1998 LAKE MICHIGAN REPORT
This year we have moved our swimming to the beaches of the far North side of Chicago and Evanston. The construction is over on Lake Shore Drive near Ohio Street and everything is nicely back together. But with the development of the Navy pier area it has become impossible to park anywhere near the beach. We tried it once early in the season and we were able to find a parking place only by physically moving a SUV blocking two spaces. Our friend Leo has had more luck. He claims to be able to find a place across from the Days Inn whenever he goes down. But Leo arrives before 6 AM and remarks "after 6, forget it."
The north side chicago beaches (Foster ave and north) are well marked with bouys about 50 yards off shore to discourage boats. Lots of small beaches dot the shore between areas of rock or metal walls. The lake here is lined by condominiums of varying niceness. Most of the beaches have guards during the day, the distance off the beach available for swimming depends on the beach and guard on duty. However, the guards don't arrive until 9AM so there is lots of the morning available for serious swimming. Parking varies, some beaches have lots, some have on street parking. Often we start at the Evanston--Chicago border and just drive south until we find a parking space. There are only a few piers and breakwaters in this area and I have been warned that in bad weather strong currents can develop along the shore, so caution is in order.
We prefer swimming in Evanston, only because the beaches have showers, albeit ones designed for those 3'6" and under. Since Mike leaves directly for work from the beach this is a useful amenity. Here breakwaters periodically jut out into the lake and currents tend to be localized near the breakwaters. Prudence dictates avoiding the windward side of a breakwater during periods of high winds. There are posts left over from old piers under the water which have been smoothed by the waves but could still be a hazard in heavy weather, it is not advisable to swim too close to shore unless the water is flat and clear. The shore is bordered by parks and estates, giving a quite different feel than Chicago, but convenient exit points are not readily available. The guards generally arrive at 10 and start asserting their authority somewhere around 10:30. Thus on a weekend morning one can stay in bed while Leo swims at Ohio street, have a leisurely breakfast, and still get in a nice swim.
As has been highly publicized the Lake has been warm this summer. But the temperatures have not been as constant as one might deduce from press reports. Temperatures vary by location, wind direction, water depth and time of day. I have been monitoring the temperatures, both by thermometer from my kayak and by feel. Our bodies tend to underestimate the temperature, but not by much. I recorded a temperature of 62 degrees off Chichago Avenue as early as May 13, however two days later the temperatures only slightly further north were down to 52.
I was out of town for a few weeks and when I got back to the lake June 8 temperatures seemed to have stabilized around 60. We did our first swim at Ohio Street June 14, it was about 60, but Mike went without a wet suit. I recorded temperatures of 64 June 17, and 68 through 72 off Dempster street in Evanston June 23 with my boat thermometer. Mike and I were otherwise occupied so we did not get to swim in the Lake until June 30. We estimated 61 which I confirmed about an hour later with my trustworthy thermometer. But no wet suits for either of us.
We missed our usual 4th of July swim, Jackie, our holiday leader, was out of town, but we did swim July 2 and 3rd with 70 on the 2nd and only 64 in pockets on the third. By the following week it was in the 70's, reaching 74 on the 11th. July 14 we swam off the Howard street beach in Chicago and it was bath water, literally. We guess the water was about 78, and we did not feel much like swimming, we mostly did some lazy breastroke. When we returned a homeless person was lathering up in the lake. We were beginning to worry that predictions of 80 degree water might come true but a wind change later in the week had temperatures back to 70 by weekend. After a week of 70 recent temperatures are back around a very comfortable 73. Mike and I have been Lake swimming almost every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
The Lake has been holding steady in the low 70's but the weather pattern has changed in the last week. It has been stormy everyday with about 4in total precipitation. We skipped Tuesday and had a truncated swim Thursday because with a small chance of a storm I didn't want to get too far off the beach. No storm, just drizzle. But nice small waves. But today a SHOCK. I was in the water first, and said "Mike, this seems a bit cold." Mike, who has been swimming with no cap recently, stuck his foot in and immediately went back to the car and got his thermal cap. Mine was at home so I was stuck with my usual latex cap. The water near the beach was at most 65. Mike thinks it was colder but I think we were somewhat biased since we were used to warmer water. It was the standard cold water sensation that we had almost forgotten: the stinging cold at first, followed by a hot sensation as our blood rushed to our skin. Then the dull cold sensation gradually sets in as the extremities go partially numb. We did swim our whole course but afterwards we ran the heat in the car on the way home. This is just a timely reminder to us about the Lake: she is fickle.
Postscript August 9, 1998
Anyone who read the above paragraph and then saw the Chicago Tribune's listed lake temperature for yesterday probably thinks we were crazy. They said the water was 77. One explaination is that they usually take the temperature near Navy Pier where it is somewhat sheltered whereas we were swimming in Evanston, 10 miles north and not very sheltered. I did feel obligated to check so I went back to the area with my boat and trustworthy thermometer, 26 hours later. I didn't have to get out of my car to see that the lake was cold, the fog over the lake told me that. By then the surface water had warmed to the upper 60's. But in the area we had swum I recorded a temperature of 64 about 4 feet below the surface. Thus the last month of warm water has not destroyed our ability to judge temperatures by feel. By the time I left the Lake the wind had begun to shift so the warm water will probably be back soon.
Postscript August 10, 1998
We now have reports from elsewhere on the Lake. Leo reports that Ohio Street was warm enough inside the breakwater. But once outside the breakwater it was noticeably colder. Out there, Leo said, several feet under the water it was "really cold". "Really cold" to Leo means 50's. Jackie and Jill went to swim at Foster Ave on Sunday. Jackie reported that they went in waist deep, looked at each other with pained expressions, and left to have coffee and cake.
Postscript August 13, 1998
The crisis is over. Water temperatures (off Evanston) are 74 as measured both by body and by thermometer.
The water is holding in a range between 72 and 78 degrees. What is unusual, however, is how clear the water is this late in the season. This is, of course, attributed to the zebra mussels, of which we have seen an abundance on the old pilings in our area. Today we had clear water even with 1 foot waves and we were able to safely swim only 10 yards from the shore, something we would never have attempted before.
We hope all the Chicago area viewers of this page saw the awesome picture in the August 27th Chicago Tribune of Ted Erikson and his dog Umbra heading out for their swim in the waves. For obvious reasons I can't post it here but on request I can attempt to e-mail you a copy in .bmp or .jpg format. In order to do justice to the picture it will be a large file, about 1MB. (Added 9/8/98: As usual for articles in the popular press this article talked about the dangers of open water swimming. The following item in today's Trib should give a little more perspective: In New York City, a 19-year old was killed and two others injured when strong winds caused a 35 foot tree branch to fall on them at a concrete chess table in the Bronx borough. At least we lake swimmers don't have to worry about trees falling on us.)
I haven't been to Ohio St since the beginning of the season so I thought I should check it out before Big Shoulders next week. Because of the questionable weather forcast I didn't make advance plans. With less than a week to go before the race I expected to see some familiar faces. Only Mary was there, but at least I didn't have to swim alone. First the good news. I had no trouble parking at 6:30 AM although the holiday may have helped in this respect. The water was plenty warm even after nighttime storms, we agreed on 75, but there were colder and warmer pockets. The water is very clear, even with waves and poor lighting we could see the bottom most of the way along the wall. The water is also at least a foot below last year's level, so if one has legs left at the end of the race they can run the last 100 yards. But the water was rough, possibly near the worst I have seen there. Unlike the larger and and more organized waves we have seen this summer in the more open Evanston area, the breakwaters here keep the size down but the waves rattle around and become large disorganized chop. I find it difficult to swim straight in chop, today was worse than usual. With the wind blowing in the outbound swim was grueling, with actual two foot waves at the turn. Coming back was better but swimming straight was still a problem, although the round trip distance was only 1 mile I probably swam 1.5. By the time we finished our swim conditions had gotten noticably worse. If this were the race and the course was set for three laps up and back as it sometimes is, I doubt I could have finished. Hopefully Joe Pecoraro would have taken pity on his guards in the boats, if not us, and shortened the race as he did once before. But this was a good experience for us, just as we were beginning to think it was going to be easy the Lake reminds us once again that she's in charge.
Conditions at Ohio Street were about perfect. We had bright sun with cool air temperatures which were on their way up to a high in the mid 80's later in the day. For the first time in a couple of years the spectators could actually enjoy the beach. The water was 70 exactly (by thermometer) in the start area about an hour before the race, three hours later, as the race was winding down, the temperature had risen only to 72. But with the sun, one would not want it any warmer, as it was my first action when I finished was to tear off my hot latex cap and to decline the offer of a towel. My next need was a cool drink. The water was mostly flat, especially along the wall, but there was a chop right after the first turn and some small swell by the far turn. Just enough variety to remind us that we were not in a pool. Unlike last year I was not eager for the race to end, I felt sorry that I had to swim hard down the home stretch (for time, after all this was a race) when I would have perferred a leisurely breastroke to enjoy the day.
We haven't been to the lake much since Big Shoulders. It probably wasn't due to a lack of nice days, athough they have been less common this year. It wasn't due to a lack of interest after a very successful summer season, although this may have played a part. It is mostly due to the fact that we have become the people we ridiculed last fall who were too busy with their mundane chores to take advantage of the beach. We have both been down a few times individually but today was the first time in over two weeks Mike and I got to the beach together. It was one of those rare perfect days. There was a warm sun, the water was a perfect 68, calm and clear. We even had time to just hang out for a few hours after our swim and enjoy the beach. On the whole the water temperatures seem to be holding above last years unusually warm ones. September 18 it was 76 in Evanston, the 20th it ranged in the low 70's between Montrose and Diversey, but was only 66 on the 25th off of Loyola beach.
For reasons outlined above together with the total lack of a true beach day September 27 turned out to be the last swim of the year for either of us. No October swims this year. I did go kayaking a few times since then and the water temperature had dropped dramatically. On October 11 I recorded 50 degrees in Evanston and later that week, after a few days of warmer weather, a reading of 49 off our swimming beach. Mike and I agree that 49 is too cold for swimming so we declare the season to be officially over.