- Associated Press - Thursday, October 1, 2015

SEATTLE (AP) - Mark Powell slips on his goggles, adjusts his snorkel and drops away from the industrial wasteland at the mouth of the Duwamish River. The rusty barges, crumbling piers and the screech of freight trains give way to a quiet, green-blue world that is startlingly alive.

He swims through schools of fish, touches foot-long sea stars and catches, from the corner of his eye, the silver flash of a salmon.

“This is a polluted river, but it’s still alive despite all we’ve done to it,” he said.

Powell, who lives on Bainbridge Island, has spent the last several months swimming the entire length of the Duwamish. He started where the 85-mile river begins as a clear trickle on Blowout Mountain near Mount Rainier. He traveled the river in 3- to 7-mile sections, sometimes crawling or wading through shallows. He finished the swim Wednesday in West Seattle, about a mile from the river’s mouth.

A tribal canoe family and a few friends in kayaks paddled along with him. About 30 supporters were there to cheer from the shore. His 10-year-old son, Carson, high-fived him has he stepped onto the beach at Seacrest Park.

“I think he’s really brave,” Carson said. “I can’t believe he came up with this idea, but it’s really awesome.”

Powell believes he’s the first person to swim the river, but he’s not aiming for any records. For Powell, the swim was about exploration rather than athleticism.

“I like to go slow so I can see everything,” he says. “When I started this, I was hoping to discover the heart of the Duwamish River. I wanted to (learn) about the Duwamish, from top to bottom.”

His favorite part came a few weeks ago when he found himself surrounded by pink salmon.

“When I started this, I thought it’d be great to see some adult salmon swimming upstream,” he said. “At first, I saw a few and I thought, ‘Awesome!’ But they started getting more abundant, with these thicker clouds and schools. Then I started seeing thousands of salmon streaming past me. They were in such numbers I reached out and touched a salmon.”

Powell, 57, is the Puget Sound program director for the Seattle-based Washington Environmental Council. It’s a job that has made him pay close attention to the Duwamish. For decades, the river acted as an urban gutter, funneling leached and spilled pollutants from the heavily industrialized Duwamish Valley to the sound.

Cleanup efforts have had some success, but sewage overflows and stormwater runoff containing oil, fertilizers and other chemicals continue to plague the river and sound.

“The river is Puget Sound,” he said. “They are the same.”

Wanting a more intimate understanding of the sound led Powell to his last epic swimming project: A wet-suited, flipper-aided circumnavigation of Bainbridge Island. He completed the 53-mile trek in early 2009.

“I don’t know where that came from in Mark,” wife Elinor Fanning said. “One day he said, ‘I want to see the feet of the island; I want to poke around.’”

A few years ago, Powell moved his family to Switzerland for a job. It might have been a good career move but living in a landlocked country didn’t sit well with Powell.

“It was hard for him, even though we were living in the Alps,” Fanning said. “This guy - he’s a water guy.”

Powell has blogged about both of his swimming adventures.

“There’s nothing like getting immersed in your work, especially when your work is saving Puget Sound,” he wrote in a “Swim Duwamish” blog post in August. “Getting underwater helps us see things from a fish’s point of view, and it’s good fun on a hot day.”

Some of Powell’s friends weren’t sure swimming one of Washington’s most polluted rivers would be “good fun.”

“When he said, ‘I’m going to swim the river,’ we all looked at him like, really?” said Christie True, director of King County’s Department of Natural Resources and Parks.

Powell checked in with county health officials. They assured him that the Duwamish was safe to swim as long it wasn’t after a heavy rain. Sewage regularly spills into the river when combined sewage and stormdrain systems are overloaded.

Powell missed a sewage spill near Seattle’s South Park neighborhood by a few hours.

“I never got sick,” he said.

Much of the Duwamish’s chemical contamination is lodged in mud or in the fish that live in the river year-round. Salmon in the Duwamish are safe to eat because they spend much of the year in open water.

The bad and good are side-by-side in the Duwamish. He’s passed floating trash on stretches where he’s also spotted mink, otter and jumping salmon.

At the river’s mouth, Powell popped his head out of the water to tell his companions that he’d just floated through a swarming ball of herring. It was a thrill for him, but the paddlers in the tribal canoe were dumbfounded.

“I thought they died out,” Michael Evans, of the Snohomish Tribe, said. “People lived off herring here, and then the herring disappeared. To see so many that close to the Duwamish - it’s a surprise, a good surprise.”

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