The oldest continuously contested swim in the United States is the Boston Light Swim. It is a beautiful swim that starts eight miles out from Boston at a lighthouse in the Atlantic Ocean. Cold water, English Channel Rules (no wetsuits, etc.). And it finishes at the “L-Street Brownies” clubhouse where the original New Year’s Day Polar Bear swims have taken place over the years. Fun.
The second oldest swim in the United States was the Roy Webster Cross Channel Swim across the Columbia River, right here in Hood River, Oregon, a local Labor Day tradition. I, along with a lot of local swimmers have done that swim (It is not a race.) many times. That swim has also attracted swimmers from as far away as Europe, a boon to the businesses in Hood River. It is not a difficult swim, and the temperature of the water on Labor Day is relatively mild. This year it hovered around 75 F, warm enough for swimmers, but too hot for the salmon.
Who was Roy Webster? He was a fruit grower in the famous Hood River area, and his family is still there growing fruit that is shipped all over the country. Roy was a swimmer, and every year he would swim across the Columbia River. He started the Labor Day tradition that until recently, has over the years, attracted thousands of swimmers to Hood River.
One of the quaint and fun aspects of the Roy Webster swim is being transported from Hood River across the Columbia River to the swim start on the Washington side, on the Cascade Locks paddle-wheel ferry. The ferry was loaded to its maximum capacity. All of the swimmers, hundreds of us, had to huddle tightly together on the ferry during the crossing. Then we would jump from the ferry and swim back to Hood River, with a gorgeous view of Mount Hood to keep us company.
Note the word “was.” A few years back a careless young man tossed fireworks into a canyon not far from Hood River, starting a conflagration that destroyed huge tracts of forest land and essentially shut down the Hood River area. It also caused the authorities to stop traffic on the Columbia River. The damage to the environment and to the local economy was huge. Lives were upset and there were health consequences for people living in the area.
One seemingly minor result of the fire was the cancellation of the Roy Webster Cross Channel Swim that year by the group that administered the swim, the Hood River Chamber of Commerce. Everybody went home. No swim that year. Understandable.
Not long after, the COVID19 pandemic hit everywhere, including Hood River. I got to thinking about what I would do if I were in charge of tightly packing a full load of swimmers into that ferry. I would cancel the swim. And that is what the Hood River Chamber has done, rightly so.
Now I will share a little secret with you: A few of us have quietly and privately kept the tradition alive by doing the swim on our own. No entry fee, no ferry, Just do it as our friends at Nike might say. Even during the fire shut-down, a half dozen swimmers came up from the San Francisco area to swim across the Columbia River on Labor Day. (We sought and received the tacit blessing of the local authorities.)
Here is something for all of us to wish for: that the Hood River Chamber of Commerce, or possibly someone else, will pick up the ball and restart this great local tradition as soon as it is safe to do it. I, for one, will be in the early line to sign up. You are invited.