The man who swam from Orofino to the Pacific Ocean in a race against Lewis and Clark

In 1962, a 25-year-old man swam from Orofino to the Pacific Ocean out of desperation.

Spence Campbell was a broke, out-of-work sea diver with a diabetic wife, a child and another on the way. He wanted to go to college but didn’t have enough money to drive out of his hometown of Orofino.

The 1954 Lewiston High School graduate concocted a plan to swim 557 miles from his home to Astoria, Ore., as a way to change the course of his life. It was the same route taken by Lewis and Clark, although Campbell pledged to get there faster by swimming than the explorers had by canoe. When a sponsor heard of his idea, he offered to pay for Campbell’s college education if he could do it.

Today the amazing feat, retold in Campbell’s 2006 memoir, “Lewis and Clark & Me,” (see story below) which was a runner-up for book of the year for the Idaho State Library Association, languishes in history. However, it changed his life and he shares the 20 years that followed in his new self-published memoir, “After the Swim.”

But first, the swim is worth revisiting.

Campbell grew up on the Clearwater River and devoted himself to an arduous training schedule to prepare for his self-imposed challenge. Besides jogging and weight-training, he swam in place in the Clearwater for about 90 minutes a day and then swam down river six or seven miles. Townspeople who saw him working out and knew his plan cheered him on.

“It was like a scene from ‘Rocky,’ ” Campbell said in a 2007 interview with the Lewiston Tribune that you can read with this story online at

He embarked July 2, 1962, swimming 48 miles from Orofino to Lewiston the first day, emerging from the water dripping blood from his hands and feet. The wet suit chafed off his skin in places. Ahead lie 509 miles of treacherous rapids and sucking whirlpools now hidden by the slackwater of the dams. At times he had to swim at night to avoid wind-whipped rapids. He nearly drowned and remembers feeling like “a small rag doll being flushed down a toilet.”

Dignitaries and local celebrities met him along the way, the national media picked up the story and more than 1,000 people gathered for his arrival in Astoria. He’d spent 27 days in the river, beating Lewis and Clark’s time by three days, but his sponsor had dropped his offer because his company could not afford liability insurance on the venture.

Fortune fell through and fame was fleeting, said Campbell, 81, in a phone interview this week from Renton, Wash., where he owns and manages the Aviation Training Center with his wife, Marie. However, he was a changed man.

“I realized I could set and achieve any goal in my life,” he said.

“After the Swim,” traces his career in decompression research that led to a major breakthrough in submarine medicine. This week Campbell is traveling to Orlando, Fla., to accept a lifetime achievement award from National Association of Underwater Instructors. He never earned a baccalaureate degree. He’s gone through life like he did the Clearwater, Snake and Columbia, making his own way.

Campbell will sign copies of his new book Nov. 11 at And Books Too in Clarkston. It is also available online at CreateSpace. “Lewis and Clark & Me” is currently out of print but some copies are available on Amazon and he plans to reissue it in the coming months.


WHO: Spence Campbell signing his new book “After the Swim”

WHEN: 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 11

WHERE: And Books Too, 918 Sixth St., Clarkston

The following story about Campbell's first book, "Lewis and Clark & Me," was published in the Lewiston Tribune, Feb. 23, 2007

“Fighting the Currents of Despair,” by Jennifer K. Bauer

In the summer of 1962, one Idaho man captured the attention of the nation when he announced he would swim from Orofino to the Pacific Ocean.

Today Spence Campbell's feat languishes in history, as lost in time as the rapids he tackled now silenced by the dams of the Columbia and Snake rivers.

"I carried this story with me for just years and I always knew I should either tell it or have it told," says Campbell, 70, who now lives in Kent, Wash. "It was too ingrained in my memory at that point to forget."

He recently self-published his story in the book "Lewis & Clark and Me."

Campbell swam out of Orofino in desperation.

He was 25 and out of work as a deep-sea diver who was "broke and owing," with a diabetic wife, a child and another on the way. He wanted to go to college but didn't have enough money to drive out of town.

Maybe I'll swim out, he thought one April day while sitting outside his apartment. The idea of swimming to the ocean broke his depression and he set out to discover if it was possible, contacting fishing clubs, the Coast Guard, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of the Interior for information about Idaho, Washington and Oregon.

To make the swim noteworthy, Campbell determined he would swim to Astoria, Ore., faster than Lewis and Clark had gotten there by canoe. That would be 557 miles in less than 32 days, spending 10 hours a day in rapids, whirlpools and varying currents.

He nearly abandoned the idea until a sponsor heard of it and offered to make his dreams of a college education come true if he could do it. His wife told him to go for it.

"We grew up on the North Fork (of the Clearwater River), swimming and floating on homemade rafts, so being in the river was no big deal," says his brother, Bill Campbell, who lives in Orofino and was 16 when he accompanied his brother as a safety diver on the swim.

The attention they received was more memorable, he says.

To prepare, Spence Campbell began an Olympian training routine.

For six days a week he began the day with a three-mile jog to the gym, two hours of free-weight training, and 30 minutes of punching a heavy speed bag with five-pound weights in each hand. He then ran two miles to the high school for two hours on the trampoline and flying rings.

After running home for lunch and a rest, he met friends at the high school stadium to run football passes. He ran home, got his wet suit, and drove up the Clearwater where he swam in place for about an hour and a half while a friend monitored him from the road. He would then swim down river for six or seven miles.

If he wasn't too tired, he spent another half hour swimming against the current. He finished the day with an after-dinner jog through town.

By the last week in June most of the merchants and townspeople knew who he was and what he was doing. He remembers them cheering him on. It was like a scene from the movie "Rocky," he says.

On July 2, after a send-off party with the Orofino mayor, Campbell set off on the 48-mile swim to his hometown of Lewiston, where he graduated from high school in 1954.

He emerged from the water before a crowd that day dripping blood from his hands and feet. The wet suit had chafed off his skin. He cut holes in it and covered the sores with petroleum jelly for the 509 miles to come.

The most memorable moment of the trip was when Campbell emerged from the Snake River at Wawawai and learned his sponsor dropped him because the company could not afford liability insurance on the venture.

The boat's owner, Floyd Harvey, told him he could continue to use the boat. So even with nothing to gain, Campbell continued, still facing the most dangerous leg of the journey containing the "Snake River trilogy" -- the Texas Rapids, the boiling Palouse Rapids and the sucking whirlpools of Lyons Ferry.

"Once you're in it, you're committed and there's nothing you can do but try to survive," Campbell says of the stretch.

The area is now under reservoirs. When Campbell swam the route there were about 190 miles of still water. Now, he says, it is closer to 300 because of the dams.

He took a beating on the rocks and saw blood pool around him. "At some points," he writes in his book, "I was totally out of control, like a small rag doll being flushed down a toilet."

At the darkest moment, he found himself in a whirlpool, beyond the help of his two safety divers. He nearly drowned but the boat's driver drove through the pool and broke its suction.

Still ahead: 399 miles.

Campbell swam in the dark of night toward Ice Harbor Dam to avoid dangerous winds. A speed boat almost ran over him in Oregon. There were miles of monotonous swimming where nothing happened at all. Water around Portland was so polluted it nearly dissolved the glue in his wet suit. The boat nearly sank.

The Associated Press and United Press International picked up his story and at each town the party, which included Campbell's brother-in-law John Craig and boat driver King Cole, was met by people who had heard of the river runner.

"We were wined and dined on the lower part of the trip. We got to be a national news story," Bill Campbell says. "The princesses and mayor of the city would come to meet us. We had one set of filthy clothes. We looked like hell."

In Portland the mayor, a former Miss USA and the media were awaiting his arrival. A publicity agent made Campbell get out of the water six times so all the cameras could get a good shot. He received a key to the city.

More than 1,000 people turned out when he arrived in Astoria. He beat Lewis and Clark's time by three days. Over the swim he dropped from 162 to 140 pounds.

"I knew I could do whatever I set out to do after that. I didn't need any fortune to fall out of the sky for me," Campbell says. "I could make it. That was probably the most valuable thing I got out of it."

After his swim, Campbell moved his family to Seattle and started doing private research in his garage on hyperbaric equipment. A local television channel did a spot on his research.

After the show aired, he got a job offer from Seattle's Virginia Mason Research Center. He pointed out to director Merril Spencer that he didn't have a degree. Spencer said he didn't care.

Campbell became the director of the Diving Physiology Research Laboratory there. Today he owns and operates the Aviation Training Center at Boeing Field in Seattle.

He's working on another book about his adventures, which include an unprotected encounter with a 16-foot great white shark and crash landing a helicopter in the middle of a rattlesnake den in Baja, Calif.

He hopes that when other people read the story of his swim they learn, "that you make your own luck."

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