"It may be crazy to swim in the canal," says Christopher Swain. "But what's crazier is that the Gowanus Canal is so messed up."

Christopher Swain already knows that you think he must be crazy to even consider swimming in the Gowanus Canal.

This is a waterway, after all, that is most often described with the adjective fetid. Once a lovely tidal stream, prized by the Native Americans who fished in it and gathered oysters along its shores, the Gowanus is now a federal Superfund site, running right through the heart of a rapidly gentrifying section of Brooklyn. More than a century of intensive industrial use and runoff from surrounding streets has left a toxic brew of chemicals, including many carcinogens, in the water—which is sometimes covered with a weirdly beautiful iridescent sheen resulting from the many petroleum products that contaminate the canal. It is also often, after heavy rainstorms, filled with raw sewage, due to overflow from the city’s antiquated storm water system.

So yeah, swimming in it? Is nuts.

“It may be crazy to swim in the canal,” says Swain. “But what’s crazier is that the Gowanus Canal is so messed up.” He wants to bring attention to the sad state of the Gowanus and to encourage a faster cleanup by swimming it from end to end on Earth Day, April 22.

“What I’m trying to do with this swim more than everything is stoke the fires of hope,” Swain says. “Everybody’s going to tell me I should wait. I don’t want to wait. I realize it isn’t safe to do it now, but just by doing it anyway I’m defying discouragement. I’m defying disgust.”

Debris and pollutants are highly visible in the Gowanus Canal. (Courtesy Christopher Swain)

The 47-year-old Swain has been using long-distance swims to raise awareness about the need to clean up the nation’s waterways for years now. In 2003, he became the first person ever to swim the length of the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest, all 1,243 miles of it (the challenges there were whirlpools, rapids, and rogue bears). He has swum the length of the Hudson (315 miles) and Lake Champlain (129 miles).

The 1.8 miles of the Gowanus, however, present in some ways a more daunting prospect. Swain will be swimming in a sealed drysuit, with gloves, silicone earplugs, goggles, and a cap. To avoid the chemical, viral, and bacterial contaminants that permeate the water (enterococcus! gonorrhea!) he will be employing the modified breast stroke (“like my grandmother did to keep her hair out of the water”).

He will still have to breathe, however, and his mouth will be open very close to the foul surface of the canal. Because of that, he will gargle with a hydrogen peroxide  solution periodically, and plans to swallow an activated charcoal tablet if he accidentally swallows a mouthful of the Gowanus. Swain will be accompanied by a support team and plans to document the entire journey on video, as well as collect water samples. He also intends, as always, to alert authorities to his plans, so that no one will waste resources trying to rescue him when he doesn’t need rescuing. It will be a slow and arduous trip.

Swain hopes that the act of swimming in the dismal canal will highlight the fact that a swimmable and fishable Gowanus is, under the Clean Water Act of 1972, the right of the citizens of the United States (he also emphasizes that his own swim is perfectly legal). “I understand the idea of fishing there right now is absurd, swimming there is absurd,” he says. “But I don’t think people realize they have the right to do those things.”

After heavy rainstorms, the canal often fills with raw sewage. (Courtesy Christopher Swain)

He says that no amount of lecturing or writing about the subject of clean waterways has the same impact as the simple act of swimming. “All of this discussion gets too complicated,” he says. “Nothing’s on a human scale. One of the reasons I put it into swimming is that safe enough to swim in means the water’s clean.”

To anyone crossing the Gowanus—inhaling its particular funk of petroleum fumes and human waste, seeing the visible swirl of toxins and crusts of brown foam on its dull green surface—the idea that it could ever be clean again might seem as crazy as going for a dip. Swain doesn’t think so, though.

“As bad as it is, there is cause for hope,” he says. “We did put people on the moon. We did split the atom. Cleaning the Gowanus is well within our capabilities.”

CityLab will be following Swain's route through the Gowanus on Earth Day, Wednesday April 22, so check in with @buttermilk1 on Twitter for updates.

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