My clock says it’s a few minutes before 6 AM. I said I would arrive at 5:30 but I miscalculated my morning and now I’m late. It’s also cooler than I expected for a July morning. I dig for a sweater as I remember to also grab my mask. I walk along the cool grass of the park towards the south side of the Point, a man-made peninsula that curves into Lake Michigan in the Hyde Park neighborhood. The wind whips as I walk up to a group of seven to ten people all congregating on the rocks. A few dive in when I get there, and several already head toward the grey horizon. All I can see are their inflatable buoys shining pink, green, and yellow in the water. I know these people as the Point swimmers and I know them only from a distance.
I’ve called myself a “rock person” since moving to Chicago seven years ago. As someone who grew up along the beaches of the Carolinas, I broke up with sand a long time ago. The rocks along the shoreline of the Point are special to the area as they tumble, fall, and change after every winter. They warm you after a chilly swim in the lake. Children, who seem to know the rocks like the backs of their hands, hop, skip, and jump along the giant limestone boulders.
I’ve been hanging out with fellow rock people every summer and consider myself a decent swimmer. Unsalted and vast, the lake is home to one of my most cherished therapeutic practices. Because of my proximity, I’ve always known about the Point swimmers. I’ll soon learn they also call themselves the Southside Pod, a pandemic and aquatic name that a few of them have printed on their swim caps in bubble letters. Two years ago when I joined the “Point Swimmers” Facebook page I was introduced to the photography of David Travis, the early morning swimmers, and the folks who swim all year long.
Travis, a sailor and photographer, began taking photos along the lake of cyclists and runners on the lakeshore path a few years ago when a friend suggested he take photos of the swimmers. Ever since, he’s been capturing the athletes in the morning light. He sits on the rocks with the swimmers, watches their items as they dive in, takes the water temperature, and documents their swims with his digital camera.
“A lot of them are master swimmers,” says Travis to me as we sit on the rocks. He points out swimmers by name and tells me about their skills, where they are from, and how often they come out. “It’s the best place on the lake to swim,” he says, something I agree with, but the sound of the wind and waves causes my voice to drift and I’m unable to audibly agree with him. I just nod eagerly instead. The south side of the Point is protected from north winds, which makes it less choppy and wavy for swimmers. Travis points out another swimmer in the water. “She swims for the whole year.” In February, she can be in the water for ten to 15 minutes. “I act as a valet,” says Travis. When swimmers exit the water after four to ten minutes, Travis hands them gloves and clothing. Travis tells me about the time one swimmer got into the water for three minutes with gloves on and the velcro fasteners froze shut. Travis and the swimmer had to work together to pull the gloves off of his hands. “There’s no explaining it. I just say they are different mammals,” he says. Once the water temperature hits 50 degrees in November, many swimmers begin to fall back and retreat for the year. However, some of these athletes brave the Chicago weather and swim through the ice and negative wind chills. Lake Michigan waters don’t typically drop below 32 degrees, which allows for swimmers to jump in, swim for approximately ten minutes, and hop back out. Travis even tells me about a swimmer who swam a circle through a thin sheet of ice one year, leaving a path in the frozen water. “God,” I think to myself, “Will you make me a Point swimmer when I grow up?
I notice during my morning that for these swimmers, jumping into the lake is more than a quick shock or exercise. It’s a mental necessity. The British Medical Journal has even reported a 2018 case study where a young woman struggled with depression and after swimming in 59-degree water, her mood improved and she was weaned off of antidepressants. I’m also reminded of Wim Hof, AKA The Iceman, who has boggled scientist’s minds with his method of swimming in ice for prolonged periods of time. In a recent Outside Magazine feature, Susan Casey follows Hof and his followers to an ice bath in Iceland. Hof, who has a cult following, teaches workshops and classes where folks are introduced to cold baths and cold soaks. The Icelandic guru has defied science and claims to control his own body temperature, nervous system, and immune response (when scientists tried to prove he was an anomaly, they tested 12 of his trained volunteers and found the same results). Before plunging into the lagoon, Hof tells the journalist, “You gotta swim today! Yeah—it will be good! We’ll go wild! We will sing in front of everybody! And we are gonna cut the crap and the bullshit and we are gonna live!” Whether you believe in Hof’s superhuman way of life or not, there is no denying the life force that comes with the cold shock of water.
Alexandra Heminsley, author of Leap In: a Woman, Some Waves and the Will to Swim, details her experience with IVF and how swimming gave her solace. She says in The Guardian, “Because swimming outdoors is this constant confrontation of danger and the unknown, it reminds you that those tiny risks are worth taking. So in terms of just keeping my sanity, it was invaluable.” Overcoming obstacles has been a huge component of swimming in open waters for many folks.
“Louise is a powerful swimmer,” says Travis. She’s in the water already before I meet her. Artist Louise LeBourgeois heads to the Point from Rogers Park two to three times a week. She prefers swimming on the south side and has been doing so for years, as she spent her teenage years in Hyde Park. On the day I’m at the Point, she swims towards the pier, and once she’s about 50 yards from the mass that juts out into the water, she spots some other swimmers in the water nearby. She decides to swim back with the pod toward the rocks. The waves pound the shoreline as she shouts, “Welcome!” to me. “I’ve been swimming here since 1978.” I end up meeting with LeBourgeois to discuss her paintings a week or so later. She is successfully represented by galleries in New York and Los Angeles and paints images of the lake and the vastness she experiences in the middle of the water. When I talk to her, I can feel the unwavering importance of the lake in her voice. It’s something so tangible and simply beautiful. For LeBourgeois, swimming is everything. It’s how she spends her mornings, and when she isn’t swimming, she’s in the studio painting her memories of swimming. It’s all-encompassing.
These swimmers spend their mornings together, resulting in strong friendships between many of them. Others finish their swim and go to work. “There’s an English professor and a doctor out there in the water,” says Travis as more folks roll in to catch the morning chill. There’s an 80-year-old woman, Rosie, who visits occasionally from the UK and has done the Channel twice. Some folks drive in from the suburbs. Everyone here loves one thing, and as a result, they all get along.
Several folks say good morning to Travis as they walk up and strap on their buoys and goggles. Almost everyone asks him what the water temperature is. It’s a bit cooler on this July day than earlier in the week—70 degrees. “It’s been up to 76 degrees,” he tells me. The temperature of the lake depends on the wind coming from Michigan or Indiana. Travis explains, “When you get a southwest wind, which is usually a warmer wind—anything coming from Louisiana—it’s always warm.” The warm water is typically blown out to the middle of the lake and an undertow coming up from the bottom will drop the temperature ten degrees overnight where folks swim. Our conversation is interrupted again when someone asks Travis what the temperature is. The swimmer shimmies into her wet suit after hearing the answer. Everyone’s preference is slightly different. “70 degrees?! That’s too warm for me,” says one swimmer. Some like it hot, some like it cold.
“Oh, Susan! You’re back!” exclaims Travis to a California-based swimmer who used to live in Hyde Park. Susan completed the Lake Tahoe swim by being in the water for 17 hours and 44 minutes. While she’s in town for a short trip, she can’t help but head to the Point and reconnect with her old friends. “Hi Susan!” shout a few others as they exit the water. The water is swelling as it washes over the rocks—the lake’s water is the highest it’s ever been this year. “Lake Michigan is so unpredictable,” Susan tells me. “One of the toughest swims I ever did was one of the Big Shoulders swims,” which is a 5K and 2.5K swim at Ohio Street Beach. “This is a community of people. It’s really, really beautiful. I feel so fortunate to be a part of it,” she says. By this point, the rocks are filled with swimmers chatting, changing into warmer clothes, and drying their hair.
Travis brings a deck brush whenever he can to scrub off the slippery rocks for the swimmers where they’ve collected algae. There is a ladder and a cable located on the south side of the Point for easier access. However, most folks dive in. The area where we are seated is a perfect destination for swimmers. The buoys in the lake serve as markers for folks to go buoy to buoy. The pier that guards the entrance to the harbor behind the Museum of Science and Industry is one marker where a further pier guards the entrance to the Jackson Park harbor. Several swimmers create a route, going pier to pier and then back to shore, whereas others go to the furthest pier and circle around to the north side of the Point for a look at downtown Chicago before heading back. “These are real open water swimmers,” says Travis. “They don’t like doing laps. They like doing distance.”
The legendary Ted Erikson, 92, was the first person to swim across Lake Michigan in 1961 and still swims with those in Hyde Park. In 1965 he set the world record of double-crossing the English Channel and embarked on a 31.5-mile swim to the Golden Gate Bridge from Farallon Islands in San Francisco in 1967.
Since 2001, many south siders, along with Erikson, have been fighting the United States Army Corps of Engineers, who want to remove the Point’s unique limestone blocks and replace them with the concrete seawall we see along other areas of the lake in Chicago. In 2003, Ben Joravsky wrote in the Reader that Hyde Parkers—seeing what happened on the north side—grew uneasy at the idea that their Point would be structurally altered. “This piece of the park, with landscaping by Alfred Caldwell, is one of Hyde Park’s most treasured spots,” wrote Joravsky. Despite the seawall being an eyesore, swimmers also state that it will change the waves for swimming on the south side of the point.
“Here’s my big message,” says Karl, walking over to me as the waves thrash behind him. He says that the seawall will change the water quality as it has the rest of the lake. “The waves come in and they bounce off and you get all of this chop. It’s gonna suck. This is our one natural resource.” When you swim on the north side of the Point where a seawall was installed, he says that the water quality has definitely changed. “The only people who care are us,” he says. Plans to alter the Point, and surrounding seawalls, have been in flux for years with no real concrete resolution.
It’s like a choreographed dance—weaving in and out of people talking, swimmers exiting the water, other folks drying off, says Travis. He walks over to people, snaps their photo, and shares a short conversation with them. Later on, I’ll see these images on the Point Swimmers Facebook page.
Before this morning, I always assumed anyone swimming could be called a “Point swimmer.” I might have even called myself one once before. But the longer I stay sitting firmly planted on the rocks, the longer I realize I am a complete novice. “You aren’t going to join us?” says a swimmer to me. She’s strapping on her swimming cap. She retells the first time she saw a swimmer exiting the water. “They all looked so happy and I thought to myself, ‘I should try it.'” And so she did. Her first swim at Ohio Street left her thrilled. “I did it! I did it, ya know? Once you start doing it, you don’t want to stop,” she says before heading off into her morning cleanse.
It’s tradition, after swimming, to head into the neighborhood to grab a coffee. Deirdre, AKA the Den Mother, leads the way towards Medici, a neighborhood favorite, where we sit in a park around a fountain and chat. They talk about personal plans, they discuss family and friends, and of course, they talk about swimming. By this time it’s 9 AM. “What do you want to know about us?” they ask me. I want to ask them how I can grow up to be just like them. But instead, I sit there a bit speechless, sipping my coffee, trying not to fan girl too hard. I don’t want to come off as a young girl too eager and too obsessed. A few of them called me a “reporter,” which sits strange in my mouth. I didn’t want to appear too exploitative, another so-called reporter working their beat. I wanted them to know that I know about the magic of the lake, too. I’ve felt that cold rush, that exhilaration, the calm that comes from hanging onto a buoy as the sun sets over the Chicago skyline. It’s the divine power of Lake Michigan and it’s irresistible once you have a taste.
The rest of the city is waking up and the Southside Pod have already baptized themselves in the lake. They’ve been christened by the great body of water, and I was lucky enough to spend a morning with them. v