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MELISSA BLOCK, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

LYNN NEARY, host: And I'm Lynn Neary.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The pilot program is run by the L.A. Conservation Corps and the Mountains Recreation Conservation Authority.]

The polluted and often ridiculed Los Angeles River is now open to kayak and canoe adventures. It's a pilot program run by city officials and the Army Corps of Engineers. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports the idea is to get Angelinos thinking of the river as a way to experience nature.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: In the South American rain forest, I once paddled in a dugout canoe through the lush Amazon River, filled with pink dolphins and flesh-eating piranhas. So the thought of navigating down the L.A. River at first seemed almost ridiculous. Most of the 51 miles is a trickle of water in a concrete ditch - a sewer leading to the Pacific Ocean, a Hollywood setting for drag races and car chases. But the other morning, I found myself in a two-person canoe on a stretch of the river from Van Nuys to Burbank. I had to hold my recording equipment and camera, so L.A. City Councilman Ed Reyes did all the paddling.

ED REYES: Just pretend we're in Venice.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) When the moon hits...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BARCO: This is your taxpayer dollars at work here.

REYES: Yeah.

BARCO: This part of the L.A. River can get waist deep. There's dirt on the bottom, and willow trees and sycamores busting through the concrete along the banks. Officials want more of the L.A. River to become like this: a wildlife habitat.

REYES: Have you guys ever been in the river before?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: No.

BARCO: Reyes has invited fifth-graders from L.A.'s Leo Politi Elementary School to explore with us.

REYES: The reason why you're so special is you're the first group of students that will be able to say, I was on the river, and I did not get arrested - that it's legal to do this.

BARCO: The Army Corps of Engineers green-lighted this expedition. Engineer John Sweeten says this is a change in perspective for the corps.

JOHN SWEETEN: Decades ago, we tried to keep everybody out of the river because it's very dangerous. This river is designed to flow way faster than anything you've ever really experienced in nature.

BARCO: The Army Corps built the channel from the 1930s to the 1960s, in order to control flooding. So now when it rains hard, just six inches of water in this river can move so fast, it can knock over a 300-pound person.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

BARCO: Back on the water, councilman Reyes is telling the children how he and his brother used to explore the L.A. River back in the 1960s.

REYES: We used to get rubber tires and pieces of wood...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Will it take us around the...

REYES: Yeah. We'd just float. And...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Cool.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: What did you use to paddle?

REYES: Our arms.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

REYES: Actually, the water's a lot cleaner today than it was then. When we found what was in there, we just got - maybe we shouldn't go in there after all.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

REYES: Probably, it wasn't safe too. We just didn't know.

BARCO: What do we see here? Spray paint cans, water bottles, shopping carts, Styrofoam cups - and a family of egrets, and more shopping carts.

REYES: Yeah, part of the urban slobber.

BARCO: Urban?

REYES: Slobber. It's a - it sounds disgusting. That's why I like to say it - because it makes people think.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The trip guides are with the L.A. Conservation Corps.]

BARCO: During the two-hour trip, our guides from the California Conservation Corps helped us down the rockier parts, what they called rapids.

Oh!

In the shallow stretches, we got out and walked. There was one more natural section, without concrete, dubbed the Grand Canyon. We saw a foot-long carp, a cover of coots, and a siege of herons. By the end of the trip, when I finally started paddling, the children had counted 32 discarded shopping carts. And one kid, Arvin Gonzales, was fearless enough to jump in the shallow river.

What's it like in there?

ARVIN GONZALES: Cold - and a little bit warm.

BARCO: You think it's clean?

GONZALES: Hmm. I'll swim in it.

BARCO: What are you going to tell your friends about the L.A. River?

GONZALES: I'm going to tell them that it was really fun and that if it rains, and then the trash goes in the drainpipe, the trash will end up in the river, and the river will take the trash to the ocean.

BARCO: These kids from L.A.'s Pico Union neighborhood rarely get to spend time in nature. It may not be the Amazon, but they say this was the best field trip ever. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

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