Month: August 2011

Earth quotes: Norman Maclean

Norman Maclean penned the classic "A River Runs Through It." (Courtesy Confluence Press)

If it’s been a while since you read “A River Runs Through It,” or if you’ve never read the engrossing tale before, this fall would be a good time to pick up this thin volume. Throughout its pages, Maclean proves his worth, and it’s a mystery to me why he remains one of our most underrated American writers. The movie is good, but not nearly the equal of the book. Here’s the opening paragraph from the book, which won a Pulitzer in 1977:

“In our family there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fisherman, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fisherman, and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.”

See you on the river, Jim Burns

Are you ready to safely wade in the wilderness?

This summer, we read about some terrible accidents in our outback. In July, three members of a church group went over Vernal Falls in Yosemite and died. According to the L.A. Times, Gov. Jerry Brown said, “It made me shake just looking at him. It’s dangerous. If they slipped, they would have went (sic) right over,” speaking about his reaction to a child standing near the edge of a steep drop-off in the park. This year’s death toll is 14. An estimated 4 million visitors enjoy the park each year.

NOT DRESSED FOR SUCCESS: 60 degrees feels mighty cold when you're already wet. (Barbara Burns)

Closer to home, two hikers in separate incidents both died while hiking near the second waterfall at Eaton Canyon in Altadena.

Fly fishing — even car fishing — usually involves a combination of hiking, stream crossing and wading. Unfortunately for me and for those I’m with, I have a reputation as a “cavalier wader.” Swift water has never fazed me. I would only use a wading stick reluctantly, because it makes casting difficult. And these days, it seems like if I can’t go in tennis shoes and shorts for both hiking and “wet wading” (when you forego the protection of breathable waders), I don’t go.

After this summer, however, I’m revising my old game plan.

Swift, swollen streams have been the norm this year, and I can’t stress how important it is not to take chances. Two weeks ago, I looked into the clear, shallow water of the north fork of Washington’s Stillaguamish River and thought “What the hell, I’ll be across in no time.” Although I did get across the several dozen yards to the other side, the round, mossy, river rocks kept me off balance and the current, even in just  two feet of water made for a hazardous crossing. Would I do it again? Yes, but not in sneakers and workout shorts.

Earlier in the summer, my wife and I hiked up to a lake in the Sierra. It was so close to Mammoth that we let our guard down by wearing summer clothes, and took off up the trail. One clue that you’re doing something wrong is meeting a stream of hikers returning to the trailhead — and not a soul on the way up.

Within an hour, the sky changed from yummy summer to rain, then to hail, then back to rain, then back to hail. For a bit, we took shelter under a rock ledge. When we finally arrived at the lake, we were wet and the air temperature read 60 degrees on my stream thermometer. As the wind whipped across the water, I froze my ass off and realized that, yes, my own hubris meant that after a strenuous climb, fishing was way out of the question. Double-time back to civilization.

Get wet enough and your body’s core temperature can drop to a point that you’re in trouble. After hearing our Mammoth tale, neighbor and inveterate hiker Jim Cullen recalled a Sierra backpacking trip during which one member went into hypothermia. They stripped off his clothes, put him shivering in a sleeping bag and had another hiker climb in with him. Both were nude. The man recovered after several hours.

So what can you do to hike and wade safely?

First off, get the right shoes or boots. Visit the local R.E.I, Orvis or whatever. Buy something sturdy that will fit your needs. My boot soles include small spikes that help me — mostly — not to slip.

Next, realize that surfaces you encounter will not be like walking on city asphalt. Self-evident — even silly — but it’s so easy to fall and hurt yourself — or worse. Shale, for example is slippery and unpredictable. It was the most probable cause for one of the deaths in Eaton Canyon. If you’re moving down a hill, be sure to check your footing before attempting to descend. And, ask yourself if you can get back up that grade when you’re tired after day’s end (And, of course, can you find your way back to it!).

If you’re in the water, remember that where you think the bottom is may not be where it actually lies. The Pitt River up north is notorious for its fast water and looming pocket holes. That’s one river in which I always using a wading stick. An errant hole caused by rapid water circulation over the years can snap your ankle in a matter of seconds.

Finally, always check the weather report before you go. In So. Cali., that may seem silly, but in the Sierra, weather can rapidly change. If you’re going into the wilderness, dress in layers. Bring an emergency kit with you, even if it’s just extra water, extra energy bars, a poncho and matches.

And always let someone know where you’re going and what your e.t.a. will be. It’s better to get yelled at by your significant other if you’re late because the rise was too good to leave, than to be stuck under a rock outcrop, freezing your behind off, knowing she doesn’t have a clue where you are.

See you on the river, Jim Burns

Dateline: Oso, Wash. Hot tub in progress

TRUCKIN': A group of Oso, Wash., locals get innovative. Note the rerouted exhaust to "heat" the hot tub water! (Will Burns)

One of the joys of fishing new places is meeting the locals. While chasing the dream in Oso, Wash., earlier this week, my son and I were hailed by this hearty group at the town gas pump/lunch stop/tavern.

“Ever seen a hot tub in the back of a pickup?” one 20-something shouted from his seat in the water.

The answer to that was a definite “no.”

These boys had rerouted the exhaust pipe with PVC to pour the hot fumes into the truck bed. It didn’t do much to heat the chilly water, but it did make for a crazy time (and a lot of carbon monoxide!).

See you on the river, Jim Burns

Quick Mends: Paddle the L.A. River sold out

Environmentalists believe it's a good sign that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers chief L.A. honcho Col. Mark Toy enjoyed the inaugural paddle. (Jim Burns)

In under four hours, the 280 spots to paddle the river over the next several weekends have sold out. Tickets went on sale today at 7 a.m. and by 11 a.m., they were gone. That’s truly rock star paced! Wonder if we’ll see any of them appear on EBay?


See you on the river, Jim Burns

VIPs paddle the Los Angeles River to inaugurate pilot program

SEPULVEDA RECREATION BASIN, Calif. — As city councilmen Ed Reyes and Tony Cardenas carefully navigated their footsteps through mud and into strategically positioned kayaks, there seemed nothing particularly momentous about kayaking today in the Los Angeles River. Aside from the digital news cameras and lack of a dock, you’d never know that this paddling event stretched across layers of federal, state, county and city bureaucracies.

AHOY, MATEY: Councilmembers Tony Cardenas, front, with Ed Reyes, far rear, enjoy a day on the river. (Jim Burns)

After all, there has never been a non-motorized boating program in the river. That’s never, as in never. And, for that matter, there has never been anything officially sanctioned and remotely recreational about hanging by — much less in — its perfumed waters. The Army Corps of Engineers had to sign off on the safety of the project, which is hoped to lead to  a permanent yearly, seasonal, recreational boating program. (Note, the seasonal part …)

The two influential Los Angeles councilmen kicked off the pilot paddle that continues the progress of revitalizing our river after midday, under a bridge with cars zipping along overhead. An L.A. moment.

Beforehand around 100 listened to speeches with more enthusiasm than is found at the typical ribbon cutting. Environmental organizations, including Friends of the River, The River Project and Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, lined one side of the small green park just above the launch site, and handed out fliers, t-shirts, and newsletters about their efforts to turn back the river clock to a time before its concrete channelization in the 1930s. Those efforts by the federal Army Corps of Engineers and local authorities came in the wake of disastrous flooding, which killed Angelinos and destroyed millions of dollars in private property.

The mainstream media, which largely ignores riverly happenings, were there in force, including Spanish language KMEX, with one reporter so busy tweeting from her station aboard a two-person kayak that Cardenas chided her, saying, “you’re supposed to out here enjoying nature.”

Councilperson Reyes said it best: “This is a moment when we get to make Angelinos believers. We are able to make them really believe that they have a river in their city. That there truly exists a whole ecosystem. Birds. Wildlife. Water that connects and drains into the ocean, an ocean that is dying.

“It’s a moment when we can look at a natural asset, set aside our biases, our prejudices, the ‘us vs. them, we live on this side of the tracks, they live on that side of the tracks,’ and talk about one city. And this river will get us there.”

Certainly the Obama administration feels the same way. The recent inclusion of the Los Angeles River — one of seven city waterways —  in the Urban Waters Federal Partnership spotlights federal efforts to connect city neighborhoods to the water.

Even the National Park Service was on hand. “I think it’s essential if we are going to make these kinds of properties available to urban folks that we bring it in as close to their communities as possible. And this is a great demonstration of how to make it accessible … because this is where the starting point of building a stewardship ethic begins, right in their communities,” said Charles Thomas, Pacific West Regional Youth Programs Manager.

The pilot program is modest, with Fridays reserved for youth groups, and two public recreation-education trips, Saturdays and Sundays, from Aug. 13 to Sept. 25.  Ten paddlers per trip will explore this natural mile and a half section of the river in the Sepulveda Recreation Basin with a ranger/naturalist from the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority. Do the math and only 280 folks out of a county pushing 10 million will be able to participate. Tickets are $50, plus a $3.74 handling fee. This covers boat rental, safety equipment and insurance. Scramble for tickets here.

A snarky tweet from Kim Cooper summed up opposition to the plan: “Thinks it’s lame that people are being charged to kayak down the Los Angeles River, a public, navigable waterway. Tom Sawyer wouldn’t pay,” to which we can only reply, true, but it’s also no longer 1876.

The bigger question for readers of this blog: when do we get a pilot program for fly fishing the river? Fly rods and kayaks can make for excellent home water excursions!

See you on the river, Jim Burns

Quick Mends: Paddle the Los Angeles River

SAILING, SAILING: Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (front of canoe) takes a tour of the L.A. River earlier this year. (Courtesy Sepulveda Basin

Well, the Army Corps of Engineers listened to all of the responses from kayakers, environmentalists and just plain folks who love the river, and guess what! If you are lucky enough to buy a ticket (cost unknown to me, but I’ll post it when I find out), Saturdays and Sundays, Aug. 13-Sept. 25, you can explore a mile and a half stretch of the water during this pilot program.

Remember, if was just over a year ago that the Environmental Protection Agency declared the entire river a “traditional navigable waterway,” paving the way for recreational usage. Sign up to get a ticket and check out the digital clock countdown. It’s sure a lot better than getting dizzy trying to watch the debt clock.

See you on the river, Jim Burns