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River Swimmer Finds Success Comes at a Cost

Triathlete swam the Columbia to highlight its pollution, nuclear waste and dams. But he didn't reckon on his family's sacrifice.

August 17, 2003|Terrence Petty | Associated Press Writer

PORTLAND, Ore. — Christopher Swain dodged boulders in rapids violent enough to kill, stroked through a blizzard, swam through pollutants and past the most contaminated nuclear site in the nation -- all to draw attention to the ills afflicting one of the continent's most scenic rivers.

Some people thought that Swain, 35, was crazy for even attempting the swim. Some saw his journey as nothing more than a self-promoting stunt. Others were in awe.

The way Swain sees it, the mission was a success.

"Our messages may not have been revolutionary, but our success in reaching an international audience with those messages was," he said.

The former Boston acupuncturist and triathlete waded into the Pacific Northwest's Columbia River headwaters in a Canadian wilderness on June 4, 2002.

Thirteen months later, on July 1, the river spilled Swain into the Pacific off Cape Disappointment.

He became the first person to swim the full 1,243 miles of the river.

Still, when Swain speaks of his feat, there are hints of regret: for turning the life of his wife and their daughter upside down.

As Swain pursued his dream, the family of three lived in loosely managed chaos. He would spend a stretch of time on the water, drive hundreds of miles back to his family in Portland, then return to where he'd left the river to continue his swim.

He accepted donations during stops along the river, sold commemorative T-shirts out of his SUV and took temporary jobs during his stays in Portland. But his finances were always on the brink.

As he watches his 2-year-old daughter, Rowan, wander in and out of the living room, Swain reflects on the price he's paid.

"Was it worth it?" he asked. "Just barely. It's put a huge strain on this tiny family. It's put a huge strain on a small bank account."

His wife, Heather Bauman-Swain, herself a former top athlete in crew and a triathlete as well, concedes that at times the strain was difficult to bear.

"There were months of having to provide two parents' worth of stability," said Bauman-Swain, who suspended her pre-med studies at the University of Oregon to devote herself to Rowan.

She gave birth to the couple's second child on July 12 -- just 11 days after Swain finished his swim.

Swain, of course, is not the first to draw attention to pollutants in the river, nuclear wastes at the federal government's Hanford reservation and dams that block salmon's migration to their home tributaries. There are hundreds of nonprofit organizations, in addition to American Indian tribes, that for years have been working on these issues.

Swain seems to have made an especially strong impression on schoolchildren. He has a way of getting through to them with his message that they need to act as stewards of the Columbia.

He had an impact on adults too. Several dozen opened their homes to him while he pushed himself, often through frigid waters.

Swain has a history of swimming for a cause.

In 1996, he swam 210 miles of the Connecticut River to draw attention to human rights.

The publicity taught him that "people pay attention when you get into the water."

Schoolchildren from Martin Morigeau Elementary School in Canal Flats near Columbia Lake learned that Columbia is no longer the wild river it was during the time of Lewis and Clark, but mainly a series of reservoirs. Columbia's pristine headwaters flow from Columbia Lake, in the mountains of British Columbia.

Swain's stop in Trail, British Columbia, a city of 8,000 just across the border from Spokane, Wash., inspired the City Council to pass a resolution that has resulted in city crews drastically curtailing the use of pesticides in parks and other areas.

Across the border in Washington state, Swain charmed schoolchildren at Kettle Falls.

"He talked about his love affair with the river, almost as if it is a person," said Lynn Schott, an English teacher at Kettle Falls High.

Swain also spent time with American Indians whose ancestors used to feed their families with salmon taken from now-flooded fishing grounds at Kettle Falls -- members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation.

During Swain's swim in January down Lake Roosevelt -- a 130-mile reservoir behind the Grand Coulee Dam -- residents of the Colville reservation loaned Swain a houseboat and tribal members served as the crew.

One of them, Patti Stone, is environmental planner for the Confederated Tribes and has been active in pressing for a cleanup of heavy metals in Lake Roosevelt.

Stone has a photograph of Swain taken on the houseboat. Snow had turned to rain, and Swain was getting ready to plunge into the 39-degree water to resume his swim.

That photo motivates her to work ever harder.

"Lately," she said, "that image is the inspiration of the tough days of work, the days when we have to, for the hundredth time, remind everyone about the needs of the river, our friend, and our provider."

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