Back in 2006, Wolfe took a walking tour organized by the Friends of the Los Angeles River, a 25-year-old nonprofit dedicated to protecting the natural and historical heritage of the river. The tour turned out to be a life-changing moment for the L.A. transplant, who says he had become bored with kayaking the Pacific Ocean.
“I just fell in love with the river,” Wolfe says. “I knew I could kayak it.”
But what Wolfe saw would probably surprise most Angelenos.
“There are stretches where you forget that you’re in the city — it’s lush and green all around you,” Wolfe says. “There are several types of fish and birds and other wildlife.”
Of course, there are also urban patches. But Wolfe has a real affinity for those spots too. “I think it’s really cool to see the contrast on the river — that’s so L.A.”
However, kayaking the river is not very L.A. That’s probably why Wolfe’s zany 2007 YouTube video got the attention of Heather Wylie, a civilian whistle-blower at the Army Corps of Engineers. At the time, Wylie was alarmed that the Corps was planning to label all but two miles of the river “unnavigable,” exempting it from protection under the Clean Water Act. Wylie knew she needed to prove the river was a “traditional navigable water,” and in Wolfe, she had an unlikely star.
Set to Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Green River,” Wolfe portrays an L.A. motorist — in a suit and tie — commuting to work via kayak because he’s become fed up with the city’s notorious traffic. While it may have been just what the whistle-blower was looking for, the video’s moderate success — 20,000-plus views — might owe something to the fact that it flies in the face of traditional portrayals of the river.
Wolfe’s spoof is one of the few examples of anyone actually boating in the L.A. River for the cameras, according to Harry Medved, spokesman for movie-ticketing destination Fandango and a co-author of the book Location Filming in Los Angeles.
“The river is a perfect set for Hollywood,” Medved explains. “But it’s only ever used as a backdrop for action sequences, as a crime scene and as a joke about how the river doesn’t really have any water.”
Working against that perception, and at Wylie’s urging, Wolfe organized multiple river expeditions, including one three-day journey for more than 100 intrepid kayakers who paddled the entire length of the river. But the expedition nearly hit a snag when the police showed up and threatened to arrest the boaters for trespassing.
“We had a film permit, but it actually forbad us from being on the river — we were just allowed to film it,” Wolfe explains. “Thankfully, the police didn’t read the whole thing.”
Wolfe cracks a smile recalling the irony of a film permit saving the expedition. But an even greater irony haunts Wolfe now that his expedition has helped save the river.
“If we had pushed it back then, we would have forced the access issue,” Wolfe says looking longingly toward the river below. “Now, we have a river, but we can’t use it.”
That’s when Wolfe went to City Hall.