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Roll on, Swain

by Staff
The Oregonian, July 3, 2003

Few people know the Columbia River as intimately as Christopher Swain, the Portland man who swam the 1,243-mile length of it from Canada to Oregon in a yearlong journey that ended Tuesday.

Few would want to, considering the sewage runoff and pesticide contamination and looming barges. But it was a privilege to witness this remarkable journey by an amateur swimmer who wanted to bring public attention to the river's health.

Swain's knowledge should continue to be shared in public appearances, classroom visits and -- we hope -- a book version of his river diary. Such hard-earned insights about a public treasure like the Columbia shouldn't go to waste.

Swain started his swim last June with plenty of book-knowledge about the Columbia River but little personal experience. His diary shows him early on as an idealist focused on survival and the novelty of his task. He develops, stroke by stroke, a keen interest in the dam operators and fishermen and Wanapum tribal members along the way. Closer to the mouth of the Columbia, he sounds like more of a realist -- but with high ideals and a deep sense of responsibility to the river.

He spoke of the river's many moods, one minute a spool of unraveling silk, the next a gray beast. He shared his unease swimming through the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. He said one official told him, "Hanford is okay to visit unless you are pregnant, trying to conceive, nursing, accompanied by small children or immune-compromised."

Not exactly reassuring.

By April, he had traveled below the Snake River into a shipping channel. "Today, I feel like I am swimming down the shoulder of a slow-motion highway," he wrote.

That's the kind of perspective you can get only while crawling along the water's surface next to barges. There's no question who has the right of way on the Columbia River, and why.

Swain isn't an Olympic swimmer or a rich person. He didn't have the talent or resources to turn the swim into the publicity tsunami it could've been. But in a way, that made the swim more real, and the point of it more compelling. He and his wife are a regular Oregon couple with not quite enough money or time. They've got one daughter, plus a baby on the way: Who has time to worry about water quality?

They found time -- even as Heather Swain worried about her husband's safety, and as Christopher worried about being an insufficient provider and unavailable father. In his diary, Swain called himself a fragmented man.

"I am a dad, a husband, a fund-raiser, a recruiter, a volunteer coordinator," he wrote last August, ". . . and I am so tired."

Most people can relate to that. And by reading the online diary of his river journey at or any of the books about the Columbia River that Swain recommends, many people might learn the messy art of finding a little more energy and time to pursue aspirations -- from beginning to end.

Roll on, Swain
The Oregonian, July 3, 2003

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