This intrepid group of swimmers makes braving the chilly water of Lake Michigan seem fun.
Before they were “The Patriarch” and “The Cap’n” they were just Greg Wyder and Ted Shue. Ten summers ago, the Northwestern Mutual coworkers decided to spend a lunch break swimming at Bradford Beach. Now, they’re the founding members of the Lake Michigan Swimmers, a loose-knit group that brings a dash of California surf culture to the shores of Lake Michigan. Between May and October (more or less), as many as 25 group members, a mix of men and women, ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s, turn out at Klode Park’s beachfront in Whitefish Bay – less rocky, less crowded than Bradford Beach – to swim. Some wear wetsuits. Most use colorful nicknames.
It’s just after noon on a cloudy Sunday in May. The air temperature hovers between 50 and 55 degrees. Wyder, Shue and two other men are dipping their bare toes into Lake Michigan.
The coldest temperature they’ve braved? 44 degrees. “Once you start learning the tricks of the lake,” Shue explains, the frigid water seems less threatening.
“I’m calling it 50 [degrees] on the nose,” says a guy the group calls “Neo,” a riff on a character in The Matrix. “It’s more like 49,” counters Shue. Wading into the water again, he downgrades his guess to 46 degrees.
Wyder pulls out a thermometer and proclaims the water temperature a not-quite-tepid 51 degrees. Unfazed, the other swimmers wade into the water and forward crawl along the shoreline, leaving a trail of ripples in their wake.
There are no lanes, no timed races. Landmarks along shore – such as an orange kayak – serve as benchmarks. A typical swim goes between a mile and 2.5 miles. “We have people from all walks of life – doctors and lawyers, physicists,” says Wyder. Some, such as new member Ally Klasinski, use the swims to train for triathlons. Others are more interested in the sense of camaraderie that keeps the group afloat.
Since 2008, the group has chronicled its swims, which typically take place at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. weekdays and noon on Sundays, in a blog, aptly named Lake Michigan Swimmers. There, they share photos and stories, tease those who didn’t make it to the beach and glorify braving the (more often than not) unwelcoming waters of Lake Michigan. The posts conjure up The Endless Summer (the classic surf movie from the 1960s), with a band of swimmers united by a single-minded obsession with the water.
And what about that water, anyway? Questions about its quality keep many locals from even considering a dip, but not this unflinching group. “We worry about pollutants,” Wyder acknowledges, “but the water is too cold for pathogens that you might find in an inland lake.” The shoreline is full of “gunk,” he says, like runoff that churns into algae growth, but farther out the water is clear and clean. “I just try to use common sense and avoid gunky brown water. It’s worked for me so far.”
On a good day, you can even spot some marine life. “If you’re lucky, you’ll see schools of fish, especially in the beginning of the season,” says Wyder.
After emerging from the lake, the group sometimes sticks together for food and drinks. This has led to “Pirates Pizza Night” at Lisa’s Pizza and Friday-night fish fries at Jack Pandl’s Whitefish Bay Inn. Sometimes, the group dries off over brunch at City Market in Shorewood.
And they swap expert secrets, including one for taking the edge off of wading into the cold water: Sip a little Killepitsch, a German liqueur, first. “It warms you up,” says Shue. ◆