My son Chris is an avid climber. One of the truisms among climbers is “Mountains are always falling; they follow the law of gravity.” The same is true of rivers: they are always falling, following gravity from the mountains, flowing downhill to where most rivers end up in the sea. There are a few notable exceptions that end up in lowlands, like the Okavango Delta in southern Africa, or the Truckee River in California, which flows into the Nevada desert. Possibly the saddest of these is a pair of rivers in Central Asia, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. Over the millennia they flowed from the mountains to form the Aral Sea, which has no outlet to the ocean. It was one of the largest inland seas in the world. During Soviet times both rivers were dammed, and their water was drawn off to irrigate the Soviet Union’s new cotton fields. The result was the drying up of the Aral Sea, along with its traditional fishery and the poisoning of the surrounding countryside. Close to home we have seen that happen to the Colorado River, sucked dry for irrigation until it is reduced to a trickle as it enters the Sea of Cortez.
In 1983 Chris and I and two companions did a trip that we called “Triathlon America.” Starting in Seaside, Oregon with a swim in the cold Pacific in April, we bicycled, ran and swam across the United States. We followed a reverse direction of the white man’s journey across the continent, approximately opposite the Lewis and Clark journey, the Voyageurs, and finally ending up with a swim in the Atlantic near Plymouth Rock, MA. For practical reasons most of the distance was covered by bicycle, with some running every evening. En route we swam across every river in the north of the USA, and swam in lots of lakes, including all five of the Great Lakes. Our first major swim crossing was at the confluence of the Columbia and Snake Rivers in the Tri-Cities area in April. The coldest was the Kootenai a few days later in the Idaho Panhandle. We crossed the Mississippi in three places, walking across it where it is born near Bemidji, MN. The most uninviting was the Hudson River near Albany, NY, not because it was dirty, but because of a massive die-off of spawned shad. The most uncomfortable was in a Canadian park on Lake Huron, where the hordes of mosquitoes seemed to have jaws like alligators.
A support vehicle travelled along with us, and a rowboat to follow our river swims. It is hard to believe that it was almost forty years ago. Chris was in school then and he is now sixty.
Here’s a river trivia question: From which state does water drain into the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean and Hudson’s Bay? The answer is Minnesota, via the Mississippi running south, via the Great Lakes to the Saint Lawrence into the Atlantic, and via the Red River of the North, the border between Minnesota and North Dakota, running north into Canada.
But we were talking about rivers. The two biggest rivers are the Nile and the Amazon. The Nile runs north through several countries in Northeastern Africa, and flows into the Mediterranean via a broad delta. During the 1950s and 1960s, Egypt was the home of some of the world’s best marathon swimmers, among them the great Abdel-Latiff Abo-Heif, who set many records, including the fastest English Channel swim.
The massive Amazon starts in the Peruvian Andes and flows clear across the South American continent, ending in a large delta where it reaches the South Atlantic. The outflow is so great that navigators must adjust for the lower density of fresh water many miles into the Atlantic. A wild Slovenian swimmer named Martin Strelj swam the entire length of the warm Amazon in a wetsuit to protect against piranhas and their even worse cousins, the candiru, a distance of well over 1,000 miles. Another great river in South America is the Rio Plata, which flows from the far mountains into the sea near Buenos Aires, where it forms a border between Uruguay and Argentina. There is an annual marathon swim down the Rio Plata that attracts hundreds of participants.
The rivers of southern Asia are interesting geographically. Several mountain ranges run roughly parallel in an east-west direction. Pouring south from the Himalaya into China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Pakistan and Bangladesh are the Mekong, Irrawadi, Salween, Yellow, Yangtze, Indus, Sutlej, Jamuna, Bramaputra, and the great Ganges.
Almost all of northern Asia is in Siberia, much of it is road-less. Running northward into the Arctic Ocean are several large rivers. Coated with thick ice in the winter, they are becoming truck highways. With the spring thaw, boats replace the trucks. Siberians know that spring is near when the first truck goes through the ice. The largest and deepest lake in the world is Lake Baikal, a mile deep with a fifth of the world’s fresh water. Baikal drains into the Angara River, which flows into the Yennisee before reaching the Arctic Ocean. Also flowing north are the Yennisee and the Ob, the Lena and the Kolyma, all great rivers. While crossing Siberia a few decades ago I skinny dipped in the Yennisee and the Lena, short and very cold swims.
Many of Europe’s rivers are so polluted that swimming is not an option.
Oregon’s rivers drain into the Pacific or our mighty Columbia River. They are generally not inviting for swimming. But there are swimmable tidal bays where our rivers reach the sea, like Nehalem Bay. And there are many places to swim along the Columbia. My favorite is Gleason Beach, just north of PDX airport, off Marine Drive. During the COVID pool shutdown I alternated between Gleason Beach and Frenchman’s Bar, a few miles west of Vancouver. I will write about the Columbia in another article.
Note: Joe Oakes is a Fellow of Britain’s Royal Geographical Society.
Columbia River Swim Guide: https://www.columbiariverkeeper.org/columbia/swimguide