Christopher Swain, the founder of Advocacy Swimming International, is swimming the Columbia River from source to mouth. When he is not swimming, he lives in Portland, Ore., with his wife and daughter.

Monday, 10 Jun 2002

RADIUM HOT SPRINGS, British Columbia

Last Tuesday, I zipped up my dry suit, kissed my wife and daughter, and waded into the headwaters of the Columbia River. As 100 schoolchildren toasted me with tumblers of pristine Columbia Lake water, I pulled my goggles down over my eyes, adjusted my neoprene hood, and struck out for the Pacific Ocean, 1,243 miles away.

Columbia Lake, source of the Columbia River.

I saw the Columbia River in person for the first time five years ago. That day in the Columbia Gorge, the river looked like a western landscape painting. A sucker for beauty, I stared. The seduction had begun.

Like any good love affair, my fling with the Columbia quickly got out of hand. The river is a contaminated beauty, and the longer we were involved, the more upset I got. Eventually, I would learn that the Columbia’s soft, brown hands dripped with contaminants ranging from arsenic to zinc. Since no one had warned me, I took it personally.

I read every book I could find about the river. I learned the names of obscure pesticides, stared at maps of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, and gazed at pictures of Celilo Falls before it was flooded by the Dalles Dam. I marveled at the difference between the Columbia River that Lewis and Clark found — the one they said ran clear at every depth and teemed with salmon — and the twisted, overheated necklace of toxic lakes that sloshed through my hometown of Portland, Ore. I wondered how a river could have been stolen without anyone noticing. I plotted ways to steal it back.

In late September 2000, I drove west along I-84, at the ragged end of a solo cross-country drive. The rain assaulted the hills in waves, and the surface of the Columbia River looked pockmarked, brown, and inviting. I rolled down the windows and let the wet air rip into the car. Raindrops pinged off my skin, and I stared out at the river on my right. As the car started to veer toward the shoulder, I realized I had trouble looking away from the river. I wanted to watch every raindrop bury itself; I wanted to study every curl of foam.

Taking the plunge.

Somewhere between Arlington and the John Day River, I parked at a viewpoint and ran out into the storm. I bounded down the bank, feet leaping too quickly from rock to slippery rock, down toward the brown snake of water. I stopped at the edge, rocking on some unstable chunks of basalt, and looked. The river was wide with rain. As my heart slowed, I squinted at the water, shaking my head slowly back and forth. “All right! ” I yelled. “All right. I’ll do it. I’ll swim.” I scooped a handful of water and let it drain through my fingers onto the rocks at my feet. I stared hard at the river. “And you better help me.”

Last Tuesday night, after seven hours of swimming the first and last drinkable stretch of the Columbia, I hauled myself out at the northern end of Columbia Lake. Eight miles down, 1,235 to go.

As I write this, I have four days of swimming and almost 40 miles of river behind me. Already, I have tasted my first batch of pesticide run-off, kicked through sewage from leaky municipal lagoons, and seen more eagles than in my last thirty-four years combined.

I have also begun to plead the river’s case — to schoolchildren and parents, to TV reporters, to small town mayors. “We live in the same river valley. We love the same river. That makes us neighbors,” I tell them. “I plan to ride this river to the sea. But I’ll be back. I’ll tell you how it went, what I found, and ask what we might do, together, to clean it up.”

Almost invariably, people smile when I say this. I imagine that most of them think I’m nuts. But I also imagine that some of them are wondering what would happen if a 259,000-square-mile neighborhood decided to clean up its local river.

I can’t wait to find out.