Writer’s Workshop: Great Lakes I Have Known

Today, we’re asked to “Tell us about the lake you used to swim in when you were a kid.”

Every kid who grew up in the city of Chicago (well, most of them, anyway) know that the place to swim was Lake Michigan.

Lake Michigan is the darkest of the lakes in this picture. By Phizzy at the English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6489135

When it got hot in Chicago, there was really nothing better than having the largest lake entirely contained in a single country (so saith Wikipedia) as your swimming hole. Temperatures in Chicago were always taken at three places: Midway Airport on the Southwest Side, O’Hare Airport on the Northwest Side, and at the lake. The temperature by the lake was always 5-10 degrees cooler than at the airports. (Remember, I’m an American, so those are Fahrenheits and not centigrades or Celsiuses.)

There are lots of beaches along the lake shore, from the Wisconsin border to the Port of Chicago. Pollution didn’t seem to be much of a problem, at least where we were. The water was clean for the most part, although you found the occasional dead alewife floating on the surface, and there were times when you would find the jagged edge of a broken bottle, thrown in by a drunk teenager, with your foot. I cut my toe on one once.

Oak Street Beach from the north end. By Maw87 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9513245

The most popular beach in Chicago is Oak Street Beach, close to the curve of Lake Shore Drive, where it becomes Michigan Avenue. In the 30 years I lived in Chicago, I never went there. Every time I’d see a picture of that beach, it was always crowded. Besides, we had Albion Beach, later Hartigan Park, close by. When Walkie and Hicks (my grandparents) lived on Loyola Avenue, you were practically in the park when you walked out the back door, and it was a short walk to the water.

When I was a toddler, breaking in my first pair of shoes, my godmother, Fabulous Auntie Jill, took me for a walk down to the beach. As we were walking along, she stopped to talk to a friend of hers. I kept walking, right into the lake, before she caught up with me. So much for my new shoes.

I was never much of a swimmer, really, and that was the beauty of the beach: even if you didn’t swim, you could play in the water. You had to go quite a ways offshore before it got really deep, and most of the water was waist-high. Maybe that’s just as far as I ever went.

I can’t talk about lakes without some mention of Lake Delavan, in the southern part of Wisconsin. We used to go there every summer when I was in grammar school and rent a cottage in Assembly Park on the northern shore of the lake. We went swimming practically every day, except for the day (and there was always that one day, sometimes two) when it rained. There was a centrally-located swimming area and beach that was surrounded by piers, keeping it safe from fishermen and speedboaters. On a hot day, there’d be hundreds of kids in the lake, diving off the piers or the diving board. Even when it was a little cool out, you could count on it being pretty crowded.

Across the lake was Lake Lawn Lodge, where Dad used to golf. In 1964 or 1965, there were rumors that The Beatles were staying there, resting up during a tour. Turns out, the rumors were true.

17 thoughts on “Writer’s Workshop: Great Lakes I Have Known

  1. I did swim in Lake Michigan once and I just remember having a fun time overall. We live 10 min away fr9m Lake Ontario and, on a clear day, we can see Toronto so very clearly but I don’t think I would swim in it. I have swam in Lake Erie on many occasions from Sherkston Beach, Crystal Beach and Long Beach area. When I went to church with my dad, the Wainfleet church priest would go to Longbeach to have mass. I couldn’t wait until after mass because my dad would 5ake us to the beach. We couldn’t swim but we could walk on the beach and wade into the water before the water touched my dress. My dad didn’t have to do this but he did and it is a fond memory.

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  2. I only have one memory of a lake. It was in the Poconos and I don’t think we actually went in the water. Our children did use nets to try to find fish,. If I remember correctly, they did catch tiny things.
    I prefer the ocean, but I don’t think you’d find that in Chicago.

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  3. Hi John – I love that memory of you walking right on by – straight into the lake water … and your lovely Aunt Jill … Michigan is rather larger than Lake Windemere in the Lake District where we swam when we went to see grandparents – happy days … and very happy days when the weather’s warm as now – cheers Hilary

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    1. I love Fabulous Auntie Jill, who’s my godmother, dearly. God knows I put her through enough…

      To give you an idea, Lake Michigan’s surface area is larger than Wales. It’s a tremendous natural resource.

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  4. Yours sounds like an idyllic childhood! I have family in Chicago, and my nieces post pics at the beach on Instagram, but I never thought to ask WHICH beach. Now I will 🙂 It gave me chills to think of being that close to where The Beatles were hanging out! Just think, your dad could have run into George Harrison if he stopped to get gas on his way back to the cabin – WOW!!

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    1. I wouldn’t exactly call it idyllic, but the times were simpler and we were a little more innocent.

      It’d be interesting if they let the Fab Four loose in the town, wouldn’t it? I’m pretty sure they were confined to their rooms and had meals sent in. Remember in “A Hard Day’s Night,” when Paul’s grandfather remarked “It’s been nothing but a room and a car, and a car and a room, and a room and another room”? At the height of Beatlemania they could hardly go anywhere without being mobbed, so they didn’t really go anywhere. The price of fame, I guess…

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    1. We never had any trouble swimming there. I know that the area around Gary was pretty badly polluted in the ’60’s, but I think it’s cleaned up since then. It was clean near the Dunes in the ’70’s, and probably since then.

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  5. I’ve seen Lake Michigan but never dipped my toe in it! The Atlantic Ocean was my swimming hole. I learned how to swim at a young age. It was a requirement of my elementary school. Now, I won’t set foot in a pool!

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  6. Swimming on the beaches of the great lakes is tops! May as well be the ocean, but not so much with the salt sting 😉
    I grew up swimming in much smaller lakes. My grandparents and one of my aunts lived on lakes, so I was definitely a lake kid.

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    1. That’s definitely an advantage of a lake as opposed to the ocean: fresh water. I was at a conference at Disney World, and they knew the water was undrinkable, so they provided bottled water. However, it was warm, so they provided ice, made from the same undrinkable tap water that necessitated drinking bottled water in the first place…

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  7. Wow Lake Lawn Lodge is famous now! 😉 Isn’t it interesting how we all can dig back into our childhoods and remember a specific lake our family frequented? Ours was Lake Tapps, a smaller man made lake, but we used to spend the entire day getting sun burned next to it.

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