There are things in life we just can’t fathom doing or think we might want to do. Then, things change. That’s how I came to winter swimming in Lake Michigan.
I used to swim from late April through early November. Pandemic restrictions led me back to many winter sports — ice skating, cross country skiing. After watching an intrepid friend do it, I thought, why not add the lake?
Now I revel in swimming year-round, all winter long, in temperatures and conditions that once seemed foreboding and unappealing. I’ve discovered the pleasures of cold-water swimming, the joy and discipline to be had in embracing what was once unthinkable, to the point where it is now hard to imagine not doing it.
Everyone who swims in Lake Michigan knows this massive body of water takes forever to warm up. Even in late summer, when the water temperature finally gets into the high 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 performs a somersault, kicking up bracing water from the deep, dropping 10 degrees or more.
So, we acclimate, inching in gingerly, eventually getting used to or at least accepting the cold.
Swimming in the truly cold season involves a deeper level of acclimation, a steady and regular practice of immersion. It kind of sneaks up on me. The crowd of late summer swimmers slowly ebbs away, and then one day I look around and there are a stalwart three, four, maybe 10, who are still coming out, who keep trundling to the lake in increasingly heavy clothing and gear.
Ah yes, the gear. Many people immediately ask, “Do you wear a wetsuit?” Really, it is more of an assertion or declaration. “You must wear a wetsuit!” Perhaps because it is hard to imagine how to do this otherwise? Or maybe they’ve seen Chicago’s surfers, who also enjoy the winter waters, riding their boards through frigid winds and waves, clad in neoprene from head to toe.
The answer is no. Being immersed in, rather than atop, cold water feels different. As fall turns into winter and the thermometer drops, the increasingly cold water starts to feel good, even warm. Wetsuits would only get in the way of this descent into conditions that have become delightful. They’re also very difficult to get out of quickly, leaving us vulnerable to the changing conditions on land. It is the gnarly winds, icy atmosphere and refrigerator cold rocks that become the toughest to bear, not the water. By contrast, as the temperature of the air approaches freezing, slipping into the lake comes as a relief.Getting in is a delicate and decisive operation. We arrive just before dawn at the lake, bringing extra towels or small mats to stand on, to shield our feet from the bone-chilling ground. Inspecting the rocks, which can be covered in ice or snow, we might lay down a line of towels, creating a less slippery path to the water.
I lay out a couple of regular bathing caps, plus a thick neoprene one, that fastens beneath my chin. I’m already wearing my bathing suit and neoprene socks and after shrugging off my many warm layers, I pull on goggles and heavy, thick-fingered scuba gloves and head to the water.
Staying low feels safest, so I often approach on all fours, feet first, in an awkward reverse crab walk. I fuss with my fins, stiff from the cold and hard to get on. Then I pause, clapping my muffled hands together a few times, like a sounding bell, trying to bring a bit of warmth back into them. As I start down the ladder, the rungs latch onto my gloves. Peeling them away while trying to maintain my balance, I think of that classic scene in A Christmas Story, of a child’s tongue stuck to wintry metal, and shudder. I launch in on my back, knees bent, arms extended overhead.
Cold forces a focus. At first my limbs are stiff and the neoprene acts like swaddling, containing the movement of my hands and feet. The cold hits the nape of my neck and traces a shivery trickle down my spine. I backstroke, leaning my head into the lake, stretching my arms out as far as I can, breathing deeply. I monitor my body, trying to gauge how long I can stay in this time, and attend to the water’s movements, noting if the current is pulling me away or pushing me toward shore, if the waves or wind are kicking up.Settling into the lapping waves, gazing skyward, the occasional gull or duck passing overhead, a sweet dissolution unfurls and my earth-bound self floats away. I feel completely isolated, the water my sole companion. The lake feels more alive in the winter, in a constant state of transition. Ice comes, stays for a stretch or, like a creature on the prowl, appears and then vanishes overnight. It takes many different forms: thick clear slabs, crispy donut-like rings, austere icebergs. Last year we swam in a jelly-like substance, liquid on its way to ice, that mantled our shoulders and draped around our legs, a fantastical cloak of nature.
As I head back to shore, I catch glimpses of my swim comrades in the water, moving here and there in a silent and stately choreography, heads held up out of the water with the grace of swans. My solitary spell disperses and I’m glad for their company. Swimming together breaks through the gray, dull stretch of winter days, keeps us all afloat. I don’t want to get out.
The coldest water makes my skin feel like it is ripping, stretching and crackling around my armpits and across the back of my knees, especially as I enter the colder air. Thankfully this is only a sensation and I emerge, body intact, to begin the mad clamber of shedding my wet gear and stuffing my frozen limbs into dry clothing.
Silently — because who has time or mind to talk — we don layers and layers of dense wool, pants of varying thickness, more sweaters and hoodies, plus big coats, hats, mittens and socks. Avoid things with zippers or buttons because numbed fingers lack dexterity. Don’t forget handwarmers. Cold water swimming can create an after drop, as warmer blood rushes from your core back into your hands and feet. We are in a fumbling race to get warm before the shivers set in.
There are moments, despite all these preparations, when swimmers start to curse or moan or even laugh at the pain wrought by wind and air. We become giddy in our frigid state, trembling our way into euphoria.
That elation and interior coldness can last for hours, but eventually we become warm and calm, aided by hot liquids, maybe a spell back under the blankets or in a hot shower. We hang our cold and clammy swim things on racks, where they quietly drip away the day.
In this state of drowsy warmth, the memory of the cold slips away and we start to think about, even yearn for, our return to that icy realm. Every day on the lake is different, we swimmers say. What will tomorrow bring?
Alison Cuddy is a Chicago-based writer and curator.