March Madness: Meet the growing number of “ice monsters” swimming in Lake Michigan during its coldest month of the year
By Sarah Berman
At 7 a.m. on a Sunday in January, Steve Hernan and two other “ice monsters” prepare to descend into 33-degree Lake Michigan.
The Heist: They still use an ax to free the ice from a neon green ladder. Hernan, 54, is kneeling in the snow, hunched over the water as he chisels the bottom rung. Breathless and sweaty, he turns to the two men and asks to be replaced.
It takes 25 minutes to de-ice their launch pad, the only shoreline ladder not buried in snow and ice.
“I declare the pool open,” Hernan said. Then he puts on a water-repellent neoprene suit, gloves, boots, a diving hood and a bathing cap.
For the past 15 years, open water swimming has been a Sunday ritual for Hernan and his fellow “lake monsters,” the term for people who swim with them. open water chicago. Those who brave the icy feat and swim in the winter are nicknamed “ice monsters”.
Lake Michigan cools continuously throughout the winter, and with an annual low of 32.9 degrees in March, it’s the coldest month for open-water swimming. However, a growing number of people are taking the plunge.
As a child, Hernan was a wrestler, not a swimmer. His only recollection of a few swimming lessons was when he was growing up in Lincoln, Illinois. “I basically learned not to drown and how to struggle,” he said.
In 2007, when he was 36, Hernan signed up for the Chicago Triathlon on a whim. Swimming is the least popular part of running for most triathletes, but after two triathlons, Hernan found he loved it the most and gave up the bike and the sneakers.
After the annual Chicago Triathlon in August, most people stop swimming in open water for the season. With no one to train with in September and October, Hernan posted on Craigslist in 2007 looking for someone interested in off-season open water swimming. To his surprise, he created a group of a few people, which generated an endless chain of emails. Hernan quickly discovered WordPress as a solution for his cluttered inbox and created the Open Water Chicago site.
Eventually, it evolved from a place to coordinate practice times to a space to post articles about open water swimming, group photos each weekend, the daily temperature of Lake Michigan — and even announce the birth of his son.
“There was never a strategy,” Hernan said. Over the years, the group has accumulated 520 “lake monsters”. When someone completes an inaugural workout with the group, they’re assigned a “lake monster number,” which Hernan, a businessman at heart, records in an Excel spreadsheet.
Hernan had never planned to venture into cold water swimming. In 2009, the “monsters of the lake” continued to challenge each other to swim for another month after October, when the group usually hibernated. “The next thing you know, we’re swimming in Lake Michigan on Thanksgiving, and it’s terrifyingly cold,” Hernan said.
After November 2009, the daredevils decided to invest in cold water swimming gear. “There was nothing planned about it,” Hernan said. “It was an ego challenge.”
Only 26 people have earned the title of “ice monster”. On this Sunday in January, Ray Fearing is looking to be “Ice Monster No. 27.” Fearing, a regular in the warmer months, marks its winter debut.
He and Hernan opt for a wetsuit, designed to keep people warm with nothing underneath. Steve Papendick wears a dry suit, which resembles an impermeable hazmat suit. He also puts on flippers, but no goggles or balaclava as he keeps his head above water and plans to stay near the ladder. “I’ve had my brain frozen too many times,” Papendick says. “I’m too old for that now.”
Hernan opens his thermos, but doesn’t take a sip, instead offering the steaming liquid to the group. “Do you want hot water in your gloves?” he asks. Similar to how skiers use air-activated hand warmers and toe warmers in their mitts and boots, Hernan puts hot water in his boots and seals his gloves dry to keep his extremities nice. warm. Air activated hand and foot warmers will not work when submerged in water. Pouring hot water into waterproof neoprene boots and gloves keeps warm water against the skin to fight the cold.
“You guys are crazy,” says a jogger who trots along the lakeside path.
To avoid shocking the system, Hernan’s pre-swimming routine includes a hot shower. He dials the temperature down to cold for as long as he can, which helps him acclimate to the frozen lake. “It’s like boxing,” he says. “The moment you get in the ring, you want to sweat. Except here, it’s the opposite.
One by one, the trio descend the ladder. “Wow. We were so lucky with the conditions today,” Hernan says as he begins to tread water.
Hernan already knows his route. It stays close to the shore and follows the bend south towards Oak Street Beach and 875 N. Michigan Ave., known to most as the John Hancock Center, which is half a mile round trip . As an experienced open water swimmer, and someone who trains regularly, he takes off on his own.
Afterwards, Papendick walks back and forth near the ladder, and Fearing ventures a bit towards the Ferris wheel, but soon turns around to relax with Papendick. The couple waded through the water chatting about golf, upcoming vacations and the water temperature which is “not so bad”.
“Did you order an ice cream pizza?” Papendick jokingly asks Fearing as he scoops up a pizza-sized slab of ice cream from Lake Michigan. You can tell it’s a New Yorker because the “crust” is quite thin.
After 25 minutes, Hernan returns to scale 1A. “All is well in the world right now,” Hernan says to the ice monsters.
He climbs the ladder. “That’s the part that sucks,” he says. Ice forms on his gloves and his face is redder than someone finishing a marathon.
During the afterdrop, Hernan’s heart rate slows and his body temperature drops 10 minutes after getting out of the water.
Immediately, Hernan dons a towel-like Snuggie and changes into the clothes he was wearing before the swim. As he strips off his layers of neoprene, he places each wet item on a dry towel, to prevent an item from immediately freezing to the ground and tearing.
“It’s just a thrill today,” he said.
Hernan recalled his first experience swimming in cold water as “anticlimactic”.
Swimming in open water in January is easier than in November and December because his body is more acclimatized to the cold. “Might as well do everything we can and stop resisting winter,” he said.
“For a lot of us, it’s about finding like-minded people, having community, forgetting about work and other BS.”
Once the group is dressed and dry, Hernan opens his backpack and removes an oval sticker, which resembles the “26.2” bumper sticker that most marathon runners have. But this one says “32.1”, the minimum water temperature for ice monsters. Hernan hands the token over to Fearing and officially deems it “Ice Monster 27”.
Fear calls the swim “more enjoyable” than he had expected. “If people don’t say you’re crazy, then you’re not living life to its full potential,” he says.
The trio chat ashore for another 10 minutes about the latest headlines and what their Sunday plans entail.
The conversation begins to slow down. “Well, it’s time to take back my responsibilities,” said Hernan.
Sarah Berman is a graduate student in Journalism majoring in Magazine at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @sarahberm