Tag Archives: lake michigan

Friday Night (Chicago) Ferry

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I’m not in the Bay Area to do our Friday night ferry ritual. So the next best thing was to do a Friday evening boat trip in Chicago. Ann (my sister) and Ingrid (my niece) and I drove downtown and caught a Wendella cruise from a dock just beneath the Michigan Avenue bridge over the Chicago River. The first third of the 90-minute cruise heads west to the South Branch of the river, heads down a little way, and turns around when it’s just below Sears (Willis) Tower. Then it head back out to the lake, goes through the Chicago River lock out to the lake (there’s a two-foot elevation difference between the lake and engineered river), then a short spin north from the mouth of the river, then south toward the planetarium and aquarium, then back into the river.

Yesterday featured shockingly fine mid-spring weather. It was a not-overly-humid 85 with a what we in the Bay Area call an offshore wind–the breeze was coming from the southwest and blowing out over the water, meaning the cooling influence of Lake Michigan was felt (and then only slightly) immediately along the shore. That beautiful day ended in a long evening of lightning, thunder, and pounding rain, and by mid-morning today the wind had turned around and was coming from the northeast, off the lake. The high here today was about 60. And on the boat this evening, it was quite cool. But as long as we were on the river, well below street level, there was hardly any wind. But I noticed that as soon as we headed out toward the lake, the tour guide who had been filling us in on the architectural scene along the river grabbed her gear and headed for the downstairs cabin. “I’ll be back,” she told me. “But the wind is blowing so hard out here you won’t be able to hear me.” The U.S. and Army Corps of Engineers flags flying at the western end of the lock were standing straight out in the breeze as we approached. I saw in the paper today that the lake’s surface temperature is 43 degrees near shore, and as soon as we got out into that wind, it felt–well, pretty cold.

Then we turned around and came out of the tempest, back through the lock, back down the river. The scene above: the new Trump Building (second tallest in Chicago, a sign at its base boasts), with the Wrigley Building at right (decked in blue as part of a commemoration of fallen Chicago Police Department officers).

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Family History

I think it’s pretty common among families to think and talk about the unseen influences on our lives. I”m talking about the little shreds of detail, or sometimes rich, complex stories, about our parents and maybe their parents that we think might explain something about them and about us.

Concrete example: Growing up, I was very aware that both my parents lost their fathers at an early age. My dad’s father died when he was 10; my mom’s dad died when she was 11. I came to assume, through small details I picked up over the years, that these events were traumatic if not shattering events in their families’ lives and that in one way or other they shaped my life and the lives of my siblings and maybe even the lives of our kids.

I was thinking about the biggest incident we heard about growing up, one that I think I heard my mom refer to simply as “the dunes.”

In August 1939, my mom, at age 9, was the lone survivor of a five-member family group swept into Lake Michigan at Miller Beach, in the Indiana dunes. I wrote a little bit about that a few years ago. Her account of what happened was pretty graphic–especially regarding her memories of trying to save a brother who was within arm’s reach and what it was like to have almost drowned (she said that by the time she was rescued she had stopped struggling; she was revived on the beach).

Mom suffered from depression for most of her life. It’s reasonable to think that one of the triggers was this terrible incident in the dunes. But she suffered a couple other major tragedies, too. The early death of her father, as I’ve mentioned, and the loss of a child–a brother of mine, the youngest of the four of us who arrived roughly annually in the mid-1950s, who died just before his second birthday. I saw some of the effects of that last tragedy. I remember that eventually my mom started seeing a psychiatrist–a move that may have saved her life and in some measure changed my life, too.

Something that was tucked away in the back of my head about the psychiatrist: Some years after my mom began seeing him, he suffered his own tragedy in the lake. He was out on his boat with his wife one August evening when a storm came up. The boat capsized, and the doctor and his wife were thrown overboard and separated. He was rescued after seven or eight hours in the water. She drowned. I recall my mom talking about this and overheard her saying that he told her that he simply didn’t want to get out of the lake when he was found.

Thinking about all this just now, I went looking for signs of the doctor online. He’d be in his 80s now, or even older. I checked news archives, and the lake incident came up as the only hit for his name in the Chicago area. And here’s what prompted this post: The date of his accident? It was the anniversary of the 1939 dunes drowning. I wonder if my mom and the doctor ever talked about that coincidence.

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Meanwhile, on Lake Michigan

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That’s today’s lurid National Weather Service map for the Chicago forecast region. Orange means “blizzard warning.” Although Chicago weather cams don’t show anything beyond a typical dreary February day so far, forecasters say the storm is still on track to hit the area this afternoon.

Purple on Lake Michigan means “storm warning.” Here are a couple of details from the statement the Weather Service issued this morning:

* EXPECT SUSTAINED STORM FORCE WINDS OR FREQUENT STORM FORCE GUSTS FROM 9 PM THIS EVENING TO 9 AM CST WEDNESDAY.

* DURING THE STORM WARNING…THE STRONGEST WINDS WILL BE UP TO 50 KT FROM THE NORTHEAST. THE HIGHEST SIGNIFICANT WAVES WILL BE UP TO 18 FT. THERE WILL BE OCCASIONAL WAVES UP TO 27 FT.

Eighteen-foot waves? Twenty-seven-foot waves? Wow. Those are big ones on the ocean. Hard to imagine the mostly placid lake in that condition (though I’ve seen waves big enough to break onto Lake Shore Drive just north of downtown before). Part of the alert the forecasters put out today is a “heavy freezing spray warning.” Here’s what that means:

A HEAVY FREEZING SPRAY WARNING MEANS HEAVY FREEZING SPRAY IS EXPECTED TO RAPIDLY ACCUMULATE ON VESSELS. THESE CONDITIONS CAN BE EXTREMELY HAZARDOUS TO NAVIGATION. IT IS RECOMMENDED THAT MARINERS NOT TRAINED TO OPERATE IN THESE CONDITIONS OR VESSELS NOT PROPERLY EQUIPPED TO DO SO…REMAIN IN PORT OR AVOID THE WARNING AREA.

Since the warning area is the entire lake, probably best to keep your kayaks and ore carriers tied up today.

Update: My friend Pete pointed me to the Chicago Area Forecast Discussion from earlier today that adds this about conditions along the western shoreline of Lake Michigan:

FINALLY…HAVE UPGRADED TO A LAKESHORE FLOOD WARNING FOR ILLINOIS LAKE SHORe COUNTIES. INTENSE NORTHEAST WINDS WILL RESULT IN WAVES BUILDING TO 14-18 FT WITH OCCASIONAL WAVES UP TO 25FT. THIS VERY LARGE WAVES ARE EXPECTED TO BATTER/BEAT/SHRED ANY PANCAKE ICE THAT IS ALONG THE SHORE AND ALLOW THE VERY LARGE WAVES TO RESULT IN COASTAL FLOODING. LAKE WATER LEVELS ARE RUNNING 6-12 INCHES BELOW AVERAGE…HOWEVER WITH 15FT+ WAVES THIS SHOULD BE OF LITTLE CONSEQUENCE. IN ADDITION TO COASTAL FLOODING …THE INTENSE WINDS WILL RESULT IN HEAVY FREEZING SPRAY RIGHT NEAR THE LAKE COATING EVERYTHING WITH A LAYER OF ICE.

Update 2: Here’s a nice piece of forecast geekery–a 30-second animation from the Great Lakes Coastal Forecasting System–of the wind and wave forecast for Lake Michigan for the next five days. If you go by this, maximum wave heights will be generated tomorrow morning and will be about 20 feet in the southwest portion of the lake and between 15 and 20 along the southwestern shoreline.

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Meanwhile, on Lake Michigan

ilweather020111.png

That’s today’s lurid National Weather Service map for the Chicago forecast region. Orange means “blizzard warning.” Although Chicago weather cams don’t show anything beyond a typical dreary February day so far, forecasters say the storm is still on track to hit the area this afternoon.

Purple on Lake Michigan means “storm warning.” Here are a couple of details from the statement the Weather Service issued this morning:

* EXPECT SUSTAINED STORM FORCE WINDS OR FREQUENT STORM FORCE GUSTS FROM 9 PM THIS EVENING TO 9 AM CST WEDNESDAY.

* DURING THE STORM WARNING…THE STRONGEST WINDS WILL BE UP TO 50 KT FROM THE NORTHEAST. THE HIGHEST SIGNIFICANT WAVES WILL BE UP TO 18 FT. THERE WILL BE OCCASIONAL WAVES UP TO 27 FT.

Eighteen-foot waves? Twenty-seven-foot waves? Wow. Those are big ones on the ocean. Hard to imagine the mostly placid lake in that condition (though I’ve seen waves big enough to break onto Lake Shore Drive just north of downtown before). Part of the alert the forecasters put out today is a “heavy freezing spray warning.” Here’s what that means:

A HEAVY FREEZING SPRAY WARNING MEANS HEAVY FREEZING SPRAY IS EXPECTED TO RAPIDLY ACCUMULATE ON VESSELS. THESE CONDITIONS CAN BE EXTREMELY HAZARDOUS TO NAVIGATION. IT IS RECOMMENDED THAT MARINERS NOT TRAINED TO OPERATE IN THESE CONDITIONS OR VESSELS NOT PROPERLY EQUIPPED TO DO SO…REMAIN IN PORT OR AVOID THE WARNING AREA.

Since the warning area is the entire lake, probably best to keep your kayaks and ore carriers tied up today.

Update: My friend Pete pointed me to the Chicago Area Forecast Discussion from earlier today that adds this about conditions along the western shoreline of Lake Michigan:

FINALLY…HAVE UPGRADED TO A LAKESHORE FLOOD WARNING FOR ILLINOIS LAKE SHORe COUNTIES. INTENSE NORTHEAST WINDS WILL RESULT IN WAVES BUILDING TO 14-18 FT WITH OCCASIONAL WAVES UP TO 25FT. THIS VERY LARGE WAVES ARE EXPECTED TO BATTER/BEAT/SHRED ANY PANCAKE ICE THAT IS ALONG THE SHORE AND ALLOW THE VERY LARGE WAVES TO RESULT IN COASTAL FLOODING. LAKE WATER LEVELS ARE RUNNING 6-12 INCHES BELOW AVERAGE…HOWEVER WITH 15FT+ WAVES THIS SHOULD BE OF LITTLE CONSEQUENCE. IN ADDITION TO COASTAL FLOODING …THE INTENSE WINDS WILL RESULT IN HEAVY FREEZING SPRAY RIGHT NEAR THE LAKE COATING EVERYTHING WITH A LAYER OF ICE.

Update 2: Here’s a nice piece of forecast geekery–a 30-second animation from the Great Lakes Coastal Forecasting System–of the wind and wave forecast for Lake Michigan for the next five days. If you go by this, maximum wave heights will be generated tomorrow morning and will be about 20 feet in the southwest portion of the lake and between 15 and 20 along the southwestern shoreline.

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City, Wind

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I think I mentioned wind yesterday. And all night and today, more of the same. I took Dad out for our customary trip down to the Dairy Queen at Irving Park Road and Central Avenue. Our mission: two chocolate malteds. On the way, we saw a couple of places where treetops had snapped off or large boughs had fallen into the street. It really was windy.

Searching for visual evidence, and trying to move my legs a little, I walked out to Loyola Park, on the lake about a mile and a half east of my sister Ann’s place. On the MIchigan and Indiana shores, the lake might have been putting on a show. Here, with the wind blowing straight out across the shoreline, the water was flat.

But on the walk over there, gusts ripped through the trees, thrashing them. The maples especially–the undersides of their leaves are nearly white–looked like they’ve been turned inside out. Still, it was a warm wind, a summer wind, and everything’s green as midsummer. In a matter of weeks, though, many of those leaves will scatter.

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Lake Night

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In the Bay Area this summer, everyone has bemoaned the prolonged presence of the thick marine overcast that keeps the coastal locales cool. And it does seem to have been a little cooler than normal if you’re anywhere along the bayside (inland’s another story). Chicago, too, has had a relatively cool summer; it’s been six weeks or so since the last official 90-degree reading. That will change today — it’s before noon and the temperature is already pushing 90. The weather service has issued heat advisories from Chicago south and severe thunderstorm warnings from Chicago north.

Though it didn’t officially hit 90 yesterday, the day did feature the high humidity that makes Chicago great. It creates a heat that seems to envelop you, then go through you. I spent most of the day in the North Side Brekke place, comfortably air-conditioned. I did take a short midday walk up Western Avenue, though, and then after dinner walked the mile and a half over to the lake. I got there about 10 o’clock, and there were lots of people hanging out on the beach, the one cool spot in the city. Fireworks were going off to the south somewhere; to the northeast, lighting flashed through the clouds. (The shot above was on the shore where Columbia Avenue ends. )

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Lake Night

beach080809.jpg

In the Bay Area this summer, everyone has bemoaned the prolonged presence of the thick marine overcast that keeps the coastal locales cool. And it does seem to have been a little cooler than normal if you’re anywhere along the bayside (inland’s another story). Chicago, too, has had a relatively cool summer; it’s been six weeks or so since the last official 90-degree reading. That will change today — it’s before noon and the temperature is already pushing 90. The weather service has issued heat advisories from Chicago south and severe thunderstorm warnings from Chicago north.

Though it didn’t officially hit 90 yesterday, the day did feature the high humidity that makes Chicago great. It creates a heat that seems to envelop you, then go through you. I spent most of the day in the North Side Brekke place, comfortably air-conditioned. I did take a short midday walk up Western Avenue, though, and then after dinner walked the mile and a half over to the lake. I got there about 10 o’clock, and there were lots of people hanging out on the beach, the one cool spot in the city. Fireworks were going off to the south somewhere; to the northeast, lighting flashed through the clouds. (The shot above was on the shore where Columbia Avenue ends. )

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Water: The Midwest View

[Other posts on water: 

Big Bathtub II: 'Wasted']

Spotted the following letter today on the Chicago Tribune's (Tom Skillings's) weather page: 

Dear Tom,
The level of Lake Michigan is up 13 inches from last year. That's great, but could you 
express that in gallons of water?
Dan Fridley
Dear Dan,
The quantity of water that circulates through the Lake Michigan hydrologic system is 
truly staggering. And expressing that volume in units as miniscule as gallons yields 
numbers that are so huge as to be practically incomprehensible, but here it goes. 
A 13-inch increase in the level of Lake Michigan's 22,300 square miles amounts to 
5.044 trillion gallons of additional water (5,044,000,000,000 gallons). And that's not 
all. Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are essentially one lake; their water levels rise and 
fall in tandem. Thirteen inches of water added to the level of Lake Michigan means 13 
inches added to the 23,000 square miles of Lake Huron as well, and that amounts to an additional 5.202 trillion gallons (5,202,000,000,000 gallons).

So to summarize the arithmetic: Lakes Michigan and Huron, total surface area 45,300 square miles, have risen a foot and an inch in the past year. The total increase in water volume is 10.2 trillion gallons.

There is no doubt that is a lot of water. But it is an abstraction, proof that in the wet eastern two-thirds of the United States, water is, most of the time, something that's just there, like leaves on the trees, mosquitoes, corrupt politicians and bad beer. In fact, this immense amount of water, these trillions of gallons, are a trivial amount in the Great Lakes context, where volumes can be calculated in hundreds or thousands of cubic miles.

But before we get to that, let's put those 13 inches of Michigan/Huron water to work: let's frame them in the California context. 

In California and anywhere in the West where water means the difference between nothing and abundance, the working unit is the acre foot: the water it takes to submerge an acre a foot deep. An acre foot is 325,851 gallons, and that is said to be enough water for two average American households to keep their toilets flushed and lawns green for a year. 

The extra 13 inches of Michigan/Huron water: It comes out to something like 31.3 million acre feet. California's total reservoir capacity is said to be about 42 million acre feet. So that foot and an inch here–the incidental effect of increased runoff in their basins–would fill California's collection of monster lakes and catch basins three-quarters full. What a gift to a dry place. 

Lake Michigan has an approximate volume of 1,180 cubic miles, and Lake Huron 849. A cubic mile of water is just under 3.4 million acre feet. So the 13 extra inches of water in Michigan/Huron added about 9 cubic miles to their volume, or a little less than 0.5 percent (that's not too shabby, actually). All California's reservoir capacity would be satisfied with roughly 13 cubic miles, about 0.75 percent of the volume of the two lakes (and while we're throwing Great Lakes volume numbers around, the combined volume of Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario is about 2,538 cubic miles; the volume of Lake Superior is 2,900 cubic miles). 

When you see numbers like this, which may be close to meaningless without more context, you think you can understand the envy and ambition of Westerners who think the Great Lakes would solve all their problems. It seems a little crazy, until you travel up and down California and see how much has been invested in large-scale plumbing to make water go places and do things that seem to defy nature and physics.  

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Surfing Lake Michigan

Lake Michigan Surfers
Kate drove up to Ripon, Wisconsin–everyone in unison: "the birthplace of the Republican Party"–to visit our old Berkeley friends Robin and Jim. I hung around the house with Dad for most of the afternoon and just at the moment I was about to succumb to the urge for an afternoon nap went out for a walk. From the Brekke North Side headquarters it's about a mile and a half out to the lake, and that's where I went. Then strolled up the beach in Loyola Park for half a mile taking in the wintry shore scene. Suddenly I realized a surfer was in the water.

The sight was remarkable first because this was the first time I'd seen anyone surfing out on the lake (that probably says more about my long-time absence from these parts than the willingness of the locals to turn Lake Michigan into a wave-riding scene). But the real surprise was that someone was out today. In Northern California, cold conditions go along with surfing: the water temperature off San Francisco dips into the high 40s during the winter and never seems to get above 56 (and of course in some places along our coast, the real challenge is the ferocity of the ocean conditions: big waves and strong currents). 

But in Chicago today, the highs were in the upper 30s, and the water temperature was 40. I would say that qualifies as frigid. Apparently, you can conquer anything with a modern wetsuits and a refusal to consider any pastime ludicrous.

I approached the surfer and asked whether I could take his picture. Yeah, he said. And how about sending him a copy? (I did.) The storm that came through last night featured a strong northeasterly wind that was forecast to raise 12-foot waves in Chicago and along the southern end of the lake. Those conditions brought Dave, the surfer, and his buddy Kevin, out to the beach at Loyola Park. 

Dave said the conditions in the water weren't great. Instead of swinging to the northwest, which would have created good waves, he said, the wind remained northeasterly and the waves were choppy and confused. He said he had only heard about surfing in Chicago last fall and had first gone into the water here in October. 

Dave's friend Kevin I saw bobbing off a little jetty at the north end of the Loyola Park beach. Swell after swell passed; my inexpert eye didn't see any epic rides pass him by. He paddled into the beach and joined Dave. I waylaid him, too. He said he's been surfing in Lake Michigan for 15 years. Question in the form of a statement: "The best waves must be in winter." Yeah, that's generally true, Kevin said. But until 15 years ago, wetsuits weren't good enough to protect you from the lake cold. "Ever been in the water when there was ice?" "Yeah," Kevin said. "I've had ice on me," Dave said–the air being so cold it would freeze the water on the outside of the wetsuit. 

"I don't goof around here too much," Kevin said. "This is sort of my beach of last resort. It's a lot better down at the end of the lake"–around the Indiana Dunes–"some really big water down there." 

It was sunset. I started to leave the park. The two of them walked up to the north end of the beach, and they were heading back into the water. 

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