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Where River Meets Ocean,
Swimmer's Journey Ends

by Kevin Graham
The Oregonian, July 2, 2003

HAMMOND -- The swim of a lifetime ended for Christopher Swain on Tuesday morning after a mere 12 minutes in the water.

The Portland acupuncturist crossed the Columbia River bar into the Pacific Ocean, becoming the first person known to swim the entire length of the Columbia River -- 1,243 miles from Canada to Oregon -- and ending a yearlong journey to bring attention to the river's pollution.

Along the way, Swain, 35, wore out seven wet suits and withstood six ear infections, a swollen lymph node and the menacing uncertainty of stroking through the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Worse, he feared he would strain his marriage and go broke in a quest that racked up $27,000 in lodging, food and supplies expenses, most donated.

On shore Tuesday and still dripping in his wet suit, Swain spoke with a small group of supporters and reporters at the Hammond Marina. He cried, happy it was over, and then apologized.

"I'm part of the problem," he said of society's responsibility for pollution. "I helped make this mess. I'm sorry it happened."

Swain's wife, Heather, due to give birth to their second child next week, said watching her husband cross the bar was "like a full-body sigh."

"We get to go back and play house for a little while," she said.

Their 21/2-year-old daughter, Rowan, sat on the boat ramp at her father's feet and licked icing off a small cake with the words "Columbia River Swim -- 1,243 miles down" written on it.

Swain's father, Michael Smith, flew in from Boston to watch his son swim the final mile -- a victory lap of sorts compared with the 5- to 25-mile segments Swain typically swam. Eight-foot standing waves at the Columbia Bar added challenge and drama.

"You spend a lot of time trying to encourage your kids to follow their hearts in life, and he was doing it," Smith said.

Since beginning his swim in June 2002, Swain talked with more than 13,000 people in river cities of his vision for a drinkable, free-flowing river.

He also kept a copious journal, which might become the foundation of a book on his record-setting effort.

As Swain stroked through waters ranging from 38 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit, some critics said the swim was more about personal glory than the river's problems, which derive from a complex relationship between modern society and one of the world's massive inland waterways. Hydroelectric dams, river barging, agricultural irrigation -- all contribute to a changing river.

"Plead the river's case" "It's not meant to be about me," Swain said. "It's meant to be a way to plead the river's case."

Swain first saw the Columbia in 1997. Two years later, he moved to Oregon from New England to start a family and feed his fascination with the river.

He staked everything on suiting up and diving in. His Internet site,, features stories from his swim log -- some about the strain it put on his family. Swain doubted at times whether he was being a good father and husband by spending so much time away from home. Yet something bigger was pressing him on.

"I don't plan to swim into Astoria broke and divorced," he wrote in one entry.

About four months into the swim, money ran out. Bills were piling up, and swimming gear needed replacement. So Swain pulled out and took a temp job moving shoe boxes in a warehouse for $8 an hour.

But always, he got back into the water.

The Columbia River has changed since the free-flowing days of Lewis and Clark at the start of the 19th century. Now there are 14 dams providing electricity to millions, controlling flooding and irrigating farms. Some conservationists blame dams for declines in wild salmon runs, saying they thwart migration and reproduction.

Swain said he understands the importance of dams and that people he's encountered are quick to put a dollar figure on their value. But he supports more discussion about dam removal.

"Let's put a dollar amount on having a free-flowing river," Swain said.

How is river affected? Mary Lou Soscia, Columbia River coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said federal and state agencies are still trying to understand how 150 years of "taking advantage" of the Columbia affect the river, known to contain arsenic, mercury and PCBs.

"I think there are serious problems, but I think there's still hope," Soscia said. "I'd quit my job if there wasn't hope."

William Lang, a history professor at Portland State University and former director of the Center for Columbia River History, said the river provides for development and growth in the Northwest. He called Swain's vision of a drinkable Columbia attainable if others believe it and become better river stewards.

"It's reasonable to say that the conditions of the river can only absorb so much before it becomes itself a pollutant to the region," Lang said. "If the river is allowed to become a pollutant, which clearly it was on its way to becoming until recent efforts, then the Northwest is not going to be the Edenic-like place that most of us in our dreams think it is."

Lang said losing the river to pollution would be the "wounding of the Northwest spirit."

Swain hopes to prevent that. A book might help to continue his advocacy, he said.

For now, he's ready to be a husband and a father again. Then he'll look for a job.

"My fate in a way is kind of tied up in the Columbia now," Swain said. "You love the river like a sister, and I'll miss that. I'll miss being in that cold embrace all day."

Kevin Graham
Researcher Margie Gultry contributed to this report.
Where River Meets Ocean, Swimmer's Journey Ends
The Oregonian, July 2, 2003

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