Voices: Go jump in a Great Lake—or all 5 of them!

On Sunday, August 28, 2016, my 13-year old son and I set out on an epic adventure—one we had been talking about for a long time.

It was my son, Dominic, who was bound and determined to make it happen.

No, we didn’t climb a mountain or drive to the Grand Canyon.

Instead, we decided to swim all five Great Lakes in one day.

Crossing the border into Canada was our first opportunity to tell our story. The customs agent wished us luck.

First stop: Port Stanley, Ontario. Armed with a cell phone camera and dry erase board we took our first dive into Lake Erie at sunrise on Monday morning. Lake Erie is the smallest by volume of the Great Lakes and the warmest, so the best place to start at the crack of dawn. We were the only people on the beach so we bid farewell to the gulls and forged ahead. 

Second stop: Hamilton Ontario. Ontario in Iroquois means beautiful lake. A beautiful lake indeed. After swimming in the coldest water we encountered during our adventure. Then we started our journey back to Michigan. 

Third stop: Port Huron Michigan. We found a little neighborhood beach where the water was warm, clear and deep. A gentlemen sitting on his porch greeted us with a welcoming hello. As with many people we encountered that day, we shared our story, and he smiled and wished us a safe journey. 

Fourth stop: Wilderness State Park. Here we were joined by a close friend who had been following our story on social media. We lingered a bit swimming in Lake Michigan as the sun began to descend in the sky. We bid farewell to our friend and headed for Lake Superior to beat the sunset. 

Fifth stop Brimley State Park. The sun was low in the sky and we swam in what the Chippewa Indians call Kitchi-gummi or Great-water. We were excited to have completed what we set out to do that day.  We shared our story one last time with a couple who had been watching the sunset.  They said it made them happy to see young people who want to protect the waters they love, and they hope we encourage more to do the same. 

So many Michiganders (myself included) often forget what a gift these lakes are and how truly unique our pleasant peninsula is.

They store 20 percent of the fresh water in the world and 90 percent of the fresh water in the United States.

Forty million people use them for drinking water every day. They irrigate the fruits and vegetables we eat, and provide habitat for birds and wildlife.

And yet. Algae blooms have shut down city water supplies; microplastics are harming our fish; invasive species are taking over habitats.

When it rains, the stormwater running off the land picks up and carries anything we leave behind. In an urban area like Metro Detroit, it picks up litter, excess fertilizers, pesticides, dog waste and more and carries to our lakes, rivers, and streams and ultimately into the Great Lakes.  

But this doesn’t have to keep happening.

We decided to swim all the Great Lakes in one day to raise awareness and teach people how to protect them.

Pick up after your dog, practice water friendly lawn care, support green infrastructure projects in your community and practice water conservation.

Seek out your local watershed or river organization.

Go jump in a Great Lake.

We didn’t break the world record for swimming in all five Great Lakes in one day (which is 8 hours 51 minutes and 44 seconds, in case you were interested).

But we had a great time, met lots of Michiganders and visitors to our fair state, and shared our story along the way.

Michele Arquette-Palermo is the Head of the Freshwater Forum at Cranbrook Institute of Science in Bloomfield Hills. She has worked in the field of water quality based educational programs, teacher professional development, exhibitions, research and stakeholder engagement in Metro Detroit for over 15 years. Michele is a resident of Orion Township “Where Living is a Vacation” and Michele likes to spend her spare time in and on the water. 

Arquette-Palermo is also a member of Metromode's Emerging Leaders Board. which advises our solutions journalism-based series on Metro Detroit's regional issues. The project is conducted in partnership with Metro Matters and Model D. The work is funded by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. Read more in the series here.