Former Austin bureau chief Caren Jeskey casts her eye upon our inland sea:
Lake is too small a word for the great body of water east of Chicago. That’s why I’ve started telling friends “I’m down at the ocean” during my regular sojourns to its shore. One friend responds in kind. She recently texted me “heading down to the ocean now,” putting a big smile on my face. It just makes life seem more exciting.
The other night while at the oceanfront near Foster, a man in a kayak floated a few hundred feet off the beach after the lifeguards left. He was there for an hour or so, and I thought “what a kind soul,” thinking he was acting as the evening lifeguard once the city guards had cleared out for the evening. His presence was reassuring.
Meanwhile my family and I struck up a conversation with a nice lady and her 7 year old daughter Sara. Sara and my 8 year old nephew Anthony struck up quite the beach friendship and before too long had dug a hole nearly as deep as they were tall. They were very proud and Anthony kept calling out “Peaches!”—my favorite nickname—“Come over here! Look!” with an ear-to-ear grin.
A perfect summer evening.
Sara’s mother told us that the man on the kayak is her husband. He was not actually lifeguarding at all— he just likes to float around out there to decompress. Still cool, and I am sure he’d have sprung into action if any of the night swimmers got into trouble. When he came back to shore we swapped stories about “Lake” Michigan.
As you probably know, the Great Lakes (ok, fine. I guess I’ll have to call them what they are and not what they seem) comprise the largest fresh water body in the world. You also may know that Michigan has tidal waves called seiches (https://isgs.illinois.edu/seiches-sudden-large-waves-lake-michigan-danger) and is regaled with meteotsunamis on a regular basis (https://research.noaa.gov/article/ArtMID/587/ArticleID/2738/NOAA-research-shows-promise-of-forecasting-weather-driven-tsunamis).
Sara’s father shared stories of people getting caught in whirlpools of water that form in areas of the lake disrupted with concrete docks. He told us that Foster beach is quite safe because the open space creates a climate of calm.
Nearly 20 years ago I was out on the water with friends and an experienced sailor who docks his boat at Montrose Harbor. We had a lovely day and headed back to shore. Several people got off of the boat, including a friend and her infant son. El Capitán decided we’d head back out for round two, though the weather appeared foreboding. In fact, other sailors who had also headed back cautioned us against going back out. The captain would have none of it for we were hardy sailors.
With trepidation I joined the group of fifteen or so—most of us landlubbers and the rest the small crew who’d keep us safe. Sure enough, what seemed to be out of the blue, a storm blew in. I have never been on a body of water so choppy. The crew flew into action while my friends and I sat in a circle above deck, holding hands and crouching together. We did not have life jackets on. There was no time. I heard the faithful praying fervently.
At one point our 39.1 foot craft could not stand up to the waves. The boat was on its side, perpendicular to the water, and while we clutched each other we watched the crew work furiously to right the ship. They succeeded with much effort and what felt to be an eternity. We were able to make it back to land. Needless to say this was one of the most terrifying things I’ve lived through, and since then I have mostly shied away from invitations to sail on private boats in Chicago.
Lake Michigan is no joke. Nothing to trifle with.
I was once watching a surfing documentary with my brother John who lives in California and has always been a huge (real) ocean lover. I was surprised and delighted to see brat-eating, beer-drinking South Siders catching huge waves somewhere near the Illinois Indiana border. I can’t quite think of the name of the movie, but will share if and when I do. Dees, dems and dosers with bellies drinking Hamm’s and catching waves is too good to miss. (As a half South-Sider I am allowed to say these things).
I can’t talk about the lake without talking about my maternal grandparents, Olive and Carl. They met at Oak Street Beach almost 100 years ago. Olive was adorable and young, and I can picture her in my mind’s eye, standing on a concrete post in her swimming costume. Carl must have taken that photo. Carl used to fish off of Navy Pier before it became a fortress, and we’d share fried fish at the little shack at the end of the pier.
It’s so very good to be home.