LeRoy Webster’s Columbia River Swim

LeRoy Webster

LeRoy Webster

Every year on Labor Day I like to do the Roy Webster Cross Channel Swim in Hood River, Oregon.  It is one of my favorite events.  At 75 years 2017, it is the second oldest swim in the United States.  The 2016 event was my sixteenth.  Here is what I like about it: The people who put it on are competent and user friendly.  More important, it is not a race, just a happy get-together in which about 450 swimmers take on a rather difficult (but not too difficult) challenge.  In the wee hours we all board a ferry in Hood River, Oregon, and ride north across to the Washington side.  There, we jump several feet from the ferry deck, ten swimmers at a time, and make our way across the Columbia River back to the Oregon side.  As we swim we are flanked between anchored boats and paddle boards along our route.  It is somewhat over a mile across.

Jumping off the boat into the Columbia River

Jumping off the boat into the Columbia River

In 2016 our challenge was more challenging than usual: The water temperature was in the sixties, several degrees lower than normal.  The early morning temperature of the air was even colder, at 58 F.  But the killer part was a strong wind blowing from the west, pushing up an irregular pattern of waves that made it difficult to catch a breath on your right side.  (Let me put it this way: I gulped enough of the river so I was not in need of a drink at the finish.)  In a long swim I like to alternate breathing on both sides: it keeps my neck from getting a ‘crick,’ but that was not possible this Labor Day.  Because I have a lot of open water swimming experience, this inconvenience was not a major problem for me, just a little more challenging: slower, therefore a longer time having fun (?) in the water. My finish was ten minutes slower than past times.  For some swimmers it was just too hard, and they needed the assistance of the volunteers along the way.

The organizers (the Hood River Chamber of Commerce) promise that conditions will be better next year.

Not many months ago, in Lac Megantic, a small city in Quebec, a train carrying petroleum crashed and burned, completely demolishing the town and killing 47 people.  As a result, the Canadian government has put stringent restrictions on oil shipments in that area.

Not many weeks ago, a train carrying extremely volatile Bakken crude oil crashed in Mosier, Oregon, a small town just east of Hood River, Oregon.  Sixteen oil tank cars tumbled from the rails like Pick-Up-Sticks, resulting in an inferno that engulfed two of them.  It took many firefighters from several nearby jurisdictions fourteen hours to extinguish the flames.  The cause?  A loose track bolt, we were told.  As is often the case, our politicians got excited for a while and made some speeches, but there have been no tangible results so far.  The crude oil trains are still rolling.

That trainload of Bakken crude was being sent to Tacoma, WA, for what?  To burn and throw more foul contaminants into the atmosphere.  The only beneficiaries of the Bakken oil sale are the speculators bleeding the earth in North Dakota and their clients; everyone else, meaning us, loses.  For Bakken crude to reach its customers, many Oregon communities along hundreds of miles of railroad tracks, including Portland, are being regularly exposed to the possibility and eventual probability of another oil train derailment, regretfully causing a massive disaster next time, maybe even in Portland.  The prediction is for five oil trains daily, each hauling a string of a hundred tank cars.  That amounts to more than fifteen million gallons of volatile petroleum passing through our back yards every blessed day.  And none of this requires local opinion, permission or oversight: We have been told that we have nothing to say about it, that it is all within the prerogatives of some federal agency in Washington, D.C.

The population of Mosier is 430.  Its volunteer fire department has one paid employee.  It is indeed fortunate that there were nearby communities with firefighting personnel to help contain the damage.  The crash site was just yards from the banks of the Columbia River, and thank God, the brave responders were able to keep spilled oil from reaching the river.  The people of Mosier were told that they were really lucky that the damage was limited.  What is so damned lucky about having an oil train crash in your little town and come close to destroying it?

A few weeks after the Mosier crash, just six miles away in Hood River, 450 swimmers swam from the Washington side of the Columbia River to Hood River on the Oregon side, in the 74th annual Roy Webster Cross Channel swim.  The river was clean, clear and maybe a bit too chilly for some, but I loved it.  I want to continue doing that swim next year and for as many years as my weary old bones allow me.  But shortly after the swim, just weeks after the Mosier oil wreck, I sat watching another oil train come rattling and plowing its way through our incomparable Columbia Gorge.  Just how arrogant and selfish can they be?

I am afraid that we are playing Russian roulette with these oil trains.  Sooner or later, one of the thousands of bolts and other components that make up the hundreds of miles of track will give way.  It is inevitable.  Or maybe some nutcase or terrorist will cause a major derailment.  It would not be hard, with hundreds of miles of unguarded track and dozens of bridges.  And what about the effects of the seismic event that we have all been told to expect?  I do not want to think about the terrible conflagration, nor the loss of life and property, nor the thousands of barrels of crude oil cascading into the river.

Here is the bottom line: The magnificent Columbia River belongs to all the people, and that means you and me, not to a few oil magnates in Wyoming who could care less about the river or us: we are in no way represented in their profit calculations.  It is our duty and our responsibility to protect our river.  Here is how you can help to defend your river:  First, let your representatives in Washington and Salem know that you are expecting them to take strong action: that is their job to protect our state, and they answer to you, the voter.  Why not do it today?  Second, get involved with others who really care about our river.  Columbia Riverkeeper is located in Hood River.  They have a history of exercising legal muscle to get real results: but strength is in numbers, so they need help, yours and mine.  Get involved in this struggle.  You can reach them at: info@columbiariverkeeper.org  Or contact me at alcatrazjoe@hotmail.com.

Heed the words of an ancient philosopher, “If not me …. Who?   If not now …. When?”

Boats lining the swim route

Boats lining the swim route

I hope to see you at the Roy Webster swim next Labor Day.  Sign up early: spaces on the ferry are limited.  The forecast is for sunshine, no wind and warmer water.  I promise.  Maybe.

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