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Swimmer Takes 1,242-Mile Dip for River Restoration

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - June 21, 2002

Christopher Swain entered the Columbia River for a swim on at 11:30 a.m. on June 14.

His entry point? The southern end of Columbia Lake at Canal Flats in British Columbia.

His destination? With stopovers at towns along the way to advocate for the health of the river, he expects to end his 1,242 mile journey sometime in November when he swims across the treacherous Columbia River bar into the Pacific Ocean.

Swain said that he saw the Columbia River for the first time five years ago and was awed by its beauty, but worried about contamination present in some stretches of the river.

"Like any good love affair, my fling with the Columbia quickly got out of hand," he said. "The river is a contaminated beauty, and the longer we were involved, the more upset I got. Eventually, I would learn that the Columbia's soft, brown hands dripped with contaminants ranging from arsenic to zinc. Since no one had warned me, I took it personally."

He took his last drink of fresh Columbia River water on his first day after swimming the first 8 miles in Lake Columbia.

"I marveled at the difference between the Columbia River that Lewis and Clark found -- the one they said ran clear at every depth and teemed with salmon -- and the twisted, overheated necklace of toxic lakes that sloshed through my hometown of Portland, Ore.," he wrote in his journal about his burgeoning love affair with the river. "I wondered how a river could have been stolen without anyone noticing. I plotted ways to steal it back."

Swain is swimming the length of the Columbia River to make public his passion for the river, to highlight threats and solutions to the river system's water quality and to get others to support river restoration.

"So often in the environmental movement it's all abstract. We send our money off to protect some distant stretch of land," he said. "In order for people to take this issue seriously, somebody's got to get in the water."

Swain also swam the lower 210 miles of the Connecticut River in 1996. That was to support universal human rights. It was during that swim that he learned "that tasting every mile of a river is a great way to build the credibility to speak on its behalf."

Beginning the swim in a dry suit, Swain also will use a variety of wet suits to stay warm as he encounters water temperatures as cold as 38 degrees and, later this summer, as high as 73 degrees.

Swain founded in 1992 the Children's Forestry Project to create opportunities for under-privileged youth to plant groves and forests of trees on damaged tracts of land in Colorado, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. And, he started The Human Rights Company to increase awareness of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1995.

Related Links:
The Columbia River Swim

Barry Espenson
Swimmer Takes 1,242-Mile Dip for River Restoration
Columbia Basin Bulletin, June 21, 2002

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