Swim Report – June 13, 2021 – Inferno Edition

When we are this close to the Summer solstice with the sun rising at 5:14am, I normally rely on a much more crisp June lake to wake me up after a night of compromised sleep. But also, it was not meant to be yesterday morning!

I got out to L1 just past 5:00am, and the lake was choppy with some smaller but increasing swells. So I wasn’t able to get an initial surface temperature reading. But a quick “hand and foot” test told me that something was drastically different as the water didn’t seem anywhere near as bracing as it was the last week. I figured that this was just the surface – i.e. there would almost certainly be a nice, biting thermocline to contend with once I get in the lake. But given that the lake was very agitated, I doubted that this would be the case. So I threw caution to the wind and went in with just my jammers and goggles (i.e. no cap).

My assumptions were correct – the lake temperature came in at just above 74F all throughout the swim. I even took several dives down to the bottom to check if there were any variances. But the thermometer read 74F at every level!

I ended up doing a 1/2 mile like last week, but this time involved a large loop with a turnaround at the 1/4 mile point. Truth be told, I preferred to just stay in the lake and play around in the big “pool area” between the shoreline and the buoys 1/4 mile out. And even though the swells had picked up, they weren’t really bothersome since the lake was so warm!

So I hope you wall were able to get out on Sunday and sample a very rare event. I can tell you from experience that this is unseasonably high, and the Chicago lakefront is sure to regress to the mean any day now. And to be honest, I’ll be just as happy when it does!

L1 at 5:00am
Sunrise shots!
Adrian, Lake Monster 529 (congrats!)

Swim Report – June 6, 2021 – 5:00am Bliss

After a rather blustery week, the late Spring heat finally came in during the weekend giving the lake a much needed boost back to its normal temperature levels. And everything seemed to come together Sunday morning to create one of the most spectacular swims I’ve had in a while!

Since we are closing in on the Summer solstice, sunrise is at the nadir time of around 5:15am. However, you have to get out there earlier to check out the pre-sunrise colors to the east and on the lake. So I was on the road at 4:30am, way sleep deprived but anxious to get out to the lakefront.

The conditions at L1 were nothing short of idyllic. The lake was calm and flat, and the surface temperature came in at 60F lake temp. I waited for the sunrise to crest, and I ended up delaying my swim entry a bit longer as the view to the east was simply out of this world. As I’ve stated before, the pictures below do not adequately capture the “live” version of nature’s show!

I went in with just my jammers, cap, and goggles, and eased into the tranquil lake. It was a bit chillier below one meter as the colder thermocline layer was still hanging around the shoreline. But it sure made the entire swim area crystal clear and an absolute joy to swim in!

Because the lake was so calm, I got in a very solid swim rhythm and made it to the 1/8 mile point very quickly. Since I really hadn’t expended much energy, I decided that this would be the day that I would finally make an official return to Oak Street Beach. So I kept up leisurely my stride and landed on dry sand about 15 minutes later.

The 1/2 mile walk back was my victory lap, although I had to contend with a slight afterdrop for about half the way. But it was well worth it, and well worth getting up so early!

5:00am skyline
Sunrise sequence!

Swim Report – May 23, 2021 – The Pool is Open!

Another perfect morning for a swim! I posted a sunrise shot on the OWC Facebook page that showed what it was like out at 5:25am, but it was even more impressive in person. The lake came in at a crisp 55.6F, but the mercury read 53.2F a few feet below the surface. This was because the lower thermocline layer had moved in giving us the colder (and crystal clear) water from below.

As with last week, I did my usual 1/4 mile in just my cap and jammers, and it was phenomenal. So I expect to see more of you out at L1 now that things are heating up!

Sunrise sequence
Perfect conditions at the pool!
Lake Monsters were here!

Swim Report – May 16, 2021 – Calm Seas

Three of us made it out to L1 at 5:30am to get in an early morning sunrise swim. The lake was mostly calm and came in at a surprisingly tepid 56F. Since this was almost at parity with the 55F air temperature, I didn’t have any issues with my goggles fogging up during my 1/4 mile swim. Keeping this update brief as it’s already two weeks late!

Blue dawn
Lake Monsters pre-swim
Back at L1!

Swim Report – May 2, 2021 – Spring Turnover Edition

Another tardy report, but here goes – we had a 53.4F lake temp and a 64F air temp at 5:35am. The lake conditions were ideal, perfectly calm and very clear due to the lower thermocline layers starting to mix with the winter layer that has been in place since early November. In my opinion, these are some of the best times to get in the lake as you occasionally get water so clear that it looks like a Caribbean reef. Plus the sunsets are amazing this time of year as you can see below.

Dawn skyline with bonus crescent moon
The view to the east

Swim Report – April 18, 2021 – 50F+ Zone!

The air temp came in at a crisp 42F, but the official in-swim lake temp measured a balmy 50.4F at 6:00am. Plus, as you can see, the lake conditions were ideal. So I got in a quick 1/4 mile in just a shortie and cap and didn’t have anywhere near the level of discomfort on my hands and feet than the prior week. As an added bonus, we had a magnificent sunrise which looked even more amazing in person!

L1 at daybreak
Sunrise sequence
New OWC mascot?

Swim Report – April 11, 2021 – Early Spring Edition

Three of us met out at L1 at 6:15am to get in a sunrise swim. We set up camp at the Chess Pavilion as the mist was becoming a drizzle, and we didn’t want to contend with wet towels and clothes afterwards. The lake temp came in at 45F lake – same as the air temp. It was overcast and foggy, but the sun started to peek though the clouds mid-swim.

I went with just my neoprene shortie and cap this time, and banged out my 1/4 mile without any difficulties. It stung a bit on my hands and feet for the first few minutes, but I acclimated pretty quickly.

Looking forward to the longer (and warmer) days!

Skyline at dawn
The view to the east
Lake Monsters post swim

Chicago’s Water Tunnels: Secret Passages Beneath the Lake

Every major city that has been around for a while has layers of history that can often be seen in abandoned or forgotten infrastructure projects, and Chicago is no exception. Given my fascination with the lake and its own unique history in this area, it was only a matter of time before my curiosity got the better of me. However, I wasn’t expecting my explorations to lead to a fascinating discovery literally right under our feet at L1.

Before I recount my recent adventure, I’d like to provide a quick background for context. One of my most popular posts has been the one on the water crib. You don’t need to read the whole thing, but I’d like to draw your attention to the last paragraph:

The Two-Mile Crib was connected to a tunnel built 60 feet below the lake surface, and this tunnel ran all the way back to the Chicago Avenue pumping station – which was part of the historical Water Tower complex still located today on north Michigan Avenue.

According to historical records, there was a rather extensive system of water and maintenance tunnels created underneath both the city and Lake Michigan in the 19th century. Dating back to 1867, they were all part of the massive undertaking to construct the water cribs.

A very good reference for this is Under Your Feet, Chicago’s Water, Freight, Subway and Storm Tunnels, an online resource from the University of Chicago’s Crerar Library. You can delve into the details yourself, but here are some historical images which provide visualizations of the types of tunnels that were built at the time:

So what does this all have to do with L1 and Open Water Chicago? Well, I’ve always been enthralled with the idea of exploring secret passageways and uncovering cool things. When I attended the University of Illinois back in the day, I “heard from a friend” that you could access the underground steam/utility tunnels and have all sorts of adventures traversing the hidden world beneath the campus.

So I came up with the idea of doing something similar with Chicago’s hidden network of tunnels, and I bounced the idea off of my fellow Illini and co-conspirator, “Clark” (real name withheld to protect the not-so-innocent). For several weeks, we researched the tunnel system and pored over antiquated maps and blueprints until we finally pinpointed what appeared to be an entry point. And what we discovered was absolutely astonishing as you will see.

Lake Tunnel Access

Have you ever wondered about that rusted maintenance door in the pedestrian walkway that goes from North Avenue underneath Lake Shore Drive to the Chess Pavilion? Well, it turns out that it is not just some benign utility closet. Instead, it is one of several areas where you can gain access to the aforementioned underground lake tunnels:

After taking these shots in the pre-dawn hours, we got to work on jimmying open the maintenance door. The lock was pretty much rusted through, but Clark was able to use his locksmithing skills to unfreeze it while I strategically positioned myself to shield our activities from watchful eye of the nearby security camera.

Once opened, we hustled inside and had a heart stopping moment where we both almost stepped into an access ladder shaft just a few feet from the entrance. Fortunately, we had turned on our headlamps before making the ingress, so we managed to avert what would otherwise have been a catastrophic introduction (and abrupt conclusion) to our little escapade.

Once we regained our composure, our sense of curiosity and our drive for exploration took over. Bottom line, we just couldn’t resist the temptation of this “attractive nuisance.” So we began to guardedly climb down the ladder which descended for quite some way – I’d estimate at least 50 feet.

After about 10 minutes, we reached the bottom where the ladder ended on a dirt floor in a narrow passageway. Given the pitch blackness, our headlamps weren’t enough. So we activated our flashlights and camping lamps that we brought along to aid in our exploration.

What you are looking at above is one of the old access tunnels. This one is heading due south towards the Hancock building. We opted not to explore that route, but instead went directly east using the passage you see just ahead on the left. We deducted that this one went underneath the lake, and we wanted to see where it would end up.

As it turned out, this tunnel continued on for quite some time – over two miles as you will see later – and became very narrow along the way. Below are a few shots we snapped at various points along the path.

Finally, and much to our relief, the tunnel opened up into a larger space where it dead ended at a vertical shaft. The journey to this point took at least an hour as we were being overly cautious while navigating the cavernous route. Truth be told, we weren’t sure what to expect – or if the the section underneath the lake was even stable at all. So we had more than a little bit of trepidation during the entire time we were in transit.

Reaching the end point was a real cathartic event as neither one of us had enjoyed the claustrophobic odyssey. We scouted out the open area and found what looked to be a still functional escape ladder. Since this seemed to be the only way to get anywhere, we secured our gear and started the ascent.

After climbing about 30-40 feet up the rickety ladder, we reached a rusted iron ceiling which had a trap door access way that was sealed shut. But fortunately, the edges of this panel had eroded enough for Clark to cut through the worn out hinges with a cordless reciprocating saw. When were finally able to remove the access panel, we found ourselves in a utility area of a sub-basement. But sub-basement where?

We got our answer fairly quickly once we started exploring our new digs. The door out of the sub-basement led through a small room which exited to a hallway. As we roamed though this corridor, the rhythmic sounds of some mechanical function became steadily louder until the hallway opened up into a large, round atrium – obviously some type of pumping station. We could see doorways on the upper levels that were accessible by some catwalk staircases, so we clambered up these to see where the source of daylight led.

Much to our amazement, the doors led outside to a structure right in the middle of the lake. So – you guessed it – the lake tunnel that we had just traversed led to the exact same Harrison-Dever water crib that we all look out on whenever we gather at L1 for a swim!

It suddenly dawned on us (no pun intended) that we must have lost all sense of time while in the tunnel as it was already well into morning with the sun long since risen. I started to take a few shots to document our little adventure, but then noticed that there was a Chicago Police boat in the vicinity that was heading for the water crib (ulp!).

While we were certain that it hadn’t noticed us, we couldn’t rule out the possibility that we had inadvertently activated some sort of sensor-activated monitoring alarm. So we hastily retreated to the sub-basement and scrambled down the ladder after placing the access panel back in its proper place.

What happened next would make the late Roger Bannister beam with pride. Once our feet touched the floor at the bottom of the ladder, we darted back into the tunnel and covered the 2+ miles in what was mostly a full on sprint. When we finally arrived back at the foot of the initial ladder shaft, we stopped for a few minutes to catch our breath before making the final ascent.

Exiting into the pedestrian tunnel was a bit tricky as there was now an assortment of runners, bikers, and wayward passersby to contend with on the other side of the maintenance door. So while we carefully opened it up to make our egress, we still almost upended a lanky fellow on a very expensive tri-bike (who was going way too fast in the pedestrian tunnel, I might add).

Once outside, we wedged the door back into its proper place and tried to ignore the stares of the people who had seen us emerge. Fortunately for us, we had secured rock star parking right near the cul-de-sac on the west side of the pedestrian tunnel. So it was just a matter of piling into our waiting car and driving off as inconspicuously as possible.

I know there are some of you out there who will look upon this as nothing more than foolish risk taking. But for those of you who are more adventurous souls, I would implore you to take a deeper look into the fascinating history of our great city and seek out opportunities like this wherever you can find them. After all, nothing ventured nothing gained!

Swim Report – March 21, 2021 – Happy Spring!

One of the most noticeable things about passing the vernal equinox is that the sunrises become much earlier rather abruptly. This continues through May and then it slows down a bit before the summer solstice. But after this last winter, I’m certainly not complaining about the longer, sunnier days!

I arrived at L1 just before 6:30am, and we already had some pre-dawn colors painting the horizon. I chatted with a number of early morning joggers and sun worshipers and snapped a few shots as the sunrise progressed. Once it was out in its full glory, I suited up and climbed into the 41.2F lake.

Because it was a clear day with very little wind, the lake didn’t have the sting it normally does at these temperatures. So I was able to get acclimated pretty much within the first minute with no real discomfort in-swim. I swam parallel to the wall to the “swimmers shrine” – the cross shaped orange marker 1/8 mile south of L1 – before turning back. The lake was a bit choppy, but we didn’t have the southbound current from the prior week. So overall it was a pretty relaxing first Spring swim of the year!

The sun peeks through
Good morning!
Choppy swim area

Swim Report – March 14, 2021 – 40F+

Quick report as I’m a bit behind (again). I made it out to L1 to get in one last winter swim, and I was blessed with a lake that finally broke through the 40F ceiling. The official in-swim water temperature came in at 42.4F – finally out of the “basement!” I got in my usual 1/4 mile with a shortie and neoprene items on my extremities, and I didn’t have any discomfort that usually accompanies any swim in the 30Fs. Looking forward to Spring!

Dawn colors
Skyline shot
The sun peeks through
Swimmers were here!