hudson river swim for clean water

Christopher, along with all of us on the swim crew, knew that aliens and economic theories were not the problem. The problem was – and is – a tangled web in which the fingerprints of humanity play an intricate part…”


by nicole bowmer


Long before my entrance onto the North American stage of this tragic beauty known as Earth, rivers flowed free. Free of dams, free of raw sewage, free of dioxins, arsenic, phosphates, motor oil, and PCBs. In fact, for over 10,000 years of native tribes entering and exiting the same stage, rivers flowed free. Then through twists and turns that increasingly seem more habitual than accidental, my European ancestors made their entrance and this patch of land was ‘liberated.’

Most days I don’t know what weighs heaviest on my mind: the annihilation of a native people or the fact that ‘those’ people kept the balance of nature flowing for over 10,000 years while ‘my’ people are sinking the ship in less than 400.

With our population exploding, industry exploiting, and our government explaining away legitimate concerns as junk science, the fact that our rivers are being choked and poisoned should be no surprise. Yet the fact that there are people willing to risk their lives to help educate communities about ways to help usually is.

When people ask me what my friend, Christopher Swain, does for a living, I say that he swims polluted waterways in support of clean water. When those same people ask me why any human being would ever do such a thing, I say that I think Christopher was supposed to be born a salmon or a cod or maybe even a shad, but somewhere along the line a few wires got crossed and he entered the stage as a human instead. And when those same people ask me if he’s crazy, I point out the 10,000/400-years ratio and ask, “You mean crazier than that?”

Inevitably, during these conversations, words from one of my favorite authors, Derrick Jensen, begin swimming around in my head. He writes and talks about the poisoning of our planet and asks us to imagine that it was aliens from outer space or (worse yet?) the dreaded Communists who spewed raw sewage, dioxins, arsenic, and PCBs into our rivers. Imagine that they also built the dams that turned our rivers into computer-controlled lakes, buried sacred lands of native tribes, and killed our fish. And they continue to do so. Decade after decade. And if it was aliens or Communists annihilating the health of this planet on which we all depend, would we be as complacent as we have been? As we continue to be?

For some, perhaps. For Christopher, not a chance. Last year he completed a 1, 243-mile swim of the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. He talked to over 8,000 school kids and thousands more adults about ways to help restore and protect local waterways. Christopher, along with all of us on the swim crew, knew that aliens and economic theories were not the problem. The problem was – and is – a tangled web in which the fingerprints of humanity play an intricate part.

“We live in an occupied country, misunderstood,” William Stafford wrote, “justice will take us millions of intricate moves.” My search for a better understanding of those intricate moves began with the Columbia River Swim. What the river revealed to me is that it’s not about one person shouldering the responsibility of millions of moves. It’s about entire communities of individuals willing to act on just a few.

And for Christopher and all of us on the swim crew, that search continues on June 3, 2004 as Christopher begins a swim of the entire 315-mile length of the Hudson River. From its Adirondack beginnings to its Atlantic finale, the history of the Hudson is both tragic and beautiful. It will be an honor to learn from that story and contribute to it.

We’re fortunate to have Organic Valley Family of Farms sponsoring this latest journey. They are a cooperative of family farmers who walk the talk when it comes to organic farming practices. I have a special appreciation for their commitment of not using pesticides on grazing land or synthetic hormones in their animals given how many conventional farms I passed driving up and down the Columbia River.

My donation to the Columbia River Swim was delivering supplies and every now and then taking a turn on the support raft that followed alongside Christopher. On one of those support raft adventures, we pulled up to a boat ramp after a long day on the Columbia and saw Willis, a boy Christopher had met on one of his school visits, waiting for us on the shore with his mom. Willis was dressed in all black and had a long ponytail down the middle of his back. He had a kind smile, and his shyness reminded me of myself when I was still in school. “We’ve been chasing you all afternoon,” his mom said with a laugh, “but we kept missing you. Willis just really wanted to see you swimming.” Christopher thanked them for all of their effort in trying to track us down and offered his best guess as to where we would end up the next day.

By the next morning I had completely forgotten about Willis and his mom. This was easy to do because the mornings on the swim always started extra early as we navigated through our food-preparation routine in the kitchens of strangers. I wish everyone who has lost faith in the generosity of humanity could spend a few days with us on the river. Rolling into a town of strangers, gratefully accepting an invitation to stay in someone’s home for a day or two, sharing memories about the river, and rolling out of that community with more friends than you ever thought possible.

As the sun rose high above our heads that next day on the Columbia, I snacked on cashews and Fig Newmans and gave Christopher tea and goldfish crackers whenever he swam over to the support raft. At one point, I noticed two arms fully extended and crisscrossing along the shore. I leaned forward and lifted up my sunglasses. Willis! “Hey Christopher,” I could faintly hear Willis yelling, “Thank you!” He kept waving, and I started clapping to get Christopher’s attention. He stopped swimming to look at me. I pointed to the shore. He spun around and both of his arms darted out of the water to offer his own crisscrossing wave in return. “Hey, Willis! Thank you!” Christopher shouted with a smile while trying to catch his breath. For a few moments they mirrored each other’s waves, words, and affection for a river. And that is the beauty of these swims for me: human-to-human connections over waterways that are loved by everyone, whether they’re a kid or a logger, a parent or a pulp mill worker.

A couple of years ago, we were just a handful of folks stumbling along the Columbia River. No “Social Change Swimming for Dummies” book to help us find our way. We had to write that book as we rolled along. I’m grateful for the opportunity to continue the search. Town by town. Person by person. One person flows into ten. Ten into hundreds. Hundreds into thousands. And millions of intricate moves later…


Originally published:
Issue Thirty-One
June 2004


Further Reading:

Smokebox Interview with Christopher Swain (December 2002)

Crazy or Not: Essay by Nicole Bowmer (August 2002)



When Nicole Bowmer isn’t helping friends navigate through raw sewage, phosphorous, bacteria, motor oil, viruses, dioxins, and PCBs, she is writing a collection of essays about her journey to Baghdad, Iraq last September. She keeps the wheels of literary inspiration turning with lots of help from the music of the Dave Matthews Band.


Comments are closed.