kayak groupHands down, the Great Lakes offer some of the world’s best opportunities for water recreation, and there’s no shortage of fun to be had on these truly magnificent lakes.

When enjoying an afternoon dip, whether at Ohio Street’s “swimmer’s lane” in downtown Chicago or at Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, it’s important to keep in mind that overstated but underused mantra, “safety first.” By practicing water safety, you’re ensuring many more years of fishing, swimming, boating and all-around Great Lakes fun!

Here are a few tips to ensure you have a fun—and safe—experience:

  • Pay attention to red-flag warnings posted at beaches; they indicate unsafe conditions.
  • Keep a close eye on those around you, and know how to help them should they need it. Here are a few ways to tell if someone needs help in the water.
  • Memorize these simple steps to escape a rip current: flip, float, follow! By floating, you can keep your head above water, stay calmer in turbulent water and conserve energy. It’s also important to follow the current instead of fight against it – if possible swim perpendicular to the direction of the current (visit the Great Lakes Surf and Rescue Project for more information).
  • Check the forecast before heading out for the day, as water conditions can change quickly (the National Weather Service is a good resource).
  • Be prepared with safety gear. When boating, always wear personal floatation devices (PFDs), and remember that synthetic clothing conserves heat, while cotton extracts heat.
  • Consider taking a water-safety training course, first aid and CPR.

So in addition to your sunscreen, swimsuit and cooler, don’t forget to bring along your knowledge of water safety! And don’t forget to practice  good stewardship while you fish, swim, or boat: Dispose of trash appropriately, and refrain from feeding wildlife. You’ll also want to clean your boat properly  to prevent the spread of invasive species, and leave natural features as you found them so others can experience the wonder of the lakes.

Reid Bogert, Great Lakes sustainability team