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Swimming in Lake Michigan this summer? Here are 3 swim safety tips you should know

Guy Matheson started swimming in Lake Michigan in 2018 after deciding the lake seemed “infinitely more enjoyable” than a pool. Now, he tries to go daily during peak season.

“I don’t think there’s anything else like it,” said Matheson, 53, who lives in Pilsen. “Every time I go, I’m always experiencing something different.”

Lake swimming, or open-water swimming, is leagues away from doing laps, said Louise LeBourgeois, 60. She should know. The Rogers Park resident has been doing it for about 20 years.

“It’s like the difference between taking a walk in your city neighborhood on the sidewalks versus going out to a state park and hiking,” she said. “You’re outside, it’s wilderness.”

A few years ago, LeBourgeois started coaching new swimmers on how to safely weather the lake’s constantly changing conditions. Here’s what she and Matheson say people need to know before jumping in.

When to swim

Though intrepid swimmers can dip in the lake year-round, peak season is July through September, when the lake’s temperature gets into the high 60s and low 70s, similar to a typical pool. Matheson usually starts swimming in late May, once temps hit the low 60s.

Before getting in the water, check the National Weather Service website for storm warnings or small-craft advisories – signs that it might not be safe for swimmers. Look at the Chicago Park District’s website for beach closures and water quality notices. The park district will close portions of the lakefront if storm runoff or sewage leaks cause bacteria levels to get dangerously high. Matheson said he’s never had any issue with water quality and has never gotten sick, but he discouraged swimmers from drinking lake water.

And of course, use your judgment. If the water looks choppier than you feel comfortable swimming in, stay out.

Where to swim

Matheson swims solo in waters not monitored by lifeguards, but he recommends that newbies start off in monitored areas. Any official beaches with lifeguard towers will be a good starting point.

“Start small,” he said. “If you really find you enjoy it, you can work your way up to it. You can start doing longer distances in areas where you have more of your own privacy.”

Many swimmers head out from Promontory Point in Hyde Park, but you can find groups all along the lakefront. LeBourgeois said she often joins a group in Rogers Park, and knows people teaching open-water swimming to adults in Evanston and at 57th Street Beach.

Talking to experienced open-water swimmers will help you get the lay of the land, she said. There are plenty of swimming communities in Chicago, which you can often find on Facebook. Open Water Swim Chicago hosts group clinics for novice swimmers.

LeBourgeois added that it’s important to know that you might not be able to exit where you planned. Wind and weather conditions can change while you’re out on the water, so the spot you scouted out for your exit might no longer be safe. She advises new swimmers to be sure they can swim a mile in a pool without stopping before they set foot in the lake, so they’ll be confident and comfortable if that happens.

What gear to get

If the water is warm enough, you can head out in a swimsuit, goggles and cap.

If you’re planning for longer swims in colder temperatures, you’ll want to stock up on swim shirts, wear an extra cap and consider investing in neoprene booties and gloves to keep your hands and feet warm. For LeBourgeois, these layers are necessary to head out when the water is in the low 50s. Winter swimming requires a wetsuit.

Matheson also advises swimmers to use a swim buoy, which is a fluorescent bag that attaches to the waist via a tether cord and floats behind the swimmer to keep valuables dry, act as a personal floatation device and increase visibility.

Anna Harden

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