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This man swam the Columbia River’s full length. Here’s why he is coming to Boise

Christopher Swain has swum the entire length of the Columbia, Hudson and other rivers. He plans to visit Boise in summer 2019 as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the Boise Greenbelt.
Christopher Swain has swum the entire length of the Columbia, Hudson and other rivers. He plans to visit Boise in summer 2019 as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the Boise Greenbelt.

After biking the Greenbelt last week, guests in my house came back exclaiming, “We want to move to Boise!” Oh, dear. The seductive Boise River had struck again.

I suggested they come back in forest fire season before calling the movers.

The river and its banks were not always so compelling. Fifty years ago the city was dumping sewage, oil and all kinds of junk into its river, turning its back on the whole mess. Today the Boise River is a joyful place to fish, float, swim, walk, bike or position a business, because of hundreds of citizens, lots of government and private money, and decades of patient collaboration.

Next September, Boise will celebrate the 50th anniversary of when the Greenbelt began. Into the celebration will come a swimmer named Swain asking, “What are your hopes and dreams for the river?”

Let me explain.

Christopher Swain is a citizen scientist and educator who swims some of America’s most polluted rivers to mobilize cleanup initiatives. Over 22 years, he has engaged 80,000 school children who devise ways to care for nearby water. He specializes in toxic conditions, measuring every hour the often smelly water he’s swimming through.

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Jerry Brady

He was invited here by Idaho Business for the Outdoors, a new organization promoting Idaho’s public lands and outdoors as the critical assets they are for the economy. The group’s project is called “Boise River: Source to Snake.”

Swain will travel down the Middle Fork of the Boise. He’ll start swimming at Spangle Lake in the Sawtooths, then walk to Atlanta. He will swim from Arrowrock and Lucky Peak reservoirs downriver to the Boise’s confluence with the Snake River west of Parma.

Over 40 days beginning Aug. 5, Swain will conduct workshops with high school students from Mountain Home, Idaho City, Boise, Parma and others communities. They’ll help figure out what’s in the water and how students might measure the river’s health in future years. Dick Jordan, a retired Timberline High School science teacher and the group’s education director, has promoted exactly that with his students for years.

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Cyclists love the smooth Greenbelt pathway through Marianne Williams Park in Boise. Pete_Zimowsky

Today’s youth want to act on what they learn, not merely observe.

Swain and his sponsors will also engage the river’s principle stakeholders: farmers and ranchers, governments, environmental advocates, educators, businesses and any citizen who care about the river. He will be asking, “What are your hopes and dreams for your river? What do you draw from it and put in it? What about the future? Are you preparing for Southwest Idaho to double in population?”

Compared with other rivers Swain has navigated, the Boise is pretty clean. Good work has been done. We take for granted what has become more valuable than oil elsewhere in the world.

Yet we live in a desert, our lives made possible by healthy rivers. Larger questions are coming. What happens as even more people like my house guests call the moving van?

Jerry Brady is a former newspaper publisher and a member of Compassionate Boise. jbrady2389@gmail.com

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