Lakefront Lunacy

By Cameron Davis

When my cousin/godson Jamie issued the challenge in late December to join him and about a dozen of his college friends to dive into the cold waters of Lake Michigan on January 1, I couldn’t resist. After nearly three decades of working on and recreating around the Great Lakes, this was something I’d never done before.

On January 1, the outside air temperature was 20 degrees. The water temperature along the lakefront: a mild 34 degrees.

As we sat in the parking lot at Evanston’s Lighthouse Beach waiting for everyone to arrive, my brother in law Charley wondered out loud: “do you think anyone else will show?”

A text from Jamie came in. Some of his friends “got the time mixed up” and—not surprisingly—would not be showing up. “Jamie will show,” I reassured Charley (and myself). “He’s got good mettle.”

A few minutes later, Jamie arrived, a single soldier among his battalion that was AWOL. We marched stolidly toward the icy water’s edge, peeled off layer after layer of clothing until we were only in our bathing suits, then plunged into the breaking whitecaps.

Actually, the dive wasn’t all that bad. The numbness took a bite out of whatever pain we would have normally felt. Still, I was happier after the fact, than during.

With all my instincts screaming, “don’t do it!” as I walked to the water, I still did it. But there was one thing I couldn’t bring myself to do: call this ritual the “polar bear plunge.” After all, we don’t have polar bears in the Great Lakes. If you ever contemplate doing something crazy like jumping into these frigid waters to celebrate a new year, we now have a more indigenous name for it: lakefront lunacy.

About the author: Cameron Davis is Senior Advisor to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. He provides counsel on Great Lakes matters, including the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.