Open water swimming in Lake Michigan and other Northern Michigan lakes and bays is stunning, transformative and challenging. Dedicated open water swimmer Ashlea Walter shares insights into it all, including her favorite Up North swimming spots and safety tips. Come on in, the water’s fine.

Whatever the issue of the hour, water is the solution. I like to think that water is my secret superpower when it comes to parenting, including parenting myself. Instant mood changer: drink a glass of water, take a bath, run through the sprinkler, jump in the lake, get in some laps. As powerfully renewing as it is, we never regret being immersed in water, do we? Maybe it’s because the human body is said to be made up of 60 percent water that I always feel at home in it. But it’s also more than that; more than returning to the womb. Whenever I jump into a pool or “Mama Lake,” as we affectionately refer to Lake Michigan, I feel like I’m 8 years old again: immediate smile, freedom, a release from gravity and worries that only seem to live on the land.

When some friends invited me to start open water swimming with them several years ago as we trained for Swim for Grand Traverse Bay, an event that benefits The Watershed Center, I had no idea what limitless joy I would find. I guess I thought that by the time I reached middle age, I would’ve already tried most things and know what my outdoor passions were. I knew I liked mountain biking, running, hiking, snowboarding and casually jumping in any body of water to cool off, but open water swimming? Hmmm. How wrong I was, when at 40-something, I found a new true love.

Woman swimming in Grand Traverse Bay.

The past informs today’s truths, and with that, I’m going to wade into childhood a bit. I don’t remember not knowing how to swim. The family story my parents love to tell is that my mom threw me in a pool in Portugal after my older brother was thrown in, right before she remembered that I couldn’t swim. I was 3. I was precocious, but still, 3. Sink or swim, the adage goes. Swim I did, as I came to the surface and never looked back. When I was a kid, I was the first one in a pool and the last one out sporting shriveled fingers and toes, maybe even a pair of blue lips over Memorial Day weekend in a friend’s just-filled pool. I was on a few swim teams through early high school, but racing was never really my thing; I just loved to be in the water. Water makes us feel alive and while swimming is exercise, it’s mostly play. And what adults need more of is just that—play. As Ralph Waldo Emerson shared, “Live in the sunshine, swim in the sea, drink in the wild air.”

I’m not quite crazy enough to swim outside year-round in Northern Michigan, but I want to be someday; I know people who are. Sometimes I overhear their excited chatter in the locker room after logging our weekly swimming pool laps. They talk about the water temperature (40 degrees!) and ponder that they might need a couple more weeks till they jump in. I think, when I’m 75, I want to be like them.

I’m a wee bit wimpier and usually start to swim outside again with friends in May, sometimes June if we’ve had a real winter Up North. We start out swimming in the inland lakes, usually Cedar Lake near Traverse City because it warms up faster than Mama Lake. There’s a special reverence for Lake Michigan and her dynamic ways. She’s moody and unpredictable.

Northern Michigan’s inland lakes are mostly predictable, and you barely have to glance at a weather report before heading out early in the morning before the boats wake up. The only other people we ever see are the occasional solo rowers and the adventurous water skiers. It takes a special breed of humans to head out into the water before the sun comes up. I’ve met the coolest people during these early morning encounters before the day gets away from you, and your time is not your own anymore. The lists begin and the day marches on, but you’ve got solitude, quiet adventure and a form of meditation as you leave shore and begin to make your way through the water. Together. “Never swim alone,” mama says.

Group swimming in Grand Traverse Bay.

When I was a kid, I was told over and over to “never swim alone,” and “never swim right after eating,” and while I’m not here to debunk important rules of mothers, these familiar phrases have taken on new meaning. Surely you don’t want to swim alone because of safety reasons. The real reason I don’t swim alone, however, is because some of the most magical times I’ve experienced as an adult have involved stopping to rest on a swim buoy 500 yards or so out from shore and chatting with girlfriends while the sun rises. We talk of the beauty in the day, politics, health, family—no topic’s off the table. And whatever is shared out in the water stays in the water. We leave it behind while stroking it out over and over, occasionally spotting some point on shore to stay on track.

Most open water mornings come by the end of June; swimming in the inland lakes has become placid and calm, bordering on easy and predictable, almost dull. That’s when, as our sea legs slip back on after Northern Michigan’s frozen water recedes, we rediscover our courage for cold and the uncertainty of conditions as we venture into Grand Traverse Bay.

Things quickly get more interesting. Meditation turns into adventure as waves, wind and quickly-changing conditions come into play. You’ve got to be on your game, and we are reminded of why we spent all those hours swimming to nowhere in the pool over the winter. When you’re not worried about your fitness, your heart opens to adventure in the open water. It’s not that we choose the waves exactly, but sometimes the waves choose us; the rollers catch you off guard, coming seemingly out of nowhere. Rocking back and forth I sometimes ponder, “This is why I shouldn’t eat right before I swim.” Thanks, mom.

I often find myself wishing I had practiced breathing on my left side, too, because the waves keep smacking me in the face when I breathe on my right side as we’re heading down the bay. Some days I swallow a lot of water and, even hours later, feel the pressure of the crest of the waves in my ears. We’ve had a few harrowing moments when the waves are beating against us and we lose track of each other. One time I thought dramatically for a moment, “This is how people die,” as I was being pummeled relentlessly and couldn’t find my swim partner, but then I realized the waves had pushed me back in and I could stand. I felt alive, I chuckled and sighed.

Another unexpected personal discovery from spending time quietly immersed in the glorious azure crests and troughs of our Great Lakes is a deep respect and passion for protecting this incredibly precious gift that makes up 20 percent of the entire Earth’s freshwater. We have a responsibility to vigilantly fight for its protection, and I can’t look away now that my sea legs are on. Will you join me? Come on in, the water’s fine.

Ashlea Walter is a passionate open-water swimmer. She lives in downtown Traverse City with her family and serves as an elected City Commissioner for Traverse City. For fun, she likes to write and paint. She is the author and illustrator of the recently published “Up North Alphabet” children’s book. Andy Wakeman is a Northern Michigan-based photographer inspired by the characters and scenic views of his hometown.

Great Lakes Swimming Safety Tips

Never swim alone. Have a plan and clearly communicate it to someone on shore.

Wear a swim buoy and brightly colored cap for visibility.

Swim during off-peak boating times.

Consider wearing a wetsuit for buoyancy and warmth.

The great lakes are dynamic and conditions can change quickly. Pay attention to rip tide warnings and small craft advisories.

Ashlea’s Favorite Swim Spots

Cedar Lake | Traverse City

Greilickville Harbor Park | West Grand Traverse Bay

East Bay Park | East Grand Traverse Bay

Suttons Bay

North Bar Lake | Empire

Find this article and more in the July 2021 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine; or subscribe and get Traverse delivered to your door each month.

Photo(s) by Andy Wakeman