By David Witter
No chlorine. No walls. No ladders. There is nothing like treading water over the rolling waves of Lake Michigan and looking up at Navy Pier, Lake Shore Drive, or the Chicago skyline while you do it. Take a mask or goggles with you and on a sunny day you can see schools of minnows, shiny green perch, skittering crawfish and the occasional big white carp hanging out on, under and between the rocks on the lake bottom. Or dive into the murky black water after nightfall, then open your eyes underwater to complete darkness.
Beach closings, a falling lake level, more aggressive lifeguards and reconstruction of shoreline walls make swimming in Lake Michigan more of a chore, but there are still great places to experience the urban wonder of actually swimming in the lake.
For good swimmers, (I was a lifeguard for eight years) the best way to experience Lake Michigan is swimming off Chicago’s numerous rocks and ledges. In our recent past, any area that was not a sand beach, from Grand Avenue to Rogers Park, was littered with jagged, broken and deteriorating cement walls. Many a summer’s day I have climbed, hung and contorted my body against crashing waves to dive off of a jagged rock into the lake. Entering is the easy part, as getting out usually requires crawling up a cement block covered with slick seaweed or finding a handhold of stone or rusted rebar. There are generally no lifeguards in these areas, and the people along the secluded shoreline are often too busy making out, drinking, smoking reefer or staring at the occasional topless or thong-wearing bather to help you, so don’t try this alone. But if you are young, adventurous and a good swimmer, there are still a few places left where you and a friend can dive in and swim for as long as you want in almost any direction.
Heading north between Fullerton and Diversey used to be prime rocks, but gentrification has left a shiny, smooth wall—a moat that rises about eight feet above the waterline. However, if you head north, just south of Belmont Harbor and north of Diversey, you can still find a few areas of deteriorating rocky shoreline. In fact, members of the South East Lakeview Neighbors Association are currently lobbying the city and Army Corps of Engineers to save some of the old limestone walls. They have long been a meeting point for members of “alternative lifestyles,” and at dawn you can usually spot a few late-night revelers from the Belmont club scene diving into the water wearing only tattoos and piercings.
The area north to Addison has also been revamped, but there are spots along the Waveland Golf Course still untouched by the Army Corps. So too are areas near Wilson, south of Foster Beach, and stretches on streets like Pratt, Fargo and north to Rogers where deep-water swimming is an option.
Going south, the spaces between Grand almost to Hyde Park are too rocky, too secluded or filled with docked boats, museums and urban traffic. However, a group of residents from Hyde Park have also been staging a publicized revolt against the city to maintain their rights to swim off the rocks. “Save The Point” has enlisted the aid of 5th Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston and Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. in an effort to block the efforts to replace the old limestone with new concrete. One of the main reasons for this battle is that longtime bathers want to be able to swim near Promontory Point at 55th and Peninsula Drive.
Unfortunately, crime makes swimming near Rainbow Beach a bit risky, but there is one last place to bathe in urban splendor. Set amongst the blinking lights and high chimneys of a Commonwealth Edison Power Plant, Calumet Beach, near 90th and the lake, offers uninterrupted beach and rock swimming. Unlike Chicago’s large North Side beaches where fascist young lifeguards will harass you to the point of arrest if you dare to swim above your waist or away from the boat, the guards at Calumet seem happy just to see bathers. I recommend sliding off the rocky shore and swimming about 100 yards south, towards the power plant and the Indiana border. Then you can return home and tell your friends that you “swam to Indiana”—with no walls to stop you.