Swimming with Lake Monsters


Monsters ply the waters of Lake Michigan in the wee hours of the morning, fearing neither wind, nor rain nor crashing waves; only the sinister flash of lightning do they dread. The experience of a true open water swim, to meet like-minded people, and the chance to earn the coveted Lake Monster number draws them to Oak Street Beach Ladder 1 at the break of day. That number is currently at 350.

Lake Monsters (officially, Open Water Chicago) began in 2008 through the work of Steve Hernan, an avid triathlete involved in the local triathlon circuit for several years. It frustrated him that the Chicago lakefront shut down after triathlon season, yet around the country access to outdoor swimming continued throughout the year.

“There’s no way I’m going to stop just because it’s Labor Day,” Hernan says. No organized group existed that satisfied his desire to keep swimming through the seasons, “so I sent email lists out to people I knew and set up a blog site. … That’s how it started. No strategic plan or business model.”

This is no polar plunge, and Hernan wants you to know it.

“This is not a ‘get in, get out’ situation,” Hernan says. “We swim, sometimes half mile or more.” In the winter, that means a water temperature near 32 degrees, with air temperatures ranging anywhere from 45 degrees down to 10 degrees, or perhaps lower.

Open Water Chicago welcomes anyone who knows how to swim to its ranks, though having experience with swimming outside of a pool helps. What’s involved to join?

“Show up and sign waiver,” Hernan says. “It’s a social swim group, but realize you need to be aware of the dangers. We don’t tell people what to do, how much to swim.”

Lake Monsters encounter a wide range of water conditions, and you never know what you will get until you arrive. It could be choppy, raining or cold, but if the water is swimmable and there’s no lightning, Lake Monsters take to the waters. Hernan gives a briefing on the hazards and layout, the distances swimmers can choose so they know what they’re getting into should they decide to get in the water.

“There is one caveat: you won’t be supervised,” he says. However, swimmers are educated as much as possible to ensure positive experiences.

Swimming conditions at the lake vary as much as the people walking its shores. Hernan says that the most adverse conditions endured in recent memory took place last fall.

“We swam on Nov. 1,” Hernan says. “[There were] 15 to 20 foot waves; it was pretty intense. It doesn’t happen often. … Outside of that, [the worst conditions are] extreme cold temps.”

Local celebrities have yet to join the ranks, though Hernan has invited recent Polar Plunge participant and local triathlon sprint-distance participant Rahm Emanuel to give it a try.

“I got crickets,” he says, laughing. “I don’t [typically] go out to find a celebrity. Anybody who shows up at 5 a.m. is a celebrity if you ask me.”

The swim takes place at daybreak on Saturday, despite occasional grumbling.

“Lots of people don’t come out for that reason,” Hernan says. “There’s no exception. You have to come out when I have a meet-up if you want your Monster number. Some ask if they can take a picture at noon. Sorry, can’t do it.”

Hernan’s group appeals to those who want to swim outdoors, typically those training for a triathlon, or a master swimmer wanting to get into that environment, or someone who wants to go outside for health and fitness.

“Most open water swimming communities are dominated by master swimmers and triathletes,” Hernan says, “and each has a particular agenda, structured program.”

While structured programs suit the needs of some athletes, Open Water Chicago caters to those who would prefer to swim freely.

“Programs say, ‘Do these workouts and drills, start with this…,’ but a lot of people don’t want to do super long distances or workouts,” Hernan says. “They want the experience without the pressure of the master swim groups.”

The unpredictable conditions of Lake Michigan provide the central challenge to those in Open Water Chicago, not entirely unlike the circumstances a swimmer or triathlete may encounter on race day. Those that don’t need master swim groups for training can join the Lake Monsters instead to prepare for the unexpected.

“There’s a fascinating subculture at the lakefront early in the morning,” Hernan says. “I’ve interacted with these people in the morning, I know their dogs names, people that are watching the sun rise from [attending] the clubs the night before … sunrise worshippers: it’s a fascinating population there. It’s their time; then they go into hiding when the mob comes out later on.”