When most Southern Californians think of the Los Angeles River -- if they even know it exists -- they picture a trash-strewn, concrete-lined channel. They don't imagine an urban retreat replete with blue herons, calm waters and willow trees.
It's the latter, less common vision that organizers of tours of a 1.5-mile section of the urban waterway hope to share with kayakers this summer.
If the idea of seeing the city river's hidden natural side floats your boat, you're not alone.
This week, tickets for the second season of LA River tours sold out within hours. Last year, tickets for a pilot program for 260 paddlers sold out in about 10 minutes.
"When you get 2,000 or 3,000 people really clamoring to go on the river, not just walking along the banks, actually putting people on the river ... It just resonates with people," said George Wolfe, founder of LA River Expeditions.
Wolfe's business is the smaller of two groups offering kayak tours beginning this month and lasting through the end of September. Wolfe, who helped launch last year's tours, offers tours on Sundays and Mondays.
On Tuesday, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, the nonprofit Los Angeles Conservation Corps will be taking 10 kayakers on the river three times per day. LACC is working with a collection of nonprofits to provide their Paddle the LA River program.
The first public paddle is Saturday, marking the beginning of an event that is strictly regulated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has controlled most of the river since it was channelized to prevent floods some 70 years ago.
Currently, the Corps only allows navigation in the 1.5-mile portion in the Sepulveda Basin Recreation Area in Van Nuys. Kayakers put in at Balboa Boulevard and exit the river at Burbank Boulevard.
Regular people aren't allowed to just put boats in wherever they want; that's illegal. The Conservation Corps and LA River Expeditions are allowed to offer tours through Army Corps licenses.
Representatives of both of the tour groups hope that the Army Corps will open up more of the river to paddlers in future, include another scenic portion to the south -- the Glendale Narrows. But they're thrilled with the response to the current offerings.
Wolfe said his approximately 500 tickets, which went on sale Tuesday, were sold out pretty much instantaneously. The LACC's 1,200 tickets -- at $50 each for a two-hour tour -- were sold out within two days, according to spokesman Mike Mena.
Mena said the event is intended to bring attention to the long-neglected river, which has been the subject of a city revitalization effort that's been gaining steam.
"It's to make people aware that there is a river in Los Angeles, and it's more than a movie set for 'Terminator 2' or 'Grease.' We want people to know there is a river with parts that are very beautiful and natural," Mena said.
Last year, he said he lost his wedding band during a river trip. But the experience of paddling through the waterway was memorable for other reasons as well.
"It's just breathtaking. You'll see different birds going by and a fish jumping here and there," Mena said. "I was surprised at how serene it was, how quiet it is."
In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared the entire river a navigable waterway. That decision, which had been sought by river activists, paved the way for the tours. That came after a much-publicized paddle of the river's entire 51 miles in 2008 -- a trip that Wolfe took.
Wolfe said he thinks the interest in the 2011 and 2012 paddle trips mark a change in local residents' relationship with the Los Angeles River.
"It says that we're beginning to reach a point of cirical mass where the river revitalization is going to move forward exponentially instead of incrementally," Wolfe said. "What does it mean to the city? Hopefully that we start to get our river back. Hopefully we're in recovery mode."