Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The #Midwessay: Jane Piirto, "Swimming the Midwest"

We're back for round 2 of #Midwessay coverage starting back up this week, in which we re/visit essays and essayists from Midwestern states and those of us still in Midwestern states even if we live elsewhere. In our first round we published one week in each state, and now we're swinging back through to continue. Up this week is Michigan, coordinated by Ander Monson. Are you a Michigander? A Michiganian? Do you have thoughts or feelings about our fair water-bordered state and its literature? If an essay captures the workings of the mind, what is the mind of Michigan? Be in touch and send us something.


Swimming the Midwest

Jane Piirto

Even though I knew it from my reading, imagine my gustatory shock the first time I swam in the ocean, in Atlantic City, NJ, the summer I worked there as a waitress. The water was salty!

When I swam in great bodies of water, tossed by white-capped waves, peppered by submerged sand, forced to my knees by the power of the rhythmic shoreline eddies, when the water came into my mouth it was fresh water, for my swimming had been in that geographic core of the Midwest, the Great Lakes—in Lake Superior, which is merely barely swimmable in the doldrums of August in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, when even then the coldness slashes the lungs in a long “oof” and the news is a virus among locals—“Lake Superior is swimmable”—and we all go to our favorite sandy beach nearby; in Lake Michigan, north of Chicago, near Fort Sheridan, where I worked as a GS-2 military pay clerk summers during college, and where my co-workers, college students from Wisconsin and Illinois and I had picnics after work on deeply sandy beaches where the water was calmer and warmer than Superior, and then, on the Michigan side, while camping near the majestic Sleeping Bear Dunes or visiting friends in the charming city of Traverse City; in Lake Erie, where my kids, husband, and I borrowed his father’s 36-foot boat, almost a small yacht, and spent weekends at Put-in-Bay near where Commodore Perry uttered “We have met the enemy and he is ours,” navigating among the hordes of tourists seeking the balmy waters and secret beaches only accessible by boat; in Lake Huron, at Mackinac Island, where we took a dip with our small, inadequate towels hanging on our rented bikes while peddling around that horseless-carriage-free historic refuge since the 1650s for soldiers and fur traders during the French and Indian War and the War of 1812; in Lake Ontario, camping on the way to Niagara Falls in western New York, where a sudden swift undertow began to carry my 9-year-old self out to the larger lake until my gurgles and sinking, gesturing arms led the lifeguard to dive in and save me (I loved swimming so much I went right back in after he delivered me to my scared parents because I didn’t want to be too traumatized to swim)—there in Atlantic City my tongue was shocked at the saltiness of the ocean, but not shocked at its similarity to these tideless five lakes of my homeland.

Of course, midwest swimming was not all in the Great Lakes. As a young mother doing my Ph.D. at Bowling Green State University, I would sneak off afternoons while my kids were outside playing, to a local quarry, luxuriating in my solitude among other beach-seekers in the flatlands of this northwest Ohio area, stroking my way across the quarry to a float anchored in the middle, watching the fish following my toes in the luminous limestone aqua water, a miracle of chemistry preserved in this fresh retreat, though my children took lessons at the local pool in the park, and we often swam in friends’ farm ponds; or, in the early 1970s in Watertown in eastern South Dakota (East River, thus Midwest), where other young mothers and I smoked cigarettes and drank wine in the afternoon, sitting on quilts on a wet brown sandy beach crossed by car tracks watching our kids roughhouse in the local Lake Kampeska, a popular northern pike ice-fishing site—in January my husband drove our station wagon onto the ice—in summer it took a long time to stride on the muddy bottom to a depth deep enough for diving. 

The best swims, though, were in the boreal forest and Precambrian shield rock-encompassed lakes and rivers of my native Midwest place, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. In this area, many if not most people have second homes or cottages, regionally called “camps,” many of them with saunas built in imitation of their ancestors in Finland. The swimming after sauna is the most refreshing of all. We would “steam up” in the sauna, pouring “loylä” (cool water with a tinge of sacredness) on the heated rocks, which would sizzle with clouds that would billow up to us sitting naked or in bathing suits on the tiered wooden benches—and when we couldn’t stand our beating hearts and sweating hot bodies anymore, we would hurry out jogging down the path, and jump into the lake with a rewarding shout and a “whoosh” of relief; as kids we would do this over and over; as adults, we would wait, chatting in our lawn chairs or across the picnic table, until the kids had had their two or so hours of fun; then we would refill the sauna stove with wood, leisurely sweat up, and take only two or three trips from the sauna to the lake, the last one perhaps with an added-on slow crawl to the middle or across.

As neighborhood children, on the last day of school in June, we would hike through rocky outcrops, birch stands, and cedar swamps a mile or so to Cedar Lake, one of the 7 or so lakes within the city limits of my small (population 8,500 at that time, now 6,000) hometown of Ishpeming (among them Lakes Angeline, Teal, Bancroft, Sally, Deer, Cedar) to baptize ourselves for summer, our fingers side-blinding our eyes like draft horses to (“don’t peek!”) as we passed the end portion of the lake, called Rocky, where the boys swam naked (as they did in the high school pool), trudging uphill and down to where the girls would swim, at a location on the lake called Shallow. We would walk there, in good weather, several times a week. These glacier-carved lakes dot Upper Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, and swimming in their sometimes brown tannic but more often translucent clear waters is a northern ritual. We were good swimmers—better, I have noticed, than many; first, because of the abundance of lakes and rivers in which to swim during our elementary school childhood years, and second, because our public high school, subsidized by the regional paternalistic iron mining company, had a pool where we had single-sex lessons once a week for four years, emerging as junior Red Cross lifesavers, knowing the ins and outs of kicks—flutter, frog—and matching strokes—crawl, back, breast, side. We even learned to dive. (Three steps, bounce, and off!)

As you can see, the stereotype of the Midwest as a vast, flat, agricultural geo-plain is tempered by knowing how and where Midwesterners swim in clear, deep waters.

Jane Piirto has lived in the midwest for 72 of her 79 years, in Michigan, Ohio, South Dakota, Illinois, and Minnesota. She is Trustees’ Distinguished Professor Emerita from Ashland University in Ohio. She is an award-winning scholar, poet, and novelist, with 26 scholarly and literary books. She still swims a half-mile two or three times a week at her local YMCA. Her website is

What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond.  These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors

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