swimming to astoria

The Columbia River is very long and very dirty-- and it's where Christopher Swain will spend the next six months.

"I bet the water is going to be 42 degrees," says Christopher Swain, pulling on his neoprene wetsuit, booties, gloves and cap.

It's a brisk morning on the shore of the Columbia River at Kelley Point Park in North Portland. A light mist swirls, bringing with it the sounds of a ship unloading at a nearby Port terminal.

Swain is about to test a pair of flippers, for chafing, propelling power, floatability and flop.

If the equipment passes muster, it could accompany Swain on what may be the longest swim anyone has ever undertaken--the 1,243 miles of the Columbia River, from its headwaters high in the Canadian Rockies, south through eastern Washington, then west through the Columbia Gorge to cross the bar at the mouth of the river about 19 miles east of Astoria.

He will begin the swim in Canada on June 4. If all goes well, he will taste the saltwater of the Pacific Ocean by Thanksgiving; if things go badly, not until after New Year's 2003.

But that can wait. Right now, Swain has more immediate concerns: the boat he needs to accompany him down the river, the cash he has yet to raise to finance the trip, and the wife and daughter he will leave back home in Southeast Portland. And, of course, the flippers.

Swain pulls the thermometer back to him and is relieved to see it reads 8 degrees higher than he guessed. "That's the difference between freezing ass," he says, "and just being cold."

He steps into the water, and as it rises up to his chest he is transformed from a harried organizer to a jubilant water baby. He cuts through the water like a seal, kicking to test the webbed feet. After determining the flippers will, in fact, do, Swain tromps out of the Columbia and rinses his mouth out with hydrogen peroxide. Twice.

The mouthwash is to kill whatever toxic bacteria has made its way into Swain's mouth. It is a sobering gesture that tells as much about the the body of water he is preparing to swim as the reason he's going to swim it: It's a dirty river.

At 8 o'clock on a Saturday morning outside the Mount Scott Community Center in Southeast Portland, Swain, 34, has already broken a sweat. "I don't know why adults say jumping rope is hard," he says. "I've always thought it was fun."

Comments like that make you want either to slap Swain or hire him as a personal trainer.

Although he has never attempted anything like swimming an entire river, extreme athletic performance is nothing new to him. He grew up in Massachusetts in an intense and competitive family. He was a nationally ranked bicycle racer and rower for Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he double-majored in film and French literature.

College buddy Nicole Butterfield says he was such an aggressive rider that it was frightening to watch him screaming through the curves of a road race.

"He likes adventure, risk and physical challenges," she says. "And he either has no fears or he faces those--unlike a lot of other people."

His specialty was time trials, a form of bike racing where there is no money and lots of anonymity. "I didn't like riding where you could catch a draft from someone or push each other along. I like the time trials. Just me and the clock. No excuses." Thoughts of Olympic glory evaporated in 1989, however, when he severely injured a tendon in his leg.

Inside the Mount Scott Center's small workout room, Swain plops down on the floor and does 350 sit-ups of various intricacies as easily as if he were curling his toes. Among the sweats-clad community-center patrons who struggle on a row of Stairmasters, he is like a salmon among sturgeons.

Swain looks a good decade younger than his 34 years. It isn't just his physical fitness. It's his buzz haircut, his chubby cheeks and the little-boy scowl when he gets tired of answering questions about the swim.

There's also the layer of what looks like baby fat. As fit as Swain is, he is not cut. His biceps don't bulge. His shoulders don't ripple.

"Since I've been swimming so much," he says, "I can't seem to get my body fat below 12 percent. I'm still trying to figure out why. Maybe it's that the water's so cold."

In the months approaching the swim he has been training six days a week. In addition to two or three days of weight training, he does two or three long swims a week of 6,000 to 12,000 meters. That means three-plus hours in the Mount Scott pool, leaving the aqua-aerobics participants in the next lane to wonder if one of them had acquired a stalker. During the week he also weaves in one or two shorter swims of 1,500 to 3,000 meters. He also runs 10 to 13 miles--preferably with hills--a couple of times a week.

Swain is following his own training plan because no one has ever done what he's attempting before. Alex Nikitin, Masters Swim Coach at the Multnomah Athletic Club, has readied numerous Portland swimmers to take on the English Channel. Like most people hearing of Swain's swim for the first time, Nikitin had one word:


At the same time, he's certain that a bike racer, marathoner and triathlete who has been training for nearly a year and a half is physically able to finish the swim. Beyond that, says Nikitin, he doesn't have any training advice, because what Swain is proposing to do is so outside the realm of normal swimmers.

Veteran open-water swimmers aren't always as initially impressed as Nikitin. These are people who have swum the English Channel wearing nothing but a Speedo and Vaseline. When they hear he will be protected from the water's deadly cold temperatures by a wetsuit, they invariably say he should have no trouble.

Suzanne Dods of San Francisco, who swam the channel two years ago, says the challenge will be not in the body but in the mind. "It will take a lot of mental stamina to do this," she says. "He will have to get into that water every day for six months. I couldn't do it."

Swain says he has no doubt he will finish.

"I know I can train my body to do anything I want it to do," he says. "As for the mental thing, the fact I'm doing this as an advocate, not just an athlete, that will keep me going."

And then, there's the Indian thing, which Swain is reluctant to talk about, perhaps because it sounds kind of weird.

Swain is the only non-Native American male to have completed a Native American physical test called "Run for the Sun." On the winter solstice, on a course determined by Apache elders, runners are required to run a far distance while holding a mouthful of water. No swallowing.

In 1991, Swain ran nine miles uphill in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, then successfully spit the water out when he was finished.

"It's grueling," he says. "You can't breathe through your mouth because it's full of water, but your nose is all snotty because it's the middle of winter."

This came about not because he had watched Dances with Wolves too many times, but because Swain has been a pupil of an Apache wise woman named Oh Shinnah Fast Wolf, whom he met as a teenager at a New Age conference he and his mom attended. For the past 19 years he has attended her workshops, listened to her counsel, and been schooled under the mantra that he must "strive to do the best and most harmonious thing for himself, the planet and all living things." He repeats the phrase constantly, like a Catholic saying a rosary.

"Look," he says, "I'm not Apache, and I'm not trying to be an Indian. This is just something that makes sense to me."

To Swain, his Native American teacher forms as much a basis for the swim as his sit-ups. No amount of probing will get Swain to admit that the swim is anything more than his personal manifestation of what he believes.

Swain first encountered the Columbia in 1997 while visiting his in-laws, who live in Portland. He, like most people who stand at Crown Point, was dumbstruck. The view of the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area inspires awe of a pristine wilderness and a river powerful enough to slice through basalt as if it were Jell-O.

But that isn't the reality.

"On the one hand we have the mythic river of the West, the landscape painting," says Swain. "On the other hand, we have this very polluted body of water. That's the interesting disconnect, the river of our imagination versus the river of our reality."

The Columbia is the fourth-largest river in North America, and the water Swain will be swimming could have come from anywhere in a drainage area the size of France. But that's just geography. More than that, for thousands of years the Columbia River has driven the cultural, spiritual and economic engine of the Northwest.

From Native American prayers to Lewis and Clark's exultation in their journals to a Woody Guthrie ballad that celebrates the 14 dams, the Columbia has always been revered as one of the wonders of the natural world.

Because the Columbia rolls on, there's a Port in Portland, watermelons in Hermiston, and electricity that's still pretty cheap.

Hydropower from the dams have fueled wartime shipyards in Portland, the airline factories of Boeing and the microchip manufacturers of Beaverton. Where there was once desert in eastern Oregon and Washington, today everything from hops to wheat to pears is grown as far away from the river as irrigation systems will carry water.

Wheat, potatoes and watermelons are carried downstream on barges and shipped around the world. The banks of the river house paper mills, aluminum smelters and massive mining operations.

All good, says Swain, but the Columbia is in trouble.

The Willamette River grabs headlines thanks to Superfund sites, toxic fill on Ross Island and deformed fish in Newberg Pool.

But the Columbia's environmental problems are far greater than dying salmon runs. The Columbia has its own share of deformed fish. There are pesticides and fertilizers from agriculture, PCBs from electric transformers, heavy minerals from mining, dioxins from paper bleaching, fecal coliform from human waste, and radiation from Hanford Nuclear Reservation in the water.

Decades of industrialization gave the Columbia the dubious distinction of being the 18th-most toxic river in America, according to the Environmental Working Group's 1996 report "Dishonorable Discharge." That's ahead of the Willamette, which came in 50th.

Add to that the issues facing the river: dam breaching, fish recovery, estuary restoration, channel deepening and Hanford cleanup.

"It's too much for people," says Swain, "so they tune it out. Just Hanford alone is enough to put anyone over critical mass. We want to think about how we live in the most livable city in America, not that we are downstream from the most radioactive site in North America."

Swain believes if he can call enough attention to the river and get enough people talking about it, good things will happen. His plan, as he swims, is to stop and talk to people like, say, the CEO of Canada's Calamut Mining Company and ask them to stop polluting.

"Hey, I live downriver from them," he says. "They should care about what is in my water."

This is actually Swain's second "advocacy swim," a term he coined himself. The first was the lower 210 miles of the Connecticut River in 1996. He did it, he says, to call attention to the existence of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was there, he says, that he learned two things.

"People pay attention when you get into the water," he says, "and when you get out of the water they want to know what you found there."

It is also not his first venture in self-promotion. Using marketing skills honed as a fundraiser for his alma mater, he built up a successful sports acupuncture practice in Boston and organized an alternative-health conference in Providence, R.I.

But so far he's been unable to build too much public excitement about the Columbia Swim.

And therein lies the rub. You would think that the biggest publicity stunt on the Columbia River since the laser light show at Grand Coulee Dam would get more support--especially from environmentalists who have been working on the issues.

That hasn't been the case.

He originally hooked up with the environmental group Columbia Riverkeeper, hoping that the organization's structure--and the salary it would provide--would allow him to focus on training and fundraising. But after only three months in the group's employ last fall, he and Columbia Riverkeeper parted ways after a nasty breakup that neither will talk about on the record.

The original $75,000 he hoped to raise for the swim never materialized. He's trying to make do with around $20,000. That means no crew of four, no full-time public-relations firm, no on-staff videographer.

He has since tried to ally himself with other environmental groups such as American Rivers and Save Our Wild Salmon. While both groups are supportive of the swim, they aren't doing much to help.

"What he's doing, to be perfectly candid, doesn't fit exactly with what we do," says Corky Collier of Save Our Wild Salmon. "We focus mostly on the Snake River. He obviously helps our cause in that he brings some attention to the river. But it's not a perfect fit."

So Swain is mostly on his own. In the weeks approaching the swim, he spends every moment that he isn't training trying to put together enough for even a no-frills budget of money, gear and people that will get him from Canada to the coast and drumming up publicity for the swim. He is holding down two jobs and has put more gear than he wants to on his credit card.

The media attention is starting to come in, but slowly. Last Tuesday morning he swam in the Columbia with a reporter from Good Day, Oregon. Outside magazine has published an article, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and American Associated Press are lined up to do stories when he takes his first dive, with 200 Canadian schoolkids there to watch.

Patagonia, Smart Wireless and a few other groups have thrown in some corporate support of equipment and cash. But so far the "adopt a mile" program he'd hoped would fund part of the trip has yielded only about $1,000, and the T-shirts he'd hoped to hawk aren't back from the printer yet.

Rick Mazzotta, another Wesleyan grad, will be his crew chief. Swain has some volunteer support, but most of the time he and Mazzotta will be alone on the river.

Mazzotta will be piloting the inflatable Zodiac that will trail Swain on the water. A marine historian and former bike racer himself, Mazzotta shares Swain's anal-retentive nature and intensity but is content to be Sancho to Swain's Don Quixote.

It's Mazzotta's job to monitor Swain for hypothermia, make sure he eats the 8,000 calories a day it will take to prevent complete metabolic shutdown, and keep an eye on the sky for storms. He has analyzed every section of the 1,243-mile river. Most of it is slack water, thanks to the dams. But there are still some rapids left in the wild section of Canada. There are also sections near Hood River where the wind will force the surface current backwards. There are barges to dodge, fishing nets to avoid, and floating debris to watch out for.

"I will spend all day, every day," he says, "with my eyes on Christopher."

Mazzotta has also contacted each of the dams' operators to let them know a swimmer is coming through so they don't get spooked: "After Sept. 11, you don't want to be a guy in a dark wetsuit, accompanied by someone on a black inflatable boat, sneaking up on a dam."

When Swain and Mazzotta enter the Columbia in Canal Flats, B.C., next week, the water could be as cold as 38 degrees. At that temperature, Swain will be wearing a drysuit that will give him all the mobility of the Michelin Man, and he and Mazzotta will begin the long slow journey to the Pacific Ocean.

There are, of course, about a hundred different ways to advocate for the Columbia River that would not require giving up six months of one's life. Swain could join the Sierra Club; he could write to his Congressman; he could file a lawsuit against a corporate violator of the Clean Water Act; he could picket at the gates of Hanford, demanding that the radiation be cleaned up. But he isn't.

"People are interested in the image of an athlete striving for something," he says. "They respond to that."

If he's right, for the next six months, television cameras, school children, reporters and fans will be watching him slowly paddle downriver and learning something about the toxic Columbia along the way. If he's wrong, he'll at least get one hell of a workout.


(10 things you should know about swimming the Columbia)

"Is he nuts?"

When people learn that Christopher Swain is going to swim the entire length of the Columbia River, that's the first thing they ask. Then they have a lot more questions, such as:

1. Upstream or downstream?

Down, but in most places the current won't be much help. The Columbia is mostly a long lake carefully controlled by the dams. And the wind in Hood River that makes for great windsurfing creates a surface current that he'll be fighting against.

2. Why would anyone get in that water? It's polluted.

That's the point.

3. How long will it take?

Depending on weather, current, Swain's physical stamina and a host of unforeseeable factors, five to seven months.

4. How will he get past the dams?

In his boat. Locks can take as long as 45 minutes, a long time to tread water.

5. What about barges?

Six to eight barges travel on the Columbia every day. They move slowly, but under maritime law they have the right of way. Swain will have to keep his eyes peeled.

6. Will he swim every day?

He plans to swim three days on, one off, shooting for six to eight consecutive hours in the water and, with luck, putting 12 or so miles behind him on swim days. On break days he will speak to school groups, community organizations, environmental chapters, reporters--anyone who will listen. He'll sleep on land, re-entering the water at the same point in the morning.

7. Will he wear a wetsuit?

Either that or a drysuit every day. Wetsuits are easier to swim in, but allow water to make contact with the swimmer. A drysuit will do just what it says: keep Swain dry and more protected from the water. But it's thick and bulky and will get in the way of swimming. Which to use will be a matter for daily assessment, depending on water temperature and toxicity.

8. How will he keep from getting sick?

The last time he did this, on the Connecticut River in 1996, he got a nasty ear infection, so he will wear ear plugs at all times. He is also going to expose as little skin as possible to the water, thanks to his wet and drysuits, a swim cap, gloves and booties. He will rinse his mouth out several times a day with hydrogen peroxide and alcohol.

9. What about, er, potty stops?

The Columbia is really wide, so it's difficult to get to shore. But peeing through a drysuit is not an option: Water doesn't come in, and it doesn't go out either. A wetsuit offers more flexibility, but Swain says he's still not keen on making warm water in the water because of the potential for rashes. "I'll be holding it as long as I can and looking forward to breaks," he says.

10. What will he eat while in the water?

He has to ingest 8,000 calories a day to prevent metabolic breakdown, though he anticipates losing upper body mass in spite of that. Every 10 to 15 minutes he will try to eat about 150 calories. He plans to down a lot of a product called Endurox R4 (fruit-punch flavor), Power Gel and Clif Shot.

The mouth of the Columbia River is referred to as "the graveyard of the Pacific" because so many people have died trying to cross the dangerous Columbia bar.

Visit Swain's website at www. columbiaswim.org .

The record for the longest nonstop open-water swim is held by Diana Nyad, former swimming star and sportscaster, now host of public radio's

The Savvy Traveler

. In 1979, she swam 102 miles from the Bahamas to the coast of Florida. It took two days.

River nose:

The name given to allergylike symptoms that windsurfers suffer after spending too much time in the Columbia River. Some also report rashes that won't heal and lots of itching.

The most famous open-water swim, the English Channel, is also one of the longest at 21 miles. The swim around Manhattan Island is 28.

Swain's in-laws are Rick and Judy Bauman, a former Portland power couple who are now divorced. Rick was a Multnomah County commissioner. Judy was a state lawmaker.

Most-frequently asked question about the swim: "How will he get through the dams?"

The longest slack water Swain will swim is Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake, behind Grand Coulee, which stretches from the dam back 150 miles to the Canadian border.

Portland author Robin Cody wrote a book about canoeing the Columbia called

Voyage of a Summer Sun