Lunatic or hero? Christopher Swain's Columbia odyssey makes waves
Last June, Christopher Swain made an outrageous promise to become the first person to swim the entire Columbia River.
A year later, incredibly, it looks as if he will make it. Swain splashed into Portland this week with characteristic flair and humor, pausing to crack jokes and beam at his surroundings before ripping through his usual 3,000 or so freestyle strokes, pushed along by a steady current.
His strokes seem effortless, but Swain has carried a lot with him on this journey: He's saddled his family with debt; he's alienated potential sponsors; he's agreed to a mutual no-slander order with the environmental group he used to work for; and he's been accused of having an ego bigger than the river he's trying to save.
But nothing has stopped him from swimming and from preaching to thousands of adults and schoolchildren about the importance of a clean river.
The big questions from the kids: Aren't you worried you'll get eaten by sharks when you reach the ocean? And how do you go number two?
With adults, the question that tends to pop to mind is: Is this guy nuts?
After all, there are reasons why no one in history has swum these 1,243 miles.
No one knows this better than Swain. He has pounded into the waves and squalls of the Columbia River Gorge, and they have pounded into him. He's suffered through headaches, numb extremities and a nagging shoulder injury.
Red and blue fungi have taken residence inside his left ear. Sunlight and friction have left him raw with sunburn and rashes.
All for the glory of swimming through frigid waters, raw sewage, industrial waste and whatever might seep out from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
Like Tre Arrow before him, the 35-year-old Swain has transformed himself into an eco-performance artist, with the river as his stage.
The reviews have been mixed. Outside magazine dubbed him an 'environmental action figure.' The Seattle Times heralded him as 'one tough athlete.' The Spokane Spokesman-Review called him a 'lunatic.'
Swain portrays himself as an Everyman with big dreams: a 'stumbling, average guy a nonscientist, a noncompetitive swimmer trying to do an outrageous expedition, without money.'
On a shoestring
Of course, he would have preferred to do it with money.
When Swain first planned his swim last year, he was the new 'riverkeeper' for the nonprofit group Columbia Riverkeeper. His idea was to use the swim to promote awareness of the environmental issues facing the Columbia, and for the advocacy group to provide planning and support for the swim.
But Swain's tenure as paid riverkeeper lasted less than three months. The relationship ended with attorneys for both sides agreeing that Swain and his former bosses would observe a mutual no-slander rule.
Swain's quest for full sponsorship from Nike also failed.
He had wanted to raise $75,000 for the swim but ended up making do with about a third of that.
His inability to gain full backing forced Swain to be creative, even desperate. His 200-plus pages of journal entries posted online at www.columbiaswim.org tell of numerous schemes to fund the voyage, from selling T-shirts in far-off pizza parlors to working as a temp at a warehouse on Airport Way.
When a sixth-grader offered Swain a crumpled-up $5 bill after one of his talks, he took it. He also accepted a Ritz cracker tin full of Canadian coins and a wad of bills from a slightly inebriated logger in British Columbia.
At one point in his online journal, Swain joked that he was planning to sell off family heirlooms. This prompted a concerned call from his mother, who accused him of wasting his mind.
By the time he swam into the city limits on Tuesday, Swain had outlasted the 1974 Zodiac inflatable boat used by a rotating crew of volunteers to help him downstream. He had to rely on an escort from a Multnomah County sheriff's patrol boat to protect him from the jet skiers and barges in the navigation channel.
The T-shirt he wore before squeezing his bulky frame into his wet suit, flippers and gloves promoted Columbia River Swim 2002. It was a reminder that the voyage has lasted about a half year longer than it was supposed to. For the last several months he has swum in six-hour bursts carrying him 8 to 25 miles depending on river conditions.
'I never doubted I would make it,' Swain said, plunging back into the river.
Home to Portland
Swain was born in New York City and raised in New England. He graduated from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., and did not see the Columbia River for the first time until 1997.
Five years later, he set out to swim it.
Swain, his wife Heather and their daughter, Rowan, 1, drove from Portland to the river's source, near Canal Flats, British Columbia. An assembly of schoolchildren cheered him on as he swam off downstream with a flurry of strokes.
He thought he might be able to reach the ocean by Thanksgiving. But by mid-October, Swain could no longer swim without thinking of money and his young daughter. He sped home to Portland, borrowed money to pay November's rent, and spent the Thanksgiving holiday scraping to keep his family housed.
The next month, the Swains moved out of their rented home and into a house-sitting arrangement. Swain's journal entries from this period can be tortured at times, full of self-accusation.
At Swain's $8-an-hour warehouse job, his co-workers huddled around the radio to hear a pair of KUFO shock jocks called Craig the Dog-Faced Boy and Porkchop berate 'Columbia Chris' on the air, calling him a fraud and a liar.
For the New Year, Swain resolved to devote more time to his family, make more money and spend more time swimming.
Swimming through Hanford
Before long he was swimming through a Superfund site in a snowstorm. The water temperature was 41 degrees.
The swim got a big boost in January from members of the Colville Confederated Tribes in Eastern Washington. They lent Swain a 52-foot houseboat, with a propane heater. Swain's friend and boat pilot, a Portland-based United Airlines pilot named Chris Runyard, took the helm and kept the heater fired.
The warm-up breaks enabled Swain to crush his winter season record by knocking out 6,475 strokes that day. (He says he counts them all when he swims.)
Later that month, Swain learned that Heather was expecting another child, due in July. He joked that their 'conceive before Hanford' plan had worked. But seriously, he now had a definite deadline.
With support from strangers-turned-friends from the reservations and towns he passed through, Swain powered on with new resolve. Runyan piloted the boat, and expedition volunteer Nicole Bowmer drove thousands of miles running errands and transporting food and supplies to the more remote reaches of the river.
In March, Swain flew to New York City to accept the International Earth Day Award at the United Nations Building. He hung out with folk music icon and river crusader Pete Seeger, and he dived into the East River for a quick swim from Roosevelt Island to Manhattan.
In April, he started picking up speed, thanks to some serious current in the Columbia. One day he made 25 river miles in just 4,000 strokes. At that rate, Swain calculated, it would take just five strokes to swim the length of an Olympic-sized pool.
In May, Swain swam past Hanford and into Oregon.
He said swimming through Hanford was surreal:
'It was just achingly beautiful pelicans, elk, wild horses. You turn your head one way, and you see these white bluffs. You turn your head the other way and you see Reactor B, where they made the plutonium for the bomb we dropped on Nagasaki.'
Swain tried to arrange a background radiation test for his body, before and after the Hanford Reach. But his request eventually was denied by officials from the U.S. Department of Energy. He said the explanation he got from a representative of the Washington Department of Ecology consisted of 'What can I tell you? They chickened out.'
Clean enough to swim
The biggest criticism from Portland's more conventional environmental activists is that Swain is far better at promoting himself than he is at bringing about meaningful change.
'He's never been able to fit into an organizational structure and dig in for the long term,' said one activist familiar with Swain's short-lived gig for Columbia Riverkeeper. 'His ego always gets in the way. É It's telling that no one ended up sponsoring his swim.'
Still, for all his presence and his clear love of the stage, Swain spends more time talking about the river than about himself. He said his goals are simple: a clean, free-flowing river that's safe to drink, swim and fish.
Swain said he can envision a river without dams. 'If 20 years ago I had told you that the Berlin Wall would come down in our lifetime, you would have spit out your food laughing at me,' he said. 'But it happened. And this could happen, too.'
Indeed, if there is a lesson to be learned from Swain's yearlong pursuit of the Columbia, it is that strange things do happen. Barring catastrophe, he will swim his way into the record books by the end of June.
Asked what he plans to do once he's made history, Swain doesn't pause:
'Go home. Be a dad.'