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‘The water’s nice today’: One man’s quest to jump in the Columbia River for 25 years

For the past 25 years, Greg Patton has spent at least a few moments each month jumping in the Columbia River.
Courtney Flatt
Northwest News Network
For the past 25 years, Greg Patton has spent at least a few moments each month jumping in the Columbia River.

Call it determination. Call it follow through. Or just call it pure stubbornness. One Tri-Cities man has found a way to beat the heat and the cold. He’s jumped in the Columbia River for 300 months straight.

That means for the past 25 years, Greg Patton has spent at least a few moments each month jumping in the Columbia River.

“It actually makes you feel good. Sometimes I'd come up here I'd be a little sick or feeling bad, and it kind of gives you endorphins,” Patton said. “So if you're having a bad day, just come hit the river.”

For his 300th jump this May, he landed on what had been, at that point, the hottest day of the year.

“It feels like cheating,” he said, of the warm weather and cool waters. “The water’s nice today.”

The rules are simple: Wear running shorts. Take three underwater swimming strokes.

“In the winter, the biggest thing is to just not hesitate,” he said as he waded into the water.

The whole thing started with some running buddies and a bet.

“We’d run at lunch, six, seven miles. And on the way back, we’d just start swimming,” he said. “We just decided, let’s see who will jump in last. The next thing we know, it’s December.”

Patton noticed he only had one man standing left to beat. Little did his fellow runner friends know, this wasn’t his first time river jumping. Patton did this back in his college running days, in West Virginia’s Tygart Valley River.

“That was more of just a flat out dare who would jump in,” he said.

So he didn’t have much doubt that he started this bet in Washington.

He outlasted his buddies. Through the hot times, and nice times–like in September.

“It's just warm. The river’s warm,” Patton said. “October is kind of nice. You know winter's coming and just kind of enjoy the last warm water and you’ve got to pay your dues after that.”

His dues came in the form of around 38-degree water temperatures. However, he said it’s not a big deal after a good heart-pumping run.

“It’s like coming out of a sauna and hitting the water,” Patton said. “What would really humble you was if you ever went in a second time. That's when you really feel the temperature of the river. It's got to be respected. You can't really take it lightly. I didn't used to tell a lot of people about it.”

He’s pretty sure his mom doesn’t know yet.

Patton said people shouldn’t casually jump in. In fact, the running club had one other rule: no witness, no counting the jump – mostly because of the cold winter months.

“We go into the shallow water. Just up to your waist and jump in,” he said, before demonstrating.

When he’s not in the water, Patton works about a mile upstream at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

“I did a lot of Hanford environmental monitoring surveillance. So I spent a lot of the first 25 years working real heavily on the river. So it's a pretty special place,” he said.

The closest he came to missing a month involved an injury – and ankle surgery.

“I was trying to figure out how to keep the streak going. I jumped on Groundhog Day, Feb. 2,” he said, “and had surgery the next day.”

The next month, he jumped in with his crutches and walking boot still on. His wife, Tracy Moran-Patton, remembered that jump. She’s a former nurse.

“I knew he was committed when he went in with crutches. My inner nurse tried not to object loudly,” she said, laughing.

Patton’s daughter, Brooke Leggett, said she doesn’t see an end to her father’s river jumps.

“The stubborn man can't stop jumping in the river,” Leggett said. “He said he's going to quit. I think 50 jumps ago, 100 jumps ago. He just keeps going.”

Courtney Flatt is a Richland-based multi-media correspondent for Northwest Public Broadcasting and the Northwest News Network focusing on environmental, natural resources and energy issues in the Northwest.