BAYFIELD — Five months after the Polar Plunge, volunteers are hastily preparing for another chilling event: the Point to La Pointe Swim on August 2— two miles across Lake Superior from Bayfield to Madeline Island. The emergence of 400-plus swimmers and as many as 600 spectators is no small matter for the community.
Like its winter counterpart, Point to La Pointe is a fundraiser for the Bayfield Area Recreation Center, a facility which offers health and fitness classes, a saline pool, hot tub, sauna, and fitness room. Though a treasured place for locals as well as visitors to stay healthy, it’s also very expensive to maintain; thus the annual race which last year netted $40,000 for the center.
Many people are coming from out of town and will need places to stay, food to eat, and transportation to and from Madeline Island. And there’s the matter of making sure the race runs smoothly, a job for Scott Armstrong, director for the Bayfield Recreation Center.
“It’s our biggest event of the year,” said Armstrong who helped jumpstart the race in ‘06 after Ole, the barber from Bayfield came up with the idea. “It’s been a legendary thing to do around here.”
Locals, bears and other mammals may have lapped across Lake Superior before, but never in a race. Twenty-four swimmers signed up the first year. Sparing no safety measures, the organizers insisted that every swimmer have their own kayak or boat escort. But as it turned out, only one participant didn’t make it to the finish line, and it wasn’t as dangerous as they anticipated.
“We decided there’s plenty of open-water swim places around the country where swimmers are racing over a distance, and they’re monitored by zone coverage, so to speak. You don’t have a one-to-one escort ratio,” Armstrong said.
Today they’ve kept the concept of a “community swim” where recreational swimmers can swim across and have an escort (a rowboat or a kayak) to hang onto it if needed or get pointed in the right direction. However, the vast majority of the swimmers are open-water swimmers or tri-athletes.
“Many of them are strong enough and skilled enough they can swim two miles and not need assistance,” Armstrong said.
In fact, some of them have even swum across the English Channel or the San Francisco Bay.
The biggest challenge this year, Armstrong said, is going to be water temperature. Though the icebergs have melted, temperatures vary from day to day and are still a bit nippy.
“Last year it was 62 degrees and I was worried. A few swimmers might have been cold, but nobody was dangerously cold,” he said.
This year could be a different story.
“The vast majority wear wet suits and a few that don’t get special permission from me,” Armstrong said. “They’ve swum the English Channel with no wetsuit or the San Francisco Bay in 50 degree water. They’re experienced. Basically they feel they’ve gone through a process to adapt to the cold water.”
However, this is only a handful of individuals. Everyone else needs to wear a wetsuit.
Last Sunday the ferry got a 54-degree reading at the harbor.
“On Monday it was a warm day, and I had a kayaker in the afternoon paddle across from Bayfield to Madeline Island. He said it was 61 in Bayfield, 64 in the middle, and 67 on the other side, ‘cuz all the warm water was getting pushed to Madeline Island,” Armstrong said.
These readings depend on where and what the wind is doing. On average, the lake is currently in the high 50s.
Safety presides over everything. Forty experienced kayakers have been enlisted to guide the event and the United States Coast Guard will be floating the periphery. Medics, doctors — you name it — will be waiting at the finish line.
Speaking of the finish line, since ‘06 two families have hosted the end of the race on their shores: the Grutzners and the Christels, neighbors as well as relatives. Eric and Barb Grutzner own one house with his parents Fritz and Janice, and Barb’s family owns the other.
“It’s such a positive thing for the area and for the rec center, which promotes health, that we are more than glad to do this as a family,” said Eric, who explained how he got involved. “The first year they were trying to come up on the ice road, and it was a little bit hard — lots of rocks and dangerous stuff — so we said come on over here.”
It’s gone from 24 swimmers and a smattering of spectators to 1,000 people in their front yard! Chairs for the elders are needed to preside over the event, and safe places for young people to get a good view; also enough room for emergency vehicles to get through.
“It’s a lot of work to set up the finish line. You have maybe a two-hour period when everyone’s swimming to the dock and then it’s over. It’s the perfect event,” Eric said.
That first year Eric lugged a few sandbags to line the shore so as to make a soft landing for the swimmers. Now the Madeline Island Fire Department hauls in nearly 200 sandbags.
The most exciting part of the race is the finish line.
“The women and the men swim about the same time, but it seems like there’s some competition always. And there’s two people — it doesn’t matter if it’s a man and a woman or a man and a man — they get to the finish line and they’ll try to jump like a seal and slide with their hands to try to win against their buddies,” Eric said.
The only problem with this scenario is every year someone’s got to point out that the timing chip’s on the swimmer’s foot. In other words, hands don’t matter. The feet need to hit the mat in order to win.
Spectators have a lot of waiting around.
“It’s not like a game where you sit down and watch the whole thing,” Armstrong said. “The race goes off in 3 or 4 waves starting at 7:20 a.m. and the last wave’s off the beach by 7:35. The swimmers jump in the water, off they go and that’s it. After that it’s just a whole bunch of neon swim caps bobbing in the water.”
For some swimmers it takes 45 minutes; for others three hours. Nonetheless, friends and relatives gather in droves to make a day of it.
To transport the mobs to and from Bayfield, as well as the swimmers’ change-of clothes bags, the Apostle Island Ferry Line solicits their entire fleet, which consists of four boats. Every year it donates free one-way passages to Bayfield for the swimmers.
It costs $94 to enter the race, which includes an after-the-race meal at one of Madeline Island’s many restaurants. The top winners receive a handmade bowl by Eckel’s Pottery filled with blueberries.
The Chequamegon Bay region has become a giant bowl itself filling up with visitors who’ve discovered the beauty as well as health benefits of the region. Whether it’s the Superior Vista Bike Tour or Point to La Pointe Swim, it’s a win-win for everybody — a muscle-toner for athletes and a great way for groups like Bayfield Recreation Center to raise some much-needed funds.
There’s still time to sign up!
Hope McLeod can be reached at email@example.com.
To register or learn more about the Bayfield Recreation Center go to: www.point2lapointe.com.