Credit: Tim Schapker

Several people were already in the lake when I got to Albion Beach the other morning—two kids playing in the shallows, an old guy wielding a metal detector as he waded over the first sandbar, and a few of my kind—distance swimmers paddling steadily through water turned gold by the sun a hundred yards offshore.

The lake was on the calm side, but there was a slow current out of the north, so I put on my goggles and headed in that direction.

Up and down the lakefront, Chicagoans find it thrilling to escape the city this way. Open-water swimming is great exercise, but what’s even better is where you do it—along a boundary between worlds. When I turned my head for air I could hear church bells and the rumble of the Red Line. Below the surface, the only sounds were the rush of the current, the distant rattling of chains holding marker buoys in place, and the splashing of my own progress through the water.

It’s not for everyone. Even some experienced pool swimmers are anxious about getting into the lake. They cite the obvious dangers of an enormous body of water subject to the whims of nature—a reason you’re not supposed to jump in anywhere or anytime park district lifeguards aren’t on duty, though that rule has been flouted for decades.

They also worry about the lake’s health problems, which stem from sewage and storm water runoff, industrial and household pollution, invasive species, climate change, and Washington, which has yet to deliver on most of its promises to fund Great Lakes protection and restoration.

Every time I swim I catch glimpses of our lifestyle on the lake bottom—beer cans and bottles, golf balls, plastic shopping bags. Once I paddled over an open Bible, its pages rippling in the currents.

Yet underwater life remains powerful. The water was clear enough on this swim that at 25 feet I could see the ridges in the sand on the bottom, interrupted here and there by patches of sprouting green. On several occasions I have been passed by fish in schools so dense they looked like dark clouds darting through the water.

After a while it becomes clear that the lake itself is alive, constantly moving and shifting moods.

I wasn’t far into my swim when the current grew choppy, which meant I had to work harder and yet stay relaxed so I could adjust my cadence to the water’s rhythmic slap. Soon the chop turned to waves, and the waves started to break.

This is why I always head into the current first. I took it easy on the trip back, letting the waves pick me up and push me along.

By the time I finished, only one other person was in the water—a man about waist-deep, lifting his hands and singing about his love of the Lord.