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Stroking the Columbia by Christopher Swain

I knew it didn't have to be this way. And I couldn't help wondering, What if we all acknowledged our love for this river? What if we leveraged the fact that we share so much common ground? Would our shared affection for the river let us put aside our differences long enough to protect every unspoiled section of river? I hoped so, even though I imagined it might be the work of decades.

What could I do to help? Well, I knew I was part of the problem, so I started with some quick fixes. I rode my bike more. I chose a hydropower-free mix of wind and geothermal power from my electric utility. I shut off the water while I brushed my teeth. The exciting thing was how easy it was to make those changes. The depressing thing was that it took a 1,243-mile swim in cold, dirty water to motivate me at all.

The final frontier for me turned out to be an economic one. For all of my burgeoning awareness, it was a long time before I let myself trace the connection between the money I spent, and the river I was swimming. I ate tons of food on the swim. (Dangerously thin TV reporters looked hungry when I told them I had to consume 10,000 calories a day.) For all that, I must admit that most of what I ate was junk. Six hours in the water led to all sorts of cravings. I answered these by powering through bags of Pepperidge Farm Cheddar Cheese Goldfish Crackers, or wolfing down Quarter Pounders with Cheese from McDonald's. In search of the calories I needed to swim in 39 degree water through blizzards, I didn't hesitate. If I wanted a grilled cheese sandwich, I grabbed whichever cheddar cheese was on sale. I didn't waste a thought on the pesticides and antibiotics that I might get along the way.

When I swam past the fruit orchards of central Washington during the pre-emergent pesticide spraying, I finally saw the massive disconnect between my food choices and my clean water message. As I swam past miles of orchards, I was paced by tractors pulling spray rigs that blasted walls of green-yellow pesticides with names like "Sniper" into the air just yards away. (The average Washington conventional apple orchard receives 40 applications of pesticide during the growing season. The first of these, the pre-emergent spraying, takes place immediately before the first buds appear on the trees.) Swathed in personal protection suits and locked inside sealed cabs, the local farmers appeared to know the dangers of exposure to these chemicals.

Unfortunately, I took a deep breath of air every third stroke. As the parallel dance of swimming and spraying stretched over a period of two weeks, I began to read the freakish warning labels on barrels of pesticide. But it wasn't until a lymph node in my jaw swelled to the size of a golf ball that I vowed never to eat a conventionally-grown apple again.

Suddenly, after what seem like an impossible level of chemical exposure and denial, I was ready to make a change at the supermarket. Yes, organic fruit and cheese and milk and bread and juice and meat all cost more. But buying conventional versions of these same products now seemed insane. Why would I spend money on neuro-toxic fruit? Why would I support the same chemical companies whose products had made me sick? I wouldn't. But spending the extra money really pissed me off. Not only that, but I had trouble convincing even close family members to make the change along with me. I struggled to convince my dad to purchase organic milk. In a fatherly tone, he explained, "Chris, some of us don't want to pay five bucks for a carton of milk." Feeling shamed, I thought about unloading on him, about saying something like, "Why are you supporting the companies that are poisoning me as I swim down the river?" In the end, I decided not to go there. I could always throw down on Dad. But I realized I ought to try and sell this organic thing on its merits first.

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