My happiest day each year comes sometime in May on what my lake-swimming pals and I call our season opener. For several long, antsy weeks, our official temperature-taker has been floating the thermometer in the water and dutifully reporting back. Finally comes word that the lake, warmed to the high 50s, is ready for our submersion. I drive to the beach, singing out the open sunroof and exhorting myself to not be a spectacle in a swimsuit skipping to the water's edge.
For those of us who jump in the lake before Memorial Day and swim there through late autumn, a pool is a treadmill: Swim back. Swim forth. Regardless of season or forecast, the pool is always there, contained and controlled, with X number of laps per mile. Never wind-whipped, fish-filled, or plant-packed, the pool is most swimmers' happy place.
On the Safe Side
You don't learn to swim in the open water; you arrive a capable swimmer and learn to open-water swim. Even veteran lake swimmers spend winter and spring training in the pool. In early season at the lake, we swim along the shoreline, where we can touch bottom as we acclimate to cold water, get used to wetsuit constriction, and practice sighting—lifting our heads every nth stroke to spot off a target, and thereby swimming in a straighter line.
The best way to acquaint yourself with best swim practices is to connect with an established open-water group. To find one near you, ask masters coaches, search social media, or inquire at swim or triathlon shops.
10 Safety Tips
While open-water swimming is growing in popularity, swimmers should be cognizant that it is an inherently dangerous sport. Here are some safety tips to keep in mind:
1. Never swim alone.
2. Know your limitations and respect them.
3. Avoid areas with motorboat activity.
4. Monitor the weather before and during your swim.
5. Prepare for cold conditions: Wear a wet suit and avoid water below 70 degrees unless you're highly experienced.
6. Wear a brightly colored swim cap.
7. Wear an inflatable life jacket. Belt or leg styles are compatible with open-water swimming.
8. Stay near the rescue boat.
9. Equip the boat with flotation devices, cell phone, VHF radio, and ladder.
10. Ensure the boat captain is certified in water rescue and CPR.
—Debbie Munson Badini, DNR Boat and Water Safety education coordinator
Lake swimmers, also known as open-water swimmers, want something more. So we head outdoors into one of Minnesota's fabled 10,000 lakes, past the beach buoys and beyond most swimmers' comfort zones, including, sometimes, our own. We crave not only the endorphin rush that comes from physical exercise, but also the spirit-wakening trip of watching the tree line fall away as we cross the lake's glass-stilled surface or wind-frenzied whitecaps.
Spotting a distant island or a ridge on the opposite shore, we point and say, "There. Let's swim there." For whatever other reason could it possibly exist? From mid-May into October, a dozen or more open-water devotees and I gather on shore three or four times weekly. Many of us are regulars, but most pop in occasionally to supplement pool training or prep for an upcoming outdoor race. We swim different lakes and routes on different days of the week. When we're crossing busy lakes, kayak or canoe escorts join us to shelter us from boat traffic and provide support. One or two miles constitutes our average training swim, but we routinely do extended distances too.
The freestyle, or crawl, open water's predominant stroke, propels our bodies. Its metronomic rhythm clears our minds. There's nothing between us and the natural world. We're not on the water; we're in it, intimately encased by its wonder and largely at its mercy.
Across the Lake
"You can't be out there diddling around. Occasionally your thoughts drift, but you have to focus," says Jim Recktenwald of Shorewood. "There's a sense of accomplishment in doing something a lot of people wouldn't dream of doing: 'I swam across the lake this morning.' It doesn't matter how fast you are; you're doing it."
We swim with a motley assembly of cohorts, from 61-year-old Recktenwald to 12-year-old Carson Roehl. We joke that we never see each other fully clothed, but we depend upon each other out there in open water. As Roehl of St. Bonifacius says, "I just always know that [my swimming buddies] are there and accept me and care for me and have confidence in me, which makes me more confident."
As open-water swimmers, we rely on each other, control what we can, and then turn ourselves over to the elements. "There's an aloneness piece to it, definitely," says Dede Westen-Helgoe of Gibbon. "The lake seems so vast when you're in it. You feel so alone, even when there are other swimmers around you."
Not to be confused with a foolish dare or a vacation dip at the cabin, this is coordinated training and racing by conditioned athletes. We systematically acclimate to cold water and sometimes wear neoprene wetsuits, booties, and skullcaps. We adhere to safety practices (see sidebars) and remain solemnly aware that a panic or heart attack or a boat hit could be disastrous.
Pursuit of this sport takes some mental doing. I didn't need to hear that someone released a pair of small alligators into Scandia's Goose Lake in 2013. (A Department of Natural Resources conservation officer subsequently shot and killed one of them.) Or that trophy-sized muskies are often caught and released in metro lakes. When two otter attacks on swimmers in northern Minnesota lakes made headlines in 2012, I clung to statistical comfort but still blabbed the news to all my lake cronies. No way was I alone going to carry that knowledge.
"Every time I go for a swim, I think, what's in this lake?" says Scott Tripps of Wayzata, an Olympic Trials qualifier who coaches youth club and adult masters swimming. "If you think too hard about it, you're never going to go in."
Karen Zemlin of Eden Prairie grew up watching her dad, high school swim coach Roger Bosveld of St. Paul, participate in lake races. By the time she was 13, the two of them were exploring, stroke by stroke, the Ossawinnamakee chain of lakes near Cross Lake.
Now 47, Zemlin has an open-water résumé that includes the 23-mile Lake Mille Lacs crossing she and her father undertook in 2007. Mille Lacs is a great place to train for big water, she says. Once, near the end of a training swim there, Zemlin received an alert from her support kayaker. A storm was forecast to roll in at 5 p.m.
"Well, I'd better swim quickly then," thought Zemlin. Within three swim strokes, conditions on the big lake had changed. By the time the pair was 20 yards from land, 3-foot waves were hammering shore. "I looked at my watch," Zemlin says, shaking her head. "And it was 5 p.m."
Lake Superior off Park Point in Duluth helps Zemlin acclimate to cold water, which she will encounter when she attempts to swim the English Channel this summer.
Those of us who aren't channel-bound content ourselves with less epic swimming holes that have out-and-back or circuit routes free of boat traffic, Eurasian water milfoil, and poor water quality, which can cause clogged sinuses. Like anglers, we lake swimmers have our go-to lakes. Lake Minnetonka offers plenty of bays and shoreline, along with public restrooms at entry and exit points. Boat traffic, however, consigns swimmers to early-morning crossings. My crowd considers Lake Waconia west of the Twin Cities our home lake.
Last summer, for the second time, the 10-Mile Open Water National Championship cut back and forth across Lake Minnetonka. The race attracted 30 swimmers from across the country. Bloomington native Marcus Duval, then 22, won it in just over three and a half hours. A pool guy from his college swimming days, Duval takes to the Wild West nature of the open water.
"In the pool, the fastest swimmer always wins. In the open water, anybody can," he says. "The competition might cut a corner too close [around a buoy] and get caught in an eddy" or swim crookedly, or eat or drink too little, or otherwise botch it strategically.
Race directors face their own challenges. "Every year, I'm up against whatever might happen in the lake. It's not like balancing chemicals and setting a temperature in a pool," says Tripps, who stages various Twin Cities open-water races. He's had to improvise when bacteria closed beaches, fog reduced visibility, and low water caused swimmers to walk a stretch. Predictability is for the pool.
Tripps knows the experience he makes possible for others because he consumes it himself. Upon entering a lake, he says, "I start off thinking how cold the water is." Before long, he is "in awe of floating. I look down and realize I'm hovering above the ground. It's almost the feeling of flying—of sailing and soaring."