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End-to-end Columbia Swim Nears Finish Line

by Peter Prengaman, Associated Press
Lewiston Tribune, June 23, 2003

BONNEVILLE DAM, Ore. -- Yellow blisters the size of nickels are scattered across the back of Christopher Swain's neck, the result of wetsuit chafing through a year of swimming in the Columbia River.

His body, often exposed to water temperatures just above freezing, has developed a thick layer of fat.

And he's homesick for his wife and young daughter, whom he has seen only sporadically since he began swimming last June.

None of that, however, has ebbed the enthusiasm that drove the 35-year-old Portland, Ore., resident to set the goal of swimming the entire length of the Columbia -- 1,243 miles from Canada to Oregon -- to bring attention to pollution in the water.

He expects to complete the journey by the end of June, swimming past Astoria and across the perilous Columbia Bar to the Pacific Ocean.

"The river needs someone to plead its case," said Swain on a recent day before entering the water about 40 miles east of Portland.

"Maybe that sounds fuzzy and warm, but the alternative is what we've been trying the last century -- using the river as a highway and a dump."

Swain swims between five and 25 miles a day, depending on the water temperature and his health. He's flanked by a small motorized raft, run by volunteers. The raft alerts barges, fishing boats and wind surfers of Swain's approach.

It also carries goodies for Swain's "feedings" -- Gatorade, energy bars and animal crackers every 20 minutes.

Swain, an acupuncturist who is a native of Massachusetts, says he was awed the first time he saw the Columbia in 1997, a river "large enough to make its own weather pattern."

Since Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, from their explorations at the beginning of the 19th century, wrote about a blue river that teemed with salmon and supported many native cultures, the Columbia has spurred popular imagination.

Swain says the gap between the pristine river the famed explorers raved about and the reality of its toxic waters today compelled him to action. The message has resonated with others.

"I sure think it's helping to draw attention to the river's pollution," said Jeff Allen, executive director of the Oregon Environmental Council. "Sometimes it takes a stunt like this to wake people up."

Meleah Dundon, a Hood River resident who recently gave Swain a place to stay, says she's glad someone is drawing attention to the problem.

"The river is polluted and we need to let everybody know," Dundon said. "Christopher is an incredible man on a mission."

For two years, Swain studied the Columbia, trained, saved money and worked to get sponsorships.

In 1996, Swain swam 210 miles on the lower Connecticut River to support the United Nations' Universal Declaration on Human Rights. He's been a national-level rower, and has qualified for the national triathlon championships.

If he completes his current voyage, he'll be the first person known to have swum the entire Columbia River.

Discussing his cause, Swain says environmentalists should accommodate "natural river allies" including hunters and fishermen -- groups that want clean water and have the money and organization to influence policy.

Between legs of his swim, Swain has talked to more than 13,000 people, 8,000 of them children from cities along the Columbia.

He's met with tribal leaders, farmers, factory owners, city officials and operators from the 14 dams along the river.

Experience in the river gives him credibility.

"People tell me, 'Don't bug us about our sewage system," and I say, 'Hey, I just swam through your poop,"' Swain said.

Some officials agree with Swain's message.

"You hit the nail on the head," said James Mahar, operations manager for the Bonneville Dam, after Swain told him federal and state agencies needed to create a comprehensive plan to clean up the river. "Those are some of the same things we are trying to do."

Swain has stroked through water mixed with arsenic, lead, mercury, pesticides, herbicides and radioactive waste from the nuclear reactor in Hanford, Wash.

Sometimes the water is clear, allowing him to gaze through his goggles at schools of salmon, sunken cars, tires, hunks of metal and concrete he can't identify. He can even see the sidewalks and streets of towns buried under water by dam displacement projects.

More often, though, the river is so murky that he can't even see his hands gliding through the water.

Polka-dot rashes have appeared on his back and stomach. Every 20 minutes in the water he rinses his mouth with disinfecting hydrogen peroxide, carried in the raft.

Through the past year, Swain has endured six ear infections, four colds, two shoulder inflammations and a swollen lymph node believed to have been caused by pesticides.

Still, he swims on. And the closer he gets to finishing, the more people want to help him.

Indian tribes, mayors and the parents of children he's spoken to have offered him a bed and a place to hang his wetsuit.

The man who has captained the raft since last September, Chris Runyard, is a United Airlines Pilot who lives in Portland.

Inspired by Swain, Runyard said he rearranged his schedule to accompany the swimmer on most legs.

Endorsements have trickled in and a video documentary crew has started following Swain.

During the winter, though, Swain ran into problems.

He was so broke that he had to quit swimming for a few weeks at a time to take temporary jobs, from pruning trees to inspecting athletic shoes.

Swain's wife, Heather, supported his river odyssey, but his time away from home had strained their family life.

The first complete sentence uttered by their 2-year-old daughter was both touching and indicative of her reality: "Daddy swims in the river."

Swain had already braved months of 38-degree waters, been run over by a boat, dodged dozens of others, smashed through Class 4 rapids and spent thousands of hours communing with the river as he stared into its depths.

One kick at a time, one stroke at a time, Swain had to finish.

How much influence the swim will have is unclear.

After speaking to people in Trail, British Columbia, Swain said city officials there pledged to eliminate pesticides and herbicides on some city lands, chemicals that reach the river through drainage.

Peter Prengaman, Associated Press
End-to-end Columbia Swim Nears Finish Line
Lewiston Tribune, June 23, 2003

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