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Kari Kastango Has Become the First Person to Swim the Entire Length of the Connecticut River


kari kastango stands in river after completing swim

Connecticut River Conservancy (CRC) is thrilled to announce that Board of Trustees member Kari Kastango is the first person to complete a swim of the entire length of the 410-mile Connecticut River!


The final stretch of the swim took place on Sunday, October 15th, in Old Lyme, CT, as Kari swam 2.6 miles from the Amtrak railroad bridge towards Long Island Sound. The conditions were just right for the swim finale, starting 1 hour and 33 minutes past high tide, with a north wind gusting upwards of 30 mph to provide a helpful river assist for the takeoff as fans cheered from the boardwalk at Ferry Landing State park. The winds diminished further downriver, but the speed of the tide increased as Kari made her way towards the Sound. The final swim took 47 minutes and 2 seconds.


After the final swim, a Riverside Celebration was held at the Great Island Boat Launch where speakers included the following:


  • Tim Lewis – who has provided swim support for Kari for much of the swim journey by following in a boat, helping with logistics and planning, and ensuring safety – spoke of how focused Kari has been in the river during her many swims. Tim relayed how Kari is truly “one with the river” during these outings, noticing incredible details including wildlife, trees, or any unexpected debris. Tim is a fellow member of CRC’s Board of Trustees, President of the Great Meadows Conservation Trust in Connecticut, and someone who’s paddled the entire length the Connecticut River.

  • Kari Kastango spoke about how she became inspired to begin this endeavor after realizing that while the river is swimmable now, that was not always the case. She became more involved in advocacy and conservation for the river throughout her swim and connected with Connecticut River Conservancy and many others whose efforts have helped to make the river cleaner and healthier over the years.

  • Rebecca Todd – Connecticut River Conservancy’s new Executive Director – presented Kari with a Certificate of Appreciation and an award to celebrate Kari as a “Connecticut River Champion.” Rebecca then went on to highlight how the length of the full swim is equivalent to the distance between Boston and Baltimore, and recognized the many individuals who have helped to steward the Connecticut River, including the indigenous people of pre-colonial history and all the volunteers, fellow conservation nonprofits, state and federal agencies, anglers, paddlers, boaters, donors, advocates, and local communities in more recent decades.

  • Markelle Smith – Director of the Friends of Conte (Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge) closed out the speaker portion by sharing the latest updates of the Connecticut River Watershed Partnership Act, highlighting that regional partnerships are a critical component of how progress for conservation can be made as we look ahead to the future.

Kari’s motivation is to raise awareness for the immense significance of the Connecticut River, all the efforts taken to reverse the river’s historic water pollution, and the ongoing collective action to keep the river clean, healthy, and swimmable for future generations.


While Kari had swum in the river for a few years prior to starting this ambitious endeavor, it was in early 2019 that she firmly set the goal of swimming the entire Connecticut River. She swam a new section of the river each year between Memorial Day and Labor Day, with the help of her wife, Alison Garvey, a good friend, Julie Paradis, fellow Connecticut River Conservancy Board of Trustees member, Tim Lewis and many others who would follow her in a kayak, canoe or motor boat for safety during each swim. Kari’s story was previously covered by NEPM in 2019 at the start of the swim, with additional details shared in a CRC webinar in 2022 when she had surpassed the half-way point in the journey.


The final swim has since received incredible press coverage, including in CT Insider, WWLP, MassLive, 22 News, NEPM’s Fabulous 413, The Day, and Western Mass News among others.


Through challenges related to climate, planning logistics, water quality, accessibility and much more, Kari has accomplished this ambitious goal with resilience and dedication.


“Kari is what I consider a true adventurer. She was self-funded, took time off work to travel up and down the watershed, providing her own transportation, housing and equipment. She even purchased a used Boston Whaler for safety in the larger sections of the river. It was all on Kari, and she deserves a tremendous amount of credit for completing this monumental task, and for being the first to do so for the Connecticut River!” -Tim Lewis, CRC Board of Trustees member and support for Kari’s swim


 “The river provided me opportunities to practice letting go of misconceptions of myself, others and of the river, and being in the present moment more fully. I am extremely grateful to everyone who has been involved with Connecticut River Conservancy since its inception. Their persistent efforts and commitment through the years made this swim possible!” –Kari Kastango, CRC Board of Trustees member and first person to swim the entire length of the Connecticut River


It was never about “conquering the river” for Kari, but rather about developing a relationship with the river and all the wildlife within and around it. This experience was held with deep appreciation for the living river, and the many individuals who work tirelessly to protect it.


Below is a collection of Kari’s photos taken throughout the swim experience, with the top two rows of images being from the day of her final swim.




As a unique symbol of connection with her family ancestry, Kari wore 7 Norwegian coins around her neck as she traversed the entirety of the Connecticut River swim journey. The coins hold even greater meaning now as they have also traveled the entire Connecticut River, and Kari is thoughtfully offering them as gifts to loved ones. With a father who was a Sea Caption in the Merchant Marines, and a mother who loved the water and ensured that all of her children learned to swim at a young age, Kari’s roots run deep in water. Kari’s sister, Eve Kinney, also described Kari as “the perfect aunt” for having inspired her nephews to embrace water sports including competing in the Ironman 70.3 Western Massachusetts race. Through this experience, Kari has become a role model for many more young people who may be drawn to the river in new ways. 


Kari, a resident of South Hadley, MA, began her career as a research exercise physiologist (UMASS, Amherst ‘89, ‘92) which then led her to pursue a PhD in Biostatistics (PITT ‘06). With 19 years in the pharmaceutical industry, Kari currently works as a director of statistical operations at a clinical research organization in addition to serving on CRC’s Board. Kari balances these professional and personal commitments through physical pursuits that are meditative in nature.


In addition to a significant personal achievement, this unique swim journey highlights the importance of ongoing commitment to conservation, restoration, and advocacy of the Connecticut River and tributaries. At the start of Kari’s swim, she was not aware of the history of pollution in the river, and had immense gratitude for the commitment of many organizations including state and federal agencies, nonprofits, and volunteers who have spent decades working on watershed-wide strategies for cleaner and healthier rivers. We have come a long way since the state of polluted local rivers in the 1950’s, which can now be enjoyed for swimming, fishing, and recreation, and yet there is much more still to do in supporting the clean water, healthy habitats, and thriving communities that Connecticut River Conservancy and partners strive for every day. 


Here is a map summarizing Kari’s swim, with additional stats below:


kari kastango on the connecticut river

Swim Facts:


Total # of swims/outings: 84


Longest distance of any one swim:


11 miles. Turner Falls Dam to Sunderland. That swim only took 2 hours and 8 mins due to a river assist resulting from water released from the dam a few hours prior to the swim start. 


Longest duration of any one swim:


3 hrs 50 mins; 10.9 mile swim: Bloomfield Access to Maidstone Bridge Access (swimming in a drysuit)


Longest duration total of two swims back-to-back:


6 hrs 10 mins. The Bloomfield Access to Maidstone Bridge Access swim (swam in drysuit) on Saturday, followed by Sunday’s swim: Johns River Ramp to Gilman Boat Launch (including a portage, also swam in the drysuit).


Coldest swim: 


~47.5 F. Route2 Bridge, Lancaster, NH to Mount Orne Covered Bridge, Lunenburg, VT on April 29, 2023.


Frequent Questions & Answers:


Q: How did you get around the dams?


A: Kari followed the safety signs around the dams, swam as far as she could above the dam, and then hiked or biked around the dams until she could safely re-enter the water again below the dams. You can learn more about how hydropower affects the Connecticut River, and the current hydropower relicensing process.


Q: What about CSO’s/sewage in the river?


Kari used CRC’s water quality database to track water safety in the areas she intended to swim, and avoided certain sections of the river during/shortly after rain events. Kari did not swim during any flood conditions when stormwater runoff would have put her safety at risk, and at which times sewage in the river is of highest concern.


Over the last 50 years water quality in the Connecticut River has improved tremendously and the river is very often safe enough for swimming, boating and fishing. However, combined Sewer Overflows (CSO’s) are an issue in some parts of the river during heavy rain or flood events when sewage contaminants are released into the river. This is a result of outdated infrastructure where Connecticut River Conservancy is advocating for funding to make improvements. You can read more about the challenge of stormwaters in Massachusetts.


Contact:


For interview requests or media inquiries, please contact CRC’s Communications Director, Diana Chaplin, at dchaplin@ctriver.org or (413) 834-0079.

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