smokebox interview: reflections on a 1,243 mile swim

The culture of entrenchment and alienation strikes me as a lazy one. Many of the folks who use and enjoy waterways the most–hunters, fishermen, and boaters–have been alienated by their brethren in the environmental movement.”


a conversation with christopher swain


It’s a funny thing, but it’s true. When mentioning to folks that current work on an interview with Christopher Swain, not a single person has the faintest idea of whom I speak.

Yet when told Christopher’s the guy who is swimming the entire length of the Columbia River in an effort to raise awareness of the water issues facing the famous watershed, eyebrows cock and questions are immediately forthcoming.  They may not know Christopher Swain’s name, but not a single person hadn’t heard of his odyssey in these parts.  

Which says, if nothing else, that he has the region’s attention, and possibly affection. Christopher Swain has positioned himself squarely in the dialogue that unfolds around the Columbia and it’s laundry list of controversial environmental issues.

In an age where the word “hero” is callously lobbed about to forward nearly any agenda, it’s not a wonder that we are tired and suspicious of the mantel.  Still it seems odd that a man who has dedicated a substantial segment of his life to articulate a set of priorities he believes to be tantamount to our species’ health and ultimate survival is known primarily as a mythical Aquaman-like figure who enters cold, very polluted rivers to swim for the idea of clean water.

And that’s pretty heroic.

— john richen


smokebox: Christopher, was there one particular event that triggered your decision to embark on an advocacy swim involving the entire length of the Columbia? It doesn’t seem like the type of stunt one just sort of arrives at on a whim over morning coffee. How does a person, in this case you, commit themselves to a feat of endurance that will affect them on every conceivable personal level. Putting aside for a moment the danger and incredible physical challenge of a 1,243 mile swim, this has to be a formidable financial burden on you. It has to be a tough test for your family. It can’t leave you much time for what one would consider a “normal” life. And yet you have something inside you that says “I need to do this. I HAVE to do this.” Where does that sort of conviction come from? Who are you answering to?

Christopher: When I was sixteen years old, my friend Oh-Shinnah Fast Wolf said: “Christopher, change what you don’t like.” That was probably the only way to tell me, at sixteen, that I ought to take responsibility for my world. That was eighteen years ago, and now look at me!

All kidding aside, I seek to plead the Columbia’s case. I chose swimming because I didn’t want to put anything between me and the water. Advocating for the River required my getting wet. When I swim, I offer myself to the river somehow. In the end then, I suppose I answer to the Columbia.

smokebox: Talk a bit about some of the “water issues” specific to the Columbia watershed that you hope to illuminate with your effort.

Christopher: One can get lost in the specifics of the challenges that face the Columbia. Fourteen dams have created a necklace of 13 lakes polluted with everything from Arsenic to Zinc, from sewage to nuclear waste.

My greatest hope is to expand the terms within which we discuss these challenges. I see the Columbia River as rife with human problems, as opposed to environmental problems. I believe that people have come to harm as a result of some of the Faustian bargains we have struck with the River, and that we need to make things right.

Here is an example of what I mean: when the Dalles Dam flooded Celilo (Wyam) Falls in 1957, 14 salmon-based cultures lost a central religious and commercial site. In an Open Pastoral Letter written in 2001, the Catholic Bishops of Northwestern North America suggested that this act was essentially no different than burying the Vatican under tens of feet of water. They advanced the argument that the flooding was morally wrong, that it was unjust, because it caused great harm to so many human beings.

I agree with their assessment. I would add only that we have a responsibility not just to recognize past injustices, but to try to rectify them. For this reason, I believe we need to begin discussing how to restore Celilo Falls, both for the river’s sake and our own. And this means we have to expand the terms of an age-old discussion.

Let’s look at the terms in which we typically discuss the river. They are familiar to many of us. In the case of restoring Celilo, the traditional arguments would center around the economic cost of: the inconvenience to river traffic, new flood control arrangements, and reduced amount of hydropower generated at the Dalles Dam. Each one of these arguments would be accompanied by an estimate of the cost, in dollars, of any proposed change.

What I am saying is, bring on the estimates of the value of convenient navigation, flood control and hydropower, but don’t stop there. Bring on the estimates of the value of a free-flowing river, and of 14 salmon-cultures. If we ask, “What is ease of navigation worth?” We must also ask, “What are fourteen cultures worth?” and “What is a free-flowing river worth?”

I can’t wait to have that discussion.

smokebox: With regards to “making things right” and your Celilo example, can you actually see that discussion as forthcoming? I mean the spiritual genocide invoked upon the 14 salmon-based cultures inherent in the decision to drown the falls has inspired some of the most moving literature to come out of the West. It is universally recognized as one of the great Western tragedies. And yet I’ve never heard anyone take seriously the idea that any of the dams that plug the flow of the great river be removed.

Christopher: I have already started a Celilo discussion. Now I worry about how it might unravel. For instance, before we ever get into a debate about how to modify or remove the John Day or Dalles Dams, we have to reckon with the fact that some Native peoples now see Celilo as a burial ground and aren’t sure they want the falls uncovered at all. I struggle with whether to advocate for the return of the falls when I hear these arguments, but in any case, I believe we need to do more to indemnify those native people for what they lost.

(For the record, there was one embarrassing attempt at indemnification. When the Dalles Dam went in, the fishers at the falls got paid the equivalent of one good week’s earnings: just under $4000 each. Is this enough payment for the loss of a central cultural and religious site? I think not.)

What it comes down to for me is this: people came to harm when Celilo was inundated, and that makes it a human problem, not just an environmental or an economic problem. And that means we need to be talking about justice, not just money and flow rates.

smokebox: We really do take water for granted, don’t we?

Christopher: I know I do. I forget to turn off the water practically every time I brush my teeth.

We’ve got a finite amount of water in the Columbia River Basin. Sometimes it helps me to remember that all the water in the Columbia Drainage is continuously cycling through. No “new” water molecules are entering the system. Some of the water running through Portland today will eventually fall as snow in the mountains and work its way back down next Spring during the melt.

Now that we have messed up so much of that water, our way of life is at risk. Here in Portland, for instance, it is not safe to eat the fish, or swim, or drink from the river. These are traditional forms of use and enjoyment that are no longer available to us. My hope is that they will be available to our great-grandchildren.

smokebox: Understanding that this is something you’ve undertaken to bring awareness to “water issues” as they pertain not only to the Columbia River but the watersheds that affect it — what is it specifically that you hope to have accomplished when you swim those last few miles of this monumental swim in the salty waters of Astoria? What sort of hopes have you personally invested in this odyssey?

Christopher: I hope to have put the Columbia River squarely in the public eye. Then, I hope that people will begin to build and deepen their relationships with the River. With a relationship comes investment. When enough people feel invested, protection and restoration will take care of themselves.

On a more personal level, I hope to swim out over the Columbia Bar with a sense of what the best next step might be. I want to leverage the momentum of the Swim for the good of the River and her people, and I hope to have a clearer picture of how that process might look.

smokebox: This idea of “investment” intrigues me. It’s a hopeful theory, but I wonder what encourages folks to “invest” in something that many appear to believe that they already own. At least our collective behavior would seem to indicate that we feel the river is ours to do with as we please. Does this idea of investing in the Columbia’s health presuppose that the severity of the river’s current condition and plight becomes a more compelling fragment of the public mindset?

Christopher: I am not invoking the most literal meaning of “investment” here. I mean to say simply that as we learn more about a person, or a piece of land, or a river, we may become more invested in seeing it protected. Legally speaking, we own it no matter what.

My sense is that people protect what they come to care about. I am hoping that by putting the river squarely in the public eye, more people will learn about the Columbia’s plight and come to care about her. Once this happens, I think that a smaller subset of this group will go to work on protecting and restoring the river. I am out to increase the size of this last group.

smokebox: Do you swim the Columbia every day, or are you breaking up the journey into legs? How long to you expect the swim to take you when all is said and done? When do you expect to complete this swim?

Christopher: I break the journey into legs, based on water conditions, weather, nearby communities, health concerns and logistical needs. This Summer and Fall I swam every day I could. I was in the river more than I was at home. Now, as water temperatures head into the forties and then into the thirties, I’ll spend more time in Portland, connecting with my family, doing outreach, and working at part-time jobs. I’ll swim 6-10 days a month through the Winter. As of 11/23/2002, I had completed 554 of 1,243 miles. I am on track to complete the swim in late Spring 2003. It will take end up taking just about a year from start to finish.

smokebox: You’ve covered many river miles. How do you gauge a river’s health as you swim in it? Can you taste a change in the water? Feel it? Smell it? I can’t imagine a creature that swims every mile of a river doesn’t develop an innate sense of that waterway’s well-being. How does the Columbia feel to you as you glide through its currents?

Christopher: The first 100 or so free-flowing miles felt the most undisturbed and promising. There I tasted almost nothing but reeds and mud and glacial flour. As I worked my way into the dammed stretches of river—today’s Columbia boasts over 900 miles of slack water–I tasted sewage, chainsaw bar oil, sawdust, and slag from metal smelters. I also came to think of the Columbia as a river buried. I knew there was a channel down there, but as I swam above flooded rapids and towns and forests I couldn’t help thinking, “We have no idea what we’ve done.”

smokebox: What have we done?

Christopher: Scientifically speaking, our dams have altered ecosystems and dislocated human populations. This raises lots of questions that deserve discussion. For instance, “What are the psycho-social effects on populations dislocated by dams?” I do not have that answer, but I would be willing to bet that when we alter ecosystems and dislocate populations we are doing–perhaps accidentally–great harm. And I think this harm might best be measured—and mitigated–in terms other than scientific.

smokebox: I’m intrigued to hear of the reaction to your swim from the river communities that you have passed through on your journey so far. Some of these town’s economies are reliant on the river in one way or another. Many of these communities are also centered around industries that have a quantifiable impact on the health of the river system. I would suspect the citizens inhabiting the waterway are as much a part of the story this journey as the river itself. How do folks seem to be viewing your mission so far? Do you sense that they perceive you as a threat? Are they enthusiastic? Curious? Wary? Or overtly hostile to the issues you hope to illuminate with your effort?

Christopher: So far–to a person–citizens have been enthusiastic and supportive of the swim. Then again, I make no secret of the fact that the underlying purpose of the swim is a human one. In some sense, I am out to meet my neighbors. It turns out that my neighbors all have something in common: they all profess an affection for the Columbia River. This means that we share abundant and fertile common ground, and it makes for very productive discussions.

I don’t play the blame game when I meet people, especially in “company towns.” I admit that I am part of the problem, too. And I focus most of my outreach efforts in the schools. Once they realize it’s their river, local kids become some of the strongest clean water advocates.

smokebox: Do you expect the civic reaction to your swim to change as you get closer to some of the more populated and industrial communities? Agricultural communities like the Dalles and St. Helens? The industrial hubs in Camas, Portland and Vancouver? The port towns of Rainer and Astoria?

Christopher: I used to think so, yes. But after 550 miles, I would say, no. I expect that the specific interactions will shift, of course, but I imagine that by sharing an honest account of my journey, and by offering my help to protect the river where it flows through their community, that the Columbia and I will continue to make friends.

smokebox: There are some pretty toxic regions afflicting the Columbia that I wouldn’t even go near, let alone swim through. Hanford Reach. Umatilla seems pretty sketchy with all it’s ghoulish crypts full of chemical agents. Columbia Slough and the confluence of the Willamette — Portland’s own reeking Superfund contributions to the river. Is there a section of the Columbia that you are particularly dreading passing through?

Christopher: Naturally, I dread some of these sections. In my nightmares, Hanford looms large. But during the day, I worry most about the persistent bio-accumulation of contaminants in my body. Of these, the pesticides scare me the most. Neuro-toxins do damage that can’t be undone.

smokebox: What sort of precautions will you need to take to keep your own body from being poisoned when moving through these areas?

Christopher: I’ll wear a drysuit as much as possible. I’ll limit my exposure by swimming through the Hanford Reach in one day. I’ll take activated charcoal tablets if I swallow a large amount of water. I’ll continue to gargle with hydrogen peroxide solution every time I stop for a drink or a snack. I’ll keep my immunizations up to date. And I am not above praying or asking the river for help occasionally.

smokebox: Has this swim altered at all your personal views as they pertain to the dynamics of “water issues” as they are currently defined? Sometimes activism is a rather benign pursuit. Oftentimes we make our ethical decisions based on words and pictures without ever getting out and breathing the air or sifting the soil through our fingers. Are the ethical boundaries surrounding these issues still as clear cut to you as they were when you began?

Christopher: I am more sympathetic to people in riverside communities now. They face daunting challenges armed only with affection and hope.

I am more impatient with the “desk jockeys” in the environmental movement than ever before. I don’t think people have any business advocating for waterways that they don’t regularly use and enjoy. On the contrary, I think they have a professional responsibility to get wet.

The culture of entrenchment and alienation strikes me as a lazy one. Many of the folks who use and enjoy waterways the most–hunters, fishermen, and boaters–have been alienated by their brethren in the environmental movement. It is a sorry state of affairs when we alienate those who might become our strongest allies.

Finally, I think the term “environmentalist” has outlived its usefulness. If anything, it now serves as a label that stalls discussion with those we most need to befriend. I have taken to telling folks, “I am not a (goddamn) environmentalist. I am a swimmer and a father who wants to protect the Columbia River for his children.”

smokebox: I can totally relate to this sentiment in a visceral sense, and yet from a purely academic standpoint it’s safe to argue that were it not for environmental watchdogs the situation on many of our waterways would be a whole lot worse. It seems to me that the real challenge lies in trying to figure out how to unify a collective of the different interests, groups and communities who genuinely care about the ecological issues the Columbia faces, and develop a more involved plan to deal with the dilemmas posed by those who consistently place industrial and agricultural interests over ecological viability. Let’s not be timid here. You’ve already mentioned the neuro-toxins caused by pesticide use in farming. Industrial polluters are among the worst offenders, and don’t appear interested in any voluntary environmental regulation that adversely affects the bottom line. Mining operations, pulp mills, aluminum plants etc. all are responsible for pumping poisonous, oxygen depleted and thermally hostile wastewater into our rivers — these are not friends of the water you swim. In your opinion as a river advocate, is it possible to reach any sort of functional compromise with these sorts of industries?

Christopher: I think the best of our “environmental watchdogs” are both using and enjoying their waterways, and working hard to build bridges between traditionally entrenched groups.

I am not sure that we can be friends with those who pollute our waterways, but we can address them respectfully and firmly. I believe we should use all the tools we can in support of the quest for clean water: education, legislation, enforcement, and vigilance among them. But at the end of the day, I believe that the most powerful force in the fight for clean water is the positive pressure that a large group of neighbors might bring to bear.

I still hope that the swim might result in the formation of an unlikely, extraordinary, informal coalition of people from every side of the clean water debate. These folks would hold in common only their affection for the river, and would base their protection and restoration initiatives firmly upon that common ground.

smokebox: What can we do on a personal level to help the Columbia? What can I do tonight to make a difference in the health of the river? Are there any watchdog organizations you find particularly worthy of support?

Christopher: There are lots of little things that each of us can do. We can all choose 100% recycled, chlorine-free paper, install catch basins and filtration pillows in the storm drains on our block, purchase organic produce, and plant native trees along our local creeks. There are more mundane things too, like flushing the toilet less often, or taking shorter showers, that address the larger need to conserve the finite amount of fresh water on the planet.

Not everything we do needs to feel like work, either. The simple act of using and enjoying a waterway by swimming, fishing, or boating it, reminds us of its value, and supports our rights under the Clean Water Act of 1972. And who knows, we might even have fun out there!

There are lots of strong organizations. I would say that the River Network ( is an excellent place for any interested citizen to start their search.

smokebox: I know this undertaking has to be a strain financially. How can people contribute to your monumental swim if they so desire?

Christopher: From our web site at, folks can donate funds and equipment, organize a riverside event, buy T-shirts at our on-line store, or use our link to make purchases at Powell’s Books for which the swim receives a commission.

The swim is a low-budget, no-frills operation. We scrape by on the generosity of those we meet along the way. We are a non-profit organization, and all the money we raise supports the swim and associated outreach efforts. We’ll need lots of friends if we are going to make it to the Pacific, and we always enjoy making them. Please come visit!

Originally published:
Issue Twenty-Three
December 2002


Current information on Christopher Swain can be found here:

Swim With Swain

Comments are closed.