Environmentalist hopes 149-mile swim helps preserve historic Mohawk River

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If you happen to see a man in a wet suit swimming along or climbing off the banks of the Mohawk River, don’t worry, it’s not the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

It’s actually environmentalist and activist Christopher Swain. The Boston resident is making the 149-mile trek down the river to raise awareness for the need to protect the precious waterway.

As part of his mission to protect threatened waters, Swain was the first person in history to swim the entire lengths of the Columbia, Charles, Hudson, and Mystic rivers, as well as Lake Champlain, and large sections of the Atlantic Coast of the U.S., according to his biography posted at www.SwimWithSwain.org.

During his swims, Swain has survived collisions with boats, 12-foot waves, lightning storms, class IV-plus rapids, toxic blue-green algae, blood-sucking Lamprey Eels, oil slicks, raw sewage spills, Great White Shark habitat, and water laced with arsenic, cyanide, dioxin, radioactive waste, and neuro-toxic pesticides.

Swain described swimming through parts of the Adirondacks as “heart-wrenchingly beautiful,” but admits he’s felt intimated by some sights along the way.

“I have seen some coyotes and piles of bear poop,” he laughed. “Sometimes I wonder if I look like lunch or dinner to them.”

In 2003, Swain received an International Earth Day Award at the United Nations, and an e-chievement Award on National Public Radio’s e-town.

In 2004, he was elected to the Men’s Journal Adventure Hall of Fame, and was featured as Person of the Week on ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings.

At the invitation of United Nations staff in 2005, Swain designed, produced, and emceed a launch event for the United Nations Decade of Action Water For Life 2005-15, at U.N. Headquarters in New York City. The event, called Blessing of the Waters, brought together representatives from every major religion, and indigenous peoples from around the globe, to offer their prayers and blessings for the world’s waters.

In 2006, Swain became the youngest of 21 conservationists profiled in Rachel White Scheuring’s book, Shapers of the Great Debate on Conservation: A Biographical Dictionary, and in 2007 he received the Harry E. Schlenz Public Education Medal from the Water Environment Federation, and was featured in the International Swimming Hall Of Fame book, Swimmers: Courage & Triumph.

Over the last two decades, Swain has worked with more than 80,000 North American school children, and stories about his environmental efforts have reached a worldwide audience of more than 2 billion people.

As much as Swain enjoys his dips in cold, contaminated water, he said he’s happiest when playing with his two young daughters.

In one of his latest blogs, Swain wrote of his personal conflicts of splitting his time between his daughters, who he sees on weekends, and his plight to swim and document dirty waterways, something he’s been doing since 1996.

Swain said he chose to swim the Mohawk because of his memories reading about the Mohawk Valley as a school boy in tales such as Drums Along the Mohawk and Last of the Mohicans. He had also wanted to swim the river since entering the Hudson back in 2004, but his schedule never permitted it until now.

“It was kind of on the list,” Swain joked.

It was back in 1995 that Swain said he decided to take his history of athleticism and turn himself into an activist. He started a walk across his state of Massachusetts to hand out copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because of his belief that “there are certain rights everyone should have.” But as be began to sweat and his feet stuck to the asphalt during the hot summer days of his trek, Swain recalled his childhood love of swimming and thought that might be much cooler.

“I was walking along with a flaming torch — I was so overheated and here I was holding this flaming thing besides,” Swain said. “As I’m melting I thought, ‘I should’ve done a swim.’ Then I started joining master swimming classes at the Y that year and began to try that out. I developed a pretty relaxed freestyle stroke and I started enjoying my time in the water, so then I thought about swimming the Connecticut River.”

The activist described his experience swimming the river as an unexpected “cool and energetic” feeling.

“You can feel something even if you can’t name it,” he said. “Then I’d meet people along the way and they were shocked that that’s what I was doing, or they would find me and ask what I was doing. Then they’d ask what it feels like or what’s in the water.”

It was people’s natural curiosity, as well as his own, that sparked Swain’s obsession to swim major rivers of the U.S. Swimming the Columbia was his next goal. His experiences influenced him to conduct research on the historical significance of the rivers he chose to swim and discover the major problems of the waterways, such as misuse or pollution with sewage, pesticides or other industrial wastes.

“I went through a phase of being obsessed with ‘Who messed this up?’ and ‘Who will pay?’ or ‘Who should clean this up?,’” Swain said. “Then I decided to forget about blaming people and I thought, ‘How can I help?’ A way to get to know a waterway is by being in it.”

When local media or environmental groups got wind of Swain’s strokes and started publicizing his story, teachers in the areas he swam would email him and send invites to speak in their classrooms. That is when he realized that his young audiences could actually be advocates for change and make a difference in his cause by sharing his real life adventures.

“I really like working with school kids and sharing my experiences with them, and hearing what they think and what kind of ideas they have about what we can do to make change,” he said. “I always turn the discussion around on them and ask, ‘What do you think about cleaning the environment?’ Advocacy starts now. Our waters actually belong to our kids.”

Swain said he will be happy to share his stories and facts he has learned about the Mohawk. He has taken pH samplings of the water and was pleased to discover that the problem of acid rain is on the decline here.

“The first thing I’ve found is that the headwaters are a place where you can still see real wilderness and you don’t need to get that far from the road to do it,” Swain said. “There’s no sign of people, and you’re seeing what someone may have seen 400 years ago along the East Branch.”

“There’s wildlife like beavers, deer, fish, cats — a thriving ecosystem,” he said. “A river like the Mohawk has a huge variation in flow too — the water can knock you off your feet. I’ve gone over waterfalls I didn’t mean to go over and luckily I’ve landed in pools most of the time.”

To follow Swain’s adventures and his trip down the Mohawk, check out his website at www.swimwithswain.org, or follow him on Facebook: www.facebook.com/SwimWithSwain or @SwimWithSwain on Twitter.

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