Dean Hall — a 59-year-old double cancer survivor from Portland — is currently on his fifth day of swimming approximately 75 miles of the Eel River to help raise awareness for the need to protect natural waterways.
Hall began his wet adventure on June 3, entering the South Fork of the Eel at Benbow. It will take him about 10 days to reach the mouth of the river at the Pacific Ocean. Hall told the Outpost that he generally swims about nine miles a day, but sometimes less, depending on the conditions. As of Friday morning, Hall had made it about as far as Myers Flat.
This is not the first time Hall has attempted something like this. Two years ago, he became the first person to swim the entire River Shannon in Ireland. His first record was in 2014, when Hall became the first person to swim the 184 mile length of the Willamette River in Oregon. And, as if that weren’t impressive enough, when Hall swam the Willamette he was also fighting cancer.
“I had leukemia and lymphoma and I wasn’t doing well,” Hall told the Outpost. “I didn’t want to die sitting in front of the TV. I knew if I became passionate about a purpose it would help me come back to life.”
Hall said that he decided to swim the Willamette to inspire other cancer patients and to show that having cancer does not mean you have to give up on your dreams. He swam not only to raise cancer awareness, but to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. When Hall swam the Shannon, he was raising money for the Childhood Cancer Foundation of Ireland.
But this time Hall is swimming for a different type of cause: he’s attempting to draw awareness to issues that affect river systems while raising money for Friends of the Eel River. Hall said the environmental work of Friends of the Eel is very important to him.
“I decided my purpose was to help protect our waterways,” Hall told the Outpost. “They are not only great for recreation but they offer a huge amount of healing.”
In fact, Hall believes that swimming in the river is what saved his life. After he was diagnosed with leukemia and lymphoma, Hall said he had decided to hold off on chemo or radiation therapy. When he returned from swimming the Willamette, Hall said he went into radical remission. Today Hall is cancer-free.
But, whether or not Hall’s cancer survival was truly due to his time in the water, he has no doubt that spending time in nature and in the water can be both mentally and physically healing. Part of Hall’s goal is to get other people to spend less time swimming in chlorine pools and more time swimming in our natural waterways.
Hall told the Outpost that he originally wanted to swim the entire 194 miles of the Eel River. But it is just too remote. There are long stretches of the Eel without any road access and not enough places for him to safely get in and out of the water.
“I want to heighten awareness, not create an emergency,” Hall said. “I want to get people into the water, not scare them away.”
So, in the interest of safety, Hall decided to swim only the stretch between Benbow and the mouth of the Eel. Though Hall is actually swimming a much shorter distance than he had on the other rivers, he says that the Eel has its own set of challenges: It runs much faster than the Willamette or the Shannon, he said. In some places the river has been too shallow to swim and he has had to walk for about a 100 yards or so for a couple of patches. During his encounters with rapids he’s had to hold his breath, swim below the surface and hope for the best. Hall said that he wears a wetsuit, not because the water is too cold, but to help protect himself from scraping on the rocks.
But Hall says he definitely could not make this journey alone. His 26-year-old daughter Bre supports him as his safety boater, guiding the way downstream in a kayak, alerting him to hazards as they arise. Hall’s wife, Bobbi, acts as their shuttle driver, dropping off the pair each morning and driving down to pick them up at their ending spot each day.
Luckily, his time on the Eel has been fairly mellow, and he and his daughter have not had too many difficult challenges.
“Yesterday we stopped more than we usually do take in the natural beauty,” he said. “It’s just such an amazing river.”
Some other river enthusiasts will also join Hall for parts of his journey, including some documentary filmmakers and Pat Higgins — Humboldt Harbor District Commissioner and Managing Director of the Eel River Recovery Project — who will be joining Hall for part of his swim this weekend.
Higgins told the Outpost that he met Hall when he stopped by the ERRP’s booth at the Summer Arts and Music Festival. He was immediately inspired by Hall’s story. “He has great charisma,” Higgins said. “He just exudes good health. The minute I started hanging with him I thought ‘why haven’t I done this?’”
Higgins hopes that Hall’s journey will inspire others to spend more time swimming in the Eel River, which he also believes can be spiritually and physically healing.
“We often think about how the Eel River can make us sick,” Higgins told the Outpost. “But we don’t necessarily think about how it can make us well.”
You can follow Hall’s adventures on Instagram @swimmingmiracles.