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Stroking the Columbia

Organic Valley is proud to sponsor Christopher Swain's 2004 Swim for Clean Water.

by Christopher Swain

On July 1, 2003, Christopher Swain became the first person in history to swim the entire 1,243 mile length of the Columbia River. Along the way, he crafted a language to tell us why.

On June 4, 2002, I jumped into the Canadian headwaters of the Columbia River, and took the first of the 795,750 freestyle strokes that would carry me to the Pacific Ocean. Before I took those first strokes, I recited a laundry list of challenges facing the river to a scrum of reporters. That was the easy part. Once I hit the water, all I had was my love for my hometown river, and a desire to meet my neighbors. The hard part would be figuring out what the heck I could do to help. No one predicted success. I was not rich, I was not a scientist, and I was not a fast swimmer. The biggest obstacle I faced was that I was an average guy. When I over heard Canadians whispering things like, "He'll die up North," I just smiled. They saw me for what I was: some guy from Oregon trying to swim the length of one of the North America's largest and most inhospitable rivers.

I spent 165 days in the Columbia River. That first day I glided through the mineral water of Columbia Lake, the pristine source of the river. I stretched out my strokes, and tore across water the color of sky. For the first and last time, I made a point of deliberately swallowing some water.

The next day, while the river doubled as a water hazard for the Fairmont Hot Springs Golf Course, I kicked past putting greens and took my first herbicide bath.

Four days later, I swam past my first municipal sewage outfall. But even sewage wasn't all that bad: I knew it when I smelled it. Silicone ear plugs kept out all but the most determined bacteria. Vaccines closed the door on Hepatitis. And activated charcoal tablets put the brakes on diarrhea. The dangers my Canadian friends had in mind, whirlpools, grizzly bears, class IV rapids, and glacial meltwater, were the least of my worries. What kept me up at night were the dangers I couldn't see.

There was no barrier that could protect my nervous system from the neuro-toxic pesticides that washed into the river from the fruit orchards and dry wheat farms that decorate the Columbia River Valley. There was no technology that could get the PCB's out of my fat cells. And there was no protection from the nuclear waste that spiked the waters of the Columbia River's Hanford Reach. (The idea of my swimming past the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in a lead suit was funny, but a nonstarter nonetheless. I swam through the most radioactive piece of land in the Western hemisphere with nothing but a five millimeter wetsuit between me and the strontium-90,technetium-99, uranium, and plutonium that plied the same waters I did.)

All of this begs the question, Why the hell would I risk my life, health, and limb by swimming the Columbia River? To say I was doing it for my daughters came off as a little too pat. Sure, I loved my kids and I wanted them to inherit a clean river. But there was more to it. I loved the river, and I swam in search of a way to help her.

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