Kari’s Big Swim: Diving in to Promote Clean Water

Kastango swims along Great Island shadowed by her safety boat and kayaker. Image Credit: Christopher Zajac.

Kari's Big Swim
Diving in to Promote Clean Water

by Richard H. Shriver

Many older folks remember their parents forbidding them to swim in the Connecticut River in the ‘50s and ‘60s because it was so polluted. Kari Kastango has, by demonstration, made the point that things have changed, that the entire length of the river is now swimmable, and that the huge efforts over dozens of years by her sponsor, the Connecticut River Conservancy (CRC) among many others, have been largely successful.

Starting in 2019, Kari began her 409-mile, five-year journey from the river’s source near the Canadian border in New Hampshire, to a spectacular finish in the estuary in Old Lyme, Connecticut, this past October. Her mission: to draw attention to, and honor, the Connecticut River, its ecology, its beauty, and our collective obligation to its care.

At 56, Kari is the only person known to have performed this feat. Given her background, none of this comes as a surprise. She began swimming in a local pool at six. Her family moved to Holland, Massachusetts, where she swam in ponds, reservoirs, and rivers. Today, Kari, who has a BS in exercise physiology, an MS in physiology from UMass (Amherst), and a PhD in biostatistics from the University of Pittsburgh, is a statistician with Toronto-based Everest Clinical Research.

Over the years her quest for adventure took her on sailing voyages from Maine to Nova Scotia, and from Cape Cod to Bermuda, in 60-knot winds and 40-foot waves. She learned celestial navigation as preparation for rowing across the Atlantic, one adventure that did not happen.

Triathlons were a natural attraction—but not just ordinary triathlons. Kari participated in Ironman Lake Placid that involves a 2.4-mile swim across the pristine Mirror Lake, a 112-mile bike course through the Adirondack Mountains, and a 26.2-mile run. As a first generation American of Norwegian heritage, Kari entered the Norseman Xtreme Triathalon in which one starts by jumping 4 meters off the stern of a car ferry before swimming 2.4 miles guided by an onshore bonfire in the most ancient of Norse traditions.

Glowing inside and out after completing the last leg of her Connecticut River swim and looking ahead, Kari said, “Swimming the river was the easy part.” Because the work to clean up the river is not done, Kari chose her times to swim so as to miss periods of poor water quality such as after a rain, or when certain sewage treatment plants were overrun by floods, or when a dam was about to release large amounts of water. She was delighted by the eagles, osprey, ducks, and herons she observed while swimming—even a young sturgeon shared her swim for a while. She was in turn horrified by the number of car tires and amount of trash she passed.

She will now volunteer as a spokesperson for the CRC, where she is also a member of its board of trustees, to get the word out about the importance of the river and its watershed. She’d like to go back and retrieve those tires, something CRC and Save the Sound, among other organizations—with the help of many volunteers—are dedicated to. Rebecca Todd, newly installed executive director of CRC, put it this way:

“What an incredible achievement! Kari has shown us all what is possible when you combine personal determination with a genuine love for the Connecticut River and all the life within and around it. I hope others are inspired to contribute in their own unique ways. I know I am, and I can’t wait to continue building upon our collective efforts towards healthier, swimmable rivers.”

Kari Kastango addresses the crowd of supporters after her final swim in the Connecticut River. Image Credit: Christopher Zajac.

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