Sunday, October 23, 2011

All Wet

I have lived virtually my entire life in Michigan, surrounded by four of the five Great Lakes.  We have more miles of shoreline here than any other state, except Alaska, and an awful lot of it is really nice, sandy beaches.  The town I grew up in was right on the shore of Lake Huron, and for a couple years, we lived in a house which had Lake Huron as its back yard.  While we lived there, it was a pretty good working model of Heaven.

In my hometown, we would go down to the beach pretty much whenever school wasn't in session, roughly from early June until the end of August.  A really warm weekend in May might coax a few hardy souls into the water, but you couldn't really count on the lake being warm enough to swim in, that early in the season.  September was similar - you might get a weekend warm enough to head down to the beach, but once football season started, we were usually otherwise occupied.

(Once Jen and I were on a 'getaway weekend' at a B&B on Lake Michigan; it was a lovely weekend in April, and a warm breeze was blowing in off the lake.  We took a leisurely, romantic walk along the beach, and as the waves lapped gently onto the sand, we thought it would be fun to let the water roll over our toes as we walked.  But then, in April, it's only been a couple weeks since all that majestically beautiful water was ice.  And 35-degree water has a decidedly un-romantic effect on the toes; not for nothing do we speak of taking cold showers to, um, cool our ardor)

Now, Lake Huron, at least where I grew up, was typically around 65 degrees during the summer months, but we counted anything much above 60 as eminently swimmable.  If you really had your heart set on getting wet, you might wade into water in the upper 50s, but you didn't stay in for very long.

I had a friend who grew up in Marquette, Michigan, on the Lake Superior shore of Michigan's Upper Peninsula.  Now, Lake Superior is COLD. . .  Really, REALLY cold. . . C-O-L-D.  The old quips about the balls on a brass monkey, or witches' mammary glands, or well-diggers' backsides, were really invented with Lake Superior in mind.  Folks in Marquette, my friend told me, don't really go swimming much, at least not in the big lake; it's just too cold.  But even so, everyone in town listens to their radio all summer long, waiting for the one glorious day in August when the weatherman comes on the radio to tell them that the water temperature is above 50 degrees, and then, like a civic ritual, the whole town goes down to the beach and swims, until they can't feel their toes anymore.  Which takes about a minute or two.

When Jen and I were on our honeymoon, we were driving along a lightly travelled road in the UP (when it comes to the UP, 'lightly travelled' means a car might or might not have come by in the last 24 hours; a story is told of an old Yooper who pulled up and moved to Alaska when he started seeing neighbors once a week or so; it was just getting too darn crowded. . .), and we happened upon a lovely beach.  I pulled the car off the road, directly onto the beach, we changed into our swimsuits right there in the open air, and ran into the lake for a quick dip (Jen still refers to this as her first serious act of marital submission, as I insisted that she not miss out on the experience).  When I go into Lake Superior, I will wade in slowly, giving my feet and legs time to go numb get used to the water; usually by the time I'm knee-deep, I can look into the crystal-clear water and see two strikingly white things that look suspiciously like my feet, as all the blood has by then retreated to warmer places.  At that point, one should either just jump in and get totally immersed, or call it day and get out of the water; trying to slowly wade in past the, uh, T-bag line is an exercise in masochism. . .

I set a goal for myself, when I was in my teens, to swim in all five Great Lakes - full immersion; wading in knee-deep doesn't count.  And I'm happy to say that I achieved that goal, before my 30th birthday.  Since Lake Ontario is the only one of the Great Lakes that doesn't lap onto the shores of the state of Michigan, we had to make a special point of vacationing at a cottage in Grimsby, Ontario (from whence the Toronto skyline is visible across the lake on a clear day), in order to collect Lake Ontario (and Niagara Falls, while we were at it) (no, I did not get 'fully immersed' in Niagara Falls); and thus did I duly accomplish my goal.  So I expanded my goal to include both of the oceans that wet the shores of the United States.


I added the Atlantic Ocean to my collection when our family went to Florida for spring break, more than 20 years ago.  The proximate cause for our trip was to meet my 'first mother', after not having seen or heard from her in more than 20 years.  But we had a standing offer from my aunt, who lived on Florida's Gulf coast, to stay with her, so we took her up on that, and we had a great time.

When we left Michigan, it was 35 degrees, and a gray, dreary rain was falling.  As we drove southward on I-75, the air got warmer with each passing mile; by the time we were in Kentucky, the grass was green.  By Georgia, we saw flowers blooming in the red clay soil.  We stopped at the little 'Welcome to Florida' rest stop just across the Florida line, for a complimentary cup of fresh-squeezed orange juice, and 2F (who was about four at the time), spying a palm tree, spontaneously ran over and laid a big friendly hug on it.  By the time we arrived at our destination, south of Tampa, it was 85 degrees, and we felt like we were really getting one over on the Universe.

The next day, it was another delightfully sunny, 85-degree day, and we announced our intention to go swimming.  My aunt chuckled, and said that we'd probably be the only ones in the water, since the locals didn't get in the water in March.  Undeterred, we drove down to the beach, on one of the keys (a 'key' in Floridian geography is a geographic entity somewhere between a sand-spit island and a glorified sand-bar), and, as my aunt had predicted, we had the entire beach virtually to ourselves.  For miles in either direction, we saw nary another human soul beside ourselves.

And what a beach!  The beaches on the Great Lakes are nice - brown sand, with patches of tall grass appearing here and there.  But this beach on the Gulf coast of Florida was the most amazing beach I'd ever seen (still is, as far as that's concerned) - fine, white sand, the consistency of flour, stretched as far as the eye could see, and gave the water itself a greenish hue unlike anything we see in Michigan.  It was simply spectacular.

Although, the idea (which ocean-dwelling-types just take for granted) of having to take a shower after swimming, just seemed wrong.  I get the whole thing about not wanting to walk around with a salt-film all over yourself, and I didn't like it, either.  But up here in the Great Lakes, we tend to think of going swimming as roughly akin to taking a bath (OK, kind of a cold bath; and you have to kinda get used to the vaguely 'fishy' smell).  So, needing to shower after swimming seems to sorta defeat half the purpose of going swimming in the first place. . .

Now, 1F was a fairly cautious child, and bright enough to know that things live under the water, where she can't see 'em - fish, and whales, and sharks, and jellyfish, and all sorts of things.  As a very young child, she would resist even wading into the Great Lakes, for fear of the unknown critters and thingies that might be lurking where she couldn't see 'em.  We were finally able to convince her that there were no sharks, or anything else that might be inclined to make a meal of her, in the Great Lakes, that those things only lived in the ocean, and not the Great Lakes; and that assuaged her fears.  But now, in Florida - THIS was the ocean, by golly, and there ARE sharks in there, and she wasn't about to put herself so rashly in harm's way like that.  I finally got her to get in the water by telling her that sharks can't swim when the water is shallow, and I promised to always keep myself between her and the deep water where the sharks were (she didn't so much mind the idea of her dad becoming a meal for a shark). . .

There was a mild dispute, though, as to whether the Gulf of Mexico really counted toward my 'both oceans' goal, or whether the Gulf should be considered as a separate body of water unto itself.  No matter, though - my mother lived on the Atlantic coast of Florida, and when we drove over to visit with her and her husband (geographic note: the 'middle' - ie, non-coastal - parts of the state of Florida are singularly boring to drive through; unless you can convince your kids to make a game of counting dead armadillos, or somesuch), we took our opportunity to avail ourselves of the beaches on that side of the state.

The Atlantic beaches reminded us much more of our good-old Michigan beaches, than the Gulf-coast beaches had.  The sand was a familiar brown, and the wind whipped on-shore just like it did back home, creating some much-more-impressive waves than we'd seen on the Gulf side of the state.

At one point, we were walking along, and we spied, maybe 50 yards or so ahead of us, what looked like a sandwich bag that someone had discarded on the beach.  Now, Jen is a very committed picker-upper of trash, so she 'tsk-ed' in the appropriately disapproving manner, and walked ahead to dispose of the offending refuse.  By the time she was just bending down to pick it up, I was close enough to notice the long 'stringer-things' spreading out from it, and I quickly yelled at her not to touch it, and leave it alone.  When I got close enough to get a good look at our 'sandwich bag' (which even looked like it had grape jelly smeared on its insides), it was apparent that this was no piece of human-generated litter, but a beached jellyfish.  And we breathed a heavy sigh of relief that Jen hadn't gone ahead and grabbed it up. . .


I checked the Pacific Ocean off my list when I went to visit my birth-mother the first time after our reunion.  She and her husband live in California, near San Diego, which, as long as I'm on the topic, is about the most perfect climate I've ever experienced - 75F pretty much every day, 50F pretty much every night.  That visit was also the first time I ever experienced jet-lag, going virtually face-down in my dinner-plate, because my body thought it was 11PM; and then, the next morning, I popped out of bed at 5AM, feeling like I'd slept in, bright-eyed and ready to go.

My first full day in California was beautiful, like pretty much every day is in Southern California.  Looking out over the ocean, there were a dozen or so surfers taking advantage of the six-foot breakers rolling in.  There is an underwater 'shelf' a couple hundred yards or so out from the beach, so the swells that roll in from Hawaii, or Tahiti, or wherever the waves come from that roll in on the beaches of Southern California, break sharply, and consistently, when they encounter the shelf.  I wondered to myself how they manage to keep the kids in school there; where I grew up, on the Great Lakes, the school year roughly coincided with when it was uncomfortable to be in the water.  But if it's 70F outside in November, I could imagine myself weighing an imaginary balance in my hands: 'let's see. . . school. . . or surfing. . .?'

I took several walks on the beach there, and I encountered sand crabs for the first time - little critters that are almost insect-like, that burrow into the sand on the beach.  You can always tell where to find them, because they leave a tell-tale pattern of little holes in the sand.  So, when you see the holes, you can just scoop up a handful of sand, and let the wet sand slip through your fingers, and you'll be left with a half-dozen or so of the little crabs, wiggling and crawling on the palm of your hand.  It's a little disconcerting at first, but after a while, it's kinda cool.

The Pacific is also where I first encountered tides in a major way.  Of course, there are tides on the Atlantic coast, but when we were in Florida, we just spent an hour or two on the beach, and returned to the house; we didn't spend a sufficiently extended period of time at the beach to notice the difference in the water levels.  But where my birth-mother lives, we could see the ocean pretty much all the time, and there is a sea-wall, perhaps 10 feet high, between the water and any inhabitations.  So, at high tide, the water laps up against the bottom of the sea-wall, and there really isn't a beach.  Which was a little disappointing, when I wanted to walk on the beach and there was no beach there for me to walk on.  But at low tide, the beach was yards and yards wide.  So I learned to read the tide charts, so I could plan my walks more intelligently. . .

The first day I was in California (after rising at 5AM), I announced my intention to go swimming, as that would mark the completion of my goal of swimming in all five Great Lakes, and both oceans.  Immediately, my hosts adopted concerned looks.  "Oh, no," they said.  "You can't do that.  At least, not without a wet suit."

"What?!?  Why not?"  I wasn't about to wear any freakin' wet suit; I wanted to feel the ocean on my own skin, doggone it. . .

"Well, it's November."

"It's 75 degrees."

"Yeah, but the ocean is only 60."

I looked at them incredulously.  "Let me tell you about Lake Huron. . ."

So I changed into my bathing suit, climbed down the sea-wall, and waded into the ocean.  The water was a little on the chilly side, but in justr a few minutes, I was used to it, and I had a ton of fun wading out to where the waves were breaking, and feeling them smack against my back.

Then I went back to the house, showered the salt off myself (I still can't get used to that idea), and smiled with the satisfaction of having completed my hydrological quest.  Now, I suppose I'll have to look for an opportunity to collect the Indian Ocean. . .


I'm sorry, but I have to take just a second to mention the football game my Spartans played last night against our friends from Wisconsin (who just happened to be ranked #4 in the country coming into the game).  What a wild, zany, crazy game.  We were almost instantly behind 14-0, having run only one offensive play (a fumble).  Then we were ahead 23-14 at halftime, having blocked both a field goal and a punt, and scored a safety, besides.  We went ahead 31-17 early in the 4th quarter, but the Badgers stormed back to tie the game with just over a minute left.  It looked like the game was headed into overtime, but my Spartans threw a 'Hail Sparty' pass on the last play of the game that bounced into the hands of our receiver on the 1-yard-line, and it was initially ruled that he hadn't scored.  But the call was reversed 'upon further review', and we won 37-31.  What a crazy game!

Of course, I'm glad we won, but what a kick in the head it has to be for Wisconsin, to lose like that.  I know how it would've been for me if we'd lost, after playing so well the whole game, against a superior opponent. . .

Which, I suppose, is just one more reason to enjoy sporting contests, but stop well short of investing them with anything approaching ultimate significance. . .


  1. ok, i am mentally tallying my swimming experiences....
    -atlantic all through my childhood
    -lakes ontario, huron, michigan on the bike trip (in may)
    -gulf of mexico on my honeymoon
    -caribbean when i lived in trinidad
    -pacific (waded during the bike trip but fully submersed when i went to hawaii 11 yrs ago)

    now that i think about it i should have at least dipped a toe in the puget sound when i was in seattle.

  2. I haven't had the pleasure of dipping my toes in any of the Great Lakes. I would venture that the water temperature in the Pacific at this end of California are shade cooler than San Diego's, but not as cold as Lake Superior. Lake Tahoe may fill that role. If not Tahoe, then Granite Lake, high in the Trinity Alps. I've also had the pleasure of swimming in the Pacific at several spots in Hawaii. Been in the Gulf of Mexico at Sarasota and the Atlantic at Jacksonville.
    That was quite a finish to the game. I had just happened to switch over from the World Series to check some scores as the play was happening. That had to be an intervention by my Higher Power. It will rank up there with Flutie's pass against the 'Canes and the Stanford Band play for end of game heroics.

  3. I thought this was going to be a post about the ridiculous amount of rain we've had in 2011....we've already exceeded our record of annual rainfall and we still have 2 months to go!

    I'm not much of a water girl, and esp. not a cold water girl. About the only water I'll get in is the Carribean!

  4. Ahh, you silly Michiganders .... Michigandites? What the heck do you call yourselves anyhow?

    We have camped at a little place called Indian Lake in the Adirondacks on 3 occasions ranging between a week and 10 days. The first 2 trips the water temp never quite reached 50 yet we bathed and swam in it daily ... for a little while, anyhow. The third time was a treat at a balmy 55.

    Come one in, the water's fine!!

  5. You know I love this sort of stuff, and this is no exception. Good lengthy reminiscences, some fun digressions, and topped off with a totally unrelated sports story! Hey, wait a minute - are you ME?

    By the by, you are a yooper, right? That's how I just labeled you on my sidebar, so if it's incorrect, tell me.

  6. Lime - That's a pretty impressive collection of bodies of water you've got there. . . You only need Erie and Superior to complete your Great Lakes collection. And, you've got the Caribbean on me. . .

    And what - you didn't dip your toes in Puget Sound?!? Well. . . I suppose I didn't dip a toe in the Great Salt Lake when I was in Utah, either ('course, I'm told that one doesn't exactly swim in the Great Salt Lake. . .)

    Skip - Never been to Tahoe, or Granite Lake. But Lake Superior is colder than. . . well, it's really, REALLY cold. . .

    The more I think on it, the more I think that game is just an all-time classic. I hesitate to put it on a par with the Flutie-Miami game, but in many respects, it reminded me of that game (and not just the ending) - the punch-counterpunch aspects of it, with both teams overcoming 14-point deficits at one point or another, trick plays, terrific performances, the whole deal. One of those games where it's a shame somebody has to lose (but all things considered, I'm glad we won). . .

    Bijoux - One of those mushrooms-in-yer-armpits years, eh? Funny, but I'm pretty sure we had a somewhat drier-than-normal summer. All the rain must've passed just south of us. . .

    Seems a shame to have Lake Erie so close at hand, and never take advantage of it, tho. . .

    You wouldn't even swim in the Gulf off Sarasota?

    Xavier - All my growing-up years, I was taught that 'Michiganders' was the proper term, but in recent years I'm hearing 'Michiganians' more often. Possibly because 'Michiganders' is said to have its origin in an insult Abraham Lincoln directed toward Lewis Cass; in effect calling him a 'silly goose', with geographic overtones. . . 'Course, it could also be taken as something of an honor to be insulted by Abraham Lincoln. . .

    And 'a little while' is about what the market will bear, for sub-50 swimming; blue lips and all that. . .

    Suldog - I've wondered that myself; I know that my birth-father is half-Irish. And, you know, it wouldn't take much of a slip of the pen to turn my birthday into yours (or, you know, vice-versa). . .

    Alas, I am, technically, not a Yooper. My hometown is Alpena, which is way Up North, but still Lower Peninsula. We and Yoopers understand each other, and 'down-staters' consider us all rubes of a similar order. But real, hard-core Yoopers still call me a Troll. . .


  7. Craig - I mentioned Granite Lake only because it has about the coldest water I've ever experienced... I mean ever. The streams that feed it are all fed by glaciers and it is truly in a Wilderness area.

  8. Skip - Yeah, I imagine a glacier-fed lake would be pretty darned cold. It's been 6000 years or so since the glaciers were in Michigan, so you've probably got me there.

    I've been trying to think of a way to bring Great Bear Lake and Great Slave Lake, in Canada's Northwest Territories, into the story. They're both really big - on a par with the smaller Great Lakes - and REALLY far North; I imagine they're both pretty doggone cold, too. . .

  9. I don't swim in any body of water where things live, because if they live there, they die there, and they excrete waste in between, so it's all swimming pools all the time for this girl...but even then, based on how busy our YMCA has been lately, even that's testing me!

  10. faDKoG - So, the Dead Sea would be OK, then?

    And listen, I hate to be the one to point it out, but. . . kids pee in public pools, you know. . . I mean, that's why all the chlorine, right?

    Just, you know, sayin'. . .

    And of course, critters do more in the water than just live, die and excrete; we all know what WC Fields said about piscine copulation. . .

  11. It just occurs to me that Lake Champlain, NY-VT, might be worth adding. Or it might not. Folks in that area like to sometimes call it "The Sixth Great Lake", but methinks they exaggerate just a tad, as it is about 500 square miles and "your" great lakes all come in around 20,000 as I recall.

  12. Yeah, there was a movement some years back to have Lake Champlain officially designated as the 6th Great Lake, since it drains into the St. Lawrence River. Mostly, it was an attempted money-grab by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt), to get Vermont in on some of the federal bux designated for the Great Lakes.

    It was indeed laughable; one of the basic definitions of a Great Lake is that you can't see the other side. . .

    Now, I have nothing against Lake Champlain, and would be happy to add it to my list. I hear that it is very beautiful. But a Great Lake? Uh. . . no.

    Now that you mention it, tho, I don't think I've ever swum in Lake St. Clair, either, and that, while not a Great Lake either (it's 430 sqmi; really more like a wide, shallow section of the St. Clair/Detroit Rivers), is at least part of the Great Lakes system, located between Lakes Huron and Erie. . .

    There are any number of worthy bodies of water that I'd be proud to add to my list. But as things sit right now, I just don't see the likelihood that I'll ever get to swim in Lake Baikal. Maybe the Arctic Ocean; kinda the ultimate Polar Bear Club, there. . .

  13. Hey, ya know how long it takes to fully bathe in a lake? More than a few mins my friend.

    The daughters swim rules was connected to blue lips and they swam right up until that moment several times each day. Talk about toughians!!

  14. Our kids are pretty much the same way - swim until their lips are blue, and then go back in the water as soon as they can. . .

    And of course, you used a no-phosphate, biodegradable, eco-friendly soap, right?

  15. Well of course ..... maybe?

    I don't recall. I know Dove was recommended to us cause, you know, it floats.

  16. This summer I went swimming,
    This summer I might have drowned,
    But I held my breath
    And I kicked my feet
    And I moved my arms around...

    Lovely set of stories Craig. Along similar lines, I recently visited a small coastal town in Northern Ireland and, walking outside into pissing rain, realised that the Irish Sea has its own distinct smell, and even though I had never been there before, it smelt and felt so like Scotland's West Coast that I was immediately at home.

  17. Thanks for stopping in, PM! Cool story. You find traces of home in the oddest places. . .

    And I'm smiling to myself at the thought of my (mostly American) readers thinking about what a 'pissing rain' might be. . .


  18. I'll put our lakes up against anyone's ocean. Anytime.

    I've swum in Michigan, Huron and Superior. As kids we didn't care what the temperature was. We just jumped in. My sister lives in Marquette on the beach and it does sometimes warm enough to actually swim; if the wind is off the water and blowing in surface water. We're going up this weekend for our first ever November visit. Won't be swimming. But I'll be thinking about the Edmund Fitzgerald.

    And about those Spartans... that's who we root for. My dad went there when it was known for its agriculture school.

  19. You and me both, Yvonne. . .

    And thanks for stopping by!

    The Fitz. . . I remember standing on Whitefish Point, a year or two after she went down, thinking that, somewhere in my field of vision as I stood there, I might've seen her lights disappear, on the fateful night. . .

    My dad (just recently passed) was also a Spartan; and one of my sons is getting ready to be one. . .

  20. I don't know how the cold the Northern Saskatchewan lakes of my childhood are... but I'm thinking it's possible they might be colder than what you're used to. Or maybe not. :)

    I used to love to go swimming before a storm, when the air temperature dipped lower and made the water feel warmer. Looking back, I'm not sure how wise my parents were letting their children swim before an electrical storm... hahahaha... might have been their plan to "cull the herd" all along!

  21. Flutter - Well, just on latitude alone, I salute you. 'Northern Saskatchewan' comes off sounding, even to a 'northerner' like me, kinda. . . well, I mean, Saskatchewan all by itself is pretty 'Northern'; let alone the Northern part of it. . . Ever been to Great Slave? Great Bear?


    And when I was a kid, it always seemed like storms had a similar 'warming effect' on the lake, too. . . I think it just made us hardier. When we go to visit our So-Cal relatives in the 'cold-weather' months, people are breakin' out the parkas when the temps drop below 50F; kinda pathetic, really. . .