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Just a Trickle Away : It's Another Case of Double Dribble

IN SEARCH OF THE L.A. RIVER This is the penultimate article in an intermittent series.

January 23, 1986|DICK RORABACK | Times Staff Writer

There's a river, a rollin' river

Flowin' through our town

It's not so very mighty

But it sure does get around.

I long to sit and cool my feet

On its sterile banks and gray concrete.

Ooze on, L.A. River, ooze on.

--From the song "L.A. River," author understandably anonymous.

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water. . . .

When last sighted, the Explorer, cruddy but unbowed, had completed his turkey trot along the Los Angeles River from its mouth in Long Beach to its putative source in the west San Fernando Valley.

High and dry at last on the playing fields of Canoga Park High School (which had a lot better season than he did), the Explorer had surveyed his handiwork and found it good.

The fabled river, he had determined, had its origin at the confluence of two dubious dribbles. From the northwest, brackish Bell Creek had coupled with acidic Arroyo Calabasas, slinking up from the southwest, to spawn the splendid sump.

The Explorer's mission was accomplished. Advent, the season of joy and remuneration, was upon the Explorer and he had returned home to a hero's welcome: "Oh yuk! Leave your shoes at the door, willya?"

Embarrassed by the adulation attendant upon his remarkable feet, the Explorer had sought solitude, an unspoiled corner where he might ponder the implications of his historic hajj. Fittingly, he chose his own fountainhead, 3,000 miles east of his California Eden. Thoreau had his Walden; the Explorer had his Duck Pond, the doughty little wallow in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., from which none other than George Washington had drawn psychic sustenance.

(It has been duly noted that Washington threw a dollar over the Potomac River. Less well documented is the fact that the Father of His Country, while waiting impatiently in 1781 for Rochambeau's reinforcements from the north, had performed a far more personal act on the shores of the Duck Pond, one that has inspired generations of small boys who grew up in Westchester County. Whether he did or didn't is immaterial; it's the thought that counts.)

In theory, it was a time for contemplation, but old habits die hard. Pavlovian, the Explorer had set out through the snow to trace the source of his pet puddle. Duck soup. Within 45 minutes the wellspring was located. (Historic note: The source of the Duck Pond lies between the 10th green and 11th tee of the Ardsley Country Club golf course.)

And there, squatting in the slush atop an unlisted hummock, the Explorer came to realize that his work in Los Angeles was not done. No more was Canoga Park the source of the L.A. River than the Duck Pond was the genesis of the Gowanus.

Footsteps echoed in the memory. "You gotta be outta your gourd," Sam Toan of Atwater Glen had said some months earlier. "Rivers got no beginnings, only ends."

Rosalie, a bespectacled secretary in North Long Beach, had begged to differ. "The true source," she had said, "has to be where the first raindrops make the first rill that makes the first runnel that makes the brook that makes the stream that makes the creek that makes the river" . . . that lives in the house that Jack built.

"Look at it this way," said Fiona Carter, a finely tuned English tourist encountered near Chinatown. "The river's an artery. Arteries

branch off into arterioles. Arterioles are fed by capillaries. And they probably split up into Capulets. Maybe even Montagues. Bloody hopeless. You'll be 106, luv, before you find the proper Capulet. Why don't you buy me a pink gin instead?"

Whatever, the Explorer now knew where his duty lay. An interminable $99 flight westward--exploring is not for the frill-seeker--afforded ample opportunity to calculate the odds.

Between the discovery of America and the assault on the L.A. River, the last great geographical riddle--the source of the Nile--had remained unresolved for 2,000 years. Even Ptolemy had thrown in the sponge, and before him, the redoubtable Herodotus. "Of the source of the Nile," the Greek geographer had written, "no one can give any account. It enters Egypt from parts beyond." The "parts beyond"--rough equivalent of the Simi Valley--Ptolemy had dismissed on his world map with the curt notation, "Here there be tygers."

The Explorer, or so his dispassionate editor had warned him, did not have 2,000 years. Herodotus, on the other hand, did not have Mike Wiener. . . .

A month previous, in a Canoga Park High School classroom, the scene--controlled chaos--had been familiar, and an off-course explorer had marveled at the precocity of today's youth. Still in their teens, teacher Mike Wiener's wards, putting out the school newspaper, appeared already to have mastered the First Rule of Journalism: Promise the editor a story, then turn it in two weeks late, just minutes before deadline. Better still, minutes after. Then you get to yell, "Stop the presses!"--a heady exercise forfeited only by delivery of the assignment on time. No such dereliction at CPHS. These kids were pros.

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