Lake Michigan swimmers brave rain, big waves and cold water

September 3, 2013

Get the flash player here: http://www.adobe.com/flashplayer

Believe it or not, I’ve been swimming in deep, open waters since I was kid growing up on the Canadian prairies.

A big chunk of my home province Manitoba is covered in freshwater lakes, and for many it’s a tradition to spend summers at a cottage by the lake, soaking up every bit of warm weather and sunlight.

Since moving to Chicago, I’ve also taken regular dips at spots up and down the city’s lakefront. But this summer I fell in with a group of hard-core swimmers who’ve really upped my game.

Together they form a loose collective known as the Promontory Point Open Water Swimmers. They swim off the south side of the “Point” in Hyde Park, some seven days a week. They’re an interesting bunch: A chaplain, bereavement counselor, Securities and Exchange Commission lawyer, and a couple of artists.

You can recognize them by their shocking pink (or bright yellow or leopard skin) swim caps and their ability to swim the deep waters of Lake Michigan well into the chilly days of fall. The caps help them keep sight of one another and (hopefully) ward off boaters or windsurfers who wind up west of the buoy line that stretches about a quarter of a mile off the 57th Street Beach. What explains these swimmers’ tolerance for water temperatures below 60 degrees is anyone’s guess.

Some of them have made history on the lake, including getting the Chicago Park District to designate the waters south of the Point an official open water swim spot. The oldest of the group, Ted Erikson, is one of the great marathon swimmers in America. At 85 he still swims many times a week, though these days he sticks closer to shore.

I don’t expect I’ll ever accomplish feats like the ones Erikson pulled off. But after swimming with this group, through thick fog, huge swells and some of the most tranquil water I’ve experienced, I feel at home in Lake Michigan like never before.

Alison Cuddy is WBEZ’s Arts and Culture reporter and co-host of Changing Channels, a podcast about the future of television. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram