Oh look! Bufflehead ducks. They’re migrating kind of early. On their way south ahead of the freeze. What luck to spot them today; a glistening black and white raft bobbing and dunking near the shoreline.
Watch it! There’s water spilling over from the lake.
Why did I agree to see her? I could have said I’m busy, since I AM busy. What’s she doing here anyway? She stopped talking to me at least ten years ago. No explanation. No return calls. Just kaboom! Silent treatment.
Oops. Dear God, the lake is so high. I should have worn boots. I thought climate change was supposed to lower the lake level. Yeah, global warming means less ice holding water in the Great Lakes, more water evaporating off Lake Michigan. So what gives? The polar ice cap melting?
I wonder if she still has her Medicare insurance business. You’d think she’d have called me when I turned sixty-five. It’s not as though she didn’t know my age; would have saved me a short-term nervous breakdown and trips to a social worker. I know so many people who’d pay for her services.
I have to get off the lake path. It’s getting too slippery. Uh-oh. Flashing lights ahead. What’s going on? A runner got washed into the lake and they’re fishing him out? Oh no. I hope he’s ok. It’s a woman? Walking downtown wasn’t such a good idea today. I hoped it would refresh my mood, clear my head, but there’s danger; time to head to the underpass.
I guess we’ll have lunch at the Art Institute. Does she still love art? I’m glad I brought the birthday present I never got around to mailing. I’ll push it across the table as if to say, “See, I’m not as unforgiving as you.” Wish I knew what her grudge is all about.
How did I get on the bridge? I’m not paying attention, need to be more mindful. Pause. Take a breath. Yikes, a flock of Sandhill Cranes in V-formation! Still migrating even though It feels like the middle of January out here. Get off the lake now. Hmm, let’s see. Take the path up the hill off Randolph, pass the Survivors Garden, over the silver bridge through Millennium Park to the new entrance, Art Institute.
I know! She has a terminal illness and wants to make amends before she dies. Naw, I would’ve heard that from another sister or her children. Maybe she simply wants to say she’s sorry and let’s stay in touch.
Guess I’ll take the bus home. What was that all about? She acted as if we saw each other last week. No scores settled. No plans for further contact. Glad I didn’t pursue it. I yearn for sisterly love but her rejection throws knives; it is a pain-filled memory.
CITY CREATURES BLOG is astorytelling community, sharing reflections on how cities can offer opportunities for transformation, intimacy, and connection with other species and one another. Follow @City_Creatures and its parent https://www.humansandnature.org/blogfor more stories on humans intersecting with nature.
Gavin Van Horn, editor of City Creatures and author of “Way of Coyote ” published my essay on fecal matter in Lake Michigan on August 27, 2019. I’m honored to be among his chosen writers. You may have read this story already but if you swim or wade in Lake Michigan, its good to be reminded of what you’re getting into.
Break Out The Border Collies
Nature immersion was about to be my off-ramp from a years-long highway of depression.
Before light bulbs, blinds, or a new shower curtain, I bought clay pots and flowering plants for the balcony of my newly purchased, third-story condo. I had the screen door removed so I’d have no obstruction to the outdoors from the living room. I imagined young, lime-green sweet potato vines and purple morning glories growing up hugging each other, curling around the railings, stretching toward the sun, competing for space on the top rail, then spilling over, and finally hanging down in a cascade of tangled color. I filled the pots with soil and placed them on the balcony to cure overnight before planting, leaving the door open—inviting night breezes to induce a soft sleep.
In the morning, I shuffled into the living room to find dirt tracked all over the white carpet.
Usher, a one-year old Scottish Terrier lay with his legs splayed on the balcony floor. He held his head high, eyes half-closed, basking in the light wind, proudly displaying his muddy nose and dirty paws. What do you suppose dogs think? Was he grateful I gave him the opportunity to dig up our new backyard?
Off to Home Depot, I went for another bag of soil and over-the-railing brackets to hold the pots up and away from those ancient digger instincts. I planted and watered.
My north-facing building juts out on just enough of a curve of Chicago’s North Lake Shore Drive to have a tree-filled view of Lake Michigan. Only those trees along Lake Shore Drive stand between my balcony and the North Pole—no buildings, no mountain ranges, not much to break the full force of the north winds barreling down the Great Lakes, slamming into my balcony and battering the sweet potato vines and morning glories. They didn’t last the week.
For three years, I potted a cornucopia of perennials and annuals, praying for wind resistance. The master gardeners at Gethsemane Garden Center finally told me I was in a losing battle.
Abandoning the outdoor garden, I’ve settled for the delight of a tree-filled, panoramic view full of sparrows, chickadees, and starlings. Occasionally I spot a cardinal, an oriole, or a woodpecker hopping through the leaves. One year a crow built a nest in the crook of two high limbs. A lone squirrel used to sit on a branch parallel to my balcony, squeaking and shaking his tail, tormenting young Usher. Across Lake Shore Drive, gulls mind their territory, gathering on the wing above Lake Michigan.
On cloudless summer Saturdays in the early aughts, I sloughed off my dead weekend chores—grocery shopping, haircut, the laundry. I chose the beach. I filled my backpack-chair with a bottle of water, mosquito spray, dog treats, a beach umbrella, Vanity Fair, cell phone, and a small purse.
I strapped the chair to my back, gripped Usher’s leash, and walked across Lake Shore Drive through the bee-buzzing garden leading to the Oak Street Beach underpass. I hurried past the watery underground restrooms, holding Usher tight to keep his nose off the ground. We climbed the cracked cement stairs, landing on the maniacal paved bike path that grips the edge of the beach.
During mid-week Junes, Chicago Park District beach workers spend early morning hours bulldozing clean sand over the previous winter detritus. Gulls argue over the gleanings, anticipating the arrival of their human garbage dumpers.
Usher and I would dodge the slipstream cyclists and jump down into the sand that swallowed up the sound and stench of cars on the Drive. We’d set up shop at the shoreline. I faced my chair away from the sun to protect my ultra-violated skin, screwed the umbrella to the armchair, and settled in with my magazine. Usher dug into the cool sand under my seat and rested. As the beach turned to follow the sun, I’d stretch, take Usher for a swim, and reposition the chair.
Nearly every week, I’d have lunch with a friend on the shady deck of the Beachstro Cafe. The hamburgers were lousy. But we sat with our backs to the skyscraping neighborhood, at the water’s edge, hearing nothing but the lake licking the sand and gulls singing over the water. We might as well have been on a Bahamian island.
One day the lifeguard rushed over to me on the beach. “Get your dog out of the water! Didn’t you see the yellow flag? No swimming. E. coli. It’ll make your dog sick.”
Escherichia coli, E. coli, a nasty bacteria that causes stomach disorders, indicates a high fecal presence in the water. The last thing a dog owner wants for their little housemate is to have intestinal distress. I packed up immediately, ran home, and gave the poor guy a thorough bath.
Chicago beaches are tested for E. coli every day in the summer. In the early 2000s, high concentrations showed up regularly, indicating a saturation of fecal matter. DNA studies showed the E. coli landed on the beaches from gulls and washed into the lake.
Huh? It was in the sand, too?
The press reported there was a twenty-four-hour delay in test results, so at that time, when a beach closed due to water contamination, it meant we had been exposed the day before. The Chicago Park District tamped down outcries from the public by piloting an EPA grant to use Border Collies to chase gulls off the beach.
Oh, the Border Collie! The smartest worker in dogdom. She doesn’t just chase the gulls. She crouches down and makes eye contact as she creeps toward her charge. This terrifies the gulls and they fly off. When the birds try returning to the sand they face the same evil eye because from dawn to dusk, the collies never tire of their rigorous jobs. By instinct, these dogs won’t catch the birds, an important point since gulls are still protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty, even from the collies.
My beach days with Usher were over however. I welcomed the collies but was too creeped out by the constant reminder of bacteriological threats. People were reporting getting sick just from breathing in sand dust while laying out.
Usher is long gone but I recently acquired Henry, another lovely old terrier. I thought I’d introduce the former farm boy to the delights of the beach since I hadn’t heard about beach closings for years. I wondered if the Border Collies were still shooing gulls from the sand. I couldn’t get an answer from the Chicago Park District so I sent a query to “Curious City,” a program on Chicago’s local National Public Radio affiliate WBEZ. Does the city still use Border Collies to chase gulls off the beaches? Are the beaches safe from E. coli?
Beach water getting tested at the lab
When WBEZ reporter Monica Eng called to say she’d been investigating my query, she invited me to join her at the University of Illinois at Chicago lab where the beach water is tested. We watched delivery of the water samples and observed the scientists take them through the paces. The daily results are released to the lifeguards by 1:30 pm. If there’s a high concentration of fecal matter, the lifeguards are supposed to raise a yellow flag which signals to the beachgoers the water quality might make them sick. The Chicago Park District stopped alerting the media about high levels of fecal contaminants and stopped closing the beaches in 2011, opting for the Swim-at-Your-Own-Risk flag system.
And the Border Collies? The UIC scientists pointed to studies that show gulls are the main culprit of contaminated water (and sand) and the most effective way to manage them is to use Border Collies. At a Chicago Park District Board meeting in July, I asked, 1) why don’t they use dogs now? and 2) why don’t they close beaches that test for high levels of fecal matter?
The Park District CEO answered that they don’t use dogs anymore because they were rejected for the EPA grants that funded them. And they don’t ban swimming for super high feces anymore because people like to swim, and the health department hasn’t heard about any E. coli infections from beaches recently. These answers didn’t restore my confidence in the Park District’s understanding of public health policy. But they did cement my resolve to never take Henry to the beach. We’ve settled for the view from the maniacal bike path.
And contaminated or not, the blue serenity of Lake Michigan is its own anti-depressant. No medication can substitute for the mood-altering calm of her reflected beauty. I’m grateful to have her.
Recently NPR/WBEZ reporter Monica Eng called me about a question I submitted to WBEZ’s Curious City. She asked if I’d like to meet her at the Illinois water testing lab at UIC. Here’s what happened.
Regan Burke used to love taking her dog, Usher, down to Oak Street Beach for morning walks — until about a decade ago, when she says a lifeguard came up to her and told her to get her dog out of the water because E. coli levels were too high.
Ever since, Regan’s been worried about water safety at Chicago beaches.
Still, for a while, she felt confident the city was responsibly warning people and closing beaches when fecal bacteria (measured through E.coli) got too high.
“In the early 2000s, they really reported that every day, and you’d hear it on WBEZ,” she recalls. “It was on the regular Chicago news. But I don’t hear it at all now.”
So Regan wrote in to Curious City with a few questions:
Is that water safe for dogs? Why don’t they close the beaches for E. coli anymore? Are Chicago beaches safe [from bacteria]?
The answer to that last question depends on a lot of things, like which beach you visit, what day you visit, and how old and healthy you are. But it’s an important question because, on most summer days, at least one Chicago beach has elevated fecal bacteria levels. In fact, one city beach recently saw a level more than 300 times the federal notification level — and remained open. Also, the public appears to be confused about how to interpret the city’s new swim advisory system. And so, in an effort to clear up any such confusion, we offer this handy primer on fecal bacteria on Chicago beaches.
How do I find out how dirty a beach is?
Each morning at dawn, University of Illinois at Chicago researchers collect two water samples from at least 20 Chicago beaches. The samples are delivered to a UIC lab where they are tested for enterococci, a fecal indicator bacteria. The park district then takes the two readings for each beach and calculates a geometric mean (which is not the method recommended by the EPA; more on that later).
The city communicates its recommendations to beachgoers in three ways: on the park district’s website, through the city’s data portal, and through a flag system at the beach. Here’s how you can find it online:
Keep in mind that the Chicago Park District only posts the average (geometric mean). If you’re good with spreadsheets and you’d like to find the highest sample at your favorite beach on a given day, go to the city’s data portal after 1 p.m., export the data into Excel, and then sort to find the correct day and beach. Look under the “DNA sample” columns to find that day’s readings.
You can also check the flags posted at each beach:
How can I stay safe?
Check the levels for your beach before you go. If fecal bacteria levels are anywhere near 1000 CCE, UIC public health scientists Sam Dorevitch and Abhilasha Shrestha say to consider avoiding contact with the water, particularly if you are:
Or have an open wound
If you go to the beach before the website is updated, keep in mind that hard rains the previous day often result in high fecal levels the next morning.
If you swim on a day when levels exceed 1000 CCE, be careful not to swallow water or dunk your head.
Always wash your hands after swimming, especially before eating.
What can I do to make beaches safer?
Clean up your:
Don’t feed the birds.
Wait. What? The city doesn’t follow EPA suggestions on when to warn people?
That’s right. The EPA suggests advising the public to take precautions when any single sample is above 1,000 CCE. The Chicago Park District, however, determines whether to notify the public based on the geometric mean of its two samples (which will always be lower than the highest single sample). In its 2012 guidance, the EPA suggests using the geometric mean “to assess the longer-term health of the waterbody”; not to determine whether to issue a daily warning. None of this EPA guidance is legally enforceable; it’s just a suggestion based on extensive research.
Officials from the park district defended their use of the geometric mean in a statement, saying: “Densities of [fecal indicator bacteria] are highly variable in ambient waters therefore a measure based off of a distribution, such as [geometric mean]…, are more robust than single estimates.”
Chicago Beach Poop By the Numbers, 2018 Edition
We crunched enterococci data from last summer, totaling 101 days. Below are some highlights, which take into account the differing standards used by the city and suggested by the EPA. Here are some highlights:
And what about the dogs and E. coli?
Chicago veterinarian Dr. Vaishaili Joshi says that dogs are exposed to E. coli all the time and usually don’t get sick. But, like humans, “immunocompromised pets, juveniles and seniors may be at higher risk of infection secondary to heavy exposure.”
More about our questioner
Regan Burke is a Chicago writer who worked in local and national politics — for Gary Hart, Bill Clinton and Adlai Stevenson — for most of her professional life. She details that part of her life in the upcoming book, I Want To Be In That Number, which she says is all about “politics and nervous breakdowns.”
As Regan grew up in Chicago and around the Midwest, she says her mom would often tease her for being a “nature lover.”
“I always thought of myself as a city person, but I do love nature,” she says. “That’s one of the reasons I’m more interested and cognizant of what’s outside my window than what’s inside my apartment.”
When she heard the final answers to her questions about the nature on the lake, she had a couple of reactions.
“Well, I’m very impressed at the level of testing that they do on the Chicago beaches,” she says. “But, at the same time, we don’t get the results until 1:30 in the afternoon.”
Still, Regan was pleased to hear that dogs are not very susceptible to E. coli., despite what the lifeguard seemed to imply.
But when she heard that the city will never puts up a red flag or close a beach, even when fecal levels skyrocket, she was not pleased.
“That, to me, is appalling,” Regan says. “The idea that at 1000 CCE there is a health risk — I can buy that. But when it’s 300,000 and they don’t close the beaches? I mean, how sick are people getting? And people go to the beach with their dogs, their children and their grandchildren. They must close the beaches when that happens. It’s just appalling.”
The 9 minute audio story has more information. Listen here.
The all-white ceiling, walls, sheets and blankets, sealed the room in purity. My pain-free body, surrounded by downy pillows, laid on a pressure-sensitive mattress. A wall of windows showed off the unobstructed Chicago skyline three miles away.
I had a new knee.
“Ceramic,” said the surgeon, “like Corning Ware.”
The nurse floated in, smiled, said my name and schooled me on the morphine drip. She set graham crackers and apple juice ever so carefully on my shiny spic-and-span tray, showed me how to operate the TV, and placed my phone within reach.
“Did my doctor put me on the VIP floor?” I asked.
“Oh no,” she laughed. “This is the floor for all the orthopedic patients. You just lucked out with the view.”
The midday sun laid itself down on the city, my city, silhouetting the Sears Tower and the John Hancock Building. I drifted in and out as Lake Michigan peeked into the downtown streets and into my outstretched heart. Such joy. Comfort. Bliss. The phone vibrated at my fingertips, jiggling me awake.
“Hello? Regan? This is Joe.”
Ah, my son. He’s calling to ask how I’m doing.
“I hate bothering you like this. I’m in the hospital with my Dad. I don’t think he’s gonna make it.”
I’d been divorced from Jim, the only man I ever loved, for about 45 years. We’d met in a Jersey Shore bar in the 1960’s. I lived and breathed politics. He was on scholarship at Princeton and was the first boy I knew who read the same books I did. He proudly proclaimed himself a Democrat when the rest of us were simply anti-war.
Lifeguarding in the summer, he loved the ocean, birds, rock-and-roll and beer. We were born for each other, but drinking and drugs destroyed our marriage. We divorced andI got help. Jim became helplessly addicted to marijuana. By the time he got help, his brain was fried. Between the irreversible brain damage and advanced diabetes, he could not survive on his own. Rather than house his father in a full-time care facility, Joe brought him to live with Joe and his family in a Chicago suburb.
I saw Jim once in a while—at Christmas, the grandchildren’s high school graduations, birthdays. He always recognized me and engaged in conversations about politics. Watching local news on TV all day left him thinking he lived and voted in Chicago.
“About the mayor’s race. Who should I vote for?” He asked. “I don’t like that guy Rahm.”
One last time Jim tried to shake off his dementia. He scheduled a cruise, making all the arrangements himself. Joe gave the ship’s nurse a detailed description of his father’s condition. She guaranteed his safety. But barely off the coast of Florida, Jim slipped into a coma and was airlifted to a Ft. Lauderdale hospital. He never recovered.
Joe and I talked until my painkillers wore off. Dusk overpowered the room. I banged the morphine pump, screamed for the nurse and wept for my long-ago lost love.
Standing in the driveway at 1000 Michigan Avenue in Wilmette, where we had lived for about a month, I posed with my tennis racket and ball while Erin snapped my picture with our family’s 1958 Kodak Brownie 127. We were playing in front of the garage doors on the west side of the house, an architectural oddity built into the side of the cliff overlooking Lake Michigan. The sun overhead lobbed burning sunbeams at my squinty-eyed face. Over my shoulder drooping into the curvy flagstone stairway leading down to our front door an overgrown lilac tree emitted a deep purple mid-June fragrance I’ve never forgotten. A robin strung together a complex trill from the upper branches of the evergreens that hugged the short driveway. My mother, not a naturalist in any sense of the word, somehow knew to teach Erin and me to recognize a robin’s song and the scent of lilacs.
We threw our rackets into our bike baskets, squeezed balls into the pockets of our Bermuda shorts and pedaled down red-bricked Michigan Avenue to our tennis lessons at
Gillson Park. Erin, a year younger, always aced her lessons and I always muddled through mine. We were both athletic enough but Erin outdid me in tennis. I was proud of her, and jealous.
Before heading home we rode over to Sheridan Road to the Bahia Temple. It had been open only a few years but neighborhood rumors said the big white Temple would soon be closed to the public. We laid our bikes in the greenish-blue lawn, climbed the white stairs and nonchalantly strolled around the outside. All the white doors were open but we saw no one. The stillness unnerved us. Holy. No chairs or pews sat in the white circular sanctuary. We pulled away from the white marble floor and creeped up three flights of white stairs to the white balcony. We peeked into the hush of the white holy. It was a long way down. I held a tennis ball over the white railing and looked at Erin. Her wide open face said,”let it go.” The ball fell into the white center of the sacred white floor. We froze. No one appeared. Then Erin dropped her tennis ball over the balcony. We crouched down and listened for the echoing plunk-a-plunk, then tore down the stairs and out to our bikes without looking back.
Halfway home we laughed so hard we fell into the thick grass by the side of the road. We got up and pedaled as fast as we could looking over our shoulders all the way home. We stashed our bikes in the garage as if they were evidence, and kept the secret between us until school started in the fall. Feeling invincible, we bragged about the tennis balls in the Temple to our classmates. Our crime, never exposed to adults-in-charge, fell into my ever-increasing life-bucket labeled “what I got away with.”
The only non-Catholics I knew as a child were our babysitters. I always felt sorry for them knowing they were headed straight to hell when they died. In 1956 we rented a four bedroom tudor built into the cliff on Lake Michigan in Wilmette, Illinois, having moved from a month-long stay in a downtown Chicago hotel where we landed after our eviction from Clayton, Missouri. To the east, the view of the lake was obscured by an over-propagated evergreen garden leading a quarter mile down to a rusty wire gate that opened to the beach. My mother hired seventeen-year old twins to watch my sisters and me on the beach so she’d not have to dress for the day and be our lifeguard. And those twins came with boyfriends—who had boats. The teenagers taught me to waterski and by the end of the summer I had my feet sloshing around in the rubber boots of a slalom, skiing far out into the lake, so unmoored at the edge of the world that I often forgot to let go of the tow rope when we we came back to shore for the drop-off. None of them were Catholic and I silently mourned for their souls, asking God why He’d be sending them to hell when they obviously didn’t deserve it. After all, they had shown me where heaven is.
Sitting at the foot of my parents bed one day, I saw a television commercial for the opening of Old Orchard Shopping Center in the next town over.
“Where’s Skokie?” I asked my mother.
“That’s where all the Jews live,” she answered.
At 10 years old, I didn’t know there were Jews alive in the world. I wanted to ask my mother how Jews were living near us and not in Jerusalem where they lived at the time of Jesus. She detested answering my questions and would have accused me of stupidity, a criticism I already couldn’t stand, so I sat back and wondered if Skokie was, in fact, hell.
When winter arrived in Wilmette I could hardly contain myself. The only thing separating me from the sledding hill next door was a mammoth pile of snow huddled around evergreen growth and a chain link fence next to our house. All the girls and all the boys, all ages and all sizes came to slide down Suicide Hill. Firemen hosed it at least once a day turning soft snow into cold hard ice. Traditional sleds, too dangerous for the slippery terrain were cast off—piled up in a Flexible Flyer junkyard off to the side at the top of the mountain. Flat cardboard slabs were the most valuable commodity. I shredded straight down on the cardboard, sitting down at first, then up on my feet. Eventually we, the first snowboarders, traded our cardboard for our boots and slid downhill on our feet.
Girls and boys had equal status on Suicide Hill. There were no rules, no lifeguards, no snowguards no unofficial guards. We all raced down the slope expecting no prize, bumping each other off into snowpiles like soccer balls, soaring like heavenly rockets. Winter stuck in our noses, but our fevered bodies rollicked in unfastened coats flapping in the wind. Medics and parents came to bandage limbs and scrapes. Ambulances carted broken bones off to Evanston Hospital. Exhaust smoke obscured our vision of cars double parked on Michigan Street where parents yelled Let’s Go!
And when the stars came out we went to No Man’s Land for hot chocolate where I eyed my non-competing competitors. We belonged together, heaven or hell.
When friends from out of town ask to visit, they know they’ll be sleeping on a pull-out couch. No one seems to mind. But in the summertime, when I inform them I have no air conditioning and no screens, few believe me. The original in-the-wall air conditioner in my 1959 condo conked out in 2006. Replacing it would require ripping up and rewiring the wall and I’ve never had the inclination to do so. Neither can I bring myself to replace the broken dishwasher or stove.
Hot spells can be oppressive, even claustrophobic. When heat envelops me, I sweat, swell up, get dizzy. At times I feel like I’m going to faint. The failure of my body to adjust disrupts my circadian rhythm and agitates my sleep cycle. To cool off, I sleep with my windows open for the nighttime breeze from Lake Michigan which means on weekends I hear 2:00 am passersby mixing it up from the bars down the street and cars and motorcycles gunning it on my corner. North Lake Shore Drive makes an “S” curve at Oak Street Beach right outside my building and the occasional emergency siren wakes me as it hones in on late night crashes.
Summer sleep can be exasperating. I rise with the sun at dawn because my blinds are open all the time to catch the changing light and moving clouds. Oh, there are some — I’ve run out of wall space, so I hang paintings and dangle sculptures from drapery rods in front of partially closed blinds.
When I was about 10 years old, I occasionally slept outside in the summer on a porch with no screens. Mosquitoes didn’t bother me there. But when I slept inside, the bloodsuckers buzzed my ears until they found a juicy spot to prick my skin. I figured this was because mosquitoes come inside through the screens and can’t get out. I vowed to get rid of all the screens as soon as I had control over my own surroundings. And so I did. Some visitors are afraid of the mosquito-borne West Nile Virus so they spray gobs of poisonous DEET all over themselves. I’m as afraid of West Nile as I am of getting hit by a bus. Bugs fly in. Bugs fly out. Mosquitoes, moths, flies, bees, wasps — they come in, take a look around and go out.
An occasional sparrow or pigeon may fly in too, but they find their way out once Ozzy the dog wakes up and gets wind of them. City life with all the windows open, nature buzzing around, birds chirping, cars honking, buses burping, lake breezes, the sound of rain on the trees – all of it fills me with joie de vivre. I wouldn’t live any other way.
So, if you’re nostalgic for life before air conditioning, come to my place. You’ll be cooled and calmed by slow-whirring fans and iced lemonade.