I felt like I was going to have a seizure because my body was itching so badly so many places at once. It wasn’t painful per se, but it was unbearable. This was my first (and hope to God my last) experience with Swimmer’s Itch. Apparently, that’s a thing that happens in Wisconsin (and other places), and as a Southern California beach girl, I had no idea what I was in for. It all started when I used a So Cal dictionary to interpret a Wisconsin sign, “Beach Closed.”
What “Beach Closed” means in So Cal
Growing up in Southern California, I’ve probably been to the beach over 200 times – at least 7 times a year, every year, from birth to age 30. I can’t remember the last time I saw a “Beach Closed” sign. I know I’ve seen plenty of riptide warning signs, Black Ball flags (meaning no surfing allowed, only swimming), and at least 100 “Parking Lot Closed (or full)” signs. I’ve also been told more than once by a lifeguard, “the beach is closed”, but that’s at 10 pm when all bonfires need to be extinguished and all cars and parties need to exit the premises.
There is no “Beach Closed” sign because all beach closures have specific reasons, which mean there are specific signs. We’ve had swimming advisories when a strong storm brings sewage into the water, and sections of the beach have been closed due to shark sightings in a particular area. When you are not allowed to go into the water, it’s such a rare occurrence that it’s newsworthy.
What “Beach Closed” means in Wisconsin
It was barely one month after moving to Wisconsin that I encountered my first “Beach Closed” sign. It was a very warm October Saturday afternoon at Minooka Park, where I took Gjalla for our very first Wisconsin Lake swim.
You can see why I was immediately confused!!! There was that “Beach Closed” sign at the entrance booth, and yet Gjalla and I were able to join at least 30 other people in the water at Minooka Park.
I assumed, right from the beginning of my residency in Wisconsin, that “Beach Closed” meant “No Lifeguard on Duty”, or “swim at your own risk” or maybe even “too cold to swim”.
Then again “too cold to swim” seems like the wrong interpretation when there are memes like this:
As such, no “Beach Closed” sign at the entrance to a Wisconsin park has ever stopped me from going in the water.
It started out as a wonderful, fun-filled day at the lake. I had a WONDERFUL time swimming in the lake with Gjalla for the first hour. She was rocking her little life vest, making friends with people playing catch, showing off her rolling skills, and setting Personal Bests for the longest swim without a break.
As someone who’s survived a whole year of Food Microbiology, I should have listened to the alarm bells when I found a zone of water unusually warm. Sure, anything feels warm compared to the freezing cold Pacific Ocean, but in microbiology, warm temperatures mean increased growth of bacteria.
I also ignored the “ew – ew- ew” in my head as I swam through the mossy area of the lake because everyone else in the water seemed totally fine with it. I didn’t want to be the one wimp from Southern California that can’t handle a little lake moss.
“It’s just seaweed….it’s just seaweed…” I told myself. Seaweed and I are no stranger when it comes to swimming. Seaweed, I can handle. Moss is….new and different.
One Hour Later…
I asked my husband if it’s possible to get bug bites in the water as I rubbed the prickly tingles on my right tricep. He said no, but acknowledged what we both knew: that I am the champion of attracting bug-bites. I mean if you took me camping with 100 other people, I would win the award for Most Bug Bites 10 out of 10 times. Bugs LOVE me because I’m so sweet.
I can’t emphasize this enough:
- This was not my first time in a Wisconsin lake
- This was not my first time in this particular lake
- I was not the only one in this particular lake
- No one else around me, not even my husband, who went into the SAME AREA I DID, had any problems
Regardless, an hour after I started swimming, I was itching so bad from my neck to my toes that we had to leave. As soon as I got home, I rinsed off Gjalla and washed my whole body with hot water and ample soap. After I got out of the shower I sprayed my whole body with an anti-itch spray. I tried to distract myself from the growing waves of itching impulses by reclining in bed and listening to my favorite podcast.
It didn’t help.
Calamine Lotion to the Rescue!
Thankfully, a quick trip to the grocery store and the immediate and liberal application of calamine lotion quenched the overwhelming urge to itch. Of course, it made my skin look amazing (heavy sarcasm) — I thought I was pasty white and pink before!
The day after this swimming adventure, I looked and felt like I had chicken pox. Speckled in red dots, I applied and reapplied the calamine anytime I felt the itches coming back. Writing this one week later, I still have red dots all over, but they no longer itch and I haven’t had to use the calamine for three days.
Some scars never heal
Am I mentally scarred forever from this experience? Nope, not even a little.
Thanks to a helpful conversation on Facebook Messenger with Waukesha County Parks, I now know where to go to check for water quality information and other important information about beach closures and official openings:
If I’m being honest, I’m still going to ignore those “beach closed” signs because I love the water too much to only go in it during the officially recognized acceptable window of permissible swimming times. However, I will listen to those alarm bells when I find any water that is extremely warm and mossy. If I stopped going to the beach because of one bad day, I would have missed out on 80% of the beach days I remember so fondly.
Here’s to more adventures, the ups, downs, and in-betweens!!!