ONLY NINE DEGREES WARMER THAN ICE, the Columbia River sluggishly pushes Christopher Swain and me past a freighter docked near downtown Portland, Oregon. Deckhands on a nearby tugboat point, frown, and shake their heads.
River Swim Update
Click here to find out whether Christopher Swain accomplished his mission.
Swain warming up near Vancouver, Washington, February 2002
"So," I say, adjusting my wetsuit, "what exactly are we swimming in here?"
"A little raw sewage," he says between strokes. "Then you've got your dioxins, PCBs, radioactive isotopes, diesel fuel, fertilizers, pesticides, and the chemical slurry dumped by the sawmills and paper plants upstream."
America, meet your newest environmental action figure. A thickly built, 34-year-old acupuncturist-cum-endurance-athlete, Swain is determined to convince you that the Columbia needs cleaning up, pronto, and he plans to do it by making like a human salmon, swimming every one of the waterway's 1,214 miles to get a gill-level feel for its toxic degradation. In late May, Swain will plunge into the river's headwaters near Canal Flats, in southeastern British Columbia, and begin an epic 180-day journey all the way to Cape Disappointment, Washington, and the Pacific Ocean beyond.
Sounds strange, but there's a semi-coherent plan behind it. The Columbia could use some TLCthink plummeting salmon stocks, soaring fecal-coliform counts, increased concentrations of heavy metalsand Swain is just taking a cue from the successful rabble-rousing of Julia Butterfly Hill, 28, who sat in a redwood for two years to focus worldwide attention on proposed logging in California's Headwaters Forest. Swain hopes to generate similar buzz for the Columbia and (he admits) himself. He's already planning to pursue publishers and producers in an effort to sell the story of his swim, and he fully expects to leverage his stunt into a marketable franchise. In fact, you can send him greenbacks right now: Visit his Web site, www.columbiaswim.com, to sponsor a mile of river and you'll get an autographed photo; shell out $195 and you can tell friends you had breakfast with himbefore he got famous.
Swimming for a cause is nothing new to Swain, who six years ago splashed his way down 210 miles of the Connecticut River to raise awareness of human-rights issues. "I'd climb out," he recalls, "and the first thing people asked was, 'What's the river like?' Everyone assumed I'd have some homegrown understanding of the water from tasting it." That's when Swain realized he'd stumbled into a potent form of eco-theater. The public may be numbed by reports of environmental degradation, but if you swim the river or live in the treeand invite the media alongyou and your issue can become a phenomenon.
That may be, but the emerging clout of celeb activists like Hill and Swain presents green leaders with a Hobson's choice: Embrace the star model and sacrifice some of the purity of the cause, or reject it and risk losing public "mindshare." Though Hill remains a role model for a generation of greens, in 1999 she alienated hard-core types when she cut a deal in which enviros "donated" $50,000 to save her tree, Luna, setting a pay-to-preserve precedent. Her critics rolled their eyes again when she appeared on Oprah, and when Good Housekeeping readers voted her their Most Admired Woman. "Beware the cult of personality," warns Earth First! veteran Darryl Cherney. "We need inspirational people, but we also need leaders who have an understanding of ecological principles."
Not everybody is so down on the next-wave showboating. "Only punk anarchists are against environmental celebrities," says Earth First! co-founder Dave Foreman. "The naysayers are fools and they are cutting their own throats. We need heroes who symbolize the movement to the public as a whole."
The great eco-celebrity debate has already caused problems for Swain. Last June, green group Columbia Riverkeeper hired him as its spokesman, only to part ways after three months when the parties started bickering over who would own certain media rights to the swim. Swain now has a tighter grip on his Hollywood debut, but he also has serious legwork ahead of him. He needs to raise a total of $75,000 for necessities such as a chase boat, wetsuits and food for his volunteer crew, and 1,400 Clif Bars to keep his fins flapping along the way. Which means that, when Swain isn't training, he's selling. On a recent weekday, I followed him through a series of calls to Portland-area outfitters. In a single afternoon, he convinced a local ad executive to be his "public outreach director." Then he met with Sean Crosby, manager of the local Patagonia outlet, asking, "How can I work with you guys to get more people in the store?"
Swain's pitch worked. Crosby set up a silent auction and a slide show, and suggested that Swain draw up a wish list of swag for his crew. "You've got to work with your sponsors," Swain told me later. "I don't believe this project is so noble that companies should just donate money and walk away."
And there lies the difference between Swain and purist greens. In a world cluttered with noble causes, it may take a book deal, or a pretty faceor hey, maybe six months of waterlogged fingersto get the public behind you.
"If you're advocating for the water," concludes Swain, "get wet."