Thursday, April 21, 2011

How to Swim the Great Lakes

Photo Credit: Heidi Bonner

I've been in every single one of the five Great Lakes.  Texas has few shortcomings--yes, I suppose I have gone nativ by saying it's a place and a state of mind that continues to delight and surprise me in so many ways--but it doesn't really have proper lakes, by which I mean those not dug by machine but by glaciers hundreds of thousands of years ago.  The still bodies of water, muddy and lukewarm, here in my adopted homeland, are Fake Lakes.  The spring-fed rivers are pretty good, though, and once I dove into the Comal and pronounced it "heaven."

Lake Ontario was first.  I was fourteen and at a cross-country meet a full two hours from the spot in the road where I was sequestered until I reached legal age.  We'd done well, my teammates and I, and we jumped into the chilly October water and managed to get home on the school bus without hypothermia setting in.  It felt so exotic to be near big water when my daily existence was filled with flat cornfields and cows worthy of Nebraska in their visual impression, if not their expanse.  Later I would sit on the slate gray rocks in Kingston, Ontario, by the shores of the same body of water asking the equally gray waves to tell me how to fit in with the bluebloods who had made a mistake and let me into their midst. Across the mouth of the St. Lawrence River was Syracuse, which might as well have been in another country. Oh wait, it was. Go Orange??

I waited a long time for the others.  Huron came when I visited my first college boyfriend, a ginger-haired pre-med student who was working as a Canada Customs agent on the Bluewater Bridge in Sarnia for the summer.  On the weekend where we were getting ready to break up between first and second year, I visited him, getting on a plane by myself for the first time, and he took me down to what could loosely be called a beach.  I walked in up to my ankles, and he made a joke about toxic sludge, at which point I turned tail. To me he was a big city boy, and I took him at his word, though in the back of my mind I worried for a few weeks about what might happen to me. He's a gynecologist now, which works since he innately possessed the sense of humor that belongs to the medical profession.

Then I planted trees.  I did it badly, but then there was Lake Superior.  A gang of very dirty college kids sat in the restaurant at the Shoreliner Motel in Thunder Bay, and we looked at the Sleeping Giant, as the partially submerged islands are called.  At some point it was decided we all needed an icecream headache, and we were in, heads wet or it didn't count.  Later I flew over the frigid monster, which does touch Michigan, though in a place where nobody else wishes to touch it unless they are fishing.

Later I married, it appeared well, at least at the time.  We met the in-laws at Pelee Island.  One was from Iowa, about which she still would wax poetically, despite the fact she'd lived below the Mason-Dixon line for about a quarter century and had somehow in her Polyanna memory forgotten about shoveling snow.  The other, the fourth husband, was from Mississipi and hated all Yankees, although he seemed to find this island rather agreeable.  I liked the screened-in porch, where I read The English Patient, which I liked but didn't really understand completely, plot-wise, until the movie.   But the book made, in the circumstances, a fine companion.  The beach was lovely and really, really hot for Canada--as it turns out, it is the southernmost point in the country--but we couldn't venture far due to the riptide warnings.

Michigan was only two summers ago, with my kids.  It's a good thing we got our feet in in Evanston early, because the next day when we hit the beach in Chicago proper, some nice young people told us the Health Department prohibited us from putting a toe in due to toxins.  The people watching was pretty good, though.

My favorite lake in the world isn't among the Greats, or at least not the official ones.  It's a little one, unimaginatively named Green Lake, and it's a couple of hours north of Ottawa, which means by late August the leaves are already starting to turn. There are too many memories of this place to document here, but swimming across it and sitting on that quiet dock do more than enough.  A dear friend, along with her family, included me in many a Labor Day weekend there. I remember the quiet, the wind, the conversation, and the comfort of a known place.  The picture above tells it all.  That, my friends, is a lake.


  1. Oh, Sue, so many familiar places--Blue Water Bridge, Sarnia. I learned to swim in Lake Michigan, which was not good--I was taught to swim parallel to the shore and always be sure I could touch a toe to the bottom. To this day, I'm not comfortable in water over my head. I've dipped toes in Lake Ontario, two blocks from my grandmothers house in Oakville, but that's all. Oh, if you have your small lake in Canada, I have Couchiching and the town or Orillia. I think we've talked about that.

  2. Colin, is this the one in Haliburton? Isn't there one with a name that is ridiculously long? Used to know it!