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Know the West

Want to protect a river? Get out and swim it


On the whole, professional conservationists are an office-bound bunch. They spend their days toiling to protect wild rivers and clean air, but don’t get outside often enough; the habitat these folks frequent is behind a desk, near a pile of papers. Enter Christopher Swain. A former acupuncturist and Iron Man competitor, Swain moved to Portland, Ore., five years ago and promptly fell in love with the Columbia River. Then he decided the best way to protect the river was, of course, to swim it. All 1,243 miles of it, from its headwaters in the mountains of British Columbia to its mouth in Astoria, Ore. Swain spent almost a year on the project. By the time he reached the Pacific Ocean on June 28, he had met with 13,000 people — including 8,000 schoolchildren — to talk about the river’s challenges: dams, dwindling salmon stocks, pollution. After he’d had a few days to wring out his wet suit and reconnect with his wife and family, Swain spoke with Radio High Country News host Adam Burke about his odyssey.

A schizophrenic river

“The big thing on my mind was the disconnect between the mythic river of the West — the Columbia River of the imagination, that Lewis and Clark wrote about in their journals, that ran clear at every depth, that teemed with salmon — and then this other river — sort of the river of reality, that runs through Portland, that the city kind of backs up to, that’s out there somewhere by the airport, that nobody really goes to because there’s only one park you can even really access it from. And I thought, how interesting that we have a tendency to identify with the mythic river, and it almost seems like we’d rather not think about the actual river. So my sense was, I should go out there and tell the story of the river we’ve got now.”

Why swim?

“It seemed like a natural thing to do. Not being a scientist, and not being a competitive swimmer, and not being rich, and not having some brilliant answer — because I’m not brilliant — this is what I had to offer: My life. I could put my body in that big river every day, try to understand what was going on, try to faithfully hear the testimony of my neighbors, and try to start a discussion that hopefully gets us closer to the river we dream of and the people we hope to be.”

Tasting is believing

“You know, there’s no way to be in denial if you’re swimming this river. You have to swim through every sewage outfall. You have to swim through the 150 miles of slack water behind Grand Coulee Dam. You have to taste the diesel fuel. You have to see the beaches covered with slag from the metal smelters, and swim by apple orchards where you’re breathing in the spray that’s pouring out of their rigs. Now nobody can say that I haven’t seen their favorite piece of water. No one can say, ‘You can’t talk to us about our sewage system in this town because you don’t live here,’ because I can say, ‘I just swam through your crap.’ ”

The human problem

“The big thing I learned as I swam was that every single problem on the Columbia River was perhaps best understood as a human problem and a human challenge as opposed to an environmental challenge. I mean, the water quality challenges, the contaminants in the river were, of course, there as a result of human activity. Basically, the whole range of what developed man’s come up with, from human waste to nuclear waste, is present in the river. But beyond that, any change in those behaviors would have to be made by people, and they would have to see it as personally worthwhile before they would make the change.”

A challenge to the deskbound conservationist

“Get out from behind your desk, get out into the wilderness that you purport to protect. Because if you spend too much time in the office, burning toner and sending out direct mail, you’re going to lose touch with why it’s worth protecting those things. If you want to advocate for waterways, it’s time to get wet. If you want to advocate for the Sierras, climb them. Not every day, of course: You’ve got office work to do; everyone has their paperwork. But you’ve got to climb some mountains, too.”

Off the Air is drawn from interviews produced for Radio High Country News. The full interview with Christopher Swain is available on CD. To order, go to www.hcn.org/radio.jsp, or call or 1-800-905-1155.