Lake Michigan Diary 2000

Mostly to keep the series going I will once again chronicle my swims in the Lake although I may have trouble keeping my postings up to date. My readers may have to be more patient but actually, I have found these diaries more interesting as a historical, rather than current, account.

May 25, Dempster Beach, 2PM: My gadget for this summer is a watch that is supposed to take water temperatures. It arrived today (Thursday) and being a nice day out I decided to take it to the Lake for a test drive in my kayak. It was quite windy and my pint sized kayak without a rudder does not track well in the wind so it was difficult going in any direction. So I only got down from Dempster Street as far as our wall. I took several readings on both sides and further out and got a fairly consistent 61. When I got back to Dempster I took a near shore reading and it said 64. Since this is not reasonable for May 25 I decided I needed verification. Luckily I bring a latex cap and goggles on board as a safty measure and I was wearing a swimsuit under my paddling pants. So I took a short swim and, guess what, it probably was 64 there. Not bad at all.

Wednesday, June 7 Noon: Went to Leone beach. Water was about 60-61, but fairly swimmable with a thermal cap. The problem was the shallow water, one basically has to go past the bouys to get deep water and the lifeguards will not allow that, making Leone an unsatisfactory option for a mid-day swim.

Thursday, June 22: Mike took morning off -- went for swim at 7:30. Water 62 but nice sun and flat. Were only going half way but felt so good we did entire swim to wall and back. We wore thermal caps only.

Sunday June 25: 9:30 AM, Evanston - Water hurt when we got in, only 59-60. Again only thermal caps. I wimped out half way and came back but Mike insisted in whole way, so he did the rest alone. Nice sun though and fairly flat. But the flies were out so we didn't tarry long. Interesting fog at south end of beach -- cool water vapor over hot sand? We don't know.

Wednesday June 28 6:15 AM Evanston First early morning swim. The water was only a few degrees warmer, 61, but enough so that the cold didn't sting. But air in the 60's and the hazy sun low on the horizon did not help warm us. The water was flat and still so, Mike being in a hurry, we swam fast and that got us through the whole distance. The cost was that I was cold the entire way home even with the heat on in the car. The water was clear, Mike would have liked to stop and look at the fish near the far wall where it suddenly gets deep, but we had to keep swimming. In spite of the cool, there was a dense smog in the air, totally obscuring the Chicago Loop.

Saturday, July 1. Racine Quarry swim, as usual a very pleasant experience. As usual a laid back affair in a pretty park which just happens to have a large hole filled with water. The temperature was great, about 74 in the start-warmup area but slightly warmer out further. The only negative was lots of seaweed which took a while to pull out of our hair, watches etc.

Sunday July 2, 8:30 AM Evanston. I am so convinced that Lake season will start on schedule that I invite a few less hardy people to join us. Only Jenny bites. The offical temperature sources assure me that that I can expect water temperatures of anywhere from 64 to 67 degrees. Mike does warn us that he went for a swim on Saturday and had noticed no warming. Now he goes in first and we can tell from his expression that it will be cold. "Coldest yet", he declares but I am an unbeliever at first, "the warm air makes it seem colder" I reply. But my thermometer watch agrees with Mike, it says 59 at the beach, 58 at the midway point and 60 at the shallow area near the wall. But we swim it all anyway, even Jenny, who not only does not own a wetsuit but does not even have a thermal cap: two latex caps is the best she can come up with. Getting out of the water is like walking out of an airconditioned building on a hot muggy day, a blast of hot air. Mike brought a thermos of hot coffee for which Jenny was very appreciative. She left saying that the first thing she would do when she got home was to turn off the airconditioner. Mike and I went back to the hot muggy beach. The first thing I did when I got home was turn on the airconditioner.

July 3, 3:30 PM Ohio Street. To celebrate Independence day my wife invited me to join her at her Loop hotel where she is involved in an intense conference. Obviously, I not only accepted but brought my suit and goggles. My first duty on arriving was to check out the Ohio street beach, and it was not a pretty sight. Conditions were as close to unswimmable as I've seen there. There were two foot waves near shore, which in this enclosed area, produced a massive chop. The sky was cloudy and foggy with a chill in the air and the water near shore was 61. Even if I still wanted to swim I doubt the lone lifeguard on duty would have let me, she was in a rowboat battling the waves and chop and trying to herd about a dozen small children playing in the surf into a managable area.

July 4, 8AM, Ohio Street. Open water season officially begins whether the lake is ready or not. I was a bit apprehensive on the way to the beach but heartened to see some wetsuit swimmers emerging from the beach with smiles on their faces. I would not have been terribly upset if Jenny had stood me up but she arrived a few minutes early while I was just finishing my Starbucks breakfast on the beach. The waves had gone down considerably, athough not completely, and the air was warmer, although an early morning peek at blue sky had been replaced by a persistent fog hanging at about the 65th floor of the Hancock Building, nothing like the hot sunny conditions in the suburbs. Jenny was already positive about the shore water at 62 being 2 degrees warmer than our Sunday swim and by the time we got to Chicago Ave, where we had agreed to re-assess the situation, the water was up to 64 and quite comfortable. So we went all the way to the turn and I think Jenny would have liked to continue on to Oak Street except that the waves and chop at the turn made the going tough there. A successful start to the official season.

Saturday, July 8, Evanston, 9AM -- Finally a warm lake, water was 68-69 with the warmer water towards the wall. When we went out there was hazy sun, no wind but small waves from the southeast. We can see a potential problem with the shallow area near the wall, we will have to stay very far out to clear the surf zone. And Mike is concerned about potential currents near the wall, although neither problem stopped us today. Conditions worsened as we came back, a somewhat slow swim against the waves. We could see a storm rolling in from the northeast, and waited on the beach to watch it develop. We planned it perfectly, we just left the parking lot as it started to rain, but while changing and stowing our gear the wind really picked up to a small gale.

Sunday, July 9, 9AM: Same as yesterday, 69-70, flat, unexciting but pleasant. The water was very cloudy and slightly metallic tasting, though.

Wednesday, July 12 6AM: Our second early morning swim, lots of parking spots in the neighborhood but nothing close. As predicted there were southeast winds and 1 to 3 foot waves, an unusual weather pattern for this area. Water still 69-70. The outbound trip was fairly easy but, as we suspected, the shallow area was in the break zone. But, since it is only waist deep there, it was easy enough to wade through. We decided to look for the dreaded UNDER-TOE*, a body appendage no doubt severed from the foot of some previous swimmer, which is rumored to live by this wall and feed on unwary swimmers on days like this. But we found nothing there other than lots of water and ourselves. The trip back was harder, made longer by the difficulty of swimming straight against these waves. I had the impression of passing the halfway point 3 times but the sensation had to do with the relative position depending on the direction my body was facing, facing towards shore it appeared to be ahead of me but facing towards the open lake it appeared to be behind me. It is easy to get disoriented in waves, the important thing when this happens is to focus on an object in the direction you want to go, not on one you are passing.

Friday, July 14, 6AM Evanston It doesn't get much better than this. We picked a small window between storms, clear skies, air and water 69-70, and just some low random waves left over from previous weather patterns. The only downer was reports of E. coli at some of the northern Chicago beaches. Everyone knows what E. coli can do to your digestive system, but it can also cause skin infections, which are harder to get rid of. So Mike brings a bar of soap and washes up under the mini-shower before he heads to work. [Added: Actually E. coli are not bad, in fact you probably have some in your stomach right now. But if present in large numbers in water it is an indication that worse stuff may be present also.]

Saturday, July 22, 9AM, Evanston Newspaper promises of a light northeastern breeze, minimal waves, 75 degree water and sun were all a case of official overoptimism. The breeze was stiff, there were longer 2 foot waves with shorter smaller waves on top (a good illustration of the linear theory of waves), it was mostly cloudy and the water was only 70-71. Only the last difference was positive. I have now graduated to a latex cap and the water temperature was very comfortable. An important skill for the open water swimmer is to be able to breathe on both sides, Mike and I have refused to master that, but at least we breathe on opposite sides so we always swim facing each other. So I had waves on the face on the way down and Mike had them on the way back. We lingered on the beach for a while savoring the classic Pacific Northwest beach day, clouds, cool wind in the face and the symphony of waves.

Sunday, July 23 9AM, Evanston A perfect day? That's what the paper predicted again. But again the Tribune could not deliver on their promise. A stiff North by North East wind and the waviest conditions we have seen yet this year. With the low water and sand build up there is a long shallow area, so the waves did not have a proper break area but simply tumbled down with whitecaps over a long area. Thus it was not possible to get out beyond the turbulent area. So we decided to swim directly into the waves, about 2 feet high near shore but 3 or more out about 500 yards. We only went slightly past our half way mark but out as far as up. It was OK as long as we could time our breathing to the troughs and duck under the crests but the waves were not regular enough do it for long. When we got tired we turned around and swum directly back with the waves. We didn't get quite the boost we had hoped but it sure beats swimming across the waves. Not only did we not get disoriented but had the feeling of being high up and getting the best view that one ever has swimming, sort of the difference between driving a SUV instead of a subcompact. Water temperature was still 69-70 and , air about 75 so it was a bit chilly in the breeze standing in the water after our swim. Only a few scattered clouds made a nice day for hanging out at the beach, which we did for the rest of the morning, even at the risk of getting roundly chewed out by our wives when we returned.

Tuesday, July 25, 6AM, Evanston Another forcast of perfect weather, will the third time be the charm? Almost. A bit hazy with high thin clouds and still cool this time of morning. But the, now 72 degree, water wasn't quite flat, some swells left over from earlier in the week became magnified as they approached the shallow water near shore. Near the wall there was a washing-machine pattern with little peaks. It was not terribly difficult swimming though, but the vertical motion was more noticable than in heavier weather. The most difficult thing was coming to grips with the fact that we couldn't stay and enjoy what looked to be a beautiful beach day.

Saturday, July 29, 9AM, Evanston The forcast is for conditions to deteriorate thoughout the day so getting an early start was important. But we couldn't get our act together so we arrive on the late side. The Northeast wind is just getting started and the waves are beginning to appear. Often smaller wind waves are more trouble than larger old waves but these weren't all that bad. The water was nice, 72-73 degrees which was not too warm given the mostly cool and cloudy morning. And, which is unusual for wavy days, the water was reasonably clear. We tried, not altogether successfully, to stay far out to avoid the more turbulent conditions in the shallow areas and arrived at the wall about four fifths of the way out instead of the usual half way. There are a lot of rocks here against the wall so we approach cautiously. But the water was fairly calm on the lee (note small L) side of the wall so it was like a snorkeling expedition calling on our controversial friends the zebra mussels whose job it is to keep the water clear for us. There were a goodly number of them. Back at the beach there were even a larger number of small greenish yellow bugs in the water and congregating at the water line. We have no idea what they were. [Added 8/2: The bugs are apparently cucumber beetles that were blown from fields in Michigan or Wisconsin into the lake and were brought to the Chicago area beaches by the wind and current. Apparently they made a minor nuisance of themselves on the beaches before their wings dried out and they could fly away to become real garden pests.]

Sunday, July 30, 4PM, Promontory Point Today is the day for what seems to be an annual trip to move my son to Hyde Park. But this year I remember to bring my suit and goggles. Usually parking is not too difficult here but a summer Sunday afternoon brings out the crowds, even if the weather is not so good. Since my vehicle today is a U-Haul truck I am fortunate that my son has had the good sense to pick an apartment only two blocks from the Point. The swim area here is on the south side of the point so is protected from the north wind, it is also one of the few places on the Chicago shore where deep water swimming is allowed. So the resulting waves are long gentle swells. And the sun even comes out for a few minutes during this otherwise rainy day. So the whole swim is an idyllic interlude in an otherwise hectic afternoon. But on the way back I walked past the north side of the point. A different lake altogether, swells were mixed with nasty wind waves driven by a strong north wind. When the waves crashed against the rocks foam rose 15 feet in the air.

Monday, July 31, 7:30 AM, Evanston Like an ocean. Yesterday morning instead of picking me up Mike called to see if I really wanted to swim. A light drizzle was falling and waves were predicted to be large. So we decided to cancel and see if the next day would be better. Today Mike took off from work to attend to a family matter later in the morning so we were able to get a later start than our typical weekday swim. But if anything it was raining harder. But Mike didn't call, he just showed up. We were glad we did what we did. The signs at the beach were unmistakable, there had been heavy surf Sunday, waves had been past the lifeguard towers. But today the surf was back where it belonged but unusual, more like an ocean beach than our lake. There were long swells coming in sets and breaking in neat curls. They were too small for a human to surf but they would have been perfect for a "Surfing Ken" doll. Out past the breaks it was smooth swell with about a 5 second period, not unlike the conditions on the south side of Promontory Point yesterday. An easy swim and the cooler 71 degree water felt warm in the rain. Coming back I was on the outside and Mike was about 5 yards further in. On the crest of a wave I would appear to zoom past him, but he would catch up about 2 seconds later as the crest got to him. As I fell in the trough he would now appear to be ahead of me. But we both felt like we were swimming at a uniform rate relative to shore.

Saturday, August 12, Evanston, 8:30AM A combination of predicted bad weather August 3 and my annual trip to Lake George (NY) has made it a while since we have swum. Conditions at Lake George were pleasant but unexciting, sort of like the lake here today. Light swells producing small breaking waves near shore were hardly noticible beyond the break point. Water was 76 with sunshine, temperatures in 80's and although there was no wind there were no bugs or flies either. A good beach day, we lingered till noon.

Monday, August 14, Evanston, 8AM Knowing Mike was on vacation and we could swim today we weren't very motivated yesterday. So a slight chance of thunder was enough to get us to cancel. Today rates a 9/10. Perfectly flat and windless near the beach with minimal waves and chop further out. The 74 degree water was relatively clear, we could see the bottom the entire way. But there was a warm muggy feeling to the air.

Saturday, August 19, Evanston, 9:15 AM Its cold. One of the coldest August mornings in Chicago weather history, overcast with a slight north breeze. The sun is out by now in the suburbs but here by the lake it is still cloudy. And the water is only 71. From the beach it looks like there are 1½ foot waves with a very small wavelength breaking one after another, this pattern seems to go far out into the lake. Not conducive to swimming. We decide to go straight out and straight back with the waves. When we get out a few hundred yards we find that in reality there are long 2-3 foot choppy swells which are not breaking but degenerating into the shorter lower stuff when they reach the shallower water. We were seeing the secondary break. So it wasn't so bad as we thought, but still not good. We did turn uplake for a while but made no attempt to reach the wall where things looked worse. After we decided we had been beaten up enough we turned around and decided to swim straight back to the beach. I breathe on my right, downwave, so I had a good view of where we were going and of Mike. Mike on the other hand breathes left, into the waves, so couldn't see much at all. He kept getting turned straight to shore, and I, being a good buddy, had to follow him. So we had to swim down lake in shallow water anyway, which is what we had tried to avoid. It was already after 10 when we got back but no one at all was on the beach, which indicates how cold it was given that this is Air Show Saturday.

Sunday, August 20, Evanston, 9:00 It is said that the Inuit have 7 different words for snow. We need at least that many for waves. To the casual observer today looked pretty much like yesterday. But Mike, a former CPD lifeguard, did not like the look of today's waves at all. With a strong southeast breeze on top of the northeast swells there was sort of a swirling effect, especially by the walls. We usually swim north or, as yesterday, northeast but we decided today to swim out southeast and come back the way we came, although with the wind pushing us we ended up going more or less straight east. The problem in swimming straight out into the Lake is that there is no obvious destination. Today we didn't go far, Mike has not been comfortable in waves this summer and I had an unusually large breakfast which was coming up on me. So we only swam seriously for about 15 minutes round trip. Today there were lots of folks on the beach but the onshore breeze coming from the 70o lake was not conducive to staying. It was much nicer sitting out in my own back yard, at least until my wife pointed out that as long as I was out I might as well do yardwork.

Thursday, August 24, Ohio Street not The plan was to go for an early swim at Ohio Street and then drop Mike off at work in the Loop. But I managed to get a flat tire before we even left Park Ridge. So we never made it.

Saturday, August 26, Evanston, 9AM Not as nice as it first looked. On arrival it looked beautiful. Flat and partly clear. For the first time in almost two weeks we could swim our usual route to the wall. It is not uncommon for the temperature to drop during the summer and then recover. This is a function of wind and currents bring up cold water from the bottom of the lake. Is that the explaination, or is the Lake cooling down for good? Only 69 today, with a few warmer pockets. That didn't bother us, in fact Mike, without any cap at all, loved it. But it wasn't actually as flat as it looked from shore and Mike and I both agreed that there seemed to be a northbound current. In any case the swim back was harder than either of us thought it should have been.

Sunday, August 27, Evanston, 9:30 AM The forcast was for high winds and waves but it was nice here so we discounted the forcast. They were right, a brisk NNE wind was blowing with 2-4ft waves from the ENE. So we went straight out with the waves. It really wasn't bad and even Mike was enjoying it and the water was back to 71 which is about what I like. But after we got out past any interference from the walls we decided to head NNE into the wind until we came to the halfway mark. We swam for about 5 minutes and we weren't there, so we swam again for 5 minutes. Mike did a quick mental triangulation and decided that we had been swimming in place for the last 10 minutes. So we went back which was, as expected, a quicker and easier swim. It seems to us that the conditions we have seen this August are more comparable to what we have seen in past Septembers. Does this mean a fast end to the season? Sort of by coincidence we stopped off at a snowboard store so Mike could check out possibilities for a new snowboard for his son. And our conversation the rest of the way home was possible cross country skiing plans for this winter.

Thursday, August 31, Ohio Street not Another flat tire, this time Wednesday evening, thwarted our second attempt in two weeks to get to Ohio Street.

Saturday, September 2, Evanston 6:30AM We've said it before but the great thing about the Lake is that even though we swim in the same little place, unlike the pool, its always different. I've been getting up weekdays so that Mike can swim and get to work, today was Mike's turn as I now have to work Saturdays. But people were already at the beach and the sun was a bright red ball floating just above the water in the hazy sky. After the last few hot days the water was a perfectly delightful 73. The waves were trochoidal but with a larger wavelength and higher, 2 foot, crest than we have seen before. They were breaking in perfect short but beach wide curls. It was relatively easy swimming into them because of the regularity and long length. Unlike usual waves one had good visibility in the trough but none on the short crest which tended to bury your face in water. Coming back with the waves we did not notice the sensation as much but on arrival realized that conditions had changed considerably. A strong NE breeze had developed clouding the sky, clearing people from the beach and disorganizing the previously perfectly orgainized waves. If we had come at a reasonable hour we would have missed this interesting swim.

Sunday, September 3, Evanston, 7:30 AM Or, you can watch the lake change before your eyes. Today it was relatively waveless (74 degrees) but a storm was moving in. Based on the clouds and the weather channel radar, checked just before we left home, we did not expect, or get, lightning. The wind had already picked up from the north but we decided to give it a try. Mike thinks going out was the toughest swim yet this summer, even breathing was hard, I had to point my mouth backwards so my head would be a shield against the waves. Mike was not so talented and drank a large amount of the lake. By the time we got to the shallow area our forward progress had decreased to virtually nil so we walked the last 100 yards to the wall, it was like hiking uphill. The swim back was much faster but we got bounced around quite a bit. I felt a lot safer in the water than I would be in a small boat such as my kayak. Back at the beach there were serious 2 foot waves and a park policeman with a bullhorn was ordering other "early morning opportunists" from the closed water.

Thursday, September 7, Ohio Street, 6:15AM Third time was a charm, we finally made it down here. Parking was tighter than we expected except on Ontario St. where your car must be moved by 7AM. This sort of defeated the idea of moving our swim back until the sun came up. So we hurried and watched the sunrise at the triathlon club float. We won't say the water was flat but it was flatter than we have experienced lately and no problem. But the water was surprisingly cool, 68, and with about the same air temperature it was a bit chilly out there.

Big Shoulders, Sunday, September 10, Ohio Street, 8AM It was disappointingly nice. I was hoping for worse conditions because I thought that might give me an advantage over competitors who do not work out as much in the lake. But the south winds the past few days did not do their work, they didn't blow the warm water away and they did not produce a nasty chop. The water was 71 (before the race) and reasonably flat, no difficult swimming. Fortunately I didn't need the bad conditions and it is a hard enough swim anyway that I was grateful for nice water, especially as 3 miles this year was about 10% longer than past years (this was a national championship so the Chicago Park District actually had to use GPS to set the course rather than Joe Pec's eyeballs). The one thing I noticed was that I was grubbier than usual when I got home to shower. Usually I feel clean after a Lake swim. For all its charm, Ohio street is not, to my taste, the nicest beach on the Lake.

Sunday, September 17, Evanston 1 PM Summer's last hurrah? Now that the guards are gone we can come when it is convenient. Mike went biking this morning and the weather was expected to improve in the afternoon so we came late. Since we were here last the sand has been redistributed, filling in the trough near shore and also the trough just in front of the wall. The whole area seemed shallower although judging from the exposed posts the water level had not materially changed. It was strange swimming with the sun at that angle, it felt more like a winter vaction swim in Florida. The water corresponded at 66 and I was glad I brought my thermal cap, but Mike swam capless and liked it. The air was near 80 and, although the stiff west wind created waves further out that were visible to the TV cameras covering the Bears game at soldier field later, it was fairly calm near shore. So a nice way to end the season, if this is the end.

Sunday, October 1, Evanston, noon Postscript. A stretch of indian summer brought me back out to the beaches. Mike was going to join me but canceled at the last moment so I went for a short kayak paddle. The water temperature was marginal, low 60's, and with the stiff south breeze if we had gone very far we would have had a tough swim back. But it was beautiful on the beach. As expected, with a basically offshore breeze the water was flat near shore and from shore looked flat further out. But by kayak I was very surprised at how quickly the water became wavy as one left shore. The offshore wind seemingly sculpts the waves in such a way as to disguise them from shore, equally large waves driven by an onshore breeze would look large from shore.

*I am reminded of the following passage in Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. It concerns some pre WWII Japanese boys playing in abandoned mine tunnels:

The other boys believed that demons lived in some of those underwater tunnels, and that this expained why some of the boys who swam back there never returned. But Goto Dengo did not fear the demons and so he went back there fearing only the cold and the dark and the water. Which was plenty to fear.