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Commentaries and editorials

Swimmer has a Mission and a Message

by Hal Bernton
The Seattle Times, June 12, 2003

MAYER STATE PARK, Ore. -- In swimming down the Columbia River, Christopher Swain has tasted sewage, suffered six ear infections and numbed his body in winter water as cold as 38 degrees.

So this week, it was no big deal when he reached the Columbia Gorge and faced gusting winds whipping up seven-foot waves. With the aid of a powerful crawl stroke and well-timed kicks, he lifted himself up and over the breakers and continued his journey.

Swain, a 35-year-old Portland acupuncturist, is on the homestretch of a 1,243-mile swim of the Columbia that began June 4, 2002, in the Canadian headwaters and is expected to end later this month at the Pacific Ocean.

Swain is one tough athlete who has spent much of his adult life hooked on rowing, biking, running, triathlons and other competitive endurance sports. Though he is bent on being the first person to swim the Columbia, his greatest passion appears to be reserved for trying to save the river. He hopes for a future of an undammed, clean and salmon-rich waterway.

"We've turned the Columbia into a highway and a dump and that's not OK," Swain said as he hung from the side of an escort boat in a brief midriver break. "I'm not assigning blame, but we have got to have a discussion about this."

Swain's travel down the river has unfolded in a series of stages, with swim days alternating with rest days that became more frequent during the winter months, when the water was so cold he could only swim for a few hours at a time.

He has less than 165 miles to go. And though the Gorge's rough waters have occasionally slapped him around, he still manages 12 to 15 miles in a typical six- to seven-hour day.

Swain swims in a wet suit, along with a skullcap, flippers and earplugs, and is always tracked by an escort boat.

About every 600 strokes, he heads over to the side of the boat this week's provided by the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fisheries Enforcement to down Gatorade and munch on Goldfish crackers or Tiger's Milk Bars.

"Last summer, I ate a lot of peanut butter sandwiches and yogurt pretzels but now I can't touch those things," Swain said. "I just got sick of them."

At each break, he gargles with hydrogen peroxide to help ward off infection. But he still swallows plenty of river water noting that tastes vary according to the pollution.

Sometimes there are hints of cow manure, which tastes of mud and clover. Or sewage with a chemical aftertaste from the treatment plants. He didn't relish a swim through a stretch of Washington apple orchards being sprayed with pesticides. Afterward, he says, he suffered swollen lymph nodes.

But along the way, he also has seen a lot of cool stuff. He recalls a striking if disturbing black beach in northern Washington, formed by smelter slag settling out of the river. And at one point in the shallows of Canada, he was able to gaze down into the river and see the road and foundations of a long-flooded community.

"It's amazing how much of the river's history is underwater," Swain said.

On rest days, Swain talks with school classes, service groups, corporations, reporters, tribal leaders and whoever else is interested in hearing about his journey.

And he's not shy about pressing his vision of what the future should bring.

At a news conference earlier this week in The Dalles, Ore., a river town hard hit by aluminum-plant layoffs, he dismissed a nearby dam as a "Depression-era relic."

He figures that the manufacturing jobs are probably gone forever to places where wages are lower, and that all the dams eventually will come down and a new economy will emerge, although he doesn't say just what that economy will look like.

"I can't see how a free-flowing river isn't going to be the best thing that ever happened to The Dalles," Swain said before hopping into a boat, motoring up to the dam's outflow and jumping into the current to begin his day's swim.

Swain discovered the Columbia relatively late in his life. Raised in New York and Massachusetts, he first saw the river on a 1997 visit to Oregon and became fascinated with the Columbia's beauty, pollution, dams and significance to local Indians.

After moving to Portland in 1999, he read books about the river, studied maps of its course and talked about it constantly to friends and family.

"I was stuck on the topic and the unspoken question was, 'What is it going to take to work through this river thing?' " Swain said.

In October 2000, he decided it would take a swim. He already was a veteran of a 210-mile swim of the Lower Connecticut River in 1996; that helped boost his confidence in tackling the much-longer Columbia.

But it still took more than two years of training to prepare for the swim. Swain worked out on land and swam in pools and river stretches near Portland.

He also had to figure out how to finance the trip. His early fund-raising efforts fell short, and he ended up on a slender budget of about $26,000 money that came from savings, T-shirt sales, donations and the money he earns from some speaking engagements. Corporate sponsors have helped with wet suits, phone services and other equipment, and he generally finds lodging in the homes of supporters he meets along the way.

The swim began in Columbia Lake, British Columbia, a river headwaters fed by springs. In undammed early stretches of the river, Swain says he was aided by currents of 1 to 2 mph.

But the first few of the 14 dams on the main stem are used for storage and create long stretches of slack water that he had to slog through with no benefit of current. It was slow going, and by December, some doubted whether he would reach the ocean as he shuttled back and forth in his down time to Portland to visit his wife and young daughter.

"Swain is now so low on money and behind schedule that a Vegas bookie wouldn't dare offer odds on when or even if it will happen," Spokesman-Review columnist Doug Clark wrote Dec. 13. "... There are dumber ways to make a name for yourself, I suppose. No one has ever pushed a macadamia nut with his nose to the top of Mount Rainier, for example."

But Swain's perseverance through the winter also won respect.

Tom Louie of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville recalls how Swain showed up at his house on a January evening after a swim through a snowstorm pushed by a stiff north wind.

Louie helped arrange for Swain to use a houseboat rather than a small open Zodiac for his January escort boat, and is planning tribal celebrations to help welcome Swain as he approaches the river mouth.

"My first impression of Christopher was that he was half-crazy, but then I listened to his story and what he is trying to do to clean up the river," Louie said. "And that pollution is something that has bothered me for years.

"He just inspired me a whole lot."


Hal Bernton
Swimmer has a Mission and a Message
The Seattle Times, June 12, 2003

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