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Swain the Swimmer 

by Mick Llyod Owen & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & o the madness of it all, he readily concedes. Christopher Swain's feat of swimming the entire 1,243-mile length of the Columbia River was not, however, a mere act of machismo. His hope, from the beginning, was that his curious spectators would see past the swimmer and into the alarmingly toxic water he was swimming in.


& r & A new documentary of Swain's historic 2002 swim, produced by Andy Norris, tells the whole story of why he did it. The film, Source to Sea, is a broad, sobering look at the history and destiny of what the indigenous people call Che Wana, the Columbia River.


& r & "I think they did a really good job of making the Columbia River a character," Swain says. "They used the swim as a thread, and told the story of the challenges facing the river and the people of the Columbia Basin."


& r & To say that Source to Sea was produced on a shoestring budget is not entirely accurate. In fact, there was no budget.


Norris says he was working at a restaurant when a customer -- Swain's swimming coordinator -- told him of her 24-hour drives through the wild and woody parts of Canada to haul supplies to a swimmer who was bent on reaching the Pacific Ocean. Having worked on movie production crews in Los Angeles, New Mexico and Utah, Norris asked if anyone was doing a documentary on such a remarkable stunt. When told it wasn't happening, he contacted Swain and told him that he didn't have any money and probably couldn't get any, but he would come out on his days off and shoot video. It would be the first film that Norris produced and directed himself.


& r & "It was a struggle financially and in every other way," Swain says. "The only ones more broke than I was were the crew.


"We never had any outward indication that it would happen," he continues. "There was never a time when it looked on paper like it was a done deal. [Norris] weaseled and cajoled the resources he needed to get it done: 'Will you please come and shoot some video? With your own camera? For no money?'"


& r & More than 30 people volunteered with expertise and equipment, and a bona fide documentary was underway. Norris explains that the volunteers had diverse motives. Some acted altruistically, he says, out of genuine concern for the salmon and the plight of the Columbia Basin. Some were neophytes who wanted experience to put on their resume. And some, Norris says, simply seized the excuse to hang out on the river for a while.


& r & "The idea was either that we would meet people who wanted to see us get to the Pacific and plead the river's case along the way, or we wouldn't," Swain says. "And we were lucky enough to find people who did, and some of those people were from the Spokane area.


& r & "We stood on so many shoulders in 165 days of swimming; there's just too many people to thank," he adds. "I came to believe in my neighbors in that watershed, in a way that I never would have thought possible."


& r & Tying the story together is Swain's grueling feat of endurance: The Columbia River Swim. He began on June 4, 2002; he reached the buoy that delineates the Pacific Ocean on July 1, 2003.


He was 34 years old when he plunged into the frigid headwaters of the Columbia in British Columbia. Up there, the water is still clean. A bunch of school children toasted him off with tumblers of lake water. Cold, cold lake water. Thirty-something degrees cold. Even in state-of-the-art swimwear, Swain sometimes clambered aboard the escort boat with numb limbs, unable to enunciate his words while his crew dumped hot water into his suit.


& r & Because the Columbia is so heavily dammed, most of the journey was across slack water. The current only helped him downstream in certain free-flowing stretches. The physical workout required that he consume 10,000 calories per day. Tossed by waves and battered by debris during bad weather, Swain was even run over by his own escort boat when they lost sight of him amid the swells.


& r & Though a licensed acupuncturist by trade, Swain was forced to get out of the water at one point and take manual labor jobs to scrape together enough money to finish. The six-month swim stretched into a 13-month ordeal.


& r &


Asked if he would allow his children to swim in the Columbia River, Swain says, "Yes. For a minute. In Canada." Jesting aside, he notes that a single swim in one of the man-made lakes might do no harm, but the level of pollution is a major concern when considering a lifetime of exposure. At Kettle Falls, Wash., for example, the EPA determined that the levels of zinc and lead in the water are 15 times greater than what is safe for aquatic life.


& r & "If you're a tribal member, committed to eating as closely as possible your traditional diet -- a pound and a quarter a day of salmon -- you should be worried about the future of your people," Swain says. "Mercury will accumulate. These are toxins that significantly disrupt our physiology, and the downrange effects of accumulation are scary."


& r & Swain says that the river is a reflection of who we are as a people.


Norris's documentary relates some disturbing facts about the slag, sewage and even nuclear waste that have been flushed into the Columbia over the years. It also examines the impact of the many dams upon the tribes for whom Che Wana was once a life-giving source of unity and identity. Many were unceremoniously displaced as they watched their ancient habitat, burial grounds and fishing areas submerged behind concrete walls in the name of progress. The film also looks at the diminution of the wild salmon.


& r & The documentary has been well received, Norris says. "The neat thing that happens is that people linger afterwards. They get inspired, and ask what they can do. People who already have an affinity for the environment and the outdoors love it."


& r &


Source to Sea will be shown on Wednesday, Sept. 20, at 7 pm, at the Northwest Museum of Arts & amp; Culture, 2316 W. First Ave. Tickets: $5, $3, MAC members and students. Swain and Norris will both be available for questions and comments afterward.

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