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Swimming the Ohio River

Halfway through the Ohio River swim.

There are moments in life when you have to stop and ask yourself, What the hell am I doing here? I’m having one of those moments right now. I’m nearing the midpoint of my swim across the Ohio River – yes, I know what you’re thinking – and it’s actually much wider than it looked from the shore.

Later, I will look it up and learn that the Ohio River at this point (just downstream from the Racine Locks and Dam) is between 1,200 and 1,500 feet across. I will also read that there are more than 20 industrial plants creating “chemical hot spots” just upstream and that the Ohio the second most toxin-laden river in the United States (behind the Mississippi). Oh, and there’s a fish consumption advisory.

But who cares about all of that when you can go home and tell your friends you just swam across the Ohio River?

“It was the ‘I’m not old and you can’t prove it event,’” Dan Imhoff, the instigator of the annual Ohio River swim, tells me. Perhaps ironically, Dan also works for the Ohio EPA Division of Surface Water. He won’t tell me how long it’s been going on, but folks here remember the swim going back to the ’90s. He also won’t tell me anything about the pollution levels in the river. “I don’t do numbers.” Not today, anyway.

My comrades have spread out in the river by now, some racing ahead and others swimming so slowly I’m starting to worry about them. Most of us started pretty vigorously but have by now resorted to the trusty backstroke, which helps us conserve our energy. The currently is pretty much nonexistent until we approach the West Virginia side and the effluent from the open section of the dam pushes us all considerably downstream.

Everyone eventually makes it to the shore, despite a few zebra mussel injuries (those shells are sharp) and I’m glad to report we haven’t seen a coal barge recently. Everyone is stoked. “It’s a challenge,” swimmer Bob Eichenberg tells me, “a fun and fairly easy challenge, but a challenge nonetheless.” Matt Alden, who grew up along the Ohio River in Marietta, is swimming the annual event for the first time. “It just sounded too interesting to pass up.”

A dozen of us are enjoying the buzz of our kooky athletic accomplishment, comparing assessments of the weather (perfect), the current (strong at the end) and the swim itself (just plain fun). But another buzz is in store: the handicap. The handicap is something else Dan came up with. In order to participate, we all had to agree to drink a Pabst Blue Ribbon and smoke an unfiltered Camel on either shore, creating our own chemical hot spot.

The return swim takes us longer and pushes us farther downstream. We finally all return to the surprisingly pretty spot where we started – a sand bank with willows and silver maples bending over the water. And finally, to cap the day: the mother of all rope swings. A big thanks to the locals who made the effort to build a ladder and platform halfway up a sycamore tree for the launch. Swimmer Kristin Heinichen swings out, releases at about 20 feet above the water and plunges in. She pops to the surface only to exclaim, “I don’t think I’m ever going to get my underwear out of my butt crack!” Another successful year.