Swimming a waterway so toxic that it’s been declared a Superfund site isn’t on most people’s bucket lists. But for Christopher Swain — who has ventured into some of the most dangerous and dirty waters in America — it’s not about accomplishing a thrilling feat of endurance. It’s bigger. He’s made history by being the first person to swim routes along the Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek. He swims in sludge and refuse. He swims in much filled backwaters.
Why? Because no one else would ever dare to do it. And if there are waterways in this country too filthy to dip a toe in, we need to talk about why they exist. Swain doesn’t swim through oil, and toxic waste, and every kind of garbage imaginable because he wants to. He does it to bring light to the desperate state our country’s lakes, rivers, and oceans are in.
“If people knew how bad it is,” he says. “I think they’d say, ‘that’s enough.’”
Swain loves the water and he believes strongly that it should be clean and usable for every citizen. But our rivers and lakes have been stolen from us, he says. Companies have used these precious resources as garbage dumps, and now we’re all paying the price.
“To some extent, what’s going on in America, in our rivers, in our lakes, streams, and oceans is a reflection of who we are,” Swain says, “and the choices we have made as a people.”
Choices that could and should be reversed. Swain challenges us all to take responsibility and work to make our water safe again. He’s hoping that, through his swims, he can put into perspective just how big the problem is on a human scale. It’s one thing to see debris floating in a river, and turn a blind eye. It’s another to think about what that water (filled with things like arsenic, cyanide dioxin, and radioactive waste) is doing to a human being, like Swain, who is submerged in it.
If things are so bad that a daredevil might die or get sick from even short contact with it, how can we, in good conscience, allow wildlife near it? And why would we want that toxicity surrounding us?
Swain hopes his efforts will encourage people to refocus their energy into a commitment to clean up the mess we’ve made of our waterways. But until people do, he’ll continue swimming them, and making history… albeit very unpleasantly.