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River Activist
Christopher Swain
(at right)

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"I'm out for justice."

Athlete, Activist, Aquaman

He may not communicate with fish, but superactivist Christopher Swain is going to heroic lengths to help them out—swimming the length of the once mighty Columbia River to call attention to its sorry state.

On June 4, 2002, Christopher Swain jumped into the glacial headwaters of the Columbia River for a swim—one he doesn't intend to finish until he reaches the river's mouth, 1,243 miles (2,000 kilometers) downstream.

Swain hopes that swimming the river—particularly its heavily polluted sections—will draw attention to the Columbia's ecological plight, just as he demonstrated his support for universal human rights by swimming 210 miles (338 kilometers) of the Connecticut River in 1995.

The activist lives with his wife and daughter in Portland, Oregon, and certainly has the stamina to complete his 180-day swim. He's competed in the grueling Iron Man competition, and in 1991 he became the first non-Native American to finish the Apache "Run for the Sun"—an 8-mile (13-kilometer) run uphill, through snow, with a mouthful of water you can neither swallow or spit out.

Swain's commitment to his environmental cause is just as solid—so strong, in fact, that he's willing to expose himself at length to the river's pesticide-ridden waters to make his point.

Since Swain began his six-month swim, he's averaged around 8 miles (13 kilometers) a day. He spends three days on the river, one off. He anticipates he'll reach the Pacific Ocean sometime around Thanksgiving.

On day 24 of his six-month swim, Swain took some time off between strokes to answer a few of our questions.

—Nicole Davis

Why choose swimming as a form of advocacy?

I have a real affinity for swimming. Some people feel better in the mountains; I look for chances to be in the river. Also, if you're advocating for the water, it's helpful to wet.

Water quality is not a story until somebody's in the water, until it becomes personal—so that's what I'm out to do, partially through the swim. I'm making it personal, both for me and for anybody who hears the story, because I'm going to be talking about what's in the water in their community.

Why swim the Columbia River, in particular?

I was doing a swim on the Connecticut River in 1995, and while people listened to my spiel [on universal human rights], all they really wanted to ask me was "what's it like in the water?"

I think what they're seeing is that I'm not scared [of swimming in the Columbia]. I love that river. It's as if I have a friend with a catastrophic disease, and I'm not afraid of catching it.

What is a typical day like swimming the river?

My goal each day depends on the river. Usually we have a destination in mind, where we've left the vehicle. In some sense, we take a guess as to how far a day's hard swim might bring us. Usually I try to finish before dinner—by 5 or 6 at the latest.

I go to the boat to eat or drink every 15 or 20 minutes. When I'm in the boat, I eat everything from peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches to goldfish crackers. I'm the guy who's introduced the invasive species of cheddar cheese goldfish cracker into the upper Columbia River. I also drink 5 liters [1.3 gallons] of carbohydrate drinks a day.

What do you see and hear during your swim?

There's probably a mile-an-hour [1.61-kilometer-an-hour] current. If I close my eyes, I can't tell that I'm moving at all.

If I put my head in the water, I can hear whether there are creeks coming in or rivers coming in, because I can hear the sound of silt that they're dropping. And I can tell how big the creek is and how much silt and precipitate is in the water. It sounds like someone is blowing sand at metal—it's like a hiss.

I see a lot of fish, salmon and trout mostly. Once a trout even tugged on my zipper on the back of my dry suit. Basically, the main things I bump into are not man-made; they're logs or other obstructions that are in the river.

One day, I was rolling onto my side to switch stroke and I got hit right in the ribs under my left arm, by some kind of log underwater. I never saw it. It put a little pinhole in my dry suit, and my ribs ached for an hour. That's always a little scary, because it's unexpected.

Are you afraid of contaminants in the river?

Sometimes I have to modify my breast strokes so I can keep my head out of the water—I walk a fine line. I want to swim the river so I can draw attention to the contaminants, but I need to swim in such a way that I don't get too contaminated.

I plug my ears with silicone earplugs, I put barrier creams on my skin to keep the water off my skin, rinse off when I get out. And also when I stop to eat, I usually gargle with hydrogen peroxide, so if there're any nasties in the water, I can give them a hard time.

Honestly I worry about the pesticides the most. The EPA says there're 35 pesticides in the Columbia River. Sixteen are above the safe drinking water standard, and some of them are banned, like DDT.

The reason I worry about pesticides is because they're neurotoxins and their effects are cumulative. So I'm gonna get some exposure certainly.

What hurts at the end of the day?

Sometimes my neck, because my neck's exposed and out of the water for most of the day. Sometimes my knees will get a little inflamed, a little overused. Not many—knock on wood—shoulder issues.

Honestly, I'm sad at the end of the day, because I don't see my wife and daughter enough. That's probably the hardest thing for me. I want to be a good champion for the river's cause. This is more worth doing than not, but it can be sad and lonely.

Did you feel like you needed to use your athleticism in some way other than for profit?

Sometime in 1990, while I was recovering from a biking accident, I did some soul searching and determined that competition for competition's sake was empty. And in the process of looking for what I cared about, I discovered that I had to align my athletic efforts with my deepest aspirations.

How does your Columbia River swim reflect those aspirations?

The contamination of the Columbia River is not environmental—it's a human problem, because humans caused it, and they're coming to harm because of it. I feel this is an injustice.

I think it's unjust that one of the most beautiful rivers in the world is becoming so polluted that the people in its valley could be sick because of it, and I'm out for justice.

Do you ever feel like giving up?

Every athlete knows this trick. You just have to think about the next stroke and the stroke you're on right now. There's no future.

1.8 million stokes later, I'll taste the salt water of the Pacific. But I'm not counting.

Read more about Christopher Swain in the September 2002 issue of Adventure.

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More Q&A's


Related Web Sites

Virtual Columbia River
Experience the once coursing, now dammed-into-submission Columbia River—image gallery, maps, and more.

Christopher Swain's Columbia River Swim
Read about the latest adventures of Christopher Swain as he attempts to swim the length of the Columbia River.

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