10 things we love about the lake
Lake Michigan defines Chicago, both literally and figuratively. We think it's time this underappreciated wonder got its props.
By TOC Staff
1. It made Chicago what it is
No lake, no Chicago. It’s that simple. Without that big blue beauty out there, we’d be Dubuque. “The lake was absolutely pivotal in creating Chicago,” says William Cronon, professor of history, geography and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin. Why? Let’s say you wanted to ship some tea from England to California in the 19th century. The boat would sail into the St. Lawrence River, then down through the Great Lakes. “And Chicago is the southwestern-most point of the St. Lawrence watershed, so anything traveling from the Atlantic to the American West via water would come here,” Cronon says. So the railways fanning west originated here, and these same railways brought meat from the Plains states to be processed, which led to the creation of our stockyards. All this commotion and commerce brought jobs, which brought people, which led to—taa-daa!—the city we know and love today.—Ruth Welte
2. It’s our own public water park
The lake offers plenty of ways to hold your own personal X Games. Howza ’bout kayaking? You can join Chicago Kayak (www.chicagokayak.com), which offers free rentals to members and departs from Leone and Wilson Beaches up north. You can get a yearlong club membership and a free introductory lesson—which is required to join the club—for a mere $130. If windsurfing is more your speed, Windward Sports (www.windwardsports.com) offers private lessons for $50 an hour from June–September. But for our money, the most exciting water sport is kitesurfing, in which harness-wearing participants combine surfing and kite-flying to navigate a board propelled by a huge kite. Chicago Kitesurfing (www.chicagokitesurfing.com) launches from Montrose Beach, and offers expert instructors, classes and equipment. All that’s required is water and wind (no waves needed). It’s a pricey hobby— a three-hour lesson (with equipment provided) costs $150–$250, and if you decide to buy your own gear, you’ll pay $1,000 to $3,000—but as any adrenaline junkie knows, you have to pay to play.
Plain, old-fashioned surfing is an option, too. Every day, Lake Michigan longboarders watch cold fronts closer than Tom Skilling, and when the winds hit 25 miles an hour, it’s time to slip on the wet suit in search of the perfect wave—calendar be damned. “I surf all year round, until the lake freezes over,” says Jim Hoop, 43, Chicago’s unofficial surfing ambassador. “I’ve surfed excellent waves on New Year’s Day.” If you wanna join the fun, hit Third Coast Surf Shop in New Buffalo, Michigan (269-932-4575, www.thirdcoastsurfshop.com), for lessons. And since surfing isn’t allowed in Chicago proper, head to Michigan City or Whiting in northwest Indiana, good spots when there’s a west or north wind.—Gretchen Kalwinski and Rod O’Connor
SURF city Suit up, dude, and you can ride a wave any day of the year. - BUCKETS OF FUN Unlike those snooty North Shore 'burbs, you don't need no stinkin' tokens to hit our beaches.
3. If you’d rather be fishing, you can be
In the smelt fishing heyday of the 1960s, the glow from thousands of lanterns lit up the lakefront during the early morning hours of the month of April, the peak of smelt season. But today, low plankton levels have reduced the smelt population to a fraction of its peak. Now, it’s mostly old-timers numbering in the hundreds who drop their nets along the lakefront hoping to land these tasty critters, which are about six inches long and are often fried and gulped down whole (some remove the heads and tails, others don’t). If you want to help keep the tradition from going the way of Marshall Field’s, visit www.ifishillinois.org for info on gear, getting a license, and the best fishing spots, or call Bob Long Jr., the Chicago Park District’s “Fishin’ Guy,” at 312-742-4969.
On the other end of the fish spectrum, about an hour north in suburban Winthrop Harbor, Captain Ken LaBelle’s Morning Affair Charters offers a chance to catch more than 20 fish per half-day trip. Bring along some beers, and Captain Ken will provide all the gear and instruction for beginning anglers to snag good-sized king salmon, steelhead, trout and other lake fish. You need a license, but call ahead and you can buy one on the boat. Just don’t eat too much of your catch (see “Troubled waters?”). (815-337-2803, www.morningaffaircharters.com; $275–$420 for five hours, max six people)—Rod O’Connor
4. You can dive for sunken treasure (and other old stuff, too)
Lake Michigan may look serene, but did you know it contains at least 255 documented wrecks? Most of the doomed vessels were schooners, tugboats or barges full of mundane cargo (so there’s not much chance you’re gonna find One-Eyed Willie’s gold). But even if there is no pirate’s booty, local scuba divers still consider these underwater graveyards to be treasures in their own right.
Popular wrecks include the 240-foot long Material Service barge (which rests upright 30 feet deep, only a half-mile from Calumet Harbor) and the Wisconsin. This freighter/passenger steamer sunk in 1929 off the coast of the Illinois-Wisconsin border and still contains several vintage automobiles.Admittedly, diving in Lake Michigan isn’t exactly a trip to the Caymans: Visibility can be anywhere from a few feet to 80 feet (when it’s sunny out), and the water temperature can be as frigid as 40 degrees. But with many wrecks as shallow as 30 to 40 feet below the surface, even novice divers can explore.
To get started, you’ll need two things: certification and a spot on a charter boat (diving from shore is illegal). Underwater Safaris (2950 N Lincoln Ave, 773-348-3999, www.uwsafaris.com) offers Open Water Diver certification and a wreck-diving class. Charter dives to local wreck sites average about $90 per person and can be booked through Loves Park Scuba (815-633-6969, www.lovesparkscuba.com; departs from Winthrop Harbor, Racine and Milwaukee inWisconsin) or N’Pursuit Charter Adventures (219-942-5767, www.npursuitcharters.com; departs from Northwest Indiana).—Erin Ensign
YOU LOOK A WRECK The Wisconsin went from mode of transportation to diver's delight.
5. It makes the weather suck less
We know, we know: “Cooler by the lake” has become a cliché. It’s the name of a local band, the title of a Chicagocentric comic novel and, sadly, a marketing slogan. Still, the phrase became ubiquitous because it’s true. When it comes to the weather, Lake Michigan saves the day.
Sweltering months become more bearable the closer you get to the water, and the winters are gentler, too, thanks to Mama Michigan. The lake heats up and cools down very slowly, meaning that it’s usually warmer than the air above it in winter, and comparatively cooler in summer. During the cold months, it acts like a 307-mile-long hot-water bottle, and in summer it chills the breezes that pass over it, cooling the city. Given the endless griping about the weather from December to March, we oughta make “Warmer by the lake” the catchphrase instead. That would remind all city dwellers that the picturesque dusting of snow you’re enjoying in January probably has them scrambling with snowplows in Schaumburg.—Web Behrens
6. You can watch the sun rise and set
Everyone knows you can watch the sun rise over the water, but not many of us make the effort to get our asses out of bed early enough. Still, it’s the perfect way to start your day (or end your night), hitting the lakefront path as the sun peeks over the watery horizon.
But wait—there’s more: You can watch the sun set over the water, too. Well, okay, not from the city proper. You have to head to the Indiana Dunes to do that—but what a sweet day trip it would be, especially when the climax occurs during a much more manageable hour. Take the South Shore Line train, which will drop you within walking distance of the Indiana Dunes’ southernmost beaches. Weekend roundtrip tickets are just five bucks—and you’ll be spared the Dan Ryan debacle.—Web Behrens
7. We’ve got beaches for everybody
Beaches are Chicago’s great equalizer, our most democratic fixture—we’re not like those snooty North Shore commuters who demand payment to hit the sand. We can thank Daniel Burnham for these open vistas: The visionary city planner pushed for an open lakefront when guiding city expansion in the nineteen-aughts. As a result, four-fifths of the city’s shoreline, containing 29 miles of beaches, remains open to the public—an achievement envied by cities worldwide. There’s even a place to let your pup frolic in the waves, at the Belmont Harbor dog beach.
And on days when you can’t swim, well, there’s always beach volleyball, which—need we mention?—also makes for a great spectator sport.—Web Behrens
8. You can drink it
Ahh, good ol’ Lake Michigan tap. Nothing like it. Some of us filter it, but there’s nothing wrong with drinking our H20 straight from the faucet. And we’re not the only ones who say so. “It’s regarded as some of the best drinking water in the world,” says Debra Shore, a longtime local conservationist and a member of the Illinois Environmental Council.
Keeping Chicago’s water safe has inspired two major public-works projects. Back in the late 1800s, we dumped our sewage into the Chicago River, which of course emptied into the lake. Not too smart—but we pulled off a major engineering wonder in 1900, rigging a series of locks to reverse the flow of the river, sending our dirty business down the Mississippi instead. (That boneheaded Lou Brock trade decades later to the St. Louis Cards? Karmic payback.) A century later, the ongoing Deep Tunnel Project provides further protection, containing excess water during major rainstorms that would otherwise cause our sewers to flood and overflow into the lake, poisoning the proverbial well.—Web Behrens
9. You can drive around it
What better way to admire Lake Michigan in all its freshwater glory than to drive around the entire thing? Yes, it’s a big time commitment, and yes, it’ll put a shitload of miles on your car, but the Lake Michigan Circle Tour is hands-down the best way to get deep with our great lake. Conceptualized back in ’87 by some road-trip–savvy folks at the Michigan Department of Transportation and the West Michigan Tourist Association, the LMCT is actually just one loop in a ginormous tour (6,500 miles, folks) that traces the perimeters of all five Great Lakes. But most folks opt to just drive around Lake Michigan, a not-insubstantial 1,100 miles. It takes around five days, presuming you allow yourself time to actually take in the scenery. And believe us, there’s a lot to take in: The tour is punctuated every few miles with lakeside communities, picturesque ports and all the quaint little towns in between. From the adorable Leland, Michigan, to the gorgeous scenery of Door County, Wisconsin, there are plenty of pleasant rest stops along the way. We recommend doing the circle tour on the brink of fall, when the leaves are a-changin’, but the water isn’t yet ass-cold. For more information, visit the official Lake Michigan Circle Tour site at www.michiganhighways.org/other/lmct.html.—Lauren Viera
10. It sure beats the ocean
Okay, we know people tend to romanticize the ocean’s endless blue sweep, the shimmering surface that shines like a million diamonds, blah blah blah. But consider this: In the cool, fresh waters of good ol’ Lake Michigan, you’ll never have to deal with diced-shell–scattered, foot-slicing seashores. Nor will your eyes burn from brine. Nor will kamikaze, homicidal waves crash onto your head, push you under and send you tumbling around like a sock in a clothes dryer. Nor will a great white shark get all up in your grill while you’re just trying to get a little swimming in.
GO FISH Anglers are willing to brave the elements to wet a line.
Instead, you’ll have silky-smooth silt at your toes. You’ll be surrounded by crisp waters that could probably pass for eye-drop quality after a quick purification. You’ll be able to tranquilly loll in gentle waves. And, unless the Shedd suffers a serious security breach, your swimming day is guaranteed to be predator-free. So shelve those dreams of Hawaii or Florida getaways, and jump into Lake Michigan. Go ahead, the water’s fine.—Cecilia Wong