There are things in life that we cannot fathom doing or think we want to do. Then, things change. That’s how I came to winter swimming in Lake Michigan.
I swam from late April to early November. Pandemic restrictions forced me back into several winter sports — ice skating, cross-country skiing.
After seeing an intrepid friend do this, I thought: why not connect the lake?
Now, I enjoy swimming year-round, all winter long, in temperatures and conditions that once seemed predictable and inhospitable. I’ve discovered the joy, the joy of swimming in cool water And Discipline in adopting what was once unthinkable to the point where it is now hard to imagine not doing it.
Everyone who’s swam in Lake Michigan knows that this massive body of water takes forever to warm up. Even in late summer, when water temperatures finally reach the 60s, a long swim can leave a chill. Or an offshore wind blows away the top layer of water, and, like a sly aquatic acrobat, the lake does somersaults, lifting water from the deep, dropping 10 degrees or more.
So, we get used to, grow slowly, eventually get used to or at least accept the cold.
In fact swimming in cold weather involves a deep level of adaptation, a steady and regular practice of immersion. It kind of jumps out at me. In late summer the crowd of swimmers gradually thins out, and then one day I look around, and there are three, four, maybe 10 people still coming out, dressed in increasingly heavy clothing and gear. I keep roaming in the lake.
Ah yes, gear. Many people ask, “Do you wear a wetsuit?” In fact, it’s more of an assertion or declaration: “You should be wearing a wetsuit!” Probably because it’s hard to imagine how to do it otherwise. Or maybe they’ve seen Chicago surfers who enjoy the winter waters, riding their boards through chilly winds and waves, clad in head-to-toe neoprene.
The answer is no. It feels different to be immersed in cold water than to be above it. As fall turns into winter, increasingly cool water starts to feel good, even warm. Wetsuits will only get in the way this fall in conditions that have become delightful. They are also very difficult to get out quickly, leaving us vulnerable to changing conditions on the ground. It’s the ferocious winds, icy atmosphere and refrigerator-cold rocks that turn out to be the hardest to bear, not the water. Conversely, as the air temperature begins to freeze, sliding into a lake provides relief.
Getting in is a delicate and decisive operation.
We reach the lake just before dawn, lining up with extra towels or small mats to protect our feet from the bone-chilling ground. Observing rocks that may be covered with ice or snow, we can lay down a line of towels, making a less slippery path into the water.
I regularly keep a couple of bathing caps on, as well as a thick neoprene one, which fastens under my chin. I’m already putting on my bathing suit and neoprene socks, and, after stripping away my many warmest layers, I pull on goggles and heavy, thick-fingered scuba gloves and head into the water.
Staying down seems safest, so I often go on all fours, feet first, in a weird reverse crab gait. I fumble with my wings, clamber from the cold and move with difficulty. Then, I pause, clap my clenched hands together several times, like ringing bells, trying to bring some of the warmth back into them. As I start to descend the ladder, the sticks stick to my gloves. Peeling them off while trying to keep my balance, I think of that classic scene in “A Christmas Story,” with a child’s tongue stuck to chilly metal and shivering. I lie on my back, knees bent, arms extended overhead.
Cold concentrates. First, my limbs are tight, and the neoprene acts like swaddling, restricting the movement of my arms and legs. The chill hits the nape of my neck and sends a shiver down my spine. I backstroke, bow my head to the lake, stretch my arms as far as I can, take a deep breath. I monitor my body, try to estimate how long I can stay in this moment, and participate in water activities, seeing if the waves or wind are kicking in, so what. The current is pulling me away or pushing me to the shore.
Settling into the lapping waves, gazing skyward, the occasional gull or duck passing overhead, is a sweet dissolution, and my earthly self floats away. I feel completely isolated, the water my only companion.
In a constant state of transition, the lake feels more alive in winter. Snow comes, stays for a while, or, like a creature, appears and then disappears overnight. It takes many forms: thick clear slabs, crispy doughnut-like rings, hard icebergs. Last year, we swam in a jelly-like substance, liquid in the way of ice, that covered our shoulders and wrapped around our legs, a singular cloak of nature.
As I make my way back to shore, I catch glimpses of my comrades swimming in the water, here and there in a silent and stately choreography, swans’ heads poking out of the water with grace. My lonely spell is shattered. And I’m happy to have his company. Swimming together breaks through the grey, dull vibe of winter days, keeping us all afloat. I don’t want to go out.
The coldest water makes my skin feel like it’s tearing, stretching and cracking around my armpits and the back of my knees, especially when I enter the cold air. Thankfully, it’s only a sensation, and I emerge to begin going insane to shed my wet gear and stuff my frozen limbs into dry clothes.
Quietly – because who has time or mind to talk – we wear layers and layers of thick wool, pants of varying thickness, more sweaters and hoodies, as well as big coats, hats, mittens and socks. Avoid things with zippers or buttons as numb fingers lack dexterity. Don’t forget the hand warmers. Swimming in cold water can create an aftertaste, as warm blood travels back from your core to your hands and feet. We are in a faltering race to warm up before the fever sets in.
Despite all these preparations, there are moments when swimmers start cursing or moaning or laughing at the wind and the pain caused by the wind. We get giddy in our frenzied state, trembling in rapture.
That elation and inner coolness can last for hours, but eventually we wake up warm and cool, aided by warm fluids, perhaps back under a blanket or in a warm bath. We hang our cold and sticky swimwear on racks where they drip all day long.
In this summery state of drowsiness, the memory of the cold is gone, and we start thinking about, even longing for, our return to that icy realm. Every day is different on the lake, we swimmers say. What will tomorrow bring?
#Lake #Michigan #Winter #Swimming #Brave #Soul #Chicago