the thing; a feel to it; a smell. . . .
On the morning of the first leg of his trek to the source of the Los Angeles River, the Explorer pauses under the Queensway Bridge, where a division of large red ants outflanks a patrol of armored beetles for possession of a pile of rusty machinery. Ice plants have moved in to take over the stone stairway to the bridge, though halfway up the stairs there is evidence of a higher intelligence: three spent cans of sarsaparilla and a pair of pink shorts, hardly used.
Looking north from atop the deserted and wind-swept bridge, the Explorer discerns little life on its shores. Not much promise to the right: a cluster of slick-sided bank buildings and a man-made harbor for Catalina Cruise boats, doing less business than the beetles.
To the left, the Thomas Bros. street atlas--the modern explorer's Baedecker--promises "Harbor Scenic Drive." The "scene" is of a low clump of earth and stone, obscuring the river but affording a pithy panorama of a vast and vacant dirt parking lot.
Hunkered down in this dust bowl is a single RV, pulled up to the water's edge. There is laughter inside. The Explorer knocks on the RV door. No answer. A sneaky peek through a window discloses a number of large people drinking something from cans. It does not appear to be sarsaparilla.
Farther north, Harbor Scenic Drive passes several dozen little oil rigs in a depression, lower case. Untended, the rigs bob up and down mindlessly like those little toy birds you put on the rim of a water glass. For that matter, like the people in the RV.
At bridge No. 2, where Ocean Boulevard crosses, the breadth of the river is measured. Shore to shore is 180 paces of a regulation-size explorer, 180 paces that lead him to a tidy if deserted park and a chance to further observe the riparian wildlife.
In the park--hemmed by busy roads, with no apparent legal ingress or egress--are a termite hill, eight gopher holes, a broken blue pencil and a wolf. The wolf turns out to be a very big gray dog whose tag identifies him as Bandie.
Good Bandie. Nice Bandie. How do you get out of this fershluginer park, Bandie? No, that's not a stick, Bandie, that's a leg. Understandable error. Ouch, Bandie! Sit, Bandie. Don't feel like sitting? Me neither. Watch the nice man run, Bandie. Good Bandie.
North from busy Shoemaker Bridge. Boulders have been cleared from the river bed to bolster its banks--dikes, really, with streets on the other side a lot lower than the high-water mark. At low water, though, in midsummer, the river is less than a foot deep, two at most. As the slow current gets shallower, weeds, reeds and lush green verbiage encroach on the channel.
Dash for the River
From the west bank, a pair of glistering teen-agers, he in trunks, she in a bikini, make a dash for the river. They splash about, to mid-shin. She slips, full into the stream. He lifts her out of the glop, brushes her off until long after she is clean again, kisses the cheek of his nubile naiad. Shrieking, dripping, giggling, they disappear, up and over the western dike.
Atop the eastern dike is an asphalt bike path. By dusk, the trail will be alive with everything from trikes to racers. At noon, a jogger lilts along, a well-muscled young man, barechested, barefooted. Every 50 yards or so, he stops, runs in place, practices karate chops, sprints off again with the grace of a natural athlete.
From below the dike on the land side, there are not too many entrances to the fenced-off trail. The Explorer, an unnatural athlete, climbs five feet of chain link, rips his pants, karate-chops the fence post, skins his knuckle. Walks up to Anaheim Street Bridge.
Just south of the bridge, a concrete mound stretches shore to shore, a kind of breakwater, or crudcatcher as the case may be. It is mostly submerged, creating a pretty little parody of a waterfall, but there is a dry spot at the very center of the river.