Editor’s Note: We’ve gone on a search-and-rescue mission to find amazing stories and essays published in earlier print editions of Rootstock. Today’s throwback, “Stroking the Columbia,” was written by Christopher Swain for the Spring 2004 edition of Rootstock.

On July 1, 2003, Christopher Swain became the first person in history to swim the entire 1,243 mile length of the Columbia River. Along the way, he crafted a language to tell us why.

On June 4, 2002, I jumped into the Canadian headwaters of the Columbia River, and took the first of the 795,750 freestyle strokes that would carry me to the Pacific Ocean. Before I took those first strokes, I recited a laundry list of challenges facing the river to a scrum of reporters. That was the easy part. Once I hit the water, all I had was my love for my hometown river, and a desire to meet my neighbors. The hard part would be figuring out what the heck I could do to help.

No one predicted success. I was not rich, I was not a scientist, and I was not a fast swimmer. The biggest obstacle I faced was that I was an average guy. When I over heard Canadians whispering things like, “He’ll die up North,” I just smiled. They saw me for what I was: some guy from Oregon trying to swim the length of one of the North America’s largest and most inhospitable rivers.

I spent 165 days in the Columbia River. That first day I glided through the mineral water of Columbia Lake, the pristine source of the river. I stretched out my strokes, and tore across water the color of sky. For the first and last time, I made a point of deliberately swallowing some water.

The next day, while the river doubled as a water hazard for the Fairmont Hot Springs Golf Course, I kicked past putting greens and took my first herbicide bath.

Four days later, I swam past my first municipal sewage outfall. But even sewage wasn’t all that bad: I knew it when I smelled it. Silicone ear plugs kept out all but the most determined bacteria. Vaccines closed the door on Hepatitis. And activated charcoal tablets put the brakes on diarrhea. The dangers my Canadian friends had in mind, whirlpools, grizzly bears, class IV rapids, and glacial meltwater, were the least of my worries. What kept me up at night were the dangers I couldn’t see.

There was no barrier that could protect my nervous system from the neuro-toxic pesticides that washed into the river from the fruit orchards and dry wheat farms that decorate the Columbia River Valley. There was no technology that could get the PCB’s out of my fat cells. And there was no protection from the nuclear waste that spiked the waters of the Columbia River’s Hanford Reach. (The idea of my swimming past the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in a lead suit was funny, but a nonstarter nonetheless. I swam through the most radioactive piece of land in the Western hemisphere with nothing but a five millimeter wetsuit between me and the strontium-90, technetium-99, uranium, and plutonium that plied the same waters I did.)

All of this begs the question, Why the hell would I risk my life, health, and limb by swimming the Columbia River? To say I was doing it for my daughters came off as a little too pat. Sure, I loved my kids and I wanted them to inherit a clean river. But there was more to it. I loved the river, and I swam in search of a way to help her.

And I swam with the knowledge that I was part of the problem.

The copper and asbestos dust that shaved off from the brake pads of my SUV sifted into storm drains and fouled salmon spawning streams. The lights I left on sustained a demand for ecosystem-unfriendly hydropower. And when I flushed my toilet at the height of Portland’s rainy winter season, it poured straight into the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. (Awkward as this was, it did allow me to make the claim, “I didn’t just swim through my hometown, I swam through my own crap!”)

During the second week of the swim, I stroked into Spillimacheen, British Columbia. There, I bunked down at the farm of Crystal and Joe Burgess for a few days. The Burgess farm is perched above the 100 year flood line in the Columbia wetlands. Washout creek, a thick, clear-blue ribbon of water, tumbles downhill through their property and dives into the Columbia River. After a day spent “helping” Joe—burning my hands on aluminum irrigation pipe and butchering poplar shrub while he tried not to laugh—we found ourselves taking a break next to Washout Creek. Joe is a friendly, fit, grizzled farmer in his mid-forties. As he smoked a cigarette, we stood together and watched Washout Creek slide down into the Columbia River.

“You know,” said Joe, “It just kills me to see all that water going down to the United States.”

I laughed. At first I thought he was making a Canadian/American joke. Then I wondered if he regretted not taking more irrigation water from the creek. Then I looked at his face. As he blew out a stream of blue smoke, his eyes were locked on the creek; and he looked wistful, like a parent watching his kid go off to college. And then I got it. Joe was trying to tell me something. But since he was a big, tough guy he just couldn’t come out and say it. Joe was mourning the passage of all that gorgeous blue water. He was telling me that he loved the waters of this creek and this river so much, that he was actually sad to see them go.

Joe wasn’t alone. During the swim, I met over 13,000 residents of the Columbia Basin. Everyone I met (and I mean everyone) testified to their affection for the Columbia River. Even folks whose job it was to vent the municipal sewage lagoons into the river, spoke of weekends spent fishing, paddling, and water-skiing. This surprised me, and it got me thinking. So often, stakeholders of a waterway spend their time fighting each other. These fights lead to entrenchment, and, eventually, begin to affect people’s identities. Without realizing it, folks begin to equate resolving the conflict with risking who they are. They end up clinging to outmoded self-concepts and avoiding solutions, while their shared love for the river becomes a casualty of war.

I knew it didn’t have to be this way. And I couldn’t help wondering, What if we all acknowledged our love for this river? What if we leveraged the fact that we share so much common ground? Would our shared affection for the river let us put aside our differences long enough to protect every unspoiled section of river? I hoped so, even though I imagined it might be the work of decades.

What could I do to help? Well, I knew I was part of the problem, so I started with some quick fixes. I rode my bike more. I chose a hydropower-free mix of wind and geothermal power from my electric utility. I shut off the water while I brushed my teeth. The exciting thing was how easy it was to make those changes. The depressing thing was that it took a 1,243-mile swim in cold, dirty water to motivate me at all.

The final frontier for me turned out to be an economic one. For all of my burgeoning awareness, it was a long time before I let myself trace the connection between the money I spent, and the river I was swimming. I ate tons of food on the swim. (Dangerously thin TV reporters looked hungry when I told them I had to consume 10,000 calories a day.) For all that, I must admit that most of what I ate was junk. Six hours in the water led to all sorts of cravings. I answered these by powering through bags of Pepperidge Farm Cheddar Cheese Goldfish Crackers, or wolfing down Quarter Pounders with Cheese from McDonald’s. In search of the calories I needed to swim in 39 degree water through blizzards, I didn’t hesitate. If I wanted a grilled cheese sandwich, I grabbed whichever cheddar cheese was on sale. I didn’t waste a thought on the pesticides and antibiotics that I might get along the way.

When I swam past the fruit orchards of central Washington during the pre-emergent pesticide spraying, I finally saw the massive disconnect between my food choices and my clean water message. As I swam past miles of orchards, I was paced by tractors pulling spray rigs that blasted walls of green-yellow pesticides with names like “Sniper” into the air just yards away. (The average Washington conventional apple orchard receives 40 applications of pesticide during the growing season. The first of these, the pre-emergent spraying, takes place immediately before the first buds appear on the trees.) Swathed in personal protection suits and locked inside sealed cabs, the local farmers appeared to know the dangers of exposure to these chemicals.

Unfortunately, I took a deep breath of air every third stroke. As the parallel dance of swimming and spraying stretched over a period of two weeks, I began to read the freakish warning labels on barrels of pesticide. But it wasn’t until a lymph node in my jaw swelled to the size of a golf ball that I vowed never to eat a conventionally-grown apple again.

Suddenly, after what seem like an impossible level of chemical exposure and denial, I was ready to make a change at the supermarket. Yes, organic fruit and cheese and milk and bread and juice and meat all cost more. But buying conventional versions of these same products now seemed insane. Why would I spend money on neuro-toxic fruit? Why would I support the same chemical companies whose products had made me sick? I wouldn’t. But spending the extra money really pissed me off. Not only that, but I had trouble convincing even close family members to make the change along with me. I struggled to convince my dad to purchase organic milk. In a fatherly tone, he explained, “Chris, some of us don’t want to pay five bucks for a carton of milk.” Feeling shamed, I thought about unloading on him, about saying something like, “Why are you supporting the companies that are poisoning me as I swim down the river?” In the end, I decided not to go there. I could always throw down on Dad. But I realized I ought to try and sell this organic thing on its merits first.

From the beginning I felt frustrated. I remember thinking, “If it takes swimming a contaminated river to get me to buy organic OJ, what the hell is it going to take the average person?” I never found a great answer, but I started playing with food examples in my public presentations. When folks asked me what they could do for their home own creeks and rivers I said, “Shop for a clean river. Buy organic.” When they frowned at such a glib answer, I told them about the pesticides and about my swollen lymph node and I pointed out that, in the aggregate, their total lifetime food purchases would likely dwarf their charitable contributions to environmental causes. “Look,” I would say. “If you pay another dollar for organic butter, you get pissed off, sure. So why do it? Because you are not just buying butter, you are creating an economic incentive for farmers to stop using the cancer-causing chemicals. That means cleaner creeks, cleaner air, healthier citizens, better wages for laborers, and viable family farms. And lots of you are donating to those causes already.” I told them that if I lived to be 77, and bought $500 of organic food every month, that one broke swimmer would contribute $250,000 to the cause of clean water during that time. People would nod, but I wasn’t always sure I had them.

I even tried a little humor. I said that when my three year old daughter developed a string cheese addiction, I started buying organic string cheese. I knew I was supporting an addict, but at least she was eating her way toward a healthier world for the rest of us.

As I read these words, I feel a little sad. Why did it take a life-threatening, year-long journey to awaken me to the power of personal economies? Why couldn’t I have convinced myself through study? If I had spent less time in the river and more time at the library, could I have provoked a similar awakening?

I fear not. For thirty three years, the connection between the food I ate and the waters I swam was vague and impersonal. I was an over-educated, lazy, brand-name shopper. I bought Black Diamond cheddar cheese because it reminded me of my grandmother. I drank Dunkin’ Donuts coffee because Ben Affleck said he liked the taste. I sipped Tropicana Orange Juice because I found the carton familiar and comforting.

What strikes me now is that I rarely shopped with my own health in mind. Sure, I made occasional half-assed efforts to avoid sugar and additives. But I knew there were petrochemicals on the cucumbers in my salad, and GMO’s in my nachos. So what was my problem? Was I too cheap? Sure. Too self-involved? Probably. Mostly though, I just never made the connection.

It took swimming a river to wake me up.

For all my zeal, vanity still gets in my way. If I’m alone, I’ll buy an organic cup of coffee at Whole Foods. But if my sisters are watching, I’ll go into the Dunkin’ Donuts across the street for some unfair trade coffee, rBGH milk, and GMO-laced donuts, just to prove that I am not too self-righteous.

Why does their perception of me play such a large part in my purchasing? That question is too much to tackle in this article. But it is a worthy one. How is it that I can risk my life swimming in contaminated waters, and yet still struggle to find the courage to make healthy purchases in front of my own family?

On July, 1 2003, after averaging thirteen days a month for thirteen straight months in the cold, brown embrace of the Columbia River, I swam out into the Pacific Ocean. As I lay back in the water at the finish, a ten foot wave rolled me over into a somersault. When I surfaced, I felt sobered by the arc of the river. There were no simple answers. Nothing was black and white anymore. I didn’t have an elegant new solution to the problems facing our waterways. But I had learned something: every problem facing our waterways can be reduced to human terms.

I knew, too, that our waterways have come to reflect who we are and the choices we have made. We now have rivers that can make people sick, and storage dams that bury the evidence of entire cultures. Knowing all this, the question I am left with is, What are we willing to do?

If we want clean, free-flowing rivers for our children, if we want them to breathe clean air, if we want them to do right by their neighbors, we’ll need to take some risks. We’ll need to risk our vanity, our brand-name consciousness, our familiar patterns, and our comfort.

I can’t always muster the courage this requires. But on the days I do, it’s because I remember those cold days in a dirty river. I tell myself that after ten lifetimes of chemical exposure in the river, I can’t afford to add to the damage. I tell myself that one way to keep my kids healthy is not to feed them toxic food. I tell myself that it’s not about the money: it’s about the way we live our lives.

If we want to be healthy, to swim in clean lakes and rivers, to create a nontoxic future for our kids, then we have to be willing to carry the battle from the riverbanks to the aisles of our local supermarkets. And to put our money where our mouths are.

No matter who’s watching.

Christopher Swain is the founder of the Children’s Forestry Project, The Human Rights Company and became the first person in history to swim the entire 1,243 mile length of the Columbia River. A father of two, Swain hopes to raise awareness on water pollution and preserve clean water for future generations.