Ten thousand lakes, 100,000 docks, millions of knobby knees clenched at the edge of the solid world — swimming in open water is practically a universal experience, baptizing all as children of nature. Every summer, Minnesotans renew that connection by getting out of the pool and into the outdoors.

Swim-capped, towel-wrapped and skewed toward middle-age, several open water disciples stood around, shivering in the June air on Lake Harriet Beach, as others continued to emerge, splashing, from the Minneapolis lake.

They’d just finished the Minnesota Masters one- and 2-mile timed swims. Most were training for a triathlon, some were getting in a workout, but all there on the shore bubbled with reasons for taking to natural bodies of water:

It’s beautiful.

I can relax into the swim and not worry about turns.

I can be with myself and my thoughts.

It’s relaxing.

It’s a good way to start the day.

It’s such a Minnesota thing to do.

“I never did open water until I moved to Minnesota and joined the Open Swim Club,” said Jacquie Strebe, 52, a swim coach. “They let you go across the lake and back. I loved it!”

Strebe and the others talked about the social aspect of informally swimming with a group of friends, sometimes accompanied by a kayaker, and the joy of finding a sweet spot — clean water, few weeds, no boat traffic. Of course, swimming outside the marked areas in Minneapolis lakes is illegal.

But stroking out to the middle of your neighborhood lake almost feels like a Minnesota right. That is why the Minneapolis Park Board initiated Open Swim Club.

“We knew lake users wanted to be able to swim across the lake,” said parks aquatics coordinator Sarah Chillo. “They wanted the opportunity to be connected to nature and participate in something that’s unique to Minneapolis. We have this treasured resource right in our backyard, we just had to find a way to make it safe for swimmers without stepping on the rights of other lake users.”

Open Swim Club, so named to describe both the non-pool venue and the program’s affordable, all-comer philosophy, debuted in 2011 one night a week at Lake Nokomis. Less popular for sailing than Lake Calhoun or Harriet, Nokomis also has a natural, non-intimidating sightline between the main beach and the smaller east shore beach. Orange floating buoys mark the 600-yard crossing, and there are lifeguards in kayaks along the way and emergency staff on the shore. The program was so popular and the demand for more opportunities so great, the park board added a Thursday night and Sunday morning session, and in 2016, a sanctioned swim on Cedar Lake.

There is a one-time sign-up fee of $35 for Minneapolis residents ($50 for nonresidents) for four safe swims per week over a 10-week period. Tuesday evening swims at Lake Nokomis are still free and available to all (older than age 17) without registration. Chillo said Open Swim Club has grown from 280 registrants in 2014 to just under 750 lake swimmers this year. A Tuesday evening brings from 250 to 400 piscine people up to their hot pink caps in nature.

Chillo divides open swimmers into three categories. There are triathletes. There are endurance swimmers. And, she said, there is “this fun, eclectic group of recreational swimmers who don’t even put their head in the water. They breaststroke out to the middle of the lake to look around, because they can, because it’s fun.”

Open water swimming is different enough from the pool version as to be a separate activity entirely. The water is dark and cold and deep. It’s shared with other living creatures and plants. There’s weather. Even experienced swimmers told of a sense of vulnerability and sometimes panic at the stark realization that they were a mere speck in a powerful, watery world.

“Open water is very humbling,” Chillo said. “You’re really stripped down. It’s a kind of raw experience. And it’s a great equalizer. Even a 25-year-old hotshot is going to be moved around by the waves and wind. A middle-aged woman can be just as competent in open water as a buff triathlete. The wind, the waves, the weather — it’s challenging. There are a lot of factors to negotiate. Tackling the elements and being part of whatever nature throws your way — that’s what makes it fun. Of course, in Minnesota, we’ve spent nine months in a dark, dank pool. In summer, we want to peel the lid off. Time to get out in the open.”

The motivation

A sampling of Thursday evening open swimmers provided a glimpse at the mind and motivations of  Minnesotans in their natural environment.

Megan Steil, 35, of Ham Lake was training for her second Ironman triathlon. “I grew up swimming in lakes, so it’s nostalgic for me. The water is dark, it’s cold, you can’t see, you don’t know what’s in the water. There’s a little more anxiety, but I think that’s exhilarating. You have to spot the buoys, you have to be more engaged with the environment than in a pool. I love that Minneapolis provided this Up North experience in the middle of the city. It’s something you wouldn’t find anywhere else.”

Mary Cavanagh, 55, was training for a triathlon. “I’m a Nordic skier, and they always say, skiers are made in the summer. This simulates the triathlon [which is held in open water], but another thing I like about lake swimming is it’s very meditative and calming. You can get into a nice rhythm. My favorite place to swim is Lake Vermilion.”

John Gleason, 60, sported a helium balloon tied to his waist instead of the orange Safe Swimmer buoy some swimmers use to be more visible. In fact, Gleason was there celebrating his 60th birthday with his daughter MaryBeth Mueller, 34, of Spring Lake Park. “I grew up on a lake and learned to swim when I was 3,” said Gleason, of Fridley. “She started running, and we both got into triathlon.”

Said Mueller: “We have a family cabin on Rush Lake. I love open water because it reminds me of my childhood. I have happy memories of swimming at our cabin. Here [at Nokomis] you get a sense of accomplishment swimming across the lake and back, and there’s a great community of open swimmers, great camaraderie.”

Chris Chell of Coon Rapids has been swimming for only three years. At 52, she signed up for a triathlon, though she didn’t know how to swim or own a swimsuit. She taught herself to swim by watching YouTube videos and practicing at the lake by her cabin.

“The lake is alive; it’s living. The waves move you, the sun is there. It’s just beautiful. It’s a time for me to think, commune with God, pray for people, give thanks. It’s amazing how many problems you solve while swimming. My lake at the cabin has loons, otters. … I’m not that interested in swimming with loons. I’m kind of scared of them.”

Bryan Simmons, 53, grew up in south Minneapolis hanging out at lakes Calhoun and Harriet. “I was never a major swimmer. If you had said three years ago I’d swim across Nokomis, I’d have said ‘No way.’ I took a masters swim class over the winter, and that helped give me confidence, but I don’t like the chlorine or swimming laps. It’s hard to get a rhythm. Now I’m training for some triathlons, but this [open water swimming] is also a good way to de-stress from the day. It clears my mind, it’s relaxing, and it’s fun.”

Strebe, the swim coach, participated in the Lake Harriet timed swim and also is a regular at Lake Nokomis. “It’s the happiest place on Earth for me, not having gravity, forgiving on the joints. And it’s so sensory.”


Sarah Barker is a freelance writer from St. Paul.