In January Lake Michigan looked like a tundra on another planet. Now its time to swim in it.
  • Mick Dumke
  • In January Lake Michigan looked like a tundra on another planet. Now it’s time to swim in it.

As I waded into the water one morning last week, I was reminded that a lot can change in a short period of time.

I had been in the same spot five months earlier, when I stood on a couple feet of ice and the lake ahead of me looked like a barren, frozen tundra. In spots where the ice was broken, the water gave off wispy ghosts of steam: while frigid, the lake was still far warmer than the air, which at that time was -10 degrees. It looked like some other planet.

At some point—mid-May?—winter ended, and by this week the water temperature had supposedly climbed to the mid-60s, which I feel should be doable for any self-respecting Midwesterner. And no, I don’t have a wetsuit.

On Monday evening the rain fell in sheets, but by the next morning the skies were clear. I grabbed my goggles and headed to the beach. No one else was in the water, which surprised me. It was a beautiful deep blue and the sun shimmered off the surface.

I’ve long since learned that when it’s crisp you’re better off plunging in quickly, before your feet convince you that they’re turning purple and numb. And it was crisp. On the upside, it wasn’t cold enough to sting my face. Off I went.

At last—the return to swimming in the big pond! And it couldn’t have come at a better time.

I’m often asked how I can immerse myself in politics without getting totally depressed—as if something could possibly be a downer about the ongoing war on drugs, the latest scheme to squeeze another buck out of city residents, or an election system in which it’s legal to send a candidate a $2.5 million check.

The short, obvious answer is that I care and think it’s important to get these stories out there.

But OK—it can sometimes be a downer. “Yeah, I deal with the stress alright,” an alderman told me recently. “I drink and I smoke.”

We all have our drugs of choice, and as I’ve written before, mine is open-water swimming.

Chicago’s mayoral race unofficially kicked off last week, and I was still thinking about whether Rahm Emanuel will face a serious challenge as I started paddling into the current. It’s been 25 years since a sitting mayor had to worry about reelection. When officials start seeing public offices as their own, strange things happen, like the city parking system being sold off, or public schools being closed in some neighborhoods as the resources are transferred to other communities and interests . . .

At that point I turned my head to breathe and instead inhaled part of a wave.

Learning not to panic is the most important part of swimming, which I’ve discovered at moments when I started to panic: encountering currents stronger than I reckoned for, or running into things I didn’t see—a patch of seaweed, an old fishing net, a floating plastic bag. Once I looked up just in time to see a steel breaker appear out of murky water; my heart started racing, which is a fine way to start a disaster. Whenever something like this happens now, I stop, float, and collect my bearings before going on.

In cold water the biggest challenge is to keep moving but not too fast. I’ve been on swims when my hands turned cold enough that I couldn’t keep my fingers together; yet if I didn’t relax, I knew I’d burn off too much fuel too soon.

So I kept thinking about stretching out and gliding. After a few minutes I was warm and far down the beach, and my thoughts had drifted off to their own pleasant place. During my return trip a seagull floated above me, and I kept thinking: this is living.

It wasn’t until later that I learned why no one else was in the water. After the storms the night before, officials were forced to release runoff water and raw sewage into the lake to prevent flooding. It’s absurd that waste is ever released into the same lake that supplies our drinking water, but for now I’ll just note that all city beaches were closed as a safety precaution.

I haven’t turned green yet.

If anything, this has just strengthened my resolve. You never know what might happen next, and I’m not going to stop doing my thing, even if it means swimming through the muck.