Challenging a river — and harnessing its power to teach

Swimming the length of the Boise River will test Christopher Swain’s endurance.

And teach Treasure Valley students about the river.

Swain knows what it takes to swim long rivers: the Hudson, the Columbia and other waters that had never been conquered before. He plans to begin swimming the 150 miles of the Boise River in August. The journey will take him from the river’s headwaters in the Sawtooth Mountains to the farmlands near Parma, and the Boise’s confluence with the Snake River.

In this risk-reward equation, Swain incurs the risk, and the reward comes in engaging students in their education and their environment. “I’m invested in energizing something like that,” Swain says.

This next journey goes back to a relationship forged years ago between Swain and a Boise teacher, Dick Jordan.

‘It helps me briefly create a platform’

But first things first. How did Swain get hooked on long-distance swimming — and why does he keep doing it?

“You have to look at the whole stream,” says Christopher Swain, an adventurer and activist who uses long-distance swims to start conversations about conservation. (Photos courtesy of Jessica Flynn.)

When Swain was a kid, he never swam competitively. Just compulsively. Massachusetts summers on the beach meant long days in the ocean.

“I was the kid, at the end of the day, who never wanted to get out of the water,” said Swain, now 51.

Swain never outgrew the water. In 1996, he decided to swim the 200 miles of the Connecticut River, hoping to raise awareness on human rights issues. When he got out of the water, he found people were more interested in talking about water quality than human rights. They wanted Swain to tell them what was in the river. In their river.

Swain remembered this experience a couple of years later, when he decided to take on an even more ambitious journey — the 1,243 miles of the Columbia River.

Over 165 days of swimming, stretched across 13 months, Swain had the chance to talk to mayors, farmers and factory owners. He tapped into what he called “a massive reservoir of shared affection for the river.” Regardless of background or vocation, everyone shared a love for the Columbia.

And they were comfortable sharing their love stories with an outsider. Because Swain was swimming the Columbia, experiencing it firsthand, the New York City native was no longer somebody from someplace else. The swim gave Swain a sort of river cred, and the opportunity to get people talking about the importance of preserving a resource they all loved.

That’s why Swain takes on challenges such as this summer’s “Source to Snake” swim of the Boise River. “It helps me briefly create a platform.”

‘It is the ultimate lesson plan’

After following the course of the Columbia from British Columbia to the Pacific Ocean, Swain promised he would do what he could to keep people focused on the health of the river. In 2013, about a decade after the swim, Jordan took Swain up on his pledge. He asked Swain to visit his Boise class.

Swain is no teacher, but he could tell Jordan was doing something right. Jordan was teaching outside the classroom, in the field, and his students were hooked. And Jordan was breaking down those too-often insurmountable barriers of school. Kids were stepping away from their cliques and learning side by side.

Dick Jordan and Heather Dermott of Idaho Business for the Outdoors and Christopher Swain.

Jordan retired in 2015, but he’s still passionate about teaching and learning. He is now the education director for Idaho Business for the Outdoors, a nonpartisan group that is sponsoring Swain’s journey. To Jordan, the Source to Snake project is about more than a long-distance swim, daunting as that is.

“It is the ultimate lesson plan,” he said. “You’ve got to find a hook on every lesson.”

The river as a classroom

The state monitors the Boise River thoroughly, and does a great job, Jordan says. The problem, he said, is that “there is not heartfelt connection to what has been discovered.”

Jordan hopes Source to Snake will change that, by connecting students to the research and to the resource.

High school students will gather data from the river as Swain swims it. In the process, they will get a sense of what it means to restore a river that is drinkable, fishable and swimmable.

Participating schools stretch from Mountain Home (the district takes in Atlanta, a mountain community along the upper stretches of the river) to Parma. Students from Boise’s Sage International School will work on a project with SUEZ Water, which provides drinking water to much of the city. Another lesson plan is designed to make elementary school students consider their impact on water quality; it’s titled “Don’t Rush the Flush.”

It all ties back to Idaho’s new academic science standards, which the 2018 Legislature adopted after a rancorous three-year debate centered on the standards’ references to climate change. Idaho has “properly crafted” standards that emphasize problem-solving over simple memorization, Jordan says. The trick is giving teachers a way to connect their students to science in the real world. Enter Source to Snake.

The classroom applications extend beyond the science of water quality. The river ties into the humanities, such as the history of a valley that is linked to a river. Students will also have the chance to study Swain, monitoring his sleep patterns, his swim strokes per minute, the calories he consumes and the calories he burns.

It’s all about creating multiple learning opportunities. But as every river has its headwaters, these lessons all have their origins in a single source: Swain.

‘Everything is downstream of something’

Swain’s storyline isn’t just a hook for students. The power of a compelling saga isn’t lost on Idaho Business for the Outdoors.

Source to Snake presents an opportunity to get Idahoans thinking about the Boise River as a whole. Too often, people think about the river in terms of urban interests and rural interests, said Heather Dermott, executive director of Idaho Business for the Outdoors.

If adults often think parochially about the river, it should be no surprise that students also struggle with context and complexity.

“Christopher is the catalyst to get the discussion going,” Jordan said. “Everything is downstream of something.”

Christopher Swain swims beneath the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, which links the New York City boroughs of Staten Island with Brooklyn. Swain has completed several long-distance swims in the New York area, to raise awareness about water quality.

Swain is as much an evangelist as he is an adventurer.

He’s matter-of-fact about the challenge before him. Swimming a 150-mile river is risky, but he doesn’t dwell on the dangers. He has seen plenty of perils before: Great White Shark waters, blood-sucking lampreys, waters contaminated with PCBs and weapons-grade nuclear waste, discharges of raw sewage.

But as Swain sat Thursday morning at a picnic table in a Boise park — just a few steps from the river he will traverse this summer — it quickly became clear that he’d much rather talk about the potential to reach students.

It seems straightforward enough to Swain. Given the choice, what student would choose learning indoors over learning outdoors? Especially students who have won “the geographic lottery” by ending up in Idaho?

And, he hopes, some of these students will be inspired to get involved, and do the hard work necessary to restore the resource. What Swain calls “citizen science” could lead to citizen activism.

“They’re going to come to have affection for this river and for this place,” he said.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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