Ode to a Forbidden Lake

 

In 2013 a young man, tragically, drowned in North Twin Lake.

Naturally, there were very strong reactions.

I heard and read a lot of sensible talk about respecting the water, and making swim lessons available for children.  Really important things in an area with many lakes, and many drownings each year.

But, after this drowning in that particular lake, there was an immediate and concerted effort on the part of the Parks and Recreation Commission  to assign blame.  A lot of the discourse appeared to go beyond the desire to improve things.

There were allegations of inadequate warnings and facilities. (which consist of a lovely park,  a defined swim area,  and very clear warning signs – which have been there for years)

The warning signs have been there for a long time because the lake, being sheltered and surrounded by woods, and with a nice park, is a springtime gathering place for high-school seniors, and there had been other accidents. 

There were assertions, some of which bordered on superstition, that the lake was intrinsically dangerous. That it was brutally cold; had currents and undertows; abrupt drop-offs and ‘false bottoms’.

County commissioners interviewed local divers. I was invited to come to the lake and help determine what the problem was.

While I understood the urgency, I was not comfortable with the publicity and tone of the proceedings so soon after such a sad thing had happened.

It felt disrespectful.

Even so, the initial steps taken by the Parks and Rec Department were prudent and practical.

They beefed up the warning signs.
They put in throw rings.
They put in an emergency phone.
Good ideas. Especially with kids hanging out there a lot.

 

After all of the publicity and discussion I was curious.

So, the following summer, my daughter, a dive buddy, and I thoroughly investigated North Twin Lake.

We went literally everywhere – repeatedly – throughout spring, summer and fall.
Top to bottom, side to side.

Here is what we found:

In the heat of summer – when the bay, and virtually every inland lake in the area, is full of boats – North Twin is blissfully quiet, and clear, and – no matter the wind; calm.

It gets warm enough to swim in a full month before West Bay.

There are no waves.

There are no rip-tides, undertows, or significant currents of any kind.

 

My daughter, enjoying the balmy depths about 20 feet down in North Twin.

 

There was a grandmotherly snapping turtle – with an uncomfortable interest in it’s own reflection ….

 

The most dangerous thing in North Twin Lake…

 

Throughout late spring and summer of 2014 the surface temperature – out from the shallows, which are much warmer – ranged from 66-74f, down to a very consistent depth of around 23 feet.

Not paralyzingly cold.
Not unpredictable.

The shoreline of North Twin varies.
The defined wading area has a sand/silt bottom typical of inland lakes. It gradually and predictably drops off as you get further from shore. The angle at which it drops off is governed by something called ‘the angle of repose’. Generally speaking, water-permeated sand has an angle of repose between 10-30 degrees. The fine sand in North Twin is mixed with silt from decaying vegetable matter and tends to the low end of that range.

 

The ‘drop off’ in the swim area at North Twin Lake. Image taken at about 8 feet of depth – this is the steepest part of the angle – it is less to the right, in the critical 5-foot range.  The soft, silt and sand, bottom does not support steep angles.

 

In other words – it drops off at about the same rate as every other inland lake around here. There is not a lot of shallow water, but you do not just suddenly step off some kind of ledge.

In every way North Twin is pretty much like other small lakes in our area, except for some factors that make it much safer than most for moderately skilled swimmers.

No boats, No waves, No currents, and a very consistent and relatively deep thermocline (ie – it stays warm above 23 feet). West Bay, for example, can have rip-tides, undertows and, in the summer, is very busy with fast moving boats. The thermoclines in West Bay are all over the map depending on the day.

One day my daughter and I went freediving in West Bay and the water temperature was 73 degrees.
The next morning, at the very same location, it was 48. That’s approaching 30 degrees overnight just because the wind changed.

Not possible in North Twin.

Because the lake is spring fed it has a couple of other big plusses. Other than the sandy shoreline, it does not get super-warm; hovering in the upper-sixties to low-seventies throughout late spring, summer, and much of fall. This keeps the bacteria count down compared with other small lakes. It can also be stunningly clear, which makes for beautiful diving – particularly along the West Shore (far from the swimming area) where there are some fallen trees.

I fell in love with that lake. Here was a quiet, beautiful, meditative, freediving spot not five minutes from my house. The facilities there are great.

The underwater habitat, while limited in terms of species, is lovely and vibrant. On the far side I found fallen trees playing host to a curious audience of sunfish and largemouth bass. The surface was so still, the water so clear, that I could look up through fallen branches and see fish seemingly suspended in clear, blue sky.

 

‘Flying fish’ against a glassy surface

 

I thought it was an undiscovered wonder and made plans to do an article on the lake with Traverse Magazine.

 

A freediver relaxes on the still surface.

 

I started contacting other freediving instructors about doing beginners residential clinics using the facilities there. It’s a tailor made safe environment for basic freediving classes.

 

My dive buddy, hovering at about 30 feet

 

Me at about 20 feet with a flock of Sunfish

 

I’d planned to bring my adult son, who has autism, with me on freediving expeditions.

At long last I’d found a place where he could safely kayak nearby and I wouldn’t have to worry about boats, waves, winds or currents.  The peace and quiet would be relaxing for him and, If he jumped in and paddled around, I knew he’d be fine. Despite his severe learning disability he has been able to tread water and breast-stroke for long periods of time since he was 7 – thanks to his teachers and to the wonderful staff and facilities at our community pool.

Now none of that can happen.

Putting in additional safety equipment wasn’t enough for the Parks and Rec Commission.

They went further.

A warning and rings and a phone were good ideas.

Making swimming outside the line a civil infraction?  A $100 fine? Not so much.

I asked if there were exceptions for scuba and free diving.

No exceptions.

The lake is effectively locked out of the very activities to which it is most suited – recreational/work-out surface swimming and free diving/snorkeling.

I’m feeling pretty ripped-off.

 

North Twin lake does contain water.

Water can, under certain circumstances, be dangerous.

Thats about it.

 

Incontrovertible Evidence of Actual Water in North Twin