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July 16th, 2003 Amy Roe | News Stories
 

Mouth of the Columbia

Christopher Swain has finished his swim. Now for the hard part.

     
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In addition to media coverage for his swim, Christopher Swain received the International Earth Day Award at the United Nations in March
IMAGE: Basil Childers
When he jumped into the Canadian headwaters of the Columbia River on June 4, 2002, all Christopher Swain really wanted to do was "taste the river."

Turns out it's bitter.

Two weeks ago, Swain battled eight- to 10-foot swells to end his 13-month, 1,243-mile odyssey to the Pacific. A cluster of news crews waited for him off Cape Disappointment, then trumpeted his triumph to the world.

Along the way, however, Swain was criticized for what some considered a self-indulgent journey designed more for self-promotion than to help stop pollution. The Spokane, Wash., Spokesman-Review called him a "lunatic." Outside magazine cast him as an ego-driven "environmental action figure." The Portland Tribune likened him to Tre Arrow, the man wanted by the FBI for ecoterrorism--a comparison that especially irks him. "I'm not a protester," Swain says. "I never broke the law."

At times, the Columbia swim seemed to Swain like a no-win. In the water (where he was about 13 days a month), he missed his pregnant wife, Heather, and 2-year-old daughter, Rowan. Warm at home, he longed for the river's cold embrace. Perpetually torn, he was also burning through $27,000--money that dissipated like body heat through a loose wetsuit.

Now back at home--or rather, the comfortable, toy-strewn Irvington home he's housesitting--Christopher Swain is no longer sore from the exertion. Yet he remains achingly self-aware. Knowing what he knows now, would he do the swim any differently?

"I'm wondering if I would've done it," he says soberly, after a long pause.

Physically, Swain, who is stocky, sun-bronzed and pinch-his-cheeks handsome, is tough. Think Anthony Swofford underwater, or Lance Armstrong in a wetsuit.

Criticism nonetheless stings him like the pulp-mill discharge that famously reddened his skin. Even as the 35-year-old acupuncturist climbed out of the river for the last time, reports of his 2-year-old falling-out with Columbia Riverkeeper clung to him. Oregonian columnist Renee Mitchell last week cited the flap as evidence Swain is a limelight-hogging fraud.

And what, exactly, has Swain done for the Columbia?

"I've definitely gotten a clean, free-flowing river back on the table," he says. "I'm the only one I hear publicly saying that."

It's no surprise Swain sees himself as the lone voice for the river. We swim, as we dream, alone. Swain's ponderous online journal (www.columbiaswim.org) is testament to this. He writes about what he calls the "new myth" and physics, and not really being apart from the river, but being part of it.

The entries are at once tortured and profound, and more than a little out-there, at least until you get to tangible examples from his outreach efforts, which included visits with more than 8,000 students in schools along the Columbia River.

Swain bemoans the media's reluctance to tackle the tough pollution issues, focusing, instead, on the swim's heady athleticism. He was disappointed, for example, that a story in the Richland, Wash.-based Tri-City Herald made no mention of nuclear pollution in the nearby Hanford Reach, which runs past the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Swain says--and writes in his online journal--that reporter Cara Fitzpatrick later told him that she had written about it but her editor changed the story without her knowledge at the last minute.

Fitzpatrick told WW a different story. She says she never told Swain her editor censored her story; she never wrote about Hanford in the first place. After all, she was assigned a feature, not a hard-hitting exposé about pollution.

Pollution, of course, is very reason Swain is swimming the Columbia. Typically, it's the last thing to make it into print.

Logistics, not censorship, are largely to blame for the disconnect between Swain's feat and his message. There has been a lot to cover chronicling the swim. The goldfish crackers Swain ate, the ice-cream headaches he suffered, the red-and-blue fungus that grew in his ear and the Water Pik he used to treat it--all vie with the environment for ink and air time. Guess which one usually wins?

"The swim's what's covered because it's got the sizzle," says Columbia Riverkeeper Executive Director Cyndy deBruler. (Swain left his part-time job as an advocate at Columbia Riverkeeper in fall 2001, after differences with the nonprofit group. The two parties decline to discuss it on the record.)

The media underplayed Swain's outreach efforts, says Rhett Lawrence, who works on water issues for OSPIRG. "Unless you went to his website and read the diary entries," he says, "you'd have no way of knowing that."

While he respects Swain's efforts, Lawrence hopes they don't end with the swim's completion. He hopes Swain returns to work helping communities he visited decrease discharges. "Going out and experiencing those problems just tells us what we already know," Lawrence says.

To Swain, swimming the river was his "sacred duty," to the environment. He thinks more environmentalists should eschew their desks for the wilderness.

Swain says he plans to go back to the towns he visited, though this time he must find a way that accommodates his role as a father and husband. "My experience of family is part of processing what to do" about the Columbia River's pollution, he says.

Swain repeats this constantly--like penance, or maybe a disclaimer. "Maybe I'm naive," he muses, "and I had to go on this immense outer journey to find meaningful change begins at home."

 
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