A Wisconsin state park that hugs Lake Michigan’s Left Coast is popular for forested camping spots; for a mysterious, fish-stocked quarry; for a sandy Lake Michigan shoreline. Milwaukee is a half-hour drive from the park; Chicago, 2 hours. In summer, vacationers come to enjoy the beach, the hiking trails, the nights around a campfire.
On a Friday in mid–August, five Chicagoans headed for the park. They were all in their early thirties and all seeking escape from the stresses of dating and early careers. They had looked forward to the vacation since Memorial Day, when two of the five had announced their intent to marry.
The campers provisioned themselves with cheese curds and Spotted Cow at Mars Cheese Castle, itself a tourist destination. Traveling northward from Milwaukee on I-43, they encountered at a certain exit a plethora of national big-box retailers and fast-food outlets. They exited and acquired last-minute fortifications.
A few burgers and fries later, they continued north on I-43. Encountering well-tended farms complete with corn and cows, they at last recognized Wisconsin. They reached the park’s exit and thought its surrounding hamlet quaint. If they had thought of it, they might have noted how far they had traveled from civilization as they knew it.
They reached the park entrance, paid their fees, located their campsite, and pulled out their phones. They were surprised to find their calls dropping. All they could do was text, sort of. “Hey, I think we’re actually in a ‘cellular dead zone,'” one of them called out using ironic air quotes. “Yah, no electricity to charge either,” another one noted, staring blankly at his unresponsive iPhone. One by one, the ruefully pocketed their phones.
They set up fresh tents, blew up new air mattresses, and unrolled barely used sleeping bags. They snacked on curds and popped the first of the Spotted Cows. They unpacked the makings of morning coffee over an open fire. Then they looked at one another, wondering what to do next.
“To the beach!” went the mutual cry, and they ducked into tents to don bathing suits and mosquito repellent. In Chicago, they lived within sight of Lake Michigan and frequented its beaches, so the Lake seemed utterly familiar.
It did not occur to them that here Lake Michigan is unfettered by the shelter of manmade harbors and the breakwaters of urban beaches. Here, Lake Michigan is free of human interference, and it behaves like a Great Lake in the wild. The five campers only knew how nice it was to feel sun-warmed sand on their feet as Lake Michigan’s Left Coast slipped into darkness.
Saturday and Sunday were the most glorious days of summer. Under cloudless skies, Lake Michigan appeared to the campers as rippled glass. Strong swimmers all, they raced one another in the cool, fresh water. They lounged in beach chairs, rubbed on appropriate SPFs, and felt just fine in the blazing August sun.
As the hours drifted by, they texted less frequently. They talked to each other, and drank, and made bonfires on the beach. Back at their campsite on Saturday night, they passed around a bottle of Kentucky’s finest and, next to smoldering logs, danced to the car radio.
On Sunday night, they strolled the beach, Lake Michigan lapping gently at their ankles. They had fallen under the spell of the summer-warm water and believed it to be tame, even welcoming. They decided to postpone their departure until Monday afternoon so they could enjoy more heavenly hours at the beach.
Monday morning arrived with stiff winds off the Lake. The campers’ plan was to ready their belongings for the trip home so they could maximize beach time, hop in the car in wet bathing suits, and arrive in Chicago around sunset. As they packed up, the five noticed huge white cumulus clouds lying low in the sky and shuffling quickly to the west.
At the beach, the cool lake breeze was welcome against the weekend’s sunburns. The campers downed the last Spotted Cows and splashed at the shoreline. When the wind built velocity and began blowing from the northeast, they donned hoodies and huddled on damp beach towels.
As the waves kicked up, one of the five noticed a spot not far out where the water was flat. It eddied around at the spot, and soon the camper glimpsed sand not inches below the surface. “A sandbar! Let’s go out there!” shouted the camper over the wind and ever-louder waves. The other four peered from under their hoods and momentarily spotted sand maybe 35 feet (10.5m) out.
As one, the campers shed their hoodies and dashed into Lake Michigan. Around 15 feet (4.5m) from the beach, the sandy bottom disappeared, and under their feet the water was cold, oh so cold. They swam defiantly through the oncoming waves, until, much farther than they originally thought, their feet hit gravelly sand once again. They clambered up the sandbar and stood out of breath and shivering at its highest point.
Above their heads the clouds were lower than before and partly gray. But in between, the mid-August sun still warmed them, and they didn’t want to go back to their Chicago lives just yet. They looked out at Lake Michigan—its shades of azure and sapphire now broken by shreds of frothy white—and were silent in front of the majestic midnight deep.
One of the campers turned around to look back at the shoreline and gasped, “Holy shit!” The others turned and saw their sandbar was much farther out than it had appeared from the beach. The waves were now rolling to shore. “It’s just like the ocean,” one of them uttered silently over the wind and waves.
They looked at each other, perhaps a little intimidated by the high surf but mainly dreading the return of the workweek. Now rested but still cold, they reluctantly waded off the sandbar back into Lake Michigan for the 20-yard (18-m) swim to shore.
Sometimes the most momentous consequences result from the most trivial decisions. Like swimming to a sandbar in Lake Michigan to prolong a long summer weekend. The campers had heard of the Lake’s currents, but they had reached the sandbar OK, so no one was concerned. They had heard of rip tides, but probably did not know that, in Lake Michigan, strong rip tides frequently occur around sandbars.
In the 60 feet (18m) between the sandbar and the beach, the campers became separated. Each camper learned that Lake Michigan is unforgiving; when invisible currents take hold, you cannot underestimate its power. The Lake gives you only one chance.
When three campers made it back to the beach, they yanked phones out of backpacks, but their calls for help dropped. At the south end of the park, a man walking his dog on the beach spotted a fourth camper. He pulled the limp body to shore, but his calls dropped, too. That camper, a woman, stopped breathing right there on the beach.
The fifth camper was a man who was engaged to be married to the woman who died on the beach. On September 2, nearly 2 weeks after he drowned, his body was found off Door County—120 miles north, where the “thumb” of Wisconsin juts eastward.
Lake Michigan is unique among the Great Lake for its north-south configuration, making it especially prone to strong offshore currents. More people annually drown in Lake Michigan than in all the other Great Lakes combined.
Elizabeth G Fagan is a writer and artist who resides on Lake Michigan’s shoreline in southeastern Wisconsin—a place she calls Lake Michigan’s Left Coast. Fagan attended The Hammonasset School, a private arts high school in Connecticut, where she began writing and taking photographs. Fagan earned a BA in English at Grinnell College (Grinnell, Iowa) and the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC). She has an MA in Linguistics from UIC; she specialized in teaching English as a second language (ESL). She returned to college to earn an associate degree in Web Development from DePaul University (Chicago).
Fagan is passionate about the natural world and its creatures. She highly recommends the work of Chicago-based nature photographer Mark Swanson.
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