UPDATED: ‘Toxic avenger’ conquers, tastes Gowanus Canal

UPDATED: ‘Toxic avenger’ conquers, tastes Gowanus Canal
Photo by Louise Wateridge

The taste of this victory was not so sweet.

Activist Christopher Swain finally made good on his promise to become the first person to swim the full length of the Gowanus Canal on Saturday after an abortive attempt in April, in a history-making plunge that took the dank diver through nearly two miles of bacteria, toxic sludge, garbage, and raw sewage — some of which he couldn’t avoid swallowing.

Still, Swain said, it didn’t taste or smell quite so gross this time around.

“In April, it had rained the day before, so a lot of the sewage taste was there,” said Swain, who ultimately navigated the full gauntlet of filth in 72 minutes. “This time the sewage wasn’t as noted in the bouquet. There was more hydraulic fluid, metals, and paint chips than there was poop.”

Swain breast-stroked through the gonorrhea-tainted body of water with his head leaning way back to avoid the waves of pollution, but nevertheless said he had to stop on three separate occasions to gargle out the garbage with mouthfuls of hydrogen peroxide.

Beyond the noxious flavors of Brooklyn’s nautical purgatory, Swain said he also found himself splashing through a film of emulsified grease, fats, and oils that had swept into the canal via the sewers, which he likened to the soapy layer of a bubble bath.

“It was really weird, disgusting, and a new experience for me,” said Swain, who made his high-profile paddle to highlight the sludge-like pace of the federal cleanup of the channel.

But that didn’t stop him from pausing periodically throughout his journey to take water samples and photographs of the canal’s ickiest bits, which he plans on using as a way to teach science and history to filthy-minded students at schools throughout the city.

“If you took a cross section of the sludge in the canal, that’s a cross-section of the industrial history of the city,” Swain said. “And kids love it — it’s got poop, trash and the perception of danger.”

Swain emerged from the canal exhibiting no immediate mutations or diseases — which he credited largely to the combination dive and hazardous-materials suit he constructed for the attempt.

“My exposure control plan was really good. I probably wasn’t getting any water on me,” he said.

He then washed off and gurgled hydrogen peroxide one last time, before heading over to Gowanus’s Ample Hills Creamery to enjoy a huge sundae made from the ice cream store’s signature canal-inspired chocolate fudge flavor It Came From Gowanus, which he said was delicious but had a lot in common with the real thing.

“They’re both overwhelming,” he said. “The whipped scream part of it does stand in well for the foam.”