When Ted Erikson passed away earlier this year, he left behind a legacy of swimming accomplishments. He also took a bit of Chicago history with him.
Ted was a fixture among the swimmers at Promontory Point in Hyde Park. When I first met him almost a decade ago, he looked like a character straight out of central casting: the grizzled sea captain with piercing blue eyes and sun-faded jeans, a raspy laugh and salty sense of humor, and an endless stream of stories of watery adventures. The only vessel Ted captained, besides his forays on a windsurfer, was his own body. He plowed through rough and treacherous waters in search of firsts: the first to swim across Lake Michigan, in 1961 (it took him over thirty-six hours in huge, disorienting waves), the first to swim from the Farallon Islands to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, enduring frigid water and dodging sharks.
Despite having traveled the world to swim, from the English Channel—the swimmer’s Everest—to the Bosporus Strait, Promontory Point was Ted’s home. Perched atop the rough-and-tumble limestone rock steps descending to the water, he looked like a barnacle in human form, as if he’d been fixed there forever. That stick-to-it-ness endeared him to other regular swimmers, who in later years considered him kind of a touchstone of the Point. When I interviewed him in 2013, he remarked with incredulity: “People go on vacation to find a place like this. You’ve got a place to play in the grass, you’ve got a place to play in the water, you’re away from the city… Why go anywhere else?”
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To get to the Point, most people follow the main entrance, a low-ceilinged, dimly lit tunnel running beneath Lake Shore Drive that floods when it rains and is festooned with spiders and ever-changing graffiti. You emerge through the far end, blinking, into the light of a seemingly different world—the brilliant design of landscape architect Alfred Caldwell who, working with the Chicago Park District in the 1930s, transformed mounds of landfill into this perfect jewel box of a park, covered in flowering trees and featuring a fieldhouse straight out of a fairytale. Caldwell, our poet of the Lakefront (who actually did write poetry), wanted the Point to express “a sense of the power of nature and the power of the sea.” From this elevated crop of land, the view of our great inland sea, Lake Michigan, is unimpeded and spectacular. Gazing out, it is impossible to resist its siren song. You can find communities of swimmers up and down Chicago’s Lakefront, but whether or not he intended to, in the Point Caldwell created a home for them.
After crossing the Lakefront trail, the path splits, leading to the north or south sides of the Point. The early morning swimmers like me tend to head south, where long ago some kind soul attached a metal ladder to the steel girdle that runs around the Point, making it much easier to enter the water. To reach it, you have to navigate a stepped seawall assembled from massive limestone blocks lined in tiers, which jumble up against each other like crooked teeth. Some other community-minded spirit installed small steps marked with fluorescent paint to guide people down the rocks, though it is nowhere near accessible. Other swimmers gathered lakeside are friendly but mostly focused on gearing up and getting in. Everyone has their own style of entering. I like to climb down and hover on the ladder for a moment, before launching off on my back, hoping it might blunt the shock of entering the cold water.
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I’ve been swimming at the Point since I moved to Chicago over twenty years ago, but I only became a regular, a true Point Swimmer, about a decade ago. It was here that I rediscovered my passion for open-water swimming, one I developed in some of Canada’s deep, dark and remote lakes. When I first told people I swam in the lake, they’d look at me with horror, like I was a monster from the deep. “Didn’t I know about the annual alewife die-off, which turned the beaches into a noxious mess?!” I had no idea, as by then that recurring Chicago event was mostly a thing of the past. I was also unaware of less visible things: the raw sewage the city dumped into the lake when it rained hard or the oil and chemical spills downstream, creating toxic spumes that would slick the boards of surfers in Indiana and kill off all kinds of flora and fauna.
In those early days, I was swim-agnostic and would roam the Lakefront in search of good spots. On balmy summer nights Hyde Park was perfect for a dip off the north-side rocks followed by pizza at the long-gone Caffe Florian. There were other favorites. After work I might head up Lake Shore Drive, stalled in the crawl of rush hour traffic, to loiter at the edge of South Boulevard Beach in Evanston, waiting for the lifeguards to leave so that me and the other non-residents could wade in without restraint—or paying a fee. Easier to access were the ladders attached to the concrete north of Oak Street Beach. I’d slowly ease my way down, into the still-chilly-in-July water, to glide along serenely, under the impassive gaze of the dense stretch of lakeside high-rises towering above.
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Back at the Point, the high-rises of Hyde Park gleam gold in the rising sun as I decide where to head. There are many great options, like “Second Pier” “Baby Point” or “The Wreck.” Although nicknames, these designations also have a practical function, helping swimmers orient themselves in the water or leave word about where they’re headed. It is a big lake, after all. The classic open-water trail is south to the Pier and back, generally sticking close to the five buoys the Chicago harbor and lifeguard service string out across the cove. These bobbing markers are meant to draw a line in the water, protecting swimmers from boat and jet-ski traffic. Much like their car-based brethren, lake drivers regularly ignore these signals. On the plus side, they don’t seem to be early risers, so we mostly have the lake to ourselves. I count strokes between the buoys, “100, 200, 300,” sometimes wrapping my arms around them for a quick floating embrace before pushing on to the next. It can sometimes feel like an eternity before I clear the Museum of Science and Industry off to the west, but when its green patinated domes give way to the green leaves of trees, I cheer, knowing the Pier is not far off.
The only thing constant about swimming in Lake Michigan is that the experience changes, constantly. One day the lake is smooth as glass, the next it is completely wild. Even in the relatively protected coves that extend out from the north and south sides of the Point, you can encounter major swells, big enough to run boats aground and toss swimmers about like puny pieces of driftwood. I can’t count the number of times I’ve tried to photograph the way the waves, like Chicago’s famous wind, can slap you about, not just from one, but from every direction at once. The currents are also unpredictable. Sometimes the water is shrouded in fog so thick it can be hard to see land or spot the buoys. I love the days when the water and sky merge in a shimmering silver mirage, or when big gentle breakers come rolling through. All of it is exhilarating.
On days when the lake is clear and still, I watch the bottom as I move along. The water is deep, way above my head, but I can make out all kinds of things down below, from mysterious underwater infrastructure to old car tires to fish moving in and out of the rocks that line the Point. Other swimmers report back on things they’ve spotted, like a large pile of old metal beer cans or a lone swim fin stuck in the sand around a buoy anchor, strange sightings that I still haven’t come across. Tracing the bottom is why I like to head east, on the journey we call “swimming to see the city.” I stay closer to the Point, passing by “Heather’s Rock,” a submerged piece of limestone one swimmer likes to climb atop, striking a perfect winged victory pose, arms outstretched, before diving in. Nearby is the “Washing Machine,” named by another swimmer for the way the water sloshes around a circular indentation in the rocks, creating a pulling sensation as you pass. My favorite submerged site is what we call the “Ghost Pier,” a curving line of worn-away wood pylons that follow the Point as it gracefully curves to the north. As you track them around the concrete end of the Point known as “The Coffins,” Chicago’s magnificent skyline hovers above the water, revealing the all-too-obvious source of this particular swim’s name.
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There is a thrilling cognitive dissonance in swimming through our urban landscapes, navigating the space where two immense powers meet: the Great Lake Michigan and the Great American City, Chicago. To be a swimmer in such an environment offers you an entirely different perspective on both, paradoxically grounding you as you drift through an entity much greater than yourself, you, such a small speck of activity in a large organism that follows its own purpose, indifferent to your existence. Floating provides a full and rich panorama onto every aspect of the city: the order of the grid versus the dissolution of the waves, the elemental materials—stone, rock, sand and metal—that form the Lakefront architecture as well as the buildings and roads that line it. The hum of traffic streaming past on Lake Shore Drive offers a counterpoint to the whining jet skis and silent, distant sailboats. Communities from across the city converge at the Lakefront only to reassemble along the racial and socioeconomic lines that identify and divide them in neighborhoods. Even from the water I can see a glimpse of the city’s politics, the “Chicago Way” at work. Sure, lifeguards patrol the concrete but away from the beach they turn a blind eye to the people getting in, right next to the very signs warning them not to.
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Fading signs but no lifeguards greet me when I return to the Point. People ask each other “How was your swim?” even though the answer is always a variation on “Wonderful!” After swimming for anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour, some people are all-business, quickly changing into their work clothes right on the rocks before heading off. Others sip hot chocolate and tea or move to a neighborhood coffee shop to catch up. There is a standing weekly breakfast, called to order by a longtime swimmer, Deirdre Hamill-Squiers, who serves as an anchoring presence for the group, keeping people connected and friendly even when out of the water. A cast of characters drop in over the course of an hour or two, bringing stories from a recent vacation or a card for someone’s birthday. The talk is mostly light and lively, covering conditions on the lake, neighborhood politics or whatever fresh hell the latest news cycle has delivered. Some of my closest friendships have resulted from lingering away a morning with this group.
Unlike organized swim clubs, the Point Swimmers are a loosely affiliated bunch. Independent, gregarious and adventurous, they have an appreciation for tradition, custom and character but little use for rules or regulations. People drift in and out. Some come once, others stay decades, some the time it takes to complete a degree at the University of Chicago or a lease to end on a Hyde Park apartment. When the season gets into full swing, usually when the water hits sixty degrees, there are always at least a few people swimming throughout the day, from sunrise to sunset. People don’t stand on ceremony. If you keep showing up, you’ll be welcomed by a regular, given a quick guide to the water and rocks, then pretty much left to your own devices. Though the group is mostly white and middle-class, they are bound together not so much by who they are or what they believe but by what they do, which is swim, regularly, for sport, for pleasure, for peace of mind.
Although hundreds of thousands of people head to the city’s beaches during the season, a smaller number frequent the so-called “unpatrolled areas.” To swim there, you leave behind the smooth and polished sand to clamber over uneven rocks, with sharp bits of rotting wood or rebar sticking out in spots, most offering no easy entry or exit into the water, which can be deep. When I was entering the lake under the nose of the law, swimming had a vaguely criminal or transgressive feeling, though it never stopped me from plunging in. How could I not, with all that gorgeous water moving about, an undulating magical carpet shifting from bright green to turquoise blue to steely gray, then a furious roil of all three. But everywhere I looked, big bold black-and-white signs painted onto the concrete declared swimming a forbidden act and warned of the perils of submerged rocks. Avoiding the beaches and the lifeguards in rowboats, who confined swimmers to the shallow lukewarm water, like border collies herding sheep, I felt like a scofflaw.
The Point Swimmers proved a sanctuary, thanks to a history of other scofflaw swimmers. Before the Chicago Park District sanctioned distance swimming there, in an area running south to the pier at 59th Street, swimmers were regularly ordered out of the water by the Coast Guard, lifeguards and Chicago police. Swimmers like Ted Erikson and others deployed the buoy line as a defensive tactic. “When you’d see the Coast Guard come, you’d go on the inside, and when you’d see the lifeguards come, you’d go on the outside, so they couldn’t arrest you,” he recalled with a chuckle. Swimmers were typically given a warning or a citation for “swimming in a restricted area” but on August 10, 1987, a group including Erikson was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and breach of the peace, after refusing to get out of the water. In response, they returned the next day to stage a “scofflaw swim-in.”
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Chicago has long had an anxiously litigious relationship to lake swimming, with a tendency to keep people out rather than to teach them how to be safe in the water. It’s not hard to understand why. Lake Michigan is a deadly and unpredictable force, to even the most seasoned lake-goers. Its pummeling, powerful waves sweep people off the Lakefront path or dash them against the lake wall. There are resources to protect people: The Park District offers Red Cross Aquatic Programs and near the Point there are swim lessons in high schools or at the YMCA. From 1953 to 2012, University of Chicago students, who have integrated the Point into all kinds of activities (like the annual week-long Kuvia celebration of winter in January) had to pass a swimming proficiency test to graduate.
Newspaper accounts of the 1987 arrests at the Point suggest a recent drowning had prompted the crackdown. Lee Carr, who was nineteen and lived in the 6000 block of St. Lawrence, was pulled from the water not far from the Point on August 2, according to one report having “apparently panicked… after striking his head on a chunk of concrete that had eroded from the shoreline.” There were other, horrible deaths all along the water in the days around the arrests. A decomposed body was pulled from the lake on the North Side. Three men died after driving their car in the lake near Monroe Harbor. A man drowned at Belmont Harbor trying to save a friend struggling in the water and a swimmer near Diversey Harbor was overcome by rough water. Just this year, the Park District installed life rings all along the Lakefront, in unsanctioned and “safe” areas for swimming, a victory for organizers in Rogers Park who advocated for them in the wake of a drowning last year. But in 1987, the then-supervisor of beaches and pools in Chicago considered the actions of Ted and others a “bad example to set for kids.”
Deborah Sigler was also arrested and led to a police van, handcuffed and in her dripping wet bathing suit. “I thought, you’re really going to do this?” she recalls. Sigler and her family moved to Hyde Park in 1968 and first swam at 49th street, heading out early in the morning so their dog Cleo, who loved the water, too, could swim before the beach opened. Toting a camping stove, eggs, coffee and juice, they’d cook breakfast, even feed the lifeguards. In their teen years, Sigler and her twin sister Rebecca, who are both accomplished and still-active swimmers, discovered the Point, and treated it like their own swimming pool. They would swim relays not just to the pier but all the way out to the water-filtration pumping station, a roundtrip of four or five miles.
Sigler was part of a pod of young swimmers, alongside Julie Billingsley and the sisters Linda and Lisa Parson, whose mother Jody Howard was one of the “Janes,” the clandestine network of women who provided abortion services in the era before Roe v. Wade. They were the rare women swimming in what was then a mostly male and highly competitive environment, with Erikson and other record-setting swimmers, including his late son Jon, open-water swimmer and coach Dennis Matuch and stalwart Hyde Parker Conrad “Connie” Wennerberg, famous for getting into the lake every single day for seven years straight. To be arrested in such company and for such pursuits dumbfounded Sigler. “We weren’t breaking any rules, there were no laws against swimming there. How could they arrest us? It [the swim-in] was a principled swim.”
Principles are a significant ingredient in the culture and community of the Point. The same year people were clashing over the right to swim, others were celebrating another historic milestone in Point history: its fiftieth anniversary. The park’s plantings and buildings were in bad shape after years of neglect and a community group organized to undertake improvements, in the process launching a restoration movement that continues thirty-five years on, aimed at preserving the Point’s distinctive design and, by proxy, a remnant of the history of our entire lakefront’s construction. Caldwell, who toured the results two years later, considered their work an act of creation. Just shy of ninety, he invoked a powerful deity as a role model for these efforts, crying out “Shiva is the god of a good time!”
The Point, meant to be a good time for all, a tonic from the world’s troubles, has also been a home for them. In the early 1950s, community members fought to keep a Nike missile site off the Point. The U.S. army instead installed radar control towers, linked to missiles in Jackson Park. During the Vietnam War, the neighborhood again rallied to finally have them removed in 1971. A more troubling show of NIMBYism took place in that same era, when petitions circulated to have “bongo drum” players evicted from the Point. At first, then-alderman Leon Despres negotiated set hours for the musicians, arguing that allowing music in the park, previously banned, had quelled other behavior, like drinking, fighting and arrests. Things escalated again during the summer of 1970. After sanctioned concerts with hundreds of attendees ran late, police came in and peaceful gatherings ended in rock throwing, shots, injuries and arrests.
While accounts of these events in the newspapers never mention race, photos make clear that most of the players were Black people. According to the Hyde Park Herald, there was a lot of talk about “outsiders” coming in and disrupting the community. Ironically, an editorial in the Herald suggested that everyone relax and leave the musicians in peace in favor of a more productive fight, removing the radar towers from the Point. Coming just two years after police brutality against anti-war protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in downtown Chicago, it is easy to imagine how fraught the relationship between youth and officers must have been. These tensions around what can go on at the Point and who can be there without hassle remain. It is still a place to hang out and party and though arrests seem a thing of the past, people living near the lake continue to complain about noise, traffic, litter and drugs. The idea of an open Lakefront, free to all, is still a fraught concept.
The fight to swim at the Point is long over, but the community and culture it helped seed lives on. Swimming at the Point still binds together people who might not otherwise cross paths, from those who want a leisurely dip to people like Erikson, who see in this stretch of Lakefront an ideal place to transform themselves into world-class athletes. Other changes have come, all around and through the swimmers. Lake levels have swung up and down and the make-up of the group has morphed, from a mostly male to a much more female space. There have been deaths, natural and terribly unexpected, and friends have fallen out. What was once a local enclave has expanded, through word of mouth and social media. People drive from all over the city and suburbs to swim at the Point and triathletes are a more regular presence during their summer training season or when the water is warm enough for them to stand. Swimmers around the world drop by on trips to Chicago, some developing deep friendships along the way.
The pandemic also had a big impact. When staying at home knocked all routines out the window, including access to indoor pools, many swimmers found themselves staying in the lake longer, eventually swimming all year, from summer into darkening fall, on through the depths of winter and back out into the first signs of a new spring. Images of people in bathing suits navigating huge mounds of ice brought media attention, including the beautiful short documentary “Swimming Through” by Samantha Sanders, which documents some of the people behind these feats and the beauty of this place. Her film will find an audience, as outdoor and cold-water swimming has grown in popularity around the world.
All of these changes are welcome, working against the scene’s insularity and making the Point swimmers a more racially diverse group. My own relationship to swimming has changed, too. What began as a solitary endeavor has endured in my life by becoming an outward-facing and shared experience. That sustains me. I don’t swim for exercise or to compete in races. I’m after an immersion in something bigger than myself, a physical and spiritual ritual in a place that is both awesome and deeply fragile. Through these regular, repeated immersions, alchemy can occur, transforming users of the lake into what I’ve come to think of as its informal stewards, a way of being that inspires a desire to invest in it, to watch out for it—especially for signs of distress—and to repair it, where possible. It is a great gift, to be in communion with others and with that which is greater than us all, singular or combined, the natural world.