There is something Michiganders call ” The Great Lakes Challenge” that has been on my bucket-list for some time now. I always planned to make it happen – but just never seemed to have the time. Well, the day had finally come! It was a last-minute decision made only a day prior to departure. I love a good road trip, especially the last-minute ones when you just get in the car and off you go. On Saturday, July 15th, 2017, my adventure partner and I set out on one of those exciting journeys.
For anyone not familiar with The Great Lakes Challenge, the object is simple, to swim in all five Great Lakes in less than 24 hours. Easy enough, right? Sure it is! All you need to have is cooperative weather in all swimming locations, a plan that incorporates unknown/scenic areas, and a decent navigational sense that will allow you to cut down your drive time during the journey. No big deal right? Actually, looking at it on paper, it really isn’t. Looking back, I am not truly 100% sure why I waited this long to do it, but I guess in the wise words of Michael Althsuler “The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot.” so now was finally the time.
We packed the Subaru full of food, camping gear and bathing suits. Loaded up the dogs and departed my house around 6:00pm on Friday evening. Although normally we would leave a bit earlier to head north, our late departure turned out to be something of a blessing because we missed the majority of the Friday afternoon I-75N traffic. Mackinac Straits State Park was going to be our starting location. The Mackinac Straits is a series of narrow waterways between Michigan’s Lower and Upper Peninsulas. The main strait flows under the Mackinac Bridge and connects two of the Great Lakes, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. The campground is located in St. Ignace, which is in the Upper Peninsula just beyond the bridge. I had already made reservations for our stay earlier that afternoon, so we were under no time obligation, which was relaxing.
Since we felt we had the time, we decided to swing through Lewiston on our way up. I have been trying to complete the “22 best burgers in Michigan” list and wanted to check off number 14 – (blog post coming if I ever finish it). We arrived at the bar around 9:30, had a delicious burger and few beers then continued on. With losing those few hours, we didn’t hit the Mackinac Bridge until just after midnight. Once we arrived at our site we quietly set up our tent and got right to sleep since the next morning was going to come early.
The Big Day
At 5:30am the sound of my alarm startled me awake. “This is going to be epic” I reminded myself as I pulled my tired body from the warmth of my sleeping bag. The temperature was 54 degrees but the wind off of the lake made it feel much colder. The sun was just beginning to rise and our little campsite had a breathtaking view of the Mackinac Bridge. I soaked it in as we packed the car and got ready to start the day. At 6:15 we were on the road headed to the first beach for our brisk morning swim.
Lake Michigan, 6:30am
We arrived at the beach at 6:32am. Got changed into our bathing suits and headed in. The water actually didn’t feel terrible at first. It wasn’t until wading in about knee high that the numbness started to set in. The beach was beautiful, but it had a long gradual walkout before the water was even waist deep. By the time we had submerged our bodies completely the majority of our limbs were numb. Leaving the water, the sand felt like glass shards on our frozen feet. I couldn’t change out of that wet bathing suit and crank the heat in the car fast enough! Forget the coffee, we were awake now! At 7:20 we departed St. Ignace headed north for Lake Superior.
Lake Superior – Whitefish Bay, 8:20am
We arrived at Brimley State Park at about 8:20. The park had an absolutely stunning beach and we had it all to ourselves, there was not a soul to be found. The air was starting to warm up a little, but the temperature was still only about 62 degrees. It was strange, but for some reason the water in Superior did not feel all that cold. Maybe it was because we had mentally prepared ourselves more, knowing that this lake is the coldest of the five. Whatever the reason, unlike the previous dip, we actually enjoyed this one. We dunked in and swam around for a few minutes before getting out to dry off. Now we were feeling great! It wasn’t even 9am and we had already checked two Great Lakes off the list!
We left Brimley at 8:45 and headed in the direction of Sault Ste. Marie. Now we needed to cross the border into Canada in order to make our next 3 stops. I was so excited about the great time we were making until we hit the border. Not only did we spent close to a half hour in the duty free waiting for currency exchange, then we crossed the bridge to find about a 30 minute backup at the border. I had crossed over at this location multiple times and never even had so much as a short line, I couldn’t believe it. We finally crossed into Canada around 10:15. As it turns out, The Soo was having their Rotaryfest Summer festival, which explains the increased bridge traffic. It was just bad timing for us.
We lost valuable time but now we were back on the highway, in front of us was our longest drive of the day. The adventure was now headed in the direction of Noble Ontario, which is just north of Parry Sound. We planned our next swim to be on the rugged rock beaches of the Georgian Bay. The drive was looking like about 5 1/2 hours. We only stopped to make one stop on the way. Where? You guessed it, Tim Hortons. The drive through northern Ontario is a scenic one, but not many options as far as food goes. However, you can seem to find a Tim Hortons just about every two miles. Our pit stop was short and sweet. We walked and fed the dogs, used the bathroom, and grabbed a bite to eat, then it was back on the road. The mid day sun was taunting us as we baked in it’s afternoon rays. The temperature was a perfect 81 and we couldn’t wait to dive into the water of our next destination.
Lake Huron – Georgian Bay, 3:45pm
Right on schedule we arrived in Noble at 3:45pm. Drove into the entrance of Killbear Provincial Park and made our way to the dog beach. It must have just been good timing because once again we had the entire area to ourselves. The afternoon sun felt so warm and relaxing on our skin. The water in the Georgian Bay felt incredible! We swam around for at least 20 minutes before we forced ourselves out of the water. I knew this adventure was time sensitive but I’ll be honest, was kinda sad to leave this place.
By the time we reached Parry Sound it was already 5:00pm and we still had two stops left. First, we needed to fill up on gas and put beer in the cooler. We planned to celebrate thoroughly when this adventure was complete. After our stops we hit the road at 5:30pm. We still had another 2 1/2 hour drive down to Hamilton. At this point we were very skeptical as to whether we could make it. See, the goal was to be in all five between sunrise and sunset. Time was running short, but we still had a shot.
Lake Ontario, 7:45pm
We finally arrived in Confederation Park at 7:45 exactly. I was driving, so I had to push those incredibly slow Canadian speed limits as much as possible. We also got a little confused trying to find the park we wanted to swim at, which unfortunately added more time on to the already ticking clock. The park was extremely crowded and people must have thought we were crazy. We darted from the car and stripped down to our bathing suits in lightning speed, not one person was in the water except us. The beach was rocky but clean and very beautiful. The water was cool, clear and refreshing, too bad we couldn’t stick around to enjoy.
Cruised on at 8:00pm but still had a 55 minute drive in front of us to Rock Point beach. However excitement did begin to creep in, because it was looking like we were actually going to make it!
Lake Erie, 9:10pm
We pulled into Rock Point Provincial Park at 9:10 exactly, just as the sun was going down. The young girls working at the information station informed us that the dogs were allowed on beach number 4 and pointed us in the right direction. I had never been to Rock Point, but now I know that I plan to go back. The beach was gorgeous, which surprised me. Being from Michigan, I don’t have a very high opinion of Lake Erie. Unfortunately most of the beaches adjoining our state have become severely polluted. Most likely caused from stinky Ohio. As I understand it, some areas in Ohio can’t even swim in Lake Erie anymore due to the risk of getting sick. The beach was crazy windy that evening, which made for some super fun waves. Between the wind and the sun going down I was a bit worried about going in, but luckily for us the water was the warmest of the day! We splashed around and played in the waves while we celebrated our victory. What a cool experience this entire day was!
We ended our evening relaxing with a few local Canadian craft beers and taking photos of the Ontario night sky.
It is incredible the impact that little adventures like this one can have on your soul. Often we get so caught up in our everyday lives that we forget to look around and see all the beauty that surrounds us. Many Michiganders (myself included) tend to forget what a gift these lakes are and how truly unique our beautiful peninsula is. I recently wrote about what a blessing it is that our great state shares borders with Ontario, and I now support that more than ever. This incredible escapade was one to remember. If you are an adventurous soul like me I highly recommend this road trip and all the fun memories that will come with it.