Come on in, the water's fine! Credit: Paul Hertz

September is a magical time on the shores of Lake Michigan. The water has been warmed to perfection by the summer heat. On a sunny 75-degree day the conditions for swimming are perfect. More perfect still are the conditions for enjoying that swim, particularly due to the absence of fascistic lifeguards.

No one who hasn’t spent a lifetime swimming in open water and knows herself to be a strong swimmer will understand why the best time at the beach is when the lifeguards are off duty. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day I resign myself to delighting in the lake before 10 AM or after 7 PM—if I really want to delight in it, that is, to feel the freedom of swimming freestyle or breaststroke through the deeper waters halfway between the shore and the boat buoys. The lifeguards perform a vital function, but the rules they enforce are targeted at the lowest common denominator of beachgoer: toddlers with floaties. Everyone else must be content with dipping into water scarcely waist deep. Break the rule and youshould be prepared for a barely postpubescent, sunburnt “authority” figure to scream “MOVE IN!” anytime an arm crosses the imaginary barrier the lifeguards have created with the bows of their row boats.

In September, the lifeguards and their boats are gone.The beaches are technically closed, but you’re unlikely to be disturbed unless a zealous bike cop happens to be riding by. You can finally swim to your heart’s content in the midday heat. Even if it’s cool outside, the water is still comfortable enough to offset the chills you’ll suffer while drying off. And the beach will be largely deserted. Most people, being cautious, law-abiding citizens, won’t be swimming “at their own risk.” Instead, at least at Foster Beach, you’ll find a few triathlete types in their expensive wet suits, and elderly Soviet immigrants who, like me, learned to swim in a world without lifeguards, in the placid waters of inland lakes, in fast-rushing rivers, in the Black Sea. You’ll hear them speaking quietly in Russian, often with an Odessan lilt. The women, well in their 70s, come in pairs or small groups, unashamedly don bikinis from TJ Maxx, and congratulate one another on their commitment to physical health—how good of a job they’ve done getting out into the water this season. The men will often come alone carrying a small plastic bag for their shirt and a towel. They’ll wade out gradually, and then, with languid strokes, disappear into the line where water meets horizon.   v