Why I swam through Canyonlands: Fish can't live where people can't swim


Under a blue moon at the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers, I was exhausted but exhilarated: I'd just completed the first swim of the Colorado River through Utah's Canyonlands, starting at Moab and ending at this merging of two rivers, a distance of 47.5 miles. Time: 13 hours and 56 minutes.

The swim was an attempt to raise awareness about the plight of the Colorado River and the important work of the nonprofit American Rivers, which advocates for free-flowing rivers everywhere.

The swim wasn't easy, and after about five hours, I was cold, in water that was about 68 degrees. The support crew in their touring sea kayaks didn't have it easy, either; their main job was keeping me in the fastest currents, finding the channel that is a river within a river. The Colorado River can be wide and shallow in spots, and I hit a few rocks and branches along the way. Sometimes I had to crawl through the sand and mud on my belly.

Even then, I never stopped. Our team followed English Channel Rules/World Open Water Swimming guidelines: No flotation, no wetsuit, no touching the boat or another person, and no stopping. Besides physical fitness – and I trained for this for months -- nutrition is said to be one of the most important elements in success. I had to have the engine, but my engine wouldn't function without enough fuel, so every 25 minutes I ate from an assortment of gels, energy bars, scrambled eggs, bananas, burritos and protein drinks, all administered by my coach from a feeding stick — as if he were feeding an animal at a zoo.

Moseley swims through the Colorado River in Canyonlands.

The five-member support team had to continuously paddle for 14 hours, without even getting a stop for a bathroom break. (Think bailing buckets.) Though we had planned to swim at night, I crawled up onto the beach at the confluence just as the sun was setting. Night swimming was too dangerous.

The day was magical: I swam through the millions of years burnt into the canyons, the floods and droughts, sunsets and full moons, the secrets of the Anasazi and the Barrier People before them. I thought no matter how hard the swim would prove for me, it would never come close to the difficulty that the Colorado River experiences every day. This majestic river, source of water for millions of people, has been dammed and diverted until it chokes on itself, which is why it is now the country's most endangered, according to American Rivers.

My favorite part of swimming, and the real reason I swim, is the connection I feel with the water, almost as if I'm a fish. Marathon swimming might seem like a crazy idea to some people, but it is also a good way to draw attention to some critical water issues.  How we treat our water says a lot about what we value. For me, the swim through Canyonlands was part of a series of three world-record adventure swims in 13 months. They included a lake, an ocean and a river – the Colorado.

Moseley's crew camps at the confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers.

In June 2014, I dodged alligators and bullsharks to swim 25 miles across Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans in just under 15 hours. For decades, the lake was contaminated and unswimmable. Finally, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation cleaned it up. In late May, I swam 24 miles from the island of Culebra to Puerto Rico for the Scuba Dogs Society, a group that works to protect coral reefs.

People can't swim where fish can't live. The quality of water is the key to the whole planetary system and may very well be the defining issue of our time. We have a responsibility as a nation to set a better example and do a better job of protecting the lifeblood of the planet. The abiding lesson I have learned from swimming is simple: As the rivers, lakes and oceans go — so do we. We are the water.

Matthew Moseley is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He is a communications strategist and writer in Boulder, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].