crazy or not: river soldier swims the columbia

I drive past hydroelectric and irrigation dams and see the hundreds of miles of slack water piled up behind them. I think about how crazy it is that the Columbia is no longer a river. Harnessed with 14 dams, it has become a series of computer-controlled lakes that have buried sacred lands and sacred traditions of native tribes…”


by nicole bowmer


Inevitably, some people refer to my friend, Christopher Swain, as “that crazy guy swimming the Columbia River.” I don’t take it personally since a dose of quirkiness is a requirement with any friend of mine. And Christopher doesn’t consider the description an entirely bad thing either since it means he’s accomplishing one goal without even zipping up his dry suit: he’s got people talking about the River.

Before meeting Christopher six months ago, if someone would have asked me to write a story about the Columbia River, it would have rolled along like this:

“Less than an hour away from the Columbia River is a map dot labeled Milwaukie, Oregon. That’s my hometown. Growing up there meant two things were a given. One, if you said you were from Milwaukie, even folks living a mere 12 miles away in Portland assumed you were talking about Wisconsin. And, two, all visitors from out of town were given a scenic tour of the Columbia River Gorge. Those afternoons spent cruising east on I-84 with my grandma behind the wheel of her white Chevy Nova are my earliest memories of the Columbia River. To keep the troops content, a box of old-fashioned glazed donuts was passed between the front and back seats until there was nothing but crumbs stuck to grease spots. The view through the window on the right revealed waterfalls raining down from skyscraper-high slabs of rock. The view through the window on the left revealed the Columbia River, its only purpose being to separate Oregon (the side with the waterfalls) from Washington (the side where grandma had to pump her own gas).”

When I first met Christopher in a writing workshop, he told the group he was “swimming the Columbia River.” I thought he meant that donut stretch I had traveled countless times on my grandma’s scenic tours. That sounded tough enough, but his trek wasn’t meant to be a tough one. It was meant to be an epic one. He would spend six months swimming the entire stretch, all 1, 243 miles of the River.

I spent eight Thursday evenings sitting one chair away from Christopher and learning more about the Columbia than I had learned in my first 26 years on this planet. The words “poor water quality” were never spoken by anyone during grandma’s scenic tours. Nor were “deteriorating salmon habitat.” “Hanford nuclear waste.” “DDT.” “Dioxins.” “Sewage.” “Arsenic.” None of it. That’s not to say that we traveled as mimes. There was plenty to talk about, but it was always surrounding what we saw. Undeniably, that stretch of the River as it cuts through the Cascade Mountains is beautiful. Yet it’s an ironic beauty. A big blessing and an equally big curse. It’s just too easy to sit in awe, snap some pictures, eat some donuts, and go home.

Christopher was born and raised in New England, and now he was willing to swim through Pacific Northwest muck to talk to schools and communities along the way about choices they could make and actions they could take to help restore and protect the Columbia. How was it that a New Englander knew more about the issues facing this river and was willing to do more to help than myself, who had grown up practically along its shores? I didn’t have an answer, and that was disappointing.

So I spent hours at the Central Library in downtown Portland. I rented videos. I visited websites. I copied magazine articles. I checked out books only to forget that I had checked them out, and I’m still paying off the fines, all to learn that I had never thought of water as a living part of this planet. I was alive, but water was no more alive than the faucet from which the liquid poured when I turned the knobs. And as long as clean water was pouring from the faucet I assumed all must be good enough with the world’s water supply. I knew some rivers were polluted, and I knew pollution was bad. Simple as it sounds, that’s really all I knew.

Now here was this guy putting his life on the line on behalf of water that I had spent 26 years taking for granted. Taking for granted that it was clean, permanent, life-preserving. Not realizing that 3 out of 4 Americans live within 10 miles of a polluted lake, river, stream, or coastal area. Everywhere I looked – a tree, a toilet, a plant, a car, a blade of grass, a woman walking her dog – everything needed water to function and survive.

I knew that I had to find a way to give back to this River that I had spent too long ignoring. Christopher would have a support raft with a crew chief by his side, but I knew he would have more fun if others accompanied him in the water. He had met his wife, Heather, while swimming rivers, but she would need to stay close to family and friends who could help her look after their daughter, Rowan. And I knew that swimming 1.243 miles would be a long haul for me, so swimming 1, 243 miles was completely out of the question. Instead, I volunteered to be his supply person.

Every other weekend I find him. Wherever the River takes him, that’s where I go. I drive past paper and pulp mills and think about the amount of dioxins now being spewed into the River and how crazy it is that what is considered a legal amount today was considered a harmful amount 20 years ago. I wonder what further damage the next round of relaxed regulations will bring to the River. There are alternatives to the chlorine-bleaching process that produces dioxins, but change is slow in a market where profit is the bottom line. Fortunately, change isn’t as slow with my buying habits. I now only purchase Seventh Generation toilet paper because it supports those alternative processes, and I cross my idealistic fingers that my choice will mean one less gallon of muck in Christopher’s path.

I drive past hydroelectric and irrigation dams and see the hundreds of miles of slack water piled up behind them. I think about how crazy it is that the Columbia is no longer a river. Harnessed with 14 dams, it has become a series of computer-controlled lakes that have buried sacred lands and traditions of native tribes who considered a healthy Nchi-wana to be as critical to their survival as the air they breathed and the salmon they ate. I think about when Christopher first told me about salmon and their internal clocks. As precise as any computer chip, they reach the Pacific Ocean just as their systems transition from needing fresh water to needing salt water. But now with slack water replacing rapids and 14 dams to safely pass (which 25% of them are unable to do), their journey has stretched from weeks to months. Their internal clocks, ticking away for centuries, have them ready for salt water hundreds of miles short of the Pacific, which means that they reach their destination late with organs that are overheated, depleted, or dead. During my 30-hour drives, I don’t use the air conditioning because I don’t want the engine of my mom’s car to have the same fate as the salmon.

Christopher began his journey on June 4 in the glacial peaks and valleys of southeastern British Columbia, which means that just as the autumn colors fall to the ground he will be swimming past the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. With over 400 billion gallons of radioactive and chemical waste released into the soil and hundreds of billions of gallons of wastewater released into the River, the Columbia is given the dubious distinction of cutting through the most radioactive plot of land in the Western Hemisphere. I think about how crazy it is that hundreds of millions of dollars could be spent and over 50,000 workers could be used to create the havoc at Hanford yet nothing near that effort is offered to help clean it up. I don’t know how a person mentally prepares to swim in water that is exceeding state and federal health standards in aluminum, arsenic, chromium, copper, iron, lead, mercury, nickel, selenium, silver, and zinc. By not knowing what’s in there, I sometimes think the fish will have more fun swimming than Christopher.

The list of troubles facing the Columbia and Christopher grows every time I see him. Sewage plants overflowing, pesticides from local farms and communities, wood chunks from logging sites. It will continue to grow, and I will continue to bring what I can which, compared to what he’s doing, doesn’t feel like much. I bring ear plugs, peanut butter Clif Bars, goggles, carrot cake Clif Bars, contact solution, canned pears, sunscreen, canned peaches, neoprene socks, canned corn, squeezable containers of honey, cheddar cheese goldfish crackers, and bottles of hydrogen peroxide so he can rinse his mouth of all the muck. I also bring CDs for my road trips, weighed heavily towards the Dave Matthews Band. Somewhere between inspiring me not to lie in my grave dreaming of what might have been and asking that I don’t drink the water, their music has become my soundtrack for these trips. Mostly, I use the inspiration and solitude to think about what I’ve done with my life so far and what I still hope to do. What I’ve taken for granted in the past and what is no longer acceptable to take for granted in the future.

With all that time to think, I’ve come to the conclusion that I am the craziest one of all. Crazy for spending the first 26 years of my life thinking that responsible industry and responsible government came into being automatically. That keeping an environment clean would be its own reward. Yet, if it takes a guy to put his life on the line in order to wake me up to the realities of the world around me, I know there’s no such thing as an automatically responsible industry or an automatically responsible government. Individual human beings must be willing to get off the couch and create that change.

Christopher swims because he believes far more in the possibilities of what could be than in the permanence of what is. If I could, I’d take Clif bars and Dave Matthews Band CDs all the way to the moon to support that. Crazy or not.


Originally published:
Issue Twenty-One
August 2002


Current information on Christopher Swain can be found here:

Swim With Swain


When she’s not taking supplies to Christopher, Nicole Bowmer is a volunteer with Committed Partners for Youth that matches adults with middle school students for year-long mentoring commitments. When they were first paired last October, Nicole and her youth, Chennelle, were asked to set a personal goal for themselves. Chennelle’s goal was to stop getting suspended from school for fighting, and Nicole’s goal was to get her first essay published. Crazy or not, they’ve now both accomplished their goals.

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