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Different Strokes

On Lake Champlain with aquatic activist Christopher Swain


Published September 1, 2004 at 4:00 a.m.

Christopher Swain has swum through raw sewage, remnants of nuclear waste and the brown-liquor broth of toxic pulp-mill discharge. So plying the southernmost waters of Lake Champlain would seem like a day at the beach -- except for those pesky plants. Invasive water chestnuts have taken over the surface and created a wet, goopy net with spiky pods that jab at Swain's wetsuit and feet. Then there are the sinuous tendrils of the equally invasive Eurasian water milfoil that reach up from the bottom to grab his legs.

"It's like being wrapped up in threads of soaking wet silk," says Swain, who is swimming the length of Lake Champlain as part of a one-man environmental protest. In the water off and on, the 36-year-old Colchester resident expects to pass by the Burlington area the week after Labor Day.

Today, in weedy Whitehall, he's trying to surge forward in a freestyle stroke, popping up every once in a while to see a potato chip bag float by, or a bobbing soda bottle. Sometimes he thinks about his swimming style, about emulating Australian Olympian Ian Thorpe's splayed-finger feel for the water. But it's hard to be graceful under such conditions. Though armored against the elements with goggles and a special skin cream, he cannot help but taste the water as he breathes. "It tastes like plants -- as if you put a bunch of botanicals in the water," Swain says. "Plants, mud and gas if a boat goes by. And I smell pungent cow shit."

With The Dixie Chicks' song "Goodbye Earl" stuck in his head, Swain counts his strokes up to 600, and then starts again. Today he got to 6403 -- four miles. Only 170,000 more strokes to go until the end of September, when he plans to reach the Quebec border. And there he could run into another plant: a blue-green algae bloom, fed by human activity, that's begun to strangle the water.

On the surface, Swain's story -- the one being covered by often-smirking news crews -- is this: He's an acupuncturist, an environmentalist and a father of two girls, and he swims through achingly long and disgustingly dirty stretches of water. He tackled the 1243-mile Columbia River in Oregon in 2002-2003 and the 315-mile Hudson earlier this summer -- where he vomited, got diarrhea and swam alongside discarded washing machines and snowmobiles. Less than a month after toweling off from the Hudson, Swain took the plunge again.

To fathom this behavior, it helps to know where he's coming from, and where he's going. Swain first acquired a taste for the water growing up in Gloucester, Massachusetts -- where he learned to sail -- and along the Connecticut River, which he rowed while at Wesleyan University. Hoping to pursue pediatric oncology, he began quizzing his former pediatrician and other doctors on the day-to-day realities of dispensing Western medicine. "I had a really difficult time finding happy general practitioners," says Swain.

He turned instead to traditional Asian medicine, attracted by its theories of destiny and unity. "We're in a culture where nobody knows what to do," he suggests. "We all yearn for connections, but we're told to go be independent and be pioneers." He decided to address this paradox through the ancient practice of acupuncture.

In the summer of 1995, while still in grad school, Swain stumbled upon the Universal Declara-tion of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations in 1948 and was supposed to be disseminated among member nations. "I was like, 'Where's mine? I didn't get one,'" says Swain, astounded that such a document had slipped away from the public. "So I walked across the state with a flaming torch," he says.

He bought as many declarations from the UN as he could afford, finagled free copies from sympathetic Kinko's employees and trudged across Massachusetts from Great Barrington to Gloucester. Once he got past the mistaken labels -- Olympian, crazy person, criminal -- Swain managed to distribute 10,000 copies. Not bad, he thought. "But the biggest thing that bugged me was how hot it was, with the flame and the burning sun." That's when he got the idea to swim.

Swain also realized he could use the media to help deliver his message on human rights, so he picked a very public pool: the lower 200 miles of the Connect-icut. Sure enough, the morning-show crews showed up. "They were like, 'Is something wrong with you, dude? Are you wearing women's underwear in your wetsuit?'" recalls Swain. He endured their questions, and blurted out the phone number of the UN publications office when he came up for air. By the end of that summer -- whether flooded by Swain-inspired calls or just catching up with the times -- the UN had replaced the person at the number with an answering machine. He looks thoughtful when he asks rhetorically, "Did I harm or did I help, or did it have nothing to do with me at all?"

Some have asked similar questions about Swain's swims. In 1999 he moved to Portland, Oregon, his wife's hometown, and became fascinated with the Columbia River. The waterway features big waves and big wind, and holds a mythical place in the minds of many locals. "There is the river that everyone wants to talk about, which is the river that Lewis and Clark found," says Swain. "But the reality is just a freak show... from a contamination perspective. I was like, 'What the hell, why is there this gap?'"

Swain also knew, from his Connecticut River experience, that people were ready to talk about what's in the water, but that the bickering among various constituencies -- environmentalists, corporations, loggers, outdoorsmen -- was failing to actually restore the river to its original clarity.

Swain, who confesses to driving an SUV, says he respects the work of nonprofit activists, but that being "a desk jockey" was not for him -- "telling people what they ought to do, what they ought to protect, and not getting out there and getting wet." So he began swimming again, battling the stink, the sludge and the stares, and along the way stopping to talk with thousands of school kids and question hundreds of lumberjacks, hunters, anglers and birdwatchers. He also rattled a few Portlanders who questioned his method; one newspaper columnist criticized his pattern of moving from cause to cause and from place to place.

"You can always find someone who thinks it's a crappy idea, so you're going to take hits," says Swain, pointing out that during his 13-month swim of the Columbia, new story angles dried up and reporters began digging up what little dirt they could find. "You do become a lightning rod, and part of that is that I want to get invited to talk in the schools, I want to rally town meetings, get people to show up at trash clean-ups."

By most accounts, Swain accomplished what he set out to do: get folks talking and thinking about their relationship with the Earth. He hopes that will have a trickle-down effect on people's daily decisions and, eventually, the health of the water. "What's going on with a river or a lake is not economics, it's not environment, it's not a scientific thing," suggests Swain. "It's a relationship thing. It sounds goofy and fuzzy and warm, but what I'm searching for is the place where people connect with each other and with the places they live and how that works. Unfortunately, I don't have the answer, but I'm looking for it."

Last April, Swain continued his search closer to home: He and his family moved to Colchester, Vermont. He was planning already to swim the Hudson, in June and July, but didn't know he'd take on Lake Champlain, too, in August. But when his daughter Rowan's swimming lessons at the Malletts Bay beach were cancelled because of "friggin' fecal coliform," Swain got mad. He talked to his wife, rallied a pair of Oregon buddies to become his crew, and issued a press release. Swain dove into Lake Champlain last week.

Once again, news crews showed up, filmed his splash in the lake and drove away, leaving behind a solitary man swimming next to an aluminum boat puttering along with a 4-stroke motor.

Every 20 minutes, Swain breaks for a snack -- Organic Valley string cheese, Annie's cheddar bunnies, Tiger's Milk bars. He gargles with hydrogen peroxide before eating to clean the gunk out of his mouth. Though the crew has brought camping gear, they try to bunk with sympathetic strangers along the shore at night, so they can talk about the lake.

"People say, 'Why are you still swimming?' and I want to know where people get stuck" around solutions, says Swain, suggesting that the Columbia and Hudson rivers and Lake Champlain have something in common. "What draws us to the water and to these natural places?... If you're in a relationship, you're invested, and if you're invested, protection and restoration take care of themselves. If you have kids, you don't wonder if you would protect them or look out for them... you figure it out," Swain continues. "You have a vision of yourself trying and you try. You're not going to get stuck on how."

"Certainly the work that he's doing is good for all the watershed groups," says Colleen Hickey of the Lake Champlain Basin Program. "There are issues I imagine Chris will bring to people's attention: the reduction of phosphorous, the potential for toxins and the aquatic nuisance species he's certainly going to run into. And when he gets to Missisquoi Bay, there will be issues of the blue-green algae."

Caused by an abnormally high level of nutrients from farm runoff, water-treatment plants and other sources such as dishwasher detergent, the current blue-green algae bloom is a scummy sight and has effectively shut down summer water recreation for many residents along the lake's upper shores. And swimming through it? "I can't even imagine," says Hickey.

Though Swain has handled plenty of horrible surprises on his swims -- yellow goop weeping from his eyes on the Hudson, for example -- his route is planned to circumvent the bloom, as it contains deadly toxins that could quickly pull the plug on his plans. Once his fingers graze the northernmost tip of Lake Champlain, he'll return to Colchester and think about what to do next.

"It's got to be close to home and it's got to mean something," says Swain, whose eyes begin to tear up when he talks about the benefits of his extraordinary avocation. "I believe in what I'm doing, and I love my daughters and my family, and I want things to be better... I am so lucky to have moments, a few times a month, when I feel like I might do something to help."