Tuesday didn’t offer the greatest conditions for a dip in Lake Michigan, but Daniel Thorner, age 6, wasn’t about to let colder than normal water temperatures spoil a boating trip with his grandfather.
After returning wet and shivering to the 31st Street Harbor, though, he had second thoughts.
“I like the other years better than this, ‘cause they’re warmer,” said Daniel, who lives in Bartlett.
Chicago’s brutal winter has left a frigid legacy in Lake Michigan, where unusually chilly water is tormenting swimmers, cowing beachgoers and basically annoying everyone but the salmon fishermen.
Ricky Castro, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Chicago office, said the water off some Chicago beaches has been in the upper 50s, quite a bit cooler than the usual summer readings in the 70s.
He said the ice that covered broad swaths of Lake Michigan kept water temperatures unusually low. When wind comes in from the west, the warmer surface water by the beaches is blown away and replaced by that cooler water lurking offshore — a process known as upwelling.
“There’s been some warmer weather at times this summer, but no intense heat,” he said. “That has helped to keep the lake cooler.”
The chilliness has crimped the open water swimming sessions led by Drew Surinsky, a triathlon coach based in Glenview. He normally calls off lake swimming when the water temperature is 60 degrees or below, but this summer has dropped his cutoff point to 55 degrees.
Even so, he said, the cold water, along with elevated bacteria levels created by fierce rainfalls, has led him to call off about 40 percent of his lake swims.
“There hasn’t been a single day this summer where a typical swimmer could go in without a wetsuit,” he said. “The issue has been whether to go sleeves or sleeveless, not whether to wear (a wetsuit) or not.”
Ensign Tom Morrell, spokesman for the U.S. Coast Guard’s Lake Michigan sector, said the service hasn’t noticed a spike in the number of swimmers in distress due to the water temperature.
The air temperature in Chicago hovered below 70 degrees Tuesday, making a day at the lakeshore an even less hospitable proposition, but some die-hards could still be found at 31st Street Beach.
A group of kids from the Chicago Youth Centers were there, but instead of splashing in the water as usual, they were playing soccer in the sand.
“I don't think we go out in the water as much anymore,” said Doffie Camper, 40, who was minding the kids. “We still find stuff to do even if we can't get in the water.”
That’s the kind of can-do attitude that has prevailed among summer campers in Wilmette, who spend much of their time at the nearby beaches. Steve Wilson, executive director of the Wilmette Park District, said while fewer swimmers and boaters are using the beaches this year, the campers remain undaunted.
“When they go to the beach, they might spend more time on the beach than in the water, but they’re still making the trip,” he said.
Not everyone — or everything — has a problem with cooler water.
Philip Willink, senior research biologist at the Shedd Aquarium, said some fish species that thrive in the cold have made a comeback this year.
“We seem to see a resurgence of the cooler water fish like the yellow perch, and we’ve had one of the best coho salmon years we’ve seen in a long time,” he said.
Rick Bentley of Windy City Salmon runs charter fishing trips out of Waukegan Harbor, where the water was a crisp 51 degrees Tuesday. He said the spring coho season was bountiful indeed, though it’s hard to say whether credit belongs to the weather or the government fisheries that stock the lake with salmon every year.
“If we get another hard winter and get equally good fishing, then I guess the correlation will be there,” he said.
Castro said a blast of heat would help to warm the water, but that’s not in the forecast any time soon. The National Weather Service is calling for a high Wednesday of 73 degrees, but only 68 degrees by the lake. More typical mid-80s temperatures aren’t expected to return until Sunday or Monday.
Until the lake warms, there’s always hope. A group of brave but chilly campers with the Westside Health Authority jumped in the water off 31st Street Beach Tuesday afternoon, and as they climbed aboard their bus home, David Wise, 35, a life coach and mentor with the organization, promised they’d come back in August.
“The water should be good by then, hopefully,” he said.Copyright © 2015, RedEye