by Wendy BooydeGraaff
You can’t understand if you’ve never seen Lake Michigan. You wouldn’t understand how clear the water is, clearer and clearer the farther north you go, and unsalted, so the body’s buoyancy is not enhanced. Strokes are sharper, less drag than in the ocean. The skin feels clean, no film or residue. You can be swimming in water 30 feet deep and not see either shore. You can be swimming in water 80 feet deep and see the speckled stones below as if your tiptoes could touch. Or you can be swimming in water 800 feet deep and clearly see the shine of steel rooftops. Or the bridge. Or feel the vibrations of the twelve shipwrecks below. Or the glugs of the drowned ones who got caught in summer’s riptide and never resurfaced. On clear days when the snow has melted and the water is at its most pristine, the Coast Guard’s low-flying helicopters form its only ripples. It’s important to keep swimming then, head down, front crawl earnest and onward. You can close your eyes and swim for an hour or two, imagine you are training for the Great Lake crossing, imagine you are Jim Dreyer and the Coast Guard will believe you are, too. When your eyes are closed, you can focus on your muscles, your form, your breath. You can hear the hum of lake trout and the suction of zebra mussels, the slither of sea lampreys and the float of seaweed. Do this for longer than you think your muscles can handle, for it is only in pushing past your limits that you make progress. When you open your eyes and scan the horizon, treading water and turning until you recognize something, anything, and when you realize you recognize nothing at all besides the feel of the water surrounding you, then you have arrived.
I grew up in the Great Lakes region, near Lake Ontario and about an hour from Lake Erie. Each of the Great Lakes has its own character. I didn’t travel much as a kid, so it took many years before I visited all five of them. The first time I went to Lake Michigan, I couldn’t believe the expanse of sand, the clear water, the warmth. This piece is about obsession, about trying to be lost in order to find oneself.
Wendy BooydeGraaff’s stories and essays have been published in SmokeLong Quarterly, Bending Genres, Critical Read, Across the Margin, Oxford Magazine, Jellyfish Review, and elsewhere. Find her at wendybooydegraaff.com and @BooyTweets.