Swimming the Columbia River

Man's Journey to Spotlight River's Woes Nears an End

Christopher Swain swims the Columbia River. Basil Childers hide caption

See more photos of Swain's swim.
itoggle caption Basil Childers

Last December, Christopher Swain was shivering in his wetsuit in the middle of the Columbia River in Washington state. He was in the middle of a snowstorm and the water was 41 degrees. "I actually poured hot Earl Grey tea down my scuba boots a minute ago trying to unfreeze my feet," Swain told NPR's Neal Conan at the time.

Now, nearly 700 miles and six months later, the 35-year-old Portland, Ore., resident is nearing the end of his journey. His goal: swimming the entire length of the river's 1,243 miles, and in the process bring public attention to the Columbia's environmental problems. As he says on his Web site, Swain wants to make it "fishable, swimmable, and drinkable for future generations."

Next week, Swain expects to finish the swim, which began in the Columbia's headwaters in Canada and will end in the Pacific Ocean.

NPR's Tom Goldman reports that along the way, Swain has inadvertently swallowed enough of the Columbia River to be able to say what's in the water at any given time. "Today I can taste... mud, metal, sewage, fuel," Swain says. The industrial section of the river has "a particular bouquet," the swimmer says.

Swain eats and drinks about every 40 minutes, or 1,200 freestyle strokes. Counting his strokes is one of the ways he keeps his mind busy during the six or seven hours per day that he swims. Simple mental exercises work for awhile, but there are "only so many old relationships and incidents you can rehash as you stare down through the brown water..." But then he starts thinking about "larger issues," like "why am I doing this..."

The answer to that question goes back to 1997. That's when he first saw the Columbia and fell in love. Learning as much as he could about the river, Swain "discovered that the majestic river Lewis and Clark once described as free-flowing and clear at every depth had become dirty and slowed by over a dozen dams," Goldman reports. Swain stood on the shore and realized that if he was going to plead the river's case, he was going to have to, as he puts it, get wet.

And he now realizes why no one else has made the river-long swim before. "I've survived getting run over by boats, I've made it through class four rapids, I've swum through nuclear waste and... intense concentration of pesticides. It's no mystery to me why no one's swum the Columbia River. It's like you'd be out of your mind… in some way," he says with a laugh.

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