"We have unknown distance left to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not. Ah well! We may conjecture many things."
-John Wesley Powell
Sloshing out of Cedar Swamp Pond--Swim Day #1. Photo: Bonnie Ferchette.
October 12, 2004. Hopkinton & Milford, MA. Swim Day 1. Water temperature 56 degrees.
I tell folks that I swim for clean water, and, of course, this is part of why I swim. But there is more to it. More to why I stroked through snowstorms on the Columbia, gas and oil slicks on the Hudson, and toxic blue-green algae on Lake Champlain. I don't just want to swim these waterways; I want to know them.
So, on my shortest first swim day ever, in Cedar Swamp Pond in Milford (I still have to hike the un-swimmable upper reaches in Hopkinton), I stroked through a brown soup of fifty-six degree water as a forest of swaying aquatic plants reached up to caress my guts. I passed a tire, some plastic bottles, some pieces of a chain link fence. And I got to thinking, "I've frozen my face before. I've picked up tons of trash. I've done a zillion interviews. What keeps me coming back for more?"
And even if I get teased by my male friends for saying it, I think it's time to give the real answer: Love.
I love these pieces of water. I was born in New York City, grew up in Massachusetts, went to college in Connecticut, lived in Oregon, and now make my home in Vermont. When I freestyle down the Hudson, the Charles, the Connecticut, the Columbia, or Lake Champlain, it's because I have lived near these waterways, and I take what happens to them personally. I swim in search of ways to protect them.
Some of my motivation is selfish. I want my daughters to be able to swim in these waters themselves someday--without having to wade through a broth of heavy metals and sewage to do it. And I want them to know that I tried.
But some other part of me feels that these swims are my patriotic duty. Pleading the case for waterways has come to feel like my own twisted form of national service. In a slightly different version of my life, I might have been a Rescue Swimmer in the Coast Guard or a Pararescue Jumper in the Air National Guard or a paramedic in an urban fire department. I have it in me to risk something for others. To offer help in bleak situations. To dive in when others might not.
I still believe that we can preserve most of what Teddy Roosevelt and Rachel Carson and John Muir and David Brower managed to protect. But we are in a new era. There are more of us, and fewer wild spaces. The ease of protecting a wilderness is gone: people want to build houses, construct golf courses, and extract resources. Lots of people. And, taken one at a time, many of their requests sound quite reasonable. (Who would begrudge their neighbor a house? A vocation? A little recreation?)
Yet the reason so many of us live where we live is because of natural features. The Charles River defines Boston more powerfully than any other natural feature. The parks that surround the river are a testament to the affection of the local citizenry. Companies, universities, and ordinary folks pay big dollars for a slice of view that includes the Charles. Yet the waters of the Charles--which were once clean, fishable, and swimmable--are hardly so today. One rainstorm can turn the Charles into a sewer. And most parents wouldn't dream of bringing their kids down to Magazine Beach for a swim on a sultry August afternoon.
(Though, to be fair, there is a thirty something percent chance that the river would meet the swimmability standard on any given day. But who wants to log on to the internet to find out your kid can take a dip? What parent has time for that?)
So, like most service projects, mine has a larger goal: I want folks to be able to swim in the Charles any day they feel like it. I want swimmability to be the not just some EPA standard, but a given on the Charles.
I am out to plead the Charles River's case. To give folks a sense of the challenges facing the river, and of what they might do to help. And I freely admit that I am part of the problem. When I visit the city to see friends and family, the copper dust that shaves off the brake pads of my car washes down the storm drains and fouls the waters of the Basin. When I let the water run cold in Milford as I fill my bottle, I waste precious quarts that might protect fragile ecosystems downstream. When I snack on conventionally-produced food as I swim, I become the reason for the pesticides I have to stroke through.
Is this really service? I hope so. Helping one's neighborhood river feels like service. Perhaps even a more harmonious sort of service than attacking downtown Fallujah. (Just to be clear: the troops in Iraq are in my prayers--it is the reason they are over there that troubles me .)
Will my service do any good? That is for the next generation to decide. If my grandchildren can swim in the Charles without thinking twice--if I contribute to that outcome in some small way--then, yes, I'll believe that good was done.
So neighbors, know this. Service project or not, I'll keep climbing back into this cold, dirty river. I'll keep stroking until I taste the Atlantic. And I'll keep flogging the dream of a swimmable Charles. Because I grew up here. Because I love this river. And because, even though "Dirty Water" is the definitive Boston anthem, I'd rather see the next generation learn to love clean water instead.
October 13-14, 2004. Family days.
People ask me why I take family days--why not just swim straight through? The answer is that family is the whole point of the swim. I want my kids (and yours) to have clean rivers to swim in. But I also want to spend time with my daughters, even during an epic project like a river swim. I want my girls to know that even though I find meaning in making rivers more friends, that I find far greater meaning, and joy, in their easy company.
October 15, 2004. South from Milford. Water temperature 54 degrees.
After a slow (Australian) crawl through the lower half of Milford Pond, I pulled up at a dam below a pedestrian bridge just shy of downtown. There I tossed bicycles and pipes and appliance parts onto the bank for later retrieval.
A few bends and a bit of wading later, I spotted a swan about 100 feet away. The big bird heaved itself into flight and flew straight at me, two feet off the surface and picking up speed. As I got ready to throw myself down into the muck, I heard my moms voice saying, A swan can break your arem with its wing! But with twenty feet to go, this Jumbo Bird dipped a wing and swerved. I staggered sideways in the mud, and the Swan slipped past me, wings beating like the rhythmic tearing of cardboard.
The river enters a tunnel as it passes under downtown Milford. Part of Milton was built on the lower end of Cedar Swamp, which was filled as part of a WPA project in the 1930s. I dont like channelized rivers, but I crept into the tunnel as six inches of river washed past my ankles. Exactly halfway in, my borrowed flashlight crapped out. I stopped, and tried to regulate my breathing while I waited for my eyes to adjust so that I could navigate using light from the storm drains overhead. Underway again, I marched toward the rectangular spatter-painting of fall foliage, rocks, and river bed seventy five yards away. After a little too long, I cleared the tunnel, and found that a committee of submerged tires and bicycles and toasters had assembled to welcome me back to the natural river bed.
Hours later, in Bellingham, I am still seventy river miles from the Atlantic. My throat is sore, my SCUBA boots are half-shredded, (and I protest too much).
The Charles enters a tunnel under downtown Milford. Double-click to enlarge. Photo: C. Swain.
Don't mess with this Swan. Double-click to enlarge. Photo: C. Swain.
October 16, 2004. Im on the verge of getting sick, but it kills me to stay out of the water. Thats my pattern on these swims: bulldoze ahead until I hit the granite wall of illness. Can two naps and a day of scouting break the pattern? Well see.
October 17, 2004. Still not feeling great but its time to get moving so I decide to hike some of the shallower headwater sections.
On maps, the Charles River is first labeled as such below the Echo Lake Dam. For the purposes of measurement, river mileages are calculated from that point. I have yet to hike all of the stream between Milford Pond and Echo Lake, or to crash uphill through the brush north of the Lake, in search of the rivers highest source.
Today my old friend Betsy joins me, and together we backtrack from Milford Pond, to Wildcat Pond. As we slosh through a tunnel under I-495 I feel the freeze inside my running shoes, and turn back to check on Betsy's progress. She is striding along, smiling, like she does this every day.
In the bog above Wildcat Pond I pick up Deer Creek instead of the Charles (they both look like tiny creeks) and we end up figuring it out the mistake only when we stumble on the National Guard Rifle Range in Milford. We walk out to route 85 on a quarry access road. Betsy actually has legitimate work to do, so she drops me off near Echo Lake and we part ways.
I hike into the Echo Lake dam and then head north following the easternmost of the two major streams that were dammed to create Echo Lake. At times, I crawl up the stream on all fours, slithering beneath dense canopies of briars. I listen for the babble of water beneath collapsed stone walls. I am determined not to lose it. The stream and I cross Teresa Road, then Chamberlain Road in Hopkinton. In a swale two houses above Chamberlain--where there once stood a sign marking the source of Charles River--the stream is a trickle that crosses beneath route 85, worms uphill and loses itself in a swamp across from Hilltop Road. (This is the same swamp from which Beaver Brook rises, as far as I can tell.)
And so it is, with the Garmin GPS showing some 509 feet above sea level (give or take 34 feet) that I call it a day: my best guess is that the summit water of the Charles River is right here, in this very swamp, perhaps on the uphill edge of it. There is not much more hill to climb before we cross into another drainage anyway.
A bog is where the mighty Charles begins then. Steeped in a broth of dead leaves and fallen wood and mud, a trickle heads south toward Echo Lake. Eighty river miles away, the rowers and sailors and commuters who gaze out on the bloated Basin, have no idea that their beloved river, the revered piece of dirty water that is the Charles, oozes out of an unremarkable swamp in Hopkinton.
October 18, 2004. To Maple Street in Bellingham. Water temperature: 52-53 degrees.
When there is not enough water to swim--and the stream is sufficiently wide--I can wade without worrying about destroying fragile ecosystems. But when the stream is four feet wide and shallow, I walk the banks instead. Today, with the increased flow of Beaver Brook in the river, I can wade, breaststroke through pools and holes, and do a modified, slow-motion, spacewalk in the almost-too-deep-to-wade sections.
I cruised through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Natural Valley Storage Project at about 1 mph. The Natural Valley Storage Project is a fancy name for leaving things alone--something the Army Corps of Engineers could afford to do a lot more of. Instead of building flood control dams on the upper Charles in the sixties, the Corps decided to protect wetlands instead. Some 8,500 acres of wetlands fell under their care, and now when the spring floods arrive, wetlands sponge up the extra flow and release it slowly. Wetlands do this better than any dam, and in a rare stroke of bureaucratic genius, USACE recognized this and unwittingly protected large sections of the Charles River Watershed.
In and among the cattails, I saw thirteen Mallards, two Muskrat, one Beaver, five great blue herons, two obstructions made entirely of Styrofoam chunks, and eight fifty-five gallon drums of various Lustre brand self-serve car wash chemicals.
My sister Amanda came up from Rhode Island and caught up with me at High Street in Hopkinton, where, shivering, I downed--dont tell my fair trade buddies--a large Dunkin Donuts coffee. (That was a little too much caffeine for old Swain. Half an hour later, intestines writhing, paranoia descending--snapping turtles, deer hunters, water snakes--I regretted it.) But it was great to see my sister and my nephews. I gave her son Ollie a nearly-new Mitre soccer ball I scooped out of the river back in Milford.
The channel was a four foot wide lane through the reeds in the NVSP wetlands and a seventy-five foot wide bay just before the North Bellingham Dam. But swimmable? Not yet. I clambered over the falls and popped out just below the Maple Street bridge. Sixty-seven miles to go.
Summit water of the Charles? I think so. Across from Hilltop Road in Hopkinton, Mass., 509 feet above sea level (give or take 34 feet). Double-click to enlarge. photo: C. Swain.
Behind those trees is a swamp which I believe contains the summit water of the Charles River. Double-click to enlarge. photo: C. Swain.
October 19-21. Its family time for the next two days.
October 22, 2004. To Populatic Pond, Norfolk, MA. Water temperature: 51 Degrees. Crew: Ralph Moore. River miles: 7. Miles to the Atlantic: 60.
As I slid into the brown, cold vein of water below the North Bellingham Dam, my stomach was awash in beef barley soup from Ma Glockner's. My road crew for today, Ralph Moore, set me up with something hot before I climbed into the river. This helped. But as I staggered over rocks hidden beneath the brown bubbling water, I thought, "I am REALLY FULL."
Soon enough, the water was knee-deep and I flopped down on my Boogie board and started paddling. A few days back, one of my old friends suggested it was time to use some of the shallow water knowledge I gained on the Hudson. Why hike when you can paddle, kick, and drag yourself along on the board?
Prone on the board, neck craned up to spot the Mallards who blast into the air as I round turns, I motor along. I see more than a swimmer. I slide along the back of a mahogany-stained river as the last round of foliage abandons itself to the air. My back aches almost immediately, but I am under the spell of dead leaves, gentle wind, and falling water. I couldn't stop now if I tried.
October 23, 2004. Trash clean-up.
What do you get when a group of elementary school students, parents, teachers, and local residents decide to clean up their local tributary? Five hundred plus pounds of trash and a little bit closer to a swimmable Charles.
Check out these photos of our Stall Brook Clean-Up (double-click to enlarge):
October 24, 2004. To the Route 109 bridge at the Millis/Medfield town line. Water temperature: 48 degrees. Crew: Cara Wilking. Miles: 8. Miles to Atlantic: 52. Best way to stretch out a frozen lower back? Pull-ups on a Red Maple branch.
Yikes, I'm freezing. But whatever, I've swum in snowstorms before. The trouble is, I have euphoric recall about those days. The reality of my winter time in the Columbia River wasn't so great. Based on my rosy memories, I should be toasty warm. (I stroked through thirty-eight degree water on the Columbia, but I was better prepared: I had an another thirteen pounds of body fat back then.)
This afternoon, I kicked past miles of shoreline posted "Licensed Shooting Preserve: No Trespassing". Very effective signs. Who would trespass after reading that? They aren't kidding either. I had time to count gunshots. The average? 26 shots every two minutes or 780 shots per hour. I guess deer season is right around the corner. Needless to say, I didn't peek over the lip of the bank to say hi.
Every time the river bottom drops away, I start stroking and damned if I don't go whaling into something hard or sharp within twenty-five seconds. Today I smashed my thigh, pranged my knee, and cut my hand--again. I hit logs, rocks, and metal objects which I can only assume are various appliances of the sort I have encountered during my clean-up efforts.
So now I swim spooked. I'll run down a bony little class I rapid on my boogie board in ten inches of water, slip off to swim the pool at the bottom, and then WHAM! I bash into something and get hurt.
Some guy came flying out onto his deck today and started yelling down at me. I stopped to listen. At length I understood him to be screaming, "Are you f**king nuts?" I thought for a moment about spinning my answer but then yelled back, "Yes!"
We got to talking. His kids swim in the river right there, and I told him I hoped that Boston and Cambridge kids could swim in the Basin someday.
"God love ya," he said. "But that's f**king insane."
Isn't that what they say about all the best dreams?
October 25, 2004. When I was swimming through sewage and pesticides on the Columbia in the Spring of 2003, some of that contaimnated water made it into my mouth. On two different occasions, lymph nodes around my jaw swelled to nearly golf ball-size (slight exaggeration, but you get the idea) as they tried to filter out the toxins that I took in.
I don't know if it's because I just swam over the outfall from the Charles River Pollution Control District wastewater management facility (fancy name for the local sewage treatment plant) but today I've got a swollen lymph node and the only treatment I can come up with is rest. So I'll nap and stalk around and generally be conflicted about not swimming, and hopefully my body will get ahead of this thing.
By the way, the outfall was on the outlet arm of Populatic Pond (from a native word meaning "place to fish," referring to the herring that used to run up all the way up the river to spawn, before the dams. Today, only the lower five dams on the Charles have any sort of fish passage. So there are no more herring spawning in Populatic Pond, but, apparently, there are now quite a few man-made "Brown Trout.")
October 26, 2004. School visit.
I visited the Cambridge-Ellis School this morning and talked to some kindergarten classes about the Charles River. They liked the show and tell of all the swim gear, and had lots of questions about whether sharks and sting rays and killer whales are patrolling the Charles. I even built a crude model of the New Charles River Dam out of wooden blocks to demonstrate what a solid shark barrier is in place where the river meets the harbor. (See? It helps to have a three-year old daughter!) Afterwards, I got lonely for my daughter, Rowan. I'll see her tomorrow, but I miss her so much.
October 27-28, 2004. Playtime with Ro & Lo.
October 29, 2004. Missing pieces.
Today I set out to travel the reaches of the Charles that I've skipped. Two tunnels, plus the Box Pond section of the river, have eluded me thus far.
I needed lighting for these two tunnels--the one under Archer Rubber in Milford and the one that passes beneath an abandoned mill at Pearl Street in Bellingham. So I strapped on my headlamp, grabbed my camera, and sloshed through darkened worlds coated with slime.
The Archer Rubber tunnel smelled a bit of sewage but boasted plenty of headroom (see the photos below). The more interesting tunnel was at Pearl Street, which I entered after vaulting some chain link and skirting a waterfall. This tunnel has low clearance and is strewn with more rocks, pipes, girders, and busted chunks of cement pipe than a broken ankle convention. I didn't bring the camera but I wished I had.
Box Pond looks like a long, muck-filled, gravy boat scooped out of the forest. I entered the pond from a channel at times just two feet wide, where I pushed and kicked through overhanging vines, briars, and fallen trees, as Mallards fired themselves into the air like rockets on diagonal rails. I can't imagine what they thought I was. The bottom looked like plain old mud but it took as much leg as I gave it: ankle, knee, hip, I just kept sinking.
The Charles River heads underground to pass below the Archer Rubber Company in Milford, MA. Double-click to enlarge. photo: c. swain.
Welcome to the tunnel. No, that's not stormwater oozing out of the hole, but it does begin with the letter "S". Double-click to enlarge. photo: c. swain.
If it weren't for my headlamp and the camera flash, I'd be tripping over this pile of tunnel trash in the pitch dark. Double click to enlarge. photo: c. swain
October 30, 2004. To Bridge Street in Dover (at the Sherborn town line). Water temperature: 49 degrees. Crew: Thanks for the shuttle, Michelle! Miles: 7. To the Atlantic:45.
After the Bogastow Brook confluence, the Charles started to feel more like a river. Wth the flow nearly doubled, I could swim without hitting half so many submerged surprises. (Bogastow Brook is the largest tributary of the Charles River. The Bogastow watershed encompasses most of Holliston, Sherborn and Millis.) Still, I dinged my legs and stomach on enough rocks that I stayed wary.
The high water line is visible as I swim. A blackened layer of riverside flora that reaches three feet above the surface. As if someone swept downriver with a flamethrower. I sure could use another three feet of water right now.
Rocky Narrows was a visual change of pace--old bedrock looming above the river instead of the mud and sand I've gotten used to--but the shallows snuck up on me. Just as the current picked up I barked my shin on some submerged rocks.
Large wetland meadows are giving way to occasional backyards, now. These "yards" are often the luxuriant greenswards of hilltop mansions. The docks and canoes and skiffs suggest summer days spent on the river.
October 31, 2004. (Past the halfway mark) to Dover Road bridge in Dover, MA. Crew: Amanda, Roy, Oliver, and Jasper Bingham, & Eliza Mellen-Smith, Derek Bloom, and Aidan Mellen-Bloom. Water temperature: 49 degrees. Miles: 5. Miles to Atlantic: 39.
What a frustrating day. Hours and hours and so little progress. But it was awesome to see some family out there on the bridges.
In between crashing into logs, bottoming out on rocks, and sinking into hip deep mud, I breaststroked across the surface of a river carpeted with oak, maple, and birch leaves. I sucked in lungfuls of autumn air sweetened with rot and wet and color.
Just upstream of the South Natick Dam I spotted a statue of Mother Mary on the right bank. I am not a religious man, but I kicked over, clasped my hands, stared up into the Virgin's eyes, and spilled: how I'd had it with the cold, the brusies, the fatigue, the too-shallow water, the dragging myself across rocks and mud on my stomach. And how I loved it, too. How I was burned out, and how I couldn't get enough.
"But, please," I said. "Please. Help me finish. Safely. Soon."
I don't know whether She'll help me. But I belive She heard my prayer.
November 1, 2004. To Dedham Ave. bridge in Needham, MA. Water temperature: 49-50 degrees. River miles: 6. To go: 33. Crew: Eliza Mellen-Smith, Kristin Mellen, and Aidan Mellen-Bloom.
Two long, shallow sections of Class I-II water on the boogie board today, but also some long stretches of breaststroke and even a few strokes of freestyle. An underwater branch stabbed me in the appendix, slicing four ragged little holes in my wetsuit, but, happily, failing to break the skin. I duct taped over the rips and kept at it.
The little Pelican case that holds my map and river guide pages, emergency food, money, keys, phone card, and a ziploc bag with my cell phone lost a seal today and flooded. I took the phone apart and let the pieces dry out on the windshield defroster of Eliza's car. No phone survives a dunking in this business. Somebody's phone has hit the water on every waterway I've swum.
The bottom of the boogie board looks like it survived a knife attack. That's better than taking all those hits myself, but it raises the question, "How much of a swim is it if you are really just dragging yourself over rocks and refrigerators on a piece of styrofoam?"
The athlete inside me is struggling on the Charles. I feel like a race car without a track. I came to swim. Slithering through the mud, or hauling myself over rocks on the boogie board, or hiking next to the trickle of a headwaters stream is a workout, but I miss having my head buried in the river for six hours at a stretch.
Of course, the point wasn't just to swim. It was to learn how I could help the Chuck (that's my new nickname for the Charles River). But I am still impatient. As much as I enjoy all this shallow water problem solving, I can't wait to string together more than thirty strokes.
November 2, 2004. To Riverdale Park in Dedham, MA. Water temperature: 49 degrees. Crew: Thanks for the ride, Mark! Miles: 6. To go: 27.
On these scratchy sections, boat support is almost more trouble than it is worth (swimming is hard enough without pausing to haul a loaded canoe through a bay filled with three inches of water and three feet of muck--even if there is a lovely view of the Noble & Greenough campus.) If a volunteer runs into trouble and fails to show up, I go to my backup plan. I stash hydrogen peroxide, snacks, and gatorade at the major bridges along my planned route, file a swim plan with a friend, and then swim like crazy so that I can finish before said friend calls out the search and rescue teams to look for me.
While this provides great fodder for debate (Is an unescorted swim an irresponsible act?) it also lets me keep some momentum. How do I rationalize it? Well, I tell myself that the Charles is a small stream. Most of the time I can stand up in it. The bank is mere feet away. And I am now swimming through populated areas most of the time (yes, that IS a Circuit City Super Store I see through the trees). But I also look at the problem as a father: would I want a full-grown kid of mine to do this? And the answer is, sure. But I wouldn't like it. And finally there is the vanity angle. Will I roll over in my grave when the inevitable "What an Idiot" obituary appears in Outside Magazine? Yeah, but I'd probably do the same thing again.
As I read this over, I am suspicious of my motives. The fact is, I know it is stupid not to be under someone's gaze on any swim. That the wisest course when a support person fails to appear is to postpone the swim for a day. So what drives me to plunge in anyway? Impatience? Maybe. Over-confidence? If I am overconfident, I surely don't feel it. No, I think it is something like desire. I go back to the river for the same reason people go back to their mistresses: I am in search of something I don't think I can find anywhere else.
November 3 & 4, 2004. Family Daze.
November 5, 2004. To Newton Upper Falls. Weather: Mostly sunny, windy (gusting to 50+ mph). Water temperature: 48 degrees. Crew: Duncan Cox III. River miles: 5. Miles to go: 22.
As Dunc and I stood discussing the portage at the upper falls in Newton, I heard (through my earplugs) a muffled "Pop!" and then a yell. As I turned my head, I saw Dunc scrambling out of the way of a falling tree. The tree was as big around as a tire on my Acura, and in one slow-mo fraction of a second I realized it was going to bury me. But some primal, hardwired, save-my-butt instinct kicked in. I spun, launched myself toward the muddy waters of the Chuck, and waited for the stab of hardwood in my back.
I bellyfloped into four feet of water and surfaced, unscathed, fifteen feet from the bank--just in time to watch pieces of swim gear sink out of sight and Dunc run his hand through his hair. A branch had ripped his hat off and dinged him in the head. It emerged that he was okay, walking, not bleeding. And now we had something else to talk about.
"What the hell was that?" I yelled.
"I don't know." said Dunc. "An omen maybe?"
"An omen. What kind of omen?" I asked.
"I don't know, " he said.
We never did figure out what kind of omen it was (it WAS a heckuva windy day and maybe it was just time for that tree to go). But can you blame me for bagging it for the day a few minutes later?
The average annual flow in this part of the Charles is just over 300 cubic feet per second. It would be more, but a good chunk of water goes through the Mother Brook diversion and ends up in the Neponset River. So this is pretty much the same volume of water--fattened and slowed by the occasional dam, of course--that I can expect all the way to the harbor. Which worries me. Because even though I could swim maybe 40% of the time today (as opposed to dragging myself over mud and fallen trees and swerving through a sinuous exhibit of the History of Appliances in America) I am still crashing into things all the time. Rocks, pipes, chunks of asphalt, and now, even falling trees, seem to seek an audience with this swimmer. Does this seem self-absorbed? Well, I am the one with the bruises. But it is cool too. I wanted to know the river, and now we seem to enjoy a high-conflict partnership of sorts. Just when I think it is safe to let my guard down, a submerged oak branch lets me know that I am still alive.
In the marsh above the Kendrick Street bridge, the wind kicked up two foot whitecaps and broke them over my head. I have logged hundreds of miles in these sorts of conditions over the last few years, but today was different. I got a lift as the crests hit me and then bottomed out in the mud in the troughs. It was a storm in a dirty little bathtub.
As the wind splintered the waves into spray and then blew it down my throat, I thought, "I like this. I am okay. I am happy out here."
November 6, 2004. I do the meet and greet at Whole Foods. I field all sorts of questions, but the big one stays the same: "Are you crazy?"
November 7, 2004. To Moody Street Dam in Waltham. Water temperature: 48 degrees. Crew: Michael Smith. Weather: Mostly. River Miles: 8. To go: 14.
The air temperature is dropping. I stop swimming amd I am warm. But I sit chatting for a minute on the bank and I feel the freeze seeping through my suit. One moment I am hung up on a piece of metal siding, cursing and splashing, and in the next, a breeze shatters the surface and I swim through exploding fragments of oatmeal clouds.
Eight miles doesn't seem like much but in this section there seems to be another dam (followed the obligatory bony class I rapid) almost every mile. My boots are beyond shredded: flaps appear as I walk betraying the slices of metal and glass over these past four weeks.
Cormorants are out fishing. Are the herring running? I haven't see cormormants fish in fresh water. But here they are.
Someone called 911 when they saw me swim into Waltham. (I felt stupid. I should have called the Walthamj dispatcher but I didn't think i'd make it this far today.) So I got to meet the good folks at Waltham Police and Fire. Many thanks to Captain Hebert and his right hand man, Castillo, for their patience and good advice.
And there's another lesson in there, too. To the people of Waltham, a swimmer in the Charles means a suicide or an accident.
"NOBODY swims here, buddy," is the way one cop put it.
But I am out to change all that. Years from now, I hope to see the kids of Waltham swimming in this river. Like it's the most normal thing in the world.
November 8, 2004. To North Beacon Street (Route 20) in Watertown/Brighton) . Crew, Eliza, Aidan & Kristin. Miles: 5. To go: 9.
I sneak up on the Watertown Dam and scamper around it on river left. Back in the water I surf down the tailrace rapid and then ooze to a near-stop in the slack water of the Basin. Well, there was still a whisper of current at Gaeln Street, but from here to the Museum of Science, I'll be in the Basin, that artificial lake that the Charles becomes in downtown Boston and Cambridge.
As I breaststroke past the Newton Yacht Club, my knees bounce off the sand every stroke. I round the turn and see the Prudential Tower sprouting above the trees on the horizon. My first glimpse of Boston skyline. For a moment I doubt it. But no. It's real. I am almost there. "There" meaning, downtown, the esplanade, home of joggers and walkers and rowers, and bridges I have crossed a zillion times. I have almost reached that fat, dirty piece of water that nearly everyone thinks of when they hear the words "Charles River."
The Charles River Basin, from the Cambridge side, at night. photo: c. swain. Double-click to enlarge.
Unless there's ice, rowers rule the Charles River Basin. photo: c. swain. Double-click to enlarge.
November 9, 2004. Hudson River flashback. I head south to do a presentation for the Hudson River Fisherman's Association (NJ). It is great to see Al again. I haven't seen him since the end of the Hudson swim. And it feels good to look into the eyes of men and women who love this river as much as I do. I tell them my story, remind them that I am part of the problem, and ask what I can do to help.
Afterwards, I linger downstairs, chatting. As I am about to leave, an old timer in rumpled flannel shuffles over and stares into my face.
"I like what you're doing," he says. "Keep it up. You know, we used to kick more ass around here. We need young guys like you."
November 10, 2004. It's one thing to talk about the dream of swimming in the Charles from Magazine Beach in Cambridge. How about the real thing? Swaddled in neoprene, a group of us, including representatives from U.S. EPA, Charles River Watershed Association, Organic Valley Family of Farms, Equal Exchange, Whole Foods, Farm Aid, and the Charles River Conservancy, plunge into the Charles for a 100 yard swim along the beach.
Despite the 48 degree water, spirits are high, and within hours--coincidence or not--EPA announces plans to clamp down on municipal sewage discharges upstream.
Thank you so much to Bill, Rodney, Theresa, Travis, Amy, Bob, John, Renata, Tamar, Bonnie, Enid, Carolyn, and everyone else who got in the water with me today, And thanks to Sue for putting it all together.
November 11, 2004. Through the Basin to the New Charles River Dam. Weather: Partly Cloudy. Water temperature: 47-48 degrees. Crew: Travis Forgues, Lindsay Swain, Barbara Ruhs.
"A river touching the back of a town is like a wing. River towns are winged towns." --Henry David Thoreau
I stare out the window of a donated hotel room and wait for the sun to slice through the gray quilt of sky that blankets the city. As I gather my gear, I realize that I have been looking forward to these eight miles for the last six months. Today, I'll swim from North Beacon Street in Watertown, downstream through the Basin, through the old lock near the Museum of Science, and on to the New Charles River Dam: the last barrier between me and the Atlantic Ocean.
Tomorrow, I'll walk around the dam, and swim the last 500 yards out under the Charlestown Bridge (where the mouth of the river used to be). But it all hinges on today: dirty water, wind, and boat traffic, on too little sleep.
We connect with an ABC news crew from World News Tonight that has rented a river cruise boat. My crew will ride along as ABC does some day-in-the-life filming. They interview me on the bow as we cruise upstream, and as my bare head cuts the wind, I feel my brain turn to slush, then ice. I don my hat between questions.
In the river, I can feel my lack of sleep: the cold hurts more than it should. I wear my lucky 5mm neoprene gloves. Yeah, they are torn to pieces from encounters with glass, rocks and metal, but they have carried me this far. Yikes, though, they sure do let in a lot of cold water. The hypothermia clock starts ticking. I swim like a demon for the Eliot Bridge, where I know that Deb and some parents and kids from Shady Hill are waiting near the Cambridge Boat Club.
But they aren't the only ones looking for me. The Northeastern Women's Crew pile onto the balcony of their boathouse and scream louder than the Wellesley women at the Boston Marathon. Scullers stop, stare, and shout encouragement. I swim through (read: accidentally disrupt) several crew practices. When the coaches aren't looking the rowers flash me thumps-up signs and smiles. People pause on the bridges; cars on Memorial Drive slow and weave as they spot me. I swim down a river of toxic iced tea through something like a carnival.
Just before the halfway mark, I climb out at Harvard's Newell Boathouse. While Travis and Lindsay execute a crew change, I beg for and then bask in a hot shower. I pull the collar of my wetsuit away from my skin and let the hot water rush in. The cold slides off my skin in sheets, falls into my boots, and disappears in a gush of wet heat.
Minutes later, back on the dock, I am steaming.
All that warm-wet helps. Every pore of my suit is full of something warmer than the river. Soon enough, though, the cold leaks in, a bit of a headwind kicks up, and I feel myself slowing.
Suddenly, I am utterly burned out on bread and lukewarm tea and crappy sports drinks. Somehow, Lindsay intuits this, and calls her friend Barb, who is in the nutrition business. Barb meets us at the BU boathouse (where she scales the fence, smiling, as if she does this every day) and hands over stacks of energy bars and a steaming liter of tea.
Back in the water, I lose the ability to make a fist, but Barb and Lindsay tear off pieces of vanilla Powerbar and toss them into my mouth. I feel like an Orca at Sea World.
I see the Longfellow Bridge, and then the Museum of Science and then, finally, the entrance to the old lock. Then I am through, and swimming through the stretch of river known as the "Lost Half Mile." Where access is difficult and the parks were never finished and the machines and men of the Big Dig rule the land.
I wave to the State Police Marine Unit in a nearby boat. They nod and then roar off on a call. Later, they return to tell me they were responding to a report of a guy drowning near the old lock (that was me.) They laugh it off, since I had talked to their dispatcher that morning. One of them shouts, "That's what we call a communications misfire!"
I swim beneath the railroad bridge and then the fabulous Zakim Bridge (someday, thanks to the Charles River Conservancy, there will be a skatepark tucked under one end of the Zakim's span). Finally, I slap my glove against the lock next to the New Charles River Dam.
Tomorrow, I'll be in salt water. It's all over but the shouting.
Looking upstream through the "Lost Half Mile." Note the Museum of Science in the background. Not exactly swimmer-friendly. photo: c.swain. Double-click to enlarge.
Demolishing the supports for the old central artery. The Big Dig is the biggest player in the "Lost Half Mile" but when the dust finally settles, look for some lovely parkland. photo: c. swain. Double-click to enlarge.
The mouth of the Charles River was once visible where the Charlestown Bridge now stands. photo: c. swain. Double-click to enlarge.
Final strokes: mouth of the Charles behind me, I taste salt, gas, oil, trash, and the finish line. Courtesy: AP.
November 12, 2004. New Charles River Dam to Puopolo Playground (at the Harborwalk in Boston's North End).
"I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment. An America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well." --John F. Kennedy, 1963.
At the press conference, I was joined by many of the same folks who swam with me two days ago at Magazine Beach. Each of us stood up for the dream of a swimmable Charles River.
When I spoke, I allowed as there was more here than a simple plumbing problem. I referred to JFK's words above, and then popped the question that has been bugging me: Where are the armies of grace and beauty?
America seems to have the strength thing down. But how much do we do for the rivers that grace our cities? How far are we willing to go in the name of beauty? What kind of civilization do we live in if it is not safe to get river water on your skin?
I don't have these answers, but I hope to find them. I believe they are out there, in our watersheds, and in our neighbor's hearts. I believe that as individuals and as citizens of the planet, we have it in us to dream and achieve impossible dreams. This may be the lifelong Red Sox fan inside me talking, but I don't accept that a pristine Charles River is impossible or even crazy.
I believe that I will watch my kids and grandkids swim in the Charles River. And that one day, all over this country, and around the world, people will come to see that the waters inside their bodies and outside their homes are indivisible. That who they are is all tied up with what is wet. That true beauty, true peace, and true life are only possible in places where waters run strong and clean.
As I stood wrapped in a space blanket near the podium, I whispered to my daughter Rowan, "I am all done swimming for a while. What should we do?"
She giggled and said, "We should play. We should play every day."
Rowan and I at the finish November 12, 2004. Courtesy: AP.
November 16, 2004. Post Script.
I am back in Vermont, the follow-up interviews are winding down, and the highlight of my days is playtime with Rowan and Celilo.
Yet one question follows me:
I am not entirely sure, but I have gotten a glimpse of the answer, and I am happy to share it.
I am a swimmer. I have done clean water swims in rivers and lakes in Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Washington, Oregon, and the Canadian provinces of Quebec, and British Columbia.
I am a Dad. I want to see my daughters and their children drinking, fishing, and swimming in clean water. I want the same thing for every kid on earth.
I am a citizen. Not just a citizen of the tired, proud, confused, and lovely United States, but of the world. And so I would like to make this offer: whoever you are, and wherever you may be, if you are reading this, and your home waterway needs help, please get in touch with me.