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Stroking the Columbia by Christopher Swain

christopher swain

And I swam with the knowledge that I was part of the problem.

The copper and asbestos dust that shaved off from the brake pads of my SUV sifted into storm drains and fouled salmon spawning streams. The lights I left on sustained a demand for ecosystem-unfriendly hydropower. And when I flushed my toilet at the height of Portland's rainy winter season, it poured straight into the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. (Awkward as this was, it did allow me to make the claim, "I didn't just swim through my hometown, I swam through my own crap!")

During the second week of the swim, I stroked into Spillimacheen, British Columbia. There, I bunked down at the farm of Crystal and Joe Burgess for a few days. The Burgess farm is perched above the 100 year flood line in the Columbia wetlands. Washout creek, a thick, clear-blue ribbon of water, tumbles downhill through their property and dives into the Columbia River. After a day spent "helping" Joe—burning my hands on aluminum irrigation pipe and butchering poplar shrub while he tried not to laugh—we found ourselves taking a break next to Washout Creek. Joe is a friendly, fit, grizzled farmer in his mid-forties. As he smoked a cigarette, we stood together and watched Washout Creek slide down into the Columbia River.

"You know," said Joe, "It just kills me to see all that water going down to the United States."

I laughed. At first I thought he was making a Canadian/American joke. Then I wondered if he regretted not taking more irrigation water from the creek. Then I looked at his face. As he blew out a stream of blue smoke, his eyes were locked on the creek; and he looked wistful, like a parent watching his kid go off to college. And then I got it. Joe was trying to tell me something. But since he was a big, tough guy he just couldn't come out and say it. Joe was mourning the passage of all that gorgeous blue water. He was telling me that he loved the waters of this creek and this river so much, that he was actually sad to see them go.

Joe wasn't alone. During the swim, I met over 13,000 residents of the Columbia Basin. Everyone I met (and I mean everyone) testified to their affection for the Columbia River. Even folks whose job it was to vent the municipal sewage lagoons into the river, spoke of weekends spent fishing, paddling, and water-skiing. This surprised me, and it got me thinking. So often, stakeholders of a waterway spend their time fighting each other. These fights lead to entrenchment, and, eventually, begin to affect people's identities. Without realizing it, folks begin to equate resolving the conflict with risking who they are. They end up clinging to outmoded self-concepts and avoiding solutions, while their shared love for the river becomes a casualty of war.

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