Who Your Friends Are

When I was swimming the Columbia River in the winter of 2002-2003, I was, literally, freezing.  I just didn't have the right gear to keep warm in the snowstorms and 37 degree water.  At the time, my net worth was somewhere south of $200, which only fueled my sense of inadequacy. 

At the urging of my Crew Chief, Chris Runyard, I asked the folks at ProMotion Wetsuits in Hood River, Oregon for help.  They listened to me story and then ushered me upstairs to their workshop, measured me, and started slicing neoprene.  Within an hour they had carved the lines of a winter wetsuit with an integral hood, a 6mm thick layer of rubber around the torso, and thinner materials around the arms and shoulders for mobility.

The new wetsuit was a revelation: it made swimming in ice water possible.  I was able to swim through the winter, and ultimately finish that 1,243 mile swim. I will always be grateful to the ProMotion team.  Even though I could probably score a lucrative wetsuit deal at this stage of my career, I would never dream of leaving ProMotion.  They helped me when I needed it most, and I will never forget their generosity.  They became more than sponsors, they became friends. I have worn ProMotion wetsuits on every one of my swim days since.

Last month, as many readers will know, the motor on our escort/safety boat died.  (Turns out it was cooked before we ever owned it: a warped engine block allowed salt water to intrude beneath the head gasket, corrode the cylinders, and eventually cause the power head to fail.) This unfortunate turn of events brought my swim from Montauk to NYC to a halt. Even the cheapest fix meant an outlay of several thousand dollars that I hadn't budgeted for.

Brewer Yacht Yards had been supporting the swim with free dockage as we made our way down Long Island Sound. I marshaled my courage and decided to ask them for help. (Why is it so hard for me to ask for help? Somehow, I feel like there is something wrong with me when I need assistance or support, as if I have failed somehow, and should feel ashamed.) 

It was a big ask: would Brewer front the money to repair our outboard motor, and then loan me a boat so I could keep swimming while our boat was in the shop? They said yes. They didn't have to. But they wanted to see me out there swimming and advocating for clean water: for the Atlantic Ocean, for Long Island Sound, for the East River, and for the waters that all of us use and enjoy.

I am very grateful to the folks at Brewer for helping me when I needed it most. 

And I am proud to call them not just sponsors, but friends.

Hunted

Yesterday I was swimming six miles offshore in eighty-something feet of water. Foam blew in streaks down the faces of the westbound swells, pushing me backward. Every couple of seconds, whitecaps buried my head and shoulders.

Just another day at the office.

About two hours in,  I felt something large near me--I sensed it in my spine and lower back. I shoved my head underwater. The LED on my Shark Shield was glowing green. At least it's on.

  Shark Shield Freedom 7  strapped to my leg

Shark Shield Freedom 7 strapped to my leg

As I squinted down, I felt exposed, spooked. I prayed fast to Poseidon, to Athena, to anyone listening.

For all intents and purposes, I was alone. My escort boat was 25 meters away. I was wearing a SharkShield antenna on my leg and my fists were gloved in neoprene but it wouldn't matter much if some animal wanted me.

I couldn't see anything down there, but a deep thrumming nagged at the base of my spine. I knew I was in the water with something bigger than I was, with something that only half cared what I might be.

I pulled my head up and yelled back to my boat. I turned and swam hard from the spot thinking, get out of the area, make it harder, more confusing. I grabbed the swim ladder and hung on. I shoved my head underwater and scanned again. Am I crazy?

Slowly, the buzz dulled into the feeling you get after you almost have a terrible car accident, but somehow, inexplicably, don't.

 I got out of the water.

I believe I'm still alive because I trusted my instincts. Yet I am plagued by doubt, afraid of what other people will say, and stuck wondering what really happened out there. Maybe some power did intervene. Maybe the Shark Shield worked.  Maybe an animal turned away from an attack. Maybe I just cracked up.

I can't prove there was a shark near me. But I have read interviews with people who've had shark interactions, and almost everybody who got hit says, thinking back, that they had a feeling they were being hunted. They might not have realized what that feeling was at the time, but they recognized it looking back.

(I've gotten out of the water before when I've had a similar feelings. Off Gloucester, Massachusetts in 2010, I made the turn around an offshore buoy and had that feeling, and I got back into my escort boat. Minutes later, a charter fishing boat rounded the same buoy, and their clients photographed a 9 foot great white shark.)

 Great White Sharks swim away from their mothers the moment they are born. They spend almost their entire lives hunting alone.

Great White Sharks swim away from their mothers the moment they are born. They spend almost their entire lives hunting alone.

I've been swimming in open water for 20 years. There have been only a few times that I have gotten out of the water because I felt afraid. I know for sure that at least one of those times there WAS a large predator in the water near me.

I talk a lot about sharks during school visits. Sometimes, with high school students, I joke about all the bad things that could happen to me out there in the ocean.

But in the moment, in the actual moment when you think you are going to be attacked a toothed predator,  I can tell you it's not funny, it's not a joke. In that moment you feel like food, like a weak, too-slow mammal in the wrong place at the wrong time, readying yourself for one last stupid struggle.

I know I share the ocean with predators and hunters. Still, I push myself to be open and vulnerable and receptive as I swim. I open up my awareness so I can feel what's happening in the water around me. 

We all have our fears, and our our delusions. Yesterday,  I brushed up against something big and cold and dark and powerful and disinterested. I felt terror. I was ready to fight. I fled.

This morning at 3:23 a.m., I felt wrung out thinking of what might have been. 

But another calmer part of me knew that this was my work: to accept the terror, to stay open, to listen to my body, to scan, move, fight, even flee. 

And then to find my way back. 

To show up in that same piece of ocean again, and to find a way forward, whatever it takes.

+++

Montauk to NYC Swim Day #3

I woke up on high alert from another shark dream. I wonder what the sharks stand in for my unconscious. Could it be that all my fears and unfinished business have taken fish form and are hunting me?

+++ 

When I watch video clips of myself swimming in the ocean I see all the problems with my stroke, but then I think to myself, "Holy crap you're way out there, you're vulnerable, you're part of the food chain, buddy." It can be easier in those moments to think of myself in the third person.  Thoughts like: "That dude is swimming way offshore...I wonder what the hell he's doing?"

It is so hard to be in my own skin and accept the fact that I am in really deep water that is shared by lots of sea life, and not to be scared or armored or defended.

When I do give in to the fear, I try not to look directly down through my goggles, down there past the bubbles and clouds of plankton and jellyfish. I'm afraid of seeing dark shadows gliding beneath me. Even when it's just the shadow of my own escort boat, I freak out and brace for the bite, the shock.

I try manage the fear. I do swimming drills.  I repeat to myself the mantra that I am safe and that I deserve to be alive and that I deserve to be healthy. But there is a part of me, a messed-up, battered 10% part of me--that feels like I deserve to get hurt, that I deserve to die out here, that I deserve to pay dearly for having the audacity to do this swim at all.

+++

When I was in kindergarten, I loved seafood. I used to beg my Mom's mom to take me out for fried Haddock. 

I don't eat seafood anymore. Because I don't want seafood to eat me.

That's right: when I am out there in the ocean miles from land, I don't want nearby fish to think I see them as food.

And I am hoping they will return the favor.

+++

Montauk to NYC Swim Day #2

Woke up feeling like I’d been in a mountain bike crash.

At the marina the locals teased me about sharks.

As soon as I hit the water I got stung in the face by a Lion’s Mane jellyfish.  And then I got stung two more times.

As I stroked toward Race Rock, the surface of the ocean heaved and slopped like the contents of a washing machine. I swallowed seawater no matter which way I turned my head to breathe. I dry heaved as I crossed the imaginary line between Race Rock and Gull Island Light that marks the beginning of Long Island Sound.

My Shark Shield antenna died during the first five minutes of yesterday’s swim (don’t tell my mom).  I ordered a new one but I will swim the three sharkiest days of this swim without cover.

So now I swim and pray and try not to freak out. I pray to everyone God Jesus Poseidon Athena Saint Theresa Saint Jude Mother Mary EVERYONE.

If I dropped a civilian into the ocean out here where they couldn’t see the land for the waves and where the big fish run the table, nothing would ever be the same for them. Nothing. Ever.

+++

Even if I debriefed with my daughters every night, I wonder whether I could language this journey for them. My dreams are peopled by sharks, jellyfish, car ferries, and french braids of plankton. I belong to some other water world but I know I don’t belong.

Sometimes I am swimming well and I'm hopeful and the sun is shining and then my cap is squeezing my head and my goggles leak and my corneas burn and I am so suddenly spent that I want to vomit and pass out and wake up under a down quilt one thousand miles from the sea.

+++

While I was swimming today I thought of one more awful thing about divorce (mine was final in 2005): even when it's the right thing for the adults, it's a bomb blast for the family: We all crawl out of the crater in different directions. We struggle to locate and recognize our own. We are scattered across miles of space.  We will be years in the gathering.

+++

Montauk to NYC Swim For Clean Water Day #1 - 9/22/2016

It's pretty scary to wake up at 5 o'clock in the morning and realize that you're going to get into the ocean off Montauk Point in prime Great White Shark habitat and know that It's just gonna be you all alone out there part of the food chain and all your fears swimming with you and your brain wondering if you deserve to be hurt or punished or killed and if so, is today the day?

So here's what you do: You tell yourself you have to let go of everything and be vulnerable and just swim and pray to your Gods and ask for something to keep you alive out there. And then hope.

+++

Listen Rowan and Celilo my amazing girls I don't have much time and I'm about to get into the water but here's what I need you to know.

No matter what happens to me I LOVE YOU.

I tried like crazy to be with you and spend as much time as I could with you and things didn't always work out with your mom and me to make that happen she's a good mom and she cares about you and she loves you and she wants to protect you and what you need to know is so do I.

If I'm dead and you're seeing this then I need you to know that it's gonna be OK someday I will be with you always and I believed in what I was doing and I loved the water more than anything except you two and I died doing what I loved doing. It's OK it's really OK.

Oh my daughters I love you I will always be with you remember what I told you when you were tiny you can find me in the water you can find me in the rain you can find me in every river lake and stream where I ever spilled my sweat my blood my light all the way down to the ocean.

Burn bright sweet girls.

I love you.

+++

THANK YOU!

I am deeply grateful to all of the crew people, friends, neighbors, well-wishers, businesses, sponsors, volunteers, education partners, and government agencies that made my Earth Day 2015 swim in the Gowanus Canal a success.

My intention is to shine a light on the Gowanus Canal, and to make it more friends. 

I hope to set the stage for an accelerated clean-up effort, one that results in a Gowanus Canal that is safe for swimming every day.

 I am working with the City of New York to find a mutually-convenient date on which to swim the entire length of the Canal, later this spring.  

Interested in being notified about the date of my next swim?  Want to learn how you can support the effort? Sign up for email updates.

Thanks again to everyone who came out to show their support for a swimmable Gowanus Canal.

I'll see you again, soon!

 

 

 

 

At The United Nations

March 22, 2015 was World Water Day at the United Nations. It also marked the final day of the (largely unheralded) International Decade For Action 'Water For Life' 2005-2015.

Back in the spring of 2005, at the invitation of United Nations staff, I designed, produced, and emceed a launch event for the United Nations Decade of Action Water For Life 2005-2015, at U.N. Headquarters in New York City.

 Blessing of The Waters at the United Nations, March 2005. Photo:  Carrie Branovan

Blessing of The Waters at the United Nations, March 2005. Photo:  Carrie Branovan

The event, called Blessing of the Waters, brought together representatives from every major religion, and indigenous peoples from around the globe, to offer prayers and blessings for the world's waters.

Today, ten years later, the World Water Decade is in the rearview mirror, and I am taking stock.

Are the world's waters better off than they were in 2005?

The answer is, yes, in some cases. Especially in those cases where waterways were fortunate enough to have a strong, active base of stakeholders.

But what of the waterways without a fan base?  What about the waters not in the spotlight? Or the creeks and canals that lack the critical mass of political will needed to speed protection and restoration efforts? Are these neglected waterways doomed to languish in the shadows? Or to make only sluggish progress? Will we be forced to wait generations before they are fit for fishing, paddling, swimming?

I hope not.

 Christopher Swain at United Nations Headquarters in New York City March 20, 2015.

Christopher Swain at United Nations Headquarters in New York City March 20, 2015.

Which is why I took the podium during the Peace Bell Ceremony--part of International Earth Day the UN--and spent a couple of minutes sharing my thoughts about the world's waters.

I said that although the World Water Decade was drawing to a close, I would never stop fighting for clean, swimmable water.

I pointed out that the battle for clean water was a global one, but that two of North America's dirtiest waterways are located right across from United Nations Headquarters in New York City: Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal.

I explained that both of these streams were rife with every kind of contamination: from oil, pesticides, and industrial waste, to raw sewage and runoff packed with bacteria and viruses and trash.

I pledged to swim each of these waterways.

And I promised to advocate for cleanups that wouldn't stop until each of these streams were clean and swimmable. 

I admitted that this was a confronting prospect, that it was scary to think of what was in these waters, and that it was easy to feel discouraged and hopeless. I promised not to use those feelings as an excuse, but to go forward anyway, with a hopeful heart, believing that great progress is possible.

I also said that I was tired of waiting.  Tired of being told to be patient. Tired of hearing that in a generation or two, these dirty waters might be safe enough for me and my children to swim in.

A few days later, during my daughter's school play, a fifth grader quoted from the Langston Hughes poem, Democracy:

I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I'm dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow's bread.

When I heard these words, I felt a shiver of recognition.

I cannot swim in tomorrow's river.

 

 

Meet the Gowanus Canal: It Might Be America's Dirtiest Waterway

Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal slices through 1.8 miles of urban sprawl and Industrial misadventure before dumping its load into New York Harbor.

 Gowanus Canal. Copyright 2015, Christopher Swain.  All rights reserved.

Gowanus Canal. Copyright 2015, Christopher Swain.  All rights reserved.

Locals are quick to make fun of the Canal. From a famous author ("the only body of water in the world that is 90 percent guns") to a Whole Food Market shopper ("I can smell it when the wind is blowing and even when it's not") to a local cop ("a fisherman pulled a suitcase of body parts out of there in the 1990's")--nearly everyone has had a go at the Gowanus.

Maybe humor helps: according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the entire Canal is a Superfund Site desperately in need of remediation.

Dozens of polluters from the U.S. Navy, to the City of New York, to Brooklyn Union Gas Company (now succeeded by National Grid) have turned the Canal into a contaminated cocktail spiked with cement, sewage, mercury, lead, oil, gasoline, coal tar, trash, and PCBs.

 Gowanus Canal. Copyright 2015, Christopher Swain.  All rights reserved.

Gowanus Canal. Copyright 2015, Christopher Swain.  All rights reserved.

The bottom of the Gowanus sports a layer of toxic sludge ten to twenty feet thick. Someday the EPA hopes to remove over 500,000 cubic yards of this muck and transport it to an offsite hazardous materials facility.

In 2013, a dolphin wandered into the Canal, became trapped, and died.  An autopsy suggested the dolphin was in poor health before it entered the Gowanus. But swimming through a water column packed with pathogens--including gonorrhea--probably didn't help either.

 Photo: btv news

Photo: btv news

A lack of natural inflows (such as creeks and streams) makes the Gowanus prone to stagnation, which allows unhelpful organisms that enter the Canal via stormwater runoff or sewage, to gain a foothold when they might otherwise be flushed downstream by tides and currents.

These organisms, which include bacteria, viruses and protozoans, have contributed to the low level of dissolved oxygen in the Gowanus, which in turn makes it extremely difficult for the Canal to support healthy populations of fish and other aquatic life.

It is not surprising that the Canal cannot come close to meeting federal or state safe bathing standards. One could argue that based on sheer density of pathogens alone, the Gowanus Canal is one of the world's least swimmable waterways.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Am I Swimming The Mohawk River Now?

People ask why I am swimming the Mohawk River now, in the late fall. 

It's a fair question.

Why couldn't I have done this swim in the summer?  The simple answer?  There is not enough water in the Mohawk River during the warmer months of the year.

I  could attempt a swim in the spring when the ice melts--and contend with debris, logs, freezing and water temperatures--or I could wait for the fall storms to raise the water level and deal with the same freezing water temperatures.

Those were my only two real options. 

I chose the fall.

Please Help Me Finish This Swim

I have reached the halfway point on my swim down the Mohawk River.

For the next seventy-odd miles, I'll be racing against the weather, hoping to outpace the ice, to stroke into Albany before the river freezes me out.

 Ice at the Erie Canal-Mohawk River confluence below Lock 16

Ice at the Erie Canal-Mohawk River confluence below Lock 16

The upper reaches of the Mohawk have taken a toll on me, physically, and financially. 

I have glimpsed unspoiled wilderness, startling amounts of wildlife, and profuse natural beauty.

I have also been rag-dolled over waterfalls, folded under logjams, and slammed into boulders.

Wetsuits, gloves, supplies, water sampling gear, and camera gear have been ripped away and shredded.

 Remains of supplies and supply tube after a particularly frisky section of rapids on the East Branch.

Remains of supplies and supply tube after a particularly frisky section of rapids on the East Branch.

The good news? After what I have been through, my affection for the Mohawk has only grown.  And so has my desire to swim it to the end, to really know this river as deeply as I can.

To finish ahead of the ice, to pay my Crew Guy, to buy more packets of energy gel and thermoses of Earl Grey tea, to replace the gear we need to keep me warm, and the equipment we need to share the river's story, I need your support.

I am hoping you could consider visiting our Support the Swim page, and donating whatever you can. 

We have lots of great rewards--everything from signed swim caps and autographed swim journals, to school visits and sponsorship opportunities.

If you help me, I can promise that I will thank you, that I will be grateful, and that I will keep swimming for as long as it takes to finish.

If you think you might be able to help, please click here.

Many thanks!

 That's me, swimming into Little Falls, NY in a snowstorm, in 36 degree water. I love this river, and I will keep going until I swim its entire length.

That's me, swimming into Little Falls, NY in a snowstorm, in 36 degree water. I love this river, and I will keep going until I swim its entire length.


Why I Visit Schools

Most of my elementary school time was spent "in the box."  Crowded inside four cinder block walls painted white and accented with chalkboards, we students shuffled along behind our teachers, counting the minutes until recess, lunch, or gym. 

I remember the mad surge of hope and excitement whenever a change in the daily routine was announced over the loudspeaker.  Then the hushed whispering with my classmates, and our delusions about what the presenter would be like, about how cool they were certain to be.

Of course, the actual people rarely stood up to our imaginings. The turtle guy and the hot air balloon guy had some moves, and the Dental Hygienist won us over when she passed out those little red pills, the ones that show you what a total failure you are at brushing your own teeth.

Even if there wasn't an excess of charisma on display, every outside speaker who came to a class or an assembly lit up some new pathway in my bored little brain. And I was grateful.

But in between these celebrity visits, my early formal schooling was a slog.  Minus the corporal punishment--the loss of which tool my teachers loudly mourned--my elementary school experience largely matched the one my parents described from the 1950s.

I am guessing that these experiences are part of the reason I now approach assemblies and classrooms with the enthusiasm of a Liberator. I know that however amazing the classroom has become in the decades since I was a kid, that kids are still kids, and that nearly all of them relish a break in the daily routine.  Every time I visit a school, I know there is at least one child who will be forever grateful to me for saving him or her from a pop quiz or a lab report or whatever they were supposed to be doing on that day.

Seriously though, it is a privilege to visit a school.  I can feel it despite the metal detectors and badges and sign-ins and escorts that have cropped up since I was a student. 

I can feel it in the excitement of the students who recognize me in the hall with my swim gear bag and are hoping for something great. I can feel it in the greetings from teachers who hope that whatever I have to offer will help, will move things along, will be worth the precious time.

I do my best to share not only what I am learning about physiology, wildlife, water quality, human culture, watersheds, and history, but also what it looks like, feels like, sounds like, and tastes like out there in the drink.

I want students to know that I can only do this work because I love the water. If my whole heart were not in it, I could not deal with crashing over rocks and getting folded under logjams and freezing my hands and feet and face and eventually all of me, day after day.

I want them to remember that words are strong but actions are stronger.  To glimpse for a moment that to be out there soaking wet and cold and immersed in what I love and then coming back to share the experience of what it's like and why it is worth protecting is so hard, but so meaningful, that I am willing to risk everything to do it.

There are things I don't always manage to say. I don't always tell students that I never felt particularly special as a kid, and that I was nervous every single day waiting for the school bus and wondering what the day would bring.

I was never a star athlete--I could swim but I was never on the swim team--and I was not one of the popular kids. I took regular beatings in the locker room. I didn't always pay close attention in class.  Occasionally, I made poor choices and got sent to the office.

In elementary school I was anxious, on guard, unsure.  I was a good student, but it seemed like the real stakes weren't academic but social.  I crept around the edges of corridors avoiding eye contact with bullies and sports stars.

On the playground, I got picked close to last for kickball or dodgeball or wiffle ball. I was sure that the little league legends and pumped-up man-children around me were headed for fame and fortune.  I tried to stay out of their way, to avoid being mowed down as they marched toward their certain reward.I was not alone in this, I'm sure. In a group of fourth graders, there isn't much room at the top.

Still, I want the students I meet now, to know that when I was their age, I didn't feel great, and nothing much about me suggested that I would find satisfying work or live a meaningful life or do things no one else had ever done.

I was thirty-three years old when I first started to feel like I had a calling, a purpose, a vocation. And that meant years of guidance counselors and teachers and parents and mentors and girlfriends telling me that I should find something I was good at and focus on it so I could get into a better high school/get into a top college/get a better job/make more money/buy a house/buy a better car/go on better vacations/give my kids more more expensive gifts on the holidays.

I internalized some of those voices and I wrestle with them still.

Everyone who makes it to middle age has traveled a long road.  I feel lucky to have made it this far, to have felt love and found meaningful work.

The hard parts of my student days lend me resilience now. I stroke into rapids knowing I want to be there, and that I can take a beating if necessary. 

I didn't know these things about myself when I was young. But I know them now.  They are part of the story I bring back from the water and from the wild, part of what I can offer to young people, to students, and to anyone who remembers feeling small, feeling unsure about life, or feeling scared about what the future might hold.

 

 

 

 

Mohawk River Swim Day #3--October 22, 2014

Mohawk River Swim Day #3

Date: October 22, 2014

Swim Segment: Middle West Branch Mohawk River

Approximate Segment Length: 1 Mile

Activity: Wading

Water Temperature (F) at Start: 50.2

Time in the Water: 245 minutes

Average Heart Rate: 100

Maximum Heart Rate: 134

Calories Burned This Segment: 1097

Restful Sleep Last Night: 6h 1min (77%)

Restless Sleep Last Night: 1h 50min

Body Weight: 211.2 lbs.

Subjective Feeling: Not so good

For Today's Water Sampling and Swim Checkpoints see our Swim Map

Mohawk River Swim Day #2--October 21, 2014

Mohawk River Swim Day #2

Date: October 21, 2014

Swim Segment: Upper West Branch Mohawk River

Approximate Segment Length: 1 mile

Activity: Wading

Water Temperature (F) at Start: 48.8

Time in the Water: 226 minutes

Average Heart Rate: 94 bpm

Maximum Heart Rate: 136 bpm

Calories Burned This Segment: 906

Restful Sleep Last Night: 4 h 55 min (76%)

Restless Sleep Last Night: 1h 34 min

Body Weight: 211.2 lbs.

Subjective Feeling: Not so good

For Today's Water Sampling and Swim Checkpoints see our Swim Map

Mohawk River Swim Day #1--October 20, 2014

Date: October 20, 2014

Swim Segment: Delta Lake Inlet to Delta Dam

Approximate Segment Length: 6 Miles

Water Temperature (F) at Start: 48.8

Time in the Water: 147 minutes

Average Heart Rate: 114 bpm

Maximum Heart Rate: 134 bpm

Calories Burned This Segment: 3,558

Restful Sleep Last Night: 6 hours 6 minutes (81%)

Restless Sleep Last Night: 1 hour 28 minutes

Body Weight: 214.0 lbs.

For Today's Water Sampling and Swim Checkpoints see our Swim Map

East and West Branches of the Mohawk

Technically, the East and West Branches are not part of the Mohawk River.

According to the United States Geologic Survey, the Mohawk River officially begins where the East and West Branches meet.

It is hard for me to understand a river without exploring its headwaters. This why I have spent the last several days wading, swimming, tubing, sliding, slogging, tumbling, and falling down the East and West Branches. 

These are thin, fast-moving streams that swell into torrents during spring melts and fall downpours. 

The West branch is born where two streams meet in a scrubby forest. It dashes downhill over rocks and gravel, and then spreads out over sand and mud as it cuts through farm fields.

 West Branch heads through farm land in the middle of its course.

West Branch heads through farm land in the middle of its course.

The West Branch oozes through a small settlement and then picks up speed again as it ducks back into the woods to meet the East Branch. 

The East Branch trickles out of an impoundment in the Town of Ava. It burbles down a bony riverbed that slices through agricultural land for a couple of miles. Then, just below the East Ava Road bridge, the East Branch drops into wilderness.  For three miles, it twists and roars through a riverbed carved into countless layers of sedimentary rock. Evergreens perched on impossible footholds lean toward the river.   

 East Branch roars past rock cliffs.

East Branch roars past rock cliffs.

I slide over waterfalls peppered with fallen beech leaves. The force of some of the drops buries me in foaming pools, and the impact rips my gear away from me and fires it downstream. 

Closer to the confluence with the West Branch, the stream slows. Armies of invasive Japanese knotweed crowd out ferns and willow scrub on both banks, and dry flood channels--wide as highways and paved with river rocks--cut across the apex of every turn in the river's course.

 

 

Where the River Officially Begins

As those of you following this swim know, we scamper around the Mohawk River headwaters in search of segments deep enough to swim.

It rained last night--a good thing in the river-swimming world--so today we hiked to the official beginning of the Mohawk River: the confluence of the East and West Branches.

 Where the Mohawk River officially begins: the confluence of the East and West Branches.

Where the Mohawk River officially begins: the confluence of the East and West Branches.

According to a local kayaker, the seven-mile section from the confluence to Hillside was difficult to run at low water and featured some class II and III whitewater.

Air and water temperatures were in the low 50's. I wore a winter wetsuit because winter suits do not have expensive hydrophobic coatings that can get shredded on rocks.

I pulled a tube with me that held a spot GPS messenger, water sampling gear, waterproof camera, emergency supplies, gel packets, and energy drink. My crew guy, Andy, held on to the extras.

Last night's rain pushed me fast over shallows, and past gray cliffs, slamming my legs and chest into rocks every minute or two.

I took my lumps with the rocks.  What worried me more were the logjams and strainers that the river seemed eager to push me beneath.

I only got folded under one nasty strainer (see above).  Not to make light of it, but hey, I clawed my way through through the underwater forest, popped out the other side, chased down my supply tube, and just three short hours later racked up at the Hillside Road bridge.

 Ben and Mary Cady Bridge in Hillside, NY

Ben and Mary Cady Bridge in Hillside, NY

 

 

Weekend Away

Back when I was swimming the entire length of the Columbia River, my daughter Rowan was two years old (and my daughter Celilo was not yet born).

 Rowan and I at the source of the Columbia River, June, 2002.

Rowan and I at the source of the Columbia River, June, 2002.

I would come back from the Columbia on the odd weekend, spent and exhausted, but often in time to put Rowan to bed. I remember my shoulders squeezing and aching as I rubbed her back, willing her to drop off to sleep. 

Over a decade later, I am long ago divorced, a Dad who (still) sees his kids on weekends.

These days, my daughters are more interested in hot-tubbing with their friends than hanging with me.  

 Celilo and a buddy enjoy some 104 degree bubbles

Celilo and a buddy enjoy some 104 degree bubbles

But the push-pull feels familiar: missing my kids as I stroke through some chilly, dirty waterway during the week, and then meeting up with them for a slice of weekend.

I am afraid I don't really know how their school weeks feel to them--I miss the everyday contact with my kids that would let me glimpse this--and I imagine my quotidian tangos with the river are a mystery to them.

I do my best to interview my kids about their weekday rhythms, but they grow tired of my questions.  It's the weekend, after all: they don't want to talk about school, they want to visit bakeries and water parks, and to play with their friends. 

When they ask me what I am up to I offer up an anecdote or two about swimming and the family and leave it at that.  Our best swimming conversations come after they steal my phone and go through my photos.  There they glimpse the raw materials for the galleries of photos I share with the world.

I am not complaining.  Whatever my life looks like now, I co-created it.  I am responsible for how it feels. I love my kids, and I get what I get, and I make the best of it.

Do I wish I saw my kids more?  Yes.  Do I wish we knew more about the shapes of each other's everyday lives? Of course. Do I dwell on this?  Sometimes.  But I am trying NOT to water depression and despair (confronting contaminated rivers takes care of that for me). 

I am trying to be in my life--as it is--and be okay with it.  To let go of the nagging sense that I should to be sad all the time about the way my life shook out. To accept that I am a sometime swimmer, and a sometime Dad. To accept that, right now, this is it, this is the deal, this is me.

 

In Search of the Mohawk

The Mohawk River is the largest tributary of the Hudson River.  But somehow, it gets none of the respect accorded to its larger, more famous cousin, the Hudson.

We of European extraction tend to see the Mohawk more as a stream to be experimented upon than as a river deserving of peace and dignity. 

It is as if everything we ever thought of doing to an American river, we did to the Mohawk. We pushed out her sovereign people. We built dams, locks, canals, and bridges. We carved towpaths, railroads, and superhighways.  We raised villages, factories, cities, and hydroelectric stations. We spent 400 years bending, straightening, channeling, and harnessing her. 

We never asked permission. And yet, the Mohawk went along with all of it, was a good sport about it.

But now her health, and her identity, are missing in action.

Later this month, I will climb into the highlands between the Catskills, the Allegheny Plateau, and the Adirondack Mountains, up to the source of the Mohawk River. From there, I will hike, wade, slog, and swim the entire 149 miles of the Mohawk, from the mountains down to the Hudson.

After Progress collided with the Mohawk River, the River was never quite the same again. 

I swim in search of those missing pieces of Mohawk, those slivers of dark water captured by the attentions of Growth, Expansion, Commerce, and Manifest Destiny.

Somehow, without our realizing it, a great river was stolen from us.

I am hoping to find that river, and, just maybe, bring it back.