Photo Gallery: L.A. River 1st annual boat races

A participant heads down river in the L.A. River Expeditions first annual L.A. River boat race at Rattlesnake Park just south of Fletcher Drive in L.A. on Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014. (Raul Roa / Staff Photographer / August 29, 2014)

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Water enthusiasts flocked to the Los Angeles River last weekend for the first-ever L.A. Boat Race that tested the skills and speed of paddlers, but drew some criticism from those against the river’s use.

The nearly mile-long race took place in Glendale Narrows at Rattlesnake Park. Participants tested their paddling skills against stream flows, around rocks and in still water, with volunteers positioned along the river helping them navigate the course.

PHOTOS: First-ever L.A. Boat Race

L.A. River Expeditions, a group of area residents promoting public access to waterways, hosted the three-hour event on Saturday, attracting more than 60 participants.

The event drew support from attendees such as L.A. Councilman Tom LaBonge and actor/environmentalist Ed Begley, Jr.

The idea for the race came by way of George Wolfe, co-founder of L.A. River Expeditions that has hosted guided trips in the river the last three years. In 2008, Wolfe paddled the 51-mile L.A. River to help prove it was more than a channel, but a navigable body of water.

Since then, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers unveiled a roughly $1-billion rehabilitation plan for an 11-mile stretch of the river from Griffith Park to downtown L.A.

“The more people that use the river, the better it is because people care about what they use,” Wolfe said. “They’ll pick up trash and become stewards of the river.”

Taking on the L.A. River wasn’t a first for Liz Brackbill of San Clemente. The avid kayaker cheered at the finish line for her fiancé, Brett Duxbury, to complete the race. Brackbill said the stillness of the river turned the race into a cardio event.

“It was short enough that I enjoyed it, but any longer, I would have been hurting,” she said, laughing while inhaling deeply. “It’s a good event. A great resource for the community.”

But not everyone agreed. A couple of people who live in nearby Elysian Village held signs, with one of them reading, “No kayaking. No fishing. Respect the environment. Stop disturbing the wildlife.”

Joel Shapiro, the second co-founder of L.A. River Expeditions, said he respects the protesters’ valid concerns.

“But if we don’t get humans involved, we can’t bring the ecological life back,” Shapiro said. “When you bring people out, they start to care about where they live.”

The individual, timed races continued through mid-afternoon as volunteers applauded kayakers. Barbara Romero, an L.A. Public Works Commissioner, stepped out of her kayak and let the heat dry her clothes. She said kayaking the river is a different experience from urban L.A.

“You can smell the moss, the connection to nature and see the freeway,” said Romero, a supporter of the river revitalization efforts. “It’s a different experience, (kayaking) in an urban area.”

There is talk of making the race an annual event, Wolfe said.