An 80-mile swim - with hubcaps

Sitting in the front seat of his beat-up Acura, Christopher Swain squeezes into his wet suit on a chilly November morning getting set to swim yet another six-mile chunk of Boston's mighty Charles River.

Mighty? Well, mighty dirty, according to this clean-water crusader. Although far cleaner than a decade ago, the 80-mile-long waterway is still laden with appliances, bicycles, hubcaps, and hockey sticks. After a heavy rain, it can smell like an open sewer.

"People see me and yell, 'What do you think you're doing?' " says Mr. Swain, a husband and father of two. "Well, I freely admit this is a huge risk. But it's a calculation I've made to get a platform to plead the river's case."

Since 2003, his crusade has taken him from the Pacific Northwest, where he became the first person to swim the 1,243-mile Columbia River, to New York State and the 315-mile Hudson River, to Vermont's Lake Champlain. Along the way, Swain has braved waters laced with nuclear waste and human excrement and survived attacks by lamprey eels, Class IV rapids, and storms that threatened to drown him and his support crew.

Swain is part of an American tradition where ordinary people take on seemingly crazy or impossible crusades to make a moral or ethical point about how humans should treat their environment, notes Ben Kline, a professor at San Jose State University and author of a history of the United States' environmental movement. Such individual action, not sanctioned by any authority, serves as a kind of mother's milk to the environmental movement - think Rachel Carson, who took on the chemical industry with her book "Silent Spring," or Lois Gibbs, a housewife who brought the now infamous Love Canal to public awareness. When these crusaders succeed, they often provide the leadership that can fire up a new movement - or give fresh impetus to an old one, such as the Charles River cleanup.

"What Swain is doing adds energy to an effort that has been quite successful so far, but is by no means complete," says John DeVillars, former New England region chief for the Environmental Protection Agency. In 1995, Mr. DeVillars and others set a goal of making the Charles swimmable by Earth Day 2005. (It is still swimmable, but only about two-thirds of the time.) He plans to leap into the Charles with Swain to celebrate the conclusion of his journey this week.

Will it matter in the long run? Swain hopes so, but isn't sure. "I can think of better ways to get media attention," he says. "There are lots of cleaner, straighter, longer pieces of water that I could be the first to swim. I'm swimming these rivers because they need me."

"Environmentalists can sometimes sound very preachy," adds Brent Blackwelder, a 35-year veteran of the environmental movement and president of Friends of the Earth, a Washington-based advocacy group. "But courageous individual acts, by their nature, state moral values that people can see without being preached to about them."

Julia "Butterfly" Hill spent two years - from 1997 to 1999 - living in an ancient California redwood to keep loggers from cutting it. Media worldwide migrated to her 180-foot-high perch to find out why she was doing it - and how one conducts personal hygiene atop a tree. The result was significant: a negotiated settlement with many trees spared.

But there may be a larger impact, too.

"People say to themselves, if that girl can sit in a tree for two years, maybe I could go vote, or take a petition to the mayor's office," says David Zwick, president of Clean Water Action, a Washington environmental organization. "It may be a fine line between people thinking, 'Whoa, that's a little crazy!' But when it's sincere, it does inspire."

It's much the same mix of the inspirational and the prosaic for Swain. He says people who find out what he's doing are usually much more interested in finding out about the goop in the water he's swimming through than in environmental cleanup. Yet, the higher point gets made, he believes.

"What I'm showing people is that the condition of a river is about the choices we all make," he says. "I get criticized a lot by people who say, 'You're just raising awareness - what's that worth?' Well, I think it's worth a lot. I've talked to 12,000 school kids. I ask them if they want clean water and they scream back, 'yes!' These kids are going to be running the country some day and I think they will remember what I swam through."

There are some signs of this. One Olympia, Wash., official says Swain's swim on the Columbia continues to pay dividends. It was "definitely a key motivating factor" behind a clean-water summit convened earlier this year by local Puget Sound communities.

Swain hopes something good will happen in the city that has long celebrated the "dirty water" of the Charles. As it flows into the city, past great universities toward the Atlantic, the river does at last become Boston's crown jewel - if you don't look too closely. But Swain does - he's tasting it, swimming it day after day to help clean it up.

"When you're swimming you can always taste when there's gasoline, sewage, or other things in the water," he says. "It's unavoidable. He gargles with a hydrogen-peroxide solution to purify his system from tainted water.

But "I have to confess that with all of its difficulties, the real reason I swim these rivers is because I love them," he adds. "I want others to love them as much as I do."

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