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.

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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.

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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.

Tuesday, 11 Jun 2002

EDGEWATER, British Columbia

Yesterday morning, I visited two schools before swimming the five hours from Radium Hot Springs, B.C., to Edgewater, B.C. At both schools, I heard giggles when I admitted to falling in love with the Columbia River, and chuckles after I pulled on my booties, fins, hood, goggles, and gloves during my presentations.

The big questions the kids asked were: How do you sleep? What do you wear? How do you eat? Basic questions, and important ones to anyone swimming a 1,243-mile river. I thought I’d expand on my answers for you.

Last night, like most nights, I was the last one to go to bed. I can’t stay warm in 44-degree water on six hours of sleep. Yet I stayed up late, because I am forever writing journals, raising dollars, making sandwiches, or mixing carbohydrate drink for the next day’s swim. I should ask my crew for assistance, except that by the time I realize I need help, they are already sleeping. I end up resenting them, but it is my own fault: I do not advocate for myself as well as I advocate for the river.

When fatigue grabs me, I dread the seep of cold into my suit. I fear that my sore throat will become a cold, that my dry cough will blossom into bronchitis, and that my sunburned skin will peel off in sheets. I worry that I won’t find the courage to stand up for the rest I need — to my family, to my crew, and to myself. It is as if I want to be the perfect dad and the perfect houseguest and the perfect leader more than I want to be healthy — more, even, than I want to make it down this river.

Yesterday the water was 47 degrees Fahrenheit. I wore an O’Neil Throttle dry suit with a Patagonia mid-weight fleece under-layer, and five-millimeter Neoprene hood, boots, and gloves. If the water had been over 55 degrees, I’d have taken a chance with my Aquaman Pulsar 2000 wet suit, but I would have been shivering whenever I stopped for a drink. What I wear in the water must balance the concerns of speed and temperature. If I get too cold, I can’t swim at all. If I am just plain cold, I swim more slowly than usual. A little bit cold and I swim like a turbocharged Otter.

My dry suit is not hydrodynamic at all. I might as well be wrapped in towels for all the glide I get. But the dry suit lets me stay in cold water longer, because a layer of air is about 20 times warmer than a layer of water. Give me the Aquaman wet suit and a 55-degree lake, though, and I set speed records. And as long as I don’t have to stop swimming, I’m warm.

Dangerously thin TV journalists look hungry when I tell them I will burn 2 million calories over the next six months. Yesterday, I started with a breakfast of six eggs, cheese, and bread. On the way to the water I sucked down the first of the 3,200 liquid calories I’d eat that day, in the form of Ultra Fuel that I mixed from powder. During my in-water breaks every 15 minutes, I supplemented these liquids with pretzels, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Clif bars, and cheddar cheese Goldfish (a species I have accidentally introduced to the Upper Columbia River).

My challenge is to eat before I am hungry and drink before I am thirsty. If I dry out or run low on blood sugar, I start to get cold and my stroke slows. So though my digestive system screams in protest sometimes, I keep to my schedule. Yesterday, the cold was getting to me. I had fantasies about hot sweet tea and chicken soup. It is a juggling act: hot or cold, I must eat, while working hard, when I am not really hungry, or I won’t be able to keep swimming day after day.

At the end of the day, I have to refuel. Within minutes of leaving the water I need to eat a small meal of 25 percent protein and 75 percent carbohydrate to jump-start muscle recovery and begin the process of packing my liver and muscles with the glycogen they’ll need to burn the next day. Somewhere in the end-of-the-day scramble of trying to get warm, stash the boat, and find a ride, I have to eat. I may not feel hungry, but the clock is ticking. Waiting an hour or two to eat will delay full recovery by as much 24-48 hours, and kill the next day’s swim.

Both schools I spoke at yesterday held coin drives to help me on my journey down river. They raised $168 Canadian dollars in all. I thanked them and told them that I would be spending most of that on the food I need to keep on swimming. It is going to take a lot of coin drives to get me over the two million calorie mark, not to mention feed my hungry crew.

Tomorrow, I’ll tell you about some of the folks I have met on my way down the river.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, 12 Jun 2002

BRISCO, British Columbia

I am sitting on a muddy riverbank, shivering and staring at my dripping, gloved hands, trying to command my fingers to close so that I can pick up a thermos of hot tea. My plan is to drink this cup of tea, slide back into the river, and keep on swimming. As my fingers close around the handle, I smile in surprise, lift the cup, and tip it toward my lips. Because my lips are frozen, it takes a while for the “you are burning yourself badly” message to work its way to my brain. Unfortunately, when it does, I have already swallowed. The hot liquid scalds my throat and drains toward my stomach. In a weird way, I relish the pain. I am cold enough that a stab of heat in my gut seems like just the thing. I manage to finish the cup without further injury. I even feel a bit warmer.

Tea helps, but it’s not what keeps me going. It’s the people that keep me going. It started with the school kids I met in my hometown of Portland, Ore. At Abernathy Middle School and Open Meadow School I looked into the eyes of the kids who will inherit the Columbia. I told them I would inspect the entire river, report back, and help them find a way to clean it up. They took me at my word, and I would rather drown than fail them.

Once I got to Canada, Michael Langenek, the principal of Martin Morigeau Elementary School in Canal Flats, B.C. — the school nearest the river’s source — not only invited me to speak to the entire school the day before I started, but let out school the following day so that every single kid could see me off. He even put my family and crew up in his house for five days. By the end of our stay, I felt like an adopted citizen of the Columbia Valley. Kids were stopping me to chat outside the supermarket, and their parents were coming out on their lawns to yell my name as I swam by.

In Invermere, I met Fred Thode-Hamilton, a member of the local district council. When he spotted me, he asked, “Are you the heroic Columbia River swimmer?” I said, “I don’t know about ‘heroic.'” And he said, “Well, you are heroic to us.” For the record, Fred is the real hero. He fled Nazi Germany for the Yukon Territory at age 24, froze his right foot in a 72-below-zero blizzard, waved off the doctors who tried to amputate it, and then made Canada his adopted home. He kept his foot, by the way, and it works just fine: just last Saturday, he and his wife Shirley danced all night. The way I see it, if you tell a guy like Fred you are swimming to the Pacific, you better swim to the Pacific.

Yesterday, Rick (my crew chief) and I were taking a break on a section of river bank a few yards from the Canada Pacific Railway tracks. Soon we heard a familiar rumble. Nearly every CP Rail train that passes us blows its horn in greeting, so we turned and looked toward the tracks. Instead of a train this time, we saw a maintenance truck rolling past our position. After it passed, we heard it slow to a stop. Then came the “beep-beep-beep” of the truck in reverse. The truck slid back into view, and the doors banged open. Three crewmen piled out and ambled down the bank toward us. “We’ve been looking for you for days,” they said. “We heard you on the radio and we wanted to come by and say hi.” We shook hands all around and then got to talking. Pretty soon, we started talking about salmon, and, inevitably, the American dams that ended the salmon runs in the Canadian half of the river. At this point, Brian adjusted his overalls and weighed in. “Americans. You can put a man on the moon, but you can’t figure out how to get a four-foot f—ing salmon over a f—ing dam.” We all burst out laughing. Then, quiet again, we stood in the mud, sun on our necks, staring at the river. Four guys, from two different countries, charmed by the same piece of water.

Finally, there was Cody. On my way out of Edgewater Elementary School, which had just held a coin drive to support my journey, a brown-haired sixth-grader stopped me. “Here,” he said, pressing a rolled-up $5 bill into my hand. “I want to give you this to help.” I was floored. “Are you sure?” I asked, remembering how much money this was to me in sixth grade. “Oh yeah,” he said. We chatted for a moment and I asked for his name, which he gave me, and his address, which he didn’t know. We shook hands and parted ways. On my way to the door I asked an administrator for his address, explaining that he’d said he didn’t know it. “That makes sense. He probably doesn’t know it. He’s a troubled kid. He’s been in three different homes this year.”

Well, Cody, wherever you may be right now, I want you to know that your generosity kindled my heart. If you are “troubled,” then the world needs more trouble. I’ll be thinking of you when the water runs cold, my friend. And your $5? Consider it a little spending money for your upcoming trip to Astoria, Ore. That’s right. Somehow, I am going to find a way to get you to the mouth of the Columbia this November so that you (and maybe a few of your schoolmates) can feast your eyes on the lines of breakers where your river meets the ocean. So take care of yourself, Cody, and stay in touch. I’ll see you in the fall.

(If anybody reading this wants to help organize a Columbia River headwaters/mouth student exchange trip this fall, go ahead and send me an email from

Thursday, 13 Jun 2002

SPILLIMACHEEN, British Columbia.

Nine days into the big swim and it’s time for an inventory.

First, my body. Three days ago, I pushed my sunburned skin too far, and my nose began to peel off in sheets. My lips cracked, and my nose bled during the night. Now a cold sore has sprouted through the cracks like a weed and my whole upper lip throbs while I swim. The beginnings of a blister appeared on the lateral side of my right ankle where my boot rubs against my fin strap. The skin is scraping off the top of the fourth toe on my right foot. There are the raised red dots of a heat rash behind my knees where my suit bunches up, and more chafing on the insides of my thighs, again from the folds of the suit. The little nicks and gashes on my hands and arms from wrangling gear and swatting riverside briars don’t look like they’ll amount to much, but I’ll have to watch them. My neck has been tightening up at night. A massage might do me good tomorrow if I knew where to get one.

The river. After a low of 44 degrees on day two in Tatley Slough, temperatures have been climbing steadily. Yesterday 52 degrees, today 56, except when we passed cold creeks. When the surge of meltwater catches up to me, though, the bottom will fall out and I’ll be swimming in close to 40 degree water again. Tempted as I was to put on the wet suit today, I thought better of it. I was a bit run down, but the current was good and I made seven miles in three hours in the dry (damp) suit, doing a modified breast stoke with a dolphin kick most of the way.

Yesterday and today, I saw the first signs of sewage and farm waste in the river. Tufts of brown foam and bubbles clung to me like iron filings to a magnet. And so, 200 miles short of where I thought I might, I began the ritual of gargling with hydrogen peroxide before I ate or drank. Even when I smell the familiar odor of human waste, it is hard to convince myself that anything is wrong with this river. Today as I stroked through islands of gray-brown swirling foam, the air was thick with birds, crowds of fish scattered from beneath my shadow, and the river nudged its way past mountain ranges slathered with old growth. How could it be polluted? I thought. This river is too beautiful for its own good.

The gear. Everything we cram into a Zodiac and a Nissan is animated by the dream of reaching the Pacific and becomes the trappings of an expedition. The five-kilogram bags of oatmeal, the tarps, the dry bags, the cook stoves, the spare goggles, the 750 Ibuprofen caplets, the mosquito netting, the maps, the polypropylene underwear, the cell phone, all somehow lend themselves to this effort. So far the equipment is holding up. We are going through lots of food, but mostly because of my odd cravings for Goldfish crackers and tea with too much honey. Before we hit the wilderness in two weeks, we need to go through all the camping gear, pick out what we like, and stash the rest. We’ll never fit everything we have into the Zodiac without sinking it and we’ll be out of touch in Kinbasket Lake for a few weeks. So by the time we head up there, we better have things sorted out.

One of our Portland crew people, Nicole, is bringing us a load of supplies this weekend, and that’ll be our last chance to get anything special. I’ll spend an hour or two tomorrow putting together a list for her, and two hours marveling at her generosity. Nicole has not only agreed to run supplies up to us every two weeks for six months — she pays for the supplies herself and covers her own transport costs. When people ask me what Nicole’s title is, I tell them “Angel.”

On the financial side, a searching inventory reveals that we have about $300 in cash, enough to keep things going for another week or two. Luckily, Nicole will be bringing up T-shirts (first she’ll need a special cotton-importing permit from the Canadian government), which we will sell to raise the money we need to provision ourselves as we move down river. Of course, the T-shirts won’t do us much good in the wilderness. They also won’t be enough to keep me from spending rest days on the donated phone, trying to scrape together the money to get the word out about the river.

On the home front, the finances look a little scary. My savings have melted. I’ve still got the stack of bills I brought up to Canada with me, and there’s another batch due in July. Some of this pressure will ease when T-shirt revenue and other donation money starts to roll in, and I start reimbursing myself for a lot of the equipment I purchased up front. But I worry that the revenue won’t catch up to me in time.

I knew that I would be running this race against time — there is only so much money one can raise before one actually starts swimming — but I don’t enjoy it. The only thing worse would have been not getting in the water at all. So I have faith, I work the phones, I pray, I hope for a coin drive at every school along the way. I know there are people out there who will help me to put the river in the public eye, and rally around to jump-start the cleanup. I just need to meet more of them. Soon.

Time for bed. Thanks for reading.

Friday, 14 Jun 2002


I slept better last night than I have all year. Here at the Burgess farm, Washout Creek dives through the property on its way down to the Columbia, and it runs so clear that the rocks in its bed appear to glow. At night, the creek rushes like a storm front through a maple grove. With the windows open, the creek flushed my mind clean. I fell asleep easily and slept hard. When I woke up eight hours later, I hadn’t moved. “It’s a recovery day, today,” I thought. “No swimming.”

And so it was that instead of another swim through the largest contiguous stretch of wetlands in North America, I found myself helping Joe Burgess around the farm. Joe irrigates his fields courtesy of Washout Creek, and soon enough I was burning my hands on aluminum irrigation pipes, cutting poplar scrub, and replacing sections of chain on the right-of-way gates he shares with C.P. Rail. When Joe swung past the post office, I met Spillimacheen’s postmistress of 49 years, Francis. Francis had heard about my swim (she even gave me a copy of the East Kootenay Weekly with my picture on the cover) and said to me, “I remember standing on the [Spillimacheen] bridge and watching the toilet paper float by. I hope you are planning to cover your face!”

Christopher and Rowan Swain.

Earlier that morning, Heather and Rowan left for Calgary. Before they left, I carried Rowan out into the pasture to say hello to the horses, Jilly, Sunny, and Doc (her idea). As we marched through the wet dandelions, I told her that I wouldn’t see her for a month and that I was very sad about it. I tried to explain that she and her Mom would come back to visit me in Canada after they finished visiting our extended family. She seemed more interested in the horses than my explanation, but when I finished she swiveled her head, locked eyes with me and asked, “Daddy come back?” “Yes,” I said. I was still crying when Heather walked out to meet us. As we hugged, Heather whispered, “You are doing a great thing. Have fun, get it done, and come home.”

Yesterday, I lay on my back in the river and tried to relax every muscle. A lick of water poked under my collar, but I kept my eyes closed. My ear were plugged with silicone and covered by a five-millimeter neoprene hood, so I heard little. I reached out with my awareness and tried to feel the current, to feel myself moving down river. Except for the ooze of cold around my neck, I felt no motion. I might have been on an air mattress in a sunny meadow. But when my eyes flipped back open, I was 200 yards downstream, and the river bank was slipping past at two miles an hour. Maybe I thought the current had stopped once I didn’t feel it anymore. But feel what I might, this river runs on. In stillness and in silence, we share the same wet embrace, and slide together toward the same great sea.