Why I Swim in Lake Superior

Lake Superior is very cold. Today, the surface temperature of the lake in front of our house in Grand Marais, Michigan, was between 54 and 56 degrees according to the Great Lakes Coastal Forecasting System.

By the end of August, the water will be warmer. By Labor Day, it will be as warm as it will get. Then the temperature will go in the other direction until the ice forms into giant ridges on the shore and gathers in floes that ride the crests of waves. The lake that is beautiful and quiet today can kill people in a flash any time of the year. It is the lion tamer’s favorite, awesome and obedient, until it decides otherwise and kills the lion tamer just because it can and has been intending to for years.

Not many people swim in Lake Superior. Not because it is dangerous, because most people don’t understand how wicked the lake can be, they don’t swim because the lake is so cold. They don’t know what it is that makes a person forget about the cold, not care about the cold, consider it small price to pay, because they never get in the water in the first place.

What makes a person forget about the cold are these things that happen once in the water. This is fresh in my mind because I swam in Lake Superior just a few hours ago. And while I was swimming, I was trying to remember each of the things that might convince someone to overcome their fear of the cold.

These are the things I remembered:

– That the water is so clear that I can see every single rock on the bottom and what’s special about it, maybe its gentle stripes or pink cast.
– That when I am swimming, it occurs to me that I could swim for miles without running into anything and still be along the southern shore of Lake Superior.
– That the late afternoon sun makes the water look like a giant flock of fireflies stopped to rest.
– That I can look across the water a couple of hundred yards and see gulls sitting silently atop the water; if they turned around they would look me right in the eye.
– That in the distance, I can see a sailboat and I can imagine being transported so I would be swimming alongside it or maybe ahead, making a wake the boat would follow, tacking to match my moods.
– That when I am swimming in this lake on this day, I feel healthy and beautiful and strong, like the lake. And grateful that it exists and so do I.

The people who don’t swim in Lake Superior because it is cold don’t ever find out about these things. Their thought stops at the cold.

I’m glad I’m not them.

#61/100:61st in a series of 100 in 100

17 Comments on “Why I Swim in Lake Superior

  1. I love swimming in Lake Erie every summer, now clean and clear to the bottom where I swim. Some days it is so warm it is like bath water and you do not want to get out. It is so soothing to dig your toes into the soft ridges of sand underwater. I have been a Great Lakes swimmer since I was two years old… with grandma, who put a sundress and bonnet on me and then I made the paper as a 2 yr old bathing beauty! The only time I feel that lovely feeling of invigoration is after a 1 hr lake swim/body surfing the waves; and I never feel that physical jolt which relaxes and energizes afterwards, swimming in a pool. There are really only two season for Great lakers, ‘going to the lake’ and ‘waiting to go to the Lake’!


    Something about the lake
    draws me to its shore
    its ocean-like expanse
    its frothy, wavy roar

    I can’t explain how it makes me feel
    the smell, the breeze, the rocks
    all come together mysteriously
    like Lorelei luring my vessel to dock

    I love to dig my tired toes
    in the coarse and grainy sands
    ’tis here where I rest my weary bones
    ’tis here where my spirit lands

    Is it my native roots or indigenous blood
    that causes my senses to stir
    when I come home to its cold unfathomed depths
    to its turquoise water so pure?

    The storm clouds billow in the distance
    the wind whips up the waves
    the crackling sound of water slamming onto rock
    the haunting melody echoing through the caves

    It is a magnetic, enigmatic force
    that calls me here so often
    how is it that something so ferocious
    can also cause the soul to soften?

    Dear deep and legendary Gichigami
    may your waves eer wash oer the shore
    of all our hopes and dreams
    ’til we can hope nor dream no more!

  3. It still poses unique dangers, and it is very cold.
    There are beautiful ocean beaches all over the world too which are not cold like that all the time.
    A lot less people drown in the ocean than a lake.
    If you like it that is ok.

    • The Great Lakes always seem like oceans without salt…the ocean is beautiful but it has its own dangers; sharks, jellyfish, tides and currants that could carry anyone out to sea, storms that whip up out of nowhere, and much more. Despite the dangers of any body of water, we never tire of being around the sea, lakes or rivers.

  4. My husband and I are in our twenties, and we are seriously considering moving to Minnesota by this time next year. If this happens, I am DEFINITELY swimming in Lake Superior.

  5. Reblogged this on Red's Wrap and commented:

    Because today is the first day we’ve walked along the shore without jackets. Because the sun is shining, the sky is blue and the lake is calm. Because summer is really coming and when it does, I’ll be swimming in Lake Superior.

  6. I don’t usually swim in the nearest lake here in Northeastern PA- (NEPA), because of the algae, but rather in the creek nearby, which is also cold and clear down to the bottom. Now that I’m older I seldom if ever go in, but when I do, (On a very hot, sunny day), it’s so cold when you walk in, you’re all goose bumps. It’s much better to just dive in and get all wet, then it actually feels warm wafter a while and when the wind blows keep only your head above water and the creek feels like a blanket.

  7. You are rockin’ this week! I had tears in my eyes, reading your work today, and my husband thought I was nuts. I swam off Isle Royale on a backpacking trip years ago and I still remember standing on shore, watching the sun sink, tingling after the swim. Great memory! Thank you!

    • Thanks, Heather. I’ve spent the week on Lake Superior — what doesn’t kill you is inspiring, right?

  8. Thanks for describing the great experience of “Superior” swimming. I too felt healthy & strong swimming there yesterday; way more than doing so in any pool. It is the greatest of the lakes!

  9. Beautiful! Thanks for taking me swimming with you! I have lived in northern CA and NM with NO WONDERFUL LAKES nearby to swim in. MISS THAT. Moving back to MO and plan to get IN some great (no pun intended) lakes! Best to you.

  10. What a beautiful description of my favorite lake. I am always amazed at the clarity of the water. The analogy of the lion tamer’s favorite is perfect. We will be traveling the northern shore in 3 or 4 weeks after spending some time in the Georgian Bay area. I had a colleague from Sault Ste. Marie Ontario. Her mother made the rule they couldn’t swim in the lake before the Queen’s birthday (April?) or after Halloween. Ouch! This past spring they would have been swimming with ice cubes.

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