Patrick Caneday is an author, essayist and columnist for several LA area newspapers, as well as one of a few lucky community members to experience the “Paddle the LA River” pilot program this last August. His new book, “Crooked Little Birdhouse: Random Thoughts on Being Human” includes a section entitled “Rivers,” inspired by his meditations along the LA River. We in turn were so inspired by his experience that we just had to keep the conversation going:

LA Stormwater (LAS): Had you experienced the LA River much before your “Paddle the LA River” adventure?

Patrick Caneday (PC): I have a deeply emotional attachment to the LA River. As a child growing up in Glendale in the 70’s, I recall driving up the 5 Freeway straining to see the flood drains painted as cats. And as an adult, the LA River became asanctuary for me in times of difficulty. I’d often leave the bike and walking paths along the river and venture down along the concrete banks marveling at the forest islands that run through the Glendale Narrows. It is, and always will be, a place of solace, meditation and healing for me.

LAS: Is there any juxtaposition of the River and the City that particularly moves you?

PC: It’s not a river like the rest of the state or country might imagine. Of course, at first glance it does look like a vast sewage channel cutting through a concrete, steel and glass metropolis. But then you see these stretches where bamboo forests burst through the concrete river bottom. Like oases in the desert, it always reminds me that life cannot be contained or held back.

Graffiti, so ubiquitous scarring our cities, becomes a tapestry along the river, making this waterway so quintessentially Los Angeles. The cement banks bordering the river offer an irresistible canvas set against the natural beauty of waterfalls, marshes, and running water passing warehouses, train yards and highways.

Undoubtedly, the first thing you see is the filth, but here in LA we have to try a little harder to find the beauty around us. And when we do, when we narrow our gaze and see the forest through the trees, the river through the City, you stop seeing everything else.

LAS: Are there lessons you think the people of Southern California and beyond can learn from this elusive beauty?

PC: Tolerance mostly. The LA River is a living example of how extremes–the varying realities of nature and civilization–can coexist. Our world seems to be getting more polarized year after year. It is so evident in our political, corporate and social arenas. The more “civilized” we get, the more I think we need to look back to nature to show us how to live.

There is vision too. In our hectic, contrived world, we need places to go where we can be reminded of the simpler wonders of life. Life is filled with pollution. The river can teach us to look past the harshness and dirtiness of things and see the true beauty in our world. And through that appreciation, do more to bring it to others.

LAS: And how has the community responded to your experience?

PC: The response has been amazing. Everyone who saw us was thrilled to see the river being used in such a way and whenever people read my column about it or I tell people that I did it, they tell me how much they would like to do it as well. I still get emails from people asking me for more details and I am happy to turn them over to the agencies that were responsible for making it possible to paddle the LA River. They are always disappointed when I tell them it was just a pilot program. But if enough people remain interested, it could become a permanent attraction. The interest, desire and support in our community for such an opportunity are there.

LAS: You said in your article “the river always wins in the end.” Do you think we can successfully harmonize the natural state of the river with the industrialization that has built up around it?

PC: Yes, absolutely. In fact, I think we’re required to. And the LA River is proving each day that this is possible. Just like those islands of trees and grass that sprout up year after year through the concrete in the river, surviving floods and humanity’s waste, we need to accept that we can’t stop nature. I don’t think we, as a society, have a very bright future unless we are able to do that. The river will always make its way from the mountaintops to the ocean and back again. The river will always win, because it is a lot more patient that we are.

LAS: Thanks Patrick!

PC: Thank You. I’m glad that my story has had such impact. The Paddle the LA River program is awesome and I would love to see it continue and spawn even more river conservation.

Patrick Caneday’s book, “Crooked Little Birdhouse: Random Thoughts on Being Human” is available on Amazon. Read more at Contact him at

Would you like to experience paddling down the LA River? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below!