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A Cartesian Swim

Grace Tsiang | May 4, 2010

How odd to be afloat in a massive freshwater lake, a little bobbling creature, in a lake 60 miles wide. I’m 250 yards from a city of nearly three million people, and half a mile from the grey gothic shrine of books, where I work, caught between upper and nether millstones of a growing college enrollment and shrinking faculty. Swimming a mile in the lake means leaving all that ashore.

What has the lake done for me? As an adult, swimming in Lake Michigan any old morning July through September, I’m now reacquainted with the colors of the sky. Afloat on my back, I see vast reaches of sky stretching the limits of blue. Swimming after a breezy night, the shoreline and my swimming partners might disappear altogether from view. I can swim up and then down into the trough between four foot swells; opaque celadon on cloudy days, lucid algae green in bright sunshine.

The moods of water and sky aren’t limited to the family of insipid watercolor pastels. Some mornings, the only reward to leaving a warm bed early is a green-grey dawn with scuttling bits of clouds, the wind whipping up slaphappy lake-style surf onto the rocks of the Point. The lake’s dark colors seem to say, “Jump in and swim if you dare! Just remember that when you’re getting out, I’ll either smash your head onto the rocks with a 10 foot swell or I’ll pull you off the ladder with the backwash ... I haven’t yet decided which.” On these mornings, the cormorants come close to shore to bob up and down in between the waves, to catch fish and roll their eyes at us. No, to roll their whole heads around and laugh sidewise at us: Will you look at those Humans? I think they’re actually trying to swim!

Along with the cormorants, the dog-walkers and the bicycle-riders know us by sight: the odd swimmers arrive at the Point over-dressed on summer mornings in warm shapeless clothes, bareheaded and walking in barely shod feet. We look for all the world like carnival performers dressed up in bear costumes who forgot to put on their fake heads and paws before strolling out.

Other mornings, dawn can be an eye-popping flame orange sun that lasers away dark purple clouds, sending the lake into fifteen minutes of a visually ecstatic soup of everything from black violet to pink fuchsia and ripe apricot. Only the few earn these occasional flamboyant, unheralded light shows: those who know enough to set their alarm and trundle to the lakefront. One of the other lake swimmers, Louise, is a painter. She grins as she snaps photos to capture a glowing moment. The rest of the city will miss the show, still in bed or just waking, eyes focused on the road or the tasks ahead. If those drivers on Lakeshore look at the lake at all, it will be to grunt and adjust the driver’s side visor. By the time they wake up enough to notice, the lake will be grayish blue; the sky will be a washed out pastel backdrop for city skyscrapers.

What else? Swimming Lake Michigan gives me back time with nature. One mild morning in September, I arrive early and dawdle under the trees to look at the mist. The Point is a circular promontory, crowned with crabapple trees and taller locusts. Dawn is half-heartedly breaking through overcast skies, and each streetlamp’s contribution is fading, sending weak shadows of my legs stretching in two different directions on the asphalt as I move between overlapping dimly lit circles. Across the grassy crown of the park, the lower trunks of trees on the far side are delicately wrapped in a morning mist. What is this? An English country estate? Some primeval savannah? Who would guess it’s the south side of Chicago? I stop to take a photo to show Louise.

I reach the rocky shore a little later than 6:00 a.m. Only four of us are there. Dory and Deirdre are already in the water. Elizabeth and I strike out for the first buoy. The morning calm is unbroken except for a light hum of traffic on Lakeshore Drive. A quiet and steady train of waves remains from the overnight prevailing northeasterly breeze. The wind having died off, these swells are smooth undulations under a still sea of air. We look south towards the pier, a half mile away. Six buoys in a parade line marching south warn boats to stay out of the half-circle adjoining the 57th Street beach from the Promontory Point on the north, to the 58th Street Pier at the south end. We’d picked bright neon colored caps earlier in the summer to help us spot each other across the water: even so, Dory and Deirdre are barely visible as they near the fourth buoy midway. There’s little difference between grey waves and the dim sky.

As I swim, I remember to look for Elizabeth ahead of me. We often tread water at each buoy and ask “Ok?” or “How about we swim to buoy 5?” and adapt our planned distance as we gauge the work we’re doing, given temperature, choppiness, and some days, a noticeable water current. By the second buoy we’ve settled into a rhythm and I look up only after 20 strokes to make sure I’m vaguely on course to the next buoy. Unlike lane- marked pools, the lake gives us straight-line swims as just one of an infinite number of options. My right arm is stronger: I generally find I’m heading inshore as I swim south, but curving out into the lake as I return north. On occasion, swimming as part of group of four or more, we’ll actually bump into each other: which makes for a quick stop, apologies, and a brief giggle at the absurdity of a collision with the whole lake to be shared.

My mind wanders as I swim. What is the real reason that we always swim in pairs or groups? Could I really help another swimmer back from a quarter mile from shore? Going for help is a matter of 20 minutes from the fourth buoy. The light level dims as the cloud ceiling overhead thickens and lowers. Every swim requires a little bit of mental discipline. Who doesn’t have a part of their brain that tells them they are crazy to enter water that is below 70F? Chilly water on the face makes me gasp, the opposite of what is needed to settle into a rhythmic, relaxed freestyle. Most of us choose to start with a backstroke, when pushing off the rocks to cross the cove of 15 feet of water over the sandy bottom, turning over only when our skin temperature drops closer to lake temperature, and our core temperature rises with the energy expended in an initial burst of kicking. We all have learned how to breathe while turning our heads to left or right. It’s always easier to breathe to leeward on splashy days. Deirdre favors the breaststroke, staying underwater for long glides between breathing. I have swallowed more gulps of Lake Michigan than I like to recall while breathing on the forward pull as she does, but it seems to work for her.

Elizabeth is tall and her long strokes force me to pay attention to keep up. I begin to wish for dawn to give us more sunshine, as my arms feel chilled in air as well as pulling through water. It’s past dawn and the light is diffuse, but it’s actually harder to see. Passing the fourth buoy, stroking for the fifth, I am focusing on technique: maybe I can avoid that ache in the rotator cuff if I just remember to pull that shoulder down and back. It occurs to me to look over my shoulder to the north from where we started. The Point is now a blur of white with some dark bits that might be rocks. More mist has moved down from the north and even as I watch, is creeping over the water and obscuring the waves and the buoys beyond. How beautiful ... Wait! This is not just romantic morning mist, but a chill, encroaching fogbank. It has already quietly engulfed trees, rocks, and even the absurd little park district castle shelter on the promontory. All I can see now is white.

“Elizabeth!” I speed up and then call forward. “Fog behind us!” Elizabeth pauses. I stop and take a big breath to call out louder, working to pull my shoulders out of the water to wave. “Deirdre! Dory! Look back! Fog!” From far over the water I hear them respond; they see it, too.

I turn back northward, and think how thick and enveloping a fog bank can be, how disoriented people get in fog, in blizzards, in deserts ... Up floats a notion on an indrawn gasp: I Could Die!

I’m not a great swimmer. I have never competed for speed. I’m a sea tortoise, not a shark. I just have loved being around pools, lakes, boats and beaches all my life. How is it that while I’m treading water, a mere 600 yards from the Point, when a bit of mist reaches from the cold North into our cove, I forget how to swim?

I hear Elizabeth come up behind me saying, “I think we should head back.” I shake my head as I tread water and squeak, “What if we can’t see the next buoy?” She looks toward buoy four. “Eh. I can still see two more.” She resumes course.

How can she be so calm? I take a stroke to follow her lead, and wonder why my lungs don’t seem to be taking in any air, and why my body is still upright in the water, not prone, not relaxed, with my thoughts gasping, Wait, wait, I’m not a fish, not even a tortoise, no, I’m really just a mouse!

The adrenalin rush speeds my heart but slows the world down into seconds, half seconds, milliseconds: I’m lost in a vast inland sea. I take two more useless strokes with my arms, unwilling to put my face back in the water. What if I swim in circles? I always pull more to the right! What about the breaststroke? If blind in the fog, what’s to prevent me from swimming towards Indiana? Michigan? ... Canada!

Oh stop being silly, girl. I hear the return of an internal critic, as deliberate thought suppresses the hysterical little mouse. Breathe! Think!

It’s me back here in my suit, cap, and goggles, and this is a simple navigation problem. Get a position, get a heading for home, and get a grip! Position? I’m practically on top of the fifth buoy. Heading? I need to swim north. Look at the waves. The train of waves is steady as ever out of the northeast. A forty-five degree angle to the source of these waves will keep Elizabeth and me on a heading that puts us back at the swim ladders on the southern rock ledges of the Point, just where we started.

With this tiny triumph of logic over stupid fear, my back-brain releases some tension, returning me the use of my limbs and lungs. I rediscover my freestyle stroke: my head and neck relax forward, allowing me stretch out comfortably over the surface of the water. Reoriented, buoyant, mobile.

Fifteen minutes of steady swimming in the strangely gleaming white mist brings us back to our homeport: the ladder. While drying off, my legs wobble against gravity. It’s a struggle to push damp toes through dry pants. As we watch and wait for the other two swimmers I feel my livid fingertips begin to tingle as circulation returns. At last, Dory and Deirdre appear out of the grey-white haze to the southwest, along the rocks. I call out and hoot happily. They climb up the ladder and exclaim at the fog and their long shore-hugging swim: Dory explains she wanted to be able to hear the traffic from Lakeshore Drive when she could no longer see.

Back in dry clothes, we all make our way to a nearby bakery, warming up and relaxing over hot coffee and breakfast rolls. The morning light has changed yet again: the rest of the city is rising to an unremarkable cloudy morning. The other customers are groomed for their day, focused on their errands and coffee. I shake my head in wonder, replaying the morning from that first glimpse of the fog bank, to our return to shore, when I meet Deirdre’s laughing green eyes over the glass table.

“Omigod,” she says, her eyes widening. “There was a moment there when I thought ... I Could Die!”

Our laughter fills the coffee shop. What a great morning to be alive.

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