navigation bar Houghton Mifflin Social Studies United States History
feature logo Weekly Reader ® Current Events

Aqua Man!

Some call his journey remarkable. Others call it just plain crazy. For Christopher Swain, it was the swim of a lifetime.

Swain made history as the first person to swim the entire length of the Columbia River. In July 2003, the Oregon man ended a yearlong journey to raise awareness about pollution in that river. His 1,243-mile trip began in Canada and ended where the river meets the Pacific Ocean.

Swimming for a Cause

Why did he do it? “Every waterway needs a champion,” Swain said to Weekly Reader. “I learned as much as I could about the river so I could see what I could do to clean it up.”

What Is Pollution?

In 1805, explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were journeying west to find a passage to the Pacific Ocean. At that time, they described the salmon-filled Columbia River as clear and free flowing.

The Columbia River has changed since the days of Lewis and Clark's journey. Today, it is greatly damaged by pollution. Pollution occurs when harmful materials seep into the air, water, or land. Chemicals and waste from factories and towns contribute to water pollution. Pollution has caused a large drop in the river's salmon population.

The 14 dams built along the river mean the Columbia no longer flows freely. The dams are water barriers that provide electricity, control flooding, and carry water to farms.

A Call to Action

The pollution in the river inspired Swain to take action. Wearing out seven wetsuits along the way and battling several colds, Swain braved water temperatures as low as 38 degrees Fahrenheit (water freezes at 32 degrees!). Followed by a boat, he swam between 5 and 25 miles a day through the polluted water.

“The Columbia River is a contaminated beauty,” Swain said to Weekly Reader. “It runs through some of the most majestic landscapes on Earth.”

What's Next?

Despite the pollution, Swain is hopeful about the future of the river. During his journey, he spoke with nearly 13,000 people, including 8,000 schoolchildren, about keeping the river clean.

“With all the affection for the river, we have a chance to turn the [pollution problem] around,” Swain said. “Kids know that they want clean water.”

In 2003, Swain received the International Earth Day Award for protecting the Columbia River. But he hadn't finished making a splash! In 2004, he swam across Lake Champlain, which borders Vermont and New York. In 2004, he also completed swims in the Hudson River in New York, and the Charles River in Massachusetts.

What Can You Do?

Here are two easy ways to help protect water: