Swimming the Columbia

‘Crazy swimmer’ Swain tells kids about his journey

Students at Hood River Middle School got a visit from a crazy swimmer on Friday. At least, that’s what he called himself.

Christopher Swain, the Portland man who is swimming the length of the Columbia River from British Columbia to Astoria, swung through town to tell students why he’s doing what he’s doing.

“I’m the crazy swimmer from Portland,” he told the students gathered in the library. “I’ve gone 939 miles now. I’m right below the Tri-Cities at Wallula Gap, which is supposed to mean ‘many rivers,’ but should mean ‘big winds that push Christopher backwards.’”

Swain began his swim last June at Canal Flats, B.C., the headwaters of the Columbia River. For the past 10 months, he’s shuttled every couple of weeks between Portland, where he lives with his wife and daughter and works temporary jobs, and wherever he last stepped out of the Columbia River. He swims for several days in a row, supported by one or more crew who accompany him in a Zodiac. If successful, Swain will be the first person ever to swim the Columbia’s entire 1,243 mile length.

When he’s not swimming or working, he’s visiting schools and talking to community groups along the route, trying to raise awareness about protecting the river and restoring it to its natural state.

Swain plans to pass through the Mid-Columbia sometime in late June, and reach the mouth of the river in July.

Swain, a native of Boston, told the students how he ended up pursuing such a challenge after seeing the Columbia for the first time in the 1990s while standing at Crown Point, east of Troutdale. He recalled being struck by how enormous the river looked.

“I thought: this river’s big,” he said. After seeing the river, Swain made it his “hobby” to find out as much as he could about the Columbia. He and his wife moved to Portland in 1999, and his obsession with the river became “like a bad crush.”

After living in Portland for a few years, it became clear to Swain that many people envisioned the Columbia River like it was in the days of the Lewis and Clark expedition — “this huge, free-flowing river packed with salmon,” he said.

“But then there’s the real river, with 14 dams making 13 big lakes,” he said. “There’s the mythic river and the actual river, and I was trying to figure out” the disparity. Following lifelong advice from his parents, Swain “decided to take some responsibility.”

“I decided the best thing I could do was go look at the river up close,” he said.

Swain showed the students slides from his journey down-river, including some from the first few days near the headwaters, where the water is a striking blue-green. One slide showed school children drinking from the river near the headwaters. He asked the students to imagine being able to drink the river water here in the Gorge, or in Portland.

“That’s why I’m swimming,” Swain said. After the slides, Swain showed the students his swimming gear, including a ProMotion drysuit that he uses in the winter, made by the Hood River-based company which is one of his sponsors. He also showed them his rubber socks and booties, his scuba gloves and his swim goggles, which last for about 25 days before his eyelashes wear off the inner coating and he has to replace them.

In a brief question-and-answer period before the students headed to lunch, Swain was asked if his parents still love him, despite his crazy plan of swimming the length of the Columbia River.

“They love me,” Swain said, “but I freak my mom out.”

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