One Band, Two Canoes and Citations for Navigating the ‘Navigable’ L.A. River

(If you don’t know the backstory, read this first.)

3:35 p.m.
| With their backs toward Pine Avenue (visible through the glass front of The Infinite), the four members of Twin played and sang into the echoey concrete space that perfectly showcased the two acoustic guitars/mandolins, violin/saw and haunting, down-home, four-part vocal harmonizing that make up their hypno-alt-folk sound.

The night of Feb. 20 saw the end of an adventure that lived up to its billing as an adventure, just not in exactly the manner Twin had planned. Instead of arriving in Long Beach via the Los Angeles River downstream from shows in the San Fernando Valley and then downtown Los Angeles, they came by automobile, having been forced to abort their canoe trek only 15 miles after having begun. At noon on Feb. 18, a Los Angeles Police Department helicopter made it clear they had better get out of their canoes and step away from the river.

Despite expressions of support by Long Beach City Councilmembers Robert Garcia and Suja Lowenthal and L.A. City Councilmember Ed P. Reyes (who went out of his way to take a meeting with the band), Twin’s efforts to promote L.A. River awareness — and yes, awareness of their band — resulted in citations for “loitering in a riverbed,” which the band said were written by reluctant police officers at the behest of a higher-up on the other end of a two-way radio. That, of course, was the end of the canoe trip.

It would have ended prematurely, anyway, because of the rains that came, but when the band was stopped Feb. 18, it hadn’t rained in almost two full days, and the waters were flowing quite placidly.1

The fact that it had rained that Tuesday, though, may have changed the lay of the land as far as city response went. Reyes’ press deputy, Monica Valencia (who was instrumental in arranging the band’s meeting with her boss), told the band as much in a Wednesday afternoon e-mail. And the band says a representative of the L.A. Department of Parks and Recreation mentioned at one point that the band couldn’t be on the water for five days after it rains — a statement it perceives as perhaps meaning the city tacitly allows people on the water in non-rainy conditions.2

The band maintains that the water was perfectly safe when they were on it.

“Had we felt a raindrop, we would have stopped,” says Ally Leenhouts. “We started so early [viz., at dawn] so that if it started raining later in the day, we would have already gotten a chunk of the journey done.”

“We’re not going to die for this thing,” chimes in David Enns, the band’s most reticent member.

And Lesley Brown points at that, while no one they met with gave them the official green light, “No one ever told us ‘no.'”

Nonetheless, the band was cited with a violation of Los Angeles Municipal Code Sec. 41.22, “Loitering — River Bed,” which reads:

No person shall camp, lodge, make or kindle a fire, wash any clothes or bedding, bathe, sleep, lay any bed or any blanket, quilt, straw or branches for the purpose of resting or sleeping thereon, or remain or loiter in the official bed of the Los Angeles River.

Whether this is an obviously bogus charge hinges upon the definition of “remain or loiter.” According to my non-paralegalistic research, the legal definition of “loiter” seems to come from California Penal Code 647(h) — “… to delay or linger without a lawful purpose for being on the property and for the purpose of committing a crime as opportunity may be discovered,” (although contextually this definition is for that particular subdivision of the penal code). “Remain,” however, is not expressly defined legally, so I suppose the argument might run that canoeing down the river is “remain[ing]” in the riverbed.

Whatever the case, reports by The Associated Press, et al., that the band was cited with trespassing are apparently mistaken (since many trespassing offenses are explicitly enumerated in the penal code as such), though the LAPD did not respond to multiple calls for elucidation on this point.

Nor did the LAPD confirm or deny whether Lt. Brian Wendling did indeed provide The AP (as their story reports) with the inaccurate claim that “firefighters and police helped them out [of the river].” What I have been able to obtain is the police report on the incident, which corroborates the band’s assertion that they were not helped out of the river: “[The band] beached their canoes in the area of Vineland Avenue north of Ventura Boulevard where LAPD officers and LAFD Swift-water Rescue personnel found them.”3

Despite canoeing down only 15 of the river’s 51 miles, that was enough to appall the band.

“This is a horrendous engineering and building project,” says Twin’s David Fort. “And it’s pretty evident to me that when the rain comes, that’s when the city and/or industry is dumping things that I think don’t normally get dumped. Or they at least dump it in higher increments to flush away with the rain. There’s no doubt that there is a difference of smell in that river than [prior to] the rain. … There’s some f****d-up smells coming out of there. We spent a lot of time out by the river not in canoes, and those smells didn’t exist up ’til this week. Kind of laundromat-y. I had a terrible headache.”

“You walk past a duct,” Brown relates, “and your one foot would be in cold water, and your other foot would be in lukewarm water.”

Fort says that out of the hundred or so rivers he’s been on, the L.A. River has the dubious distinction of being one of the two most polluted rivers he’s ever seen (the other being the Detroit River).4

Not surprisingly, in their scouting of the L.A. River the band couldn’t help but notice how the Long Beach breakwater plays into negatively impacting the environment.

“[The river] coinciding with the breakwater is one of the worst engineering projects I’ve ever seen,” declaims Fort. “It’s stupid. “

But the band’s members are not doomsayers about the L.A. River’s future.

Says Fort, “Forgetting about politics and all that, what the L.A. River’s got going for it is that water is constantly flowing down from the mountains. There is the potential for an awesome filtration system. It doesn’t have to be slow. If it’s moving, it could un-stagnate itself in not too long.”

When I ask Twin if they’ll be doing another L.A. River Music Armada tour soon, they laugh.

“With the way things were going at [L.A.] City Council a week-and-a-half ago, in that moment, we’re like, ‘We’re going to be doing this time and time again!'” Fort says. “After this experience, I wouldn’t write it off, but I don’t want to continually come to Los Angeles and get cited or arrested. … I do agree with not being out on that river when it’s raining, but [in general] it almost needs the people of Los Angeles accessing the river, in whatever way they see fit and is safe, because they’re the ones who live here. … But when the city’s concern is legitimately the safety issue, that is totally relevant. And that is the same with any river.”

The band members wonder if the city of Los Angeles might inadvertently raise public awareness through an upcoming program they relate being told by a representative of L.A. Parks and Rec: weekend group

“We were in the Sepulveda Recreation Center [i.e., where the kayaking is slated to take place], and that’s where all the trees and bushes are, and, like, all this garbage is trapped,” says Brown. “When people are wanting to go kayaking, and they’re going to see that? They’re going to be disgusted, and then [government officials] are going to have to deal with the garbage.”

Adds Fort, “We’re talking about condoms and Lysol and computer monitors. You have to be in the river to do that cleanup. … Rusting metal, shopping carts … horrifying.”

But Twin have been the opposite of horrified by what they’ve experienced on the music side of this trip.

“As just a band being in L.A., the trip exceeded our expectations,” Fort says. “We haven’t even been here a month, and we’ve played great shows with great people.”

The band also reports having a promising meeting with Network Records, and that it’s in the process of scouting out more gigs.

Apropos of the dual raisons d’être of this mini-tour, Twin brings the overall conversation back around to the L.A. River, e-mailing me a couple of days after my interview with them about an idea they’ve hit upon:

We are going to organize a river cleanup starting at where the garbage gets trapped in the vegetation the west side of Sepulveda Park. No bands, no boats a straight up, sandwiches, lemonade and coffee morning/afternoon cleanup. We are going to invite everyone people we have met, public departments, media, police, fire department, schools, etc. … including people who have been following us in Winnipeg and even try to arrange a van load from Winnipeg for the clean up. In fact we are going to write a new chapter in the Canoe Tour Saga and make sure to do this on every river we travel, perhaps isolating the most polluted areas to not only get a start on it but to expose how bad it is.

In my time with Twin I have found its members to be a band of quiet optimists, but optimists who are also activists and pragmatic realists, a combination that is well evinced in something Fort said near the end of our interview about improving the L.A. River: “It doesn’t have to be a glorious, utopian [ideal]. It could just be, like: Maybe let’s not put completely microorganism-killing pollutants in it, and then we’ll find a way to let it flush [itself]. Maybe we can just get it to where it doesn’t make us sick. That would be a realistic vision. You can talk all day about naked parties by the river, but that’s not happening anytime soon, obviously. But stop making us sick — that’s a good start.”

Twin’s visit to the Southland may end up being the start of much good. To keep up on that goodness, visit the band at their MySpace and Facebook sites and stay abreast of both their musical and environmental efforts.


1Check out this video to see for yourself.
 2Reyes’s office more or less confirms as much: “The Army Corps require(s) a five-day clear forecast when issuing permits.”
 3See my recent article documenting the slipshod reportage of this story by The AP and KCAL-TV 9.
 4Also on that plateau Fort cites a few creeks near heavy industry (e.g., coal mines, uranium mines) that he says qualify as more dead but have less refuse.

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