The shorelines of each Great Lake are distinctive and stunning, but Lake Michigan stands out as the deadliest of the five Great Lakes. Lake Michigan has had over 250 recorded cases of swimmers caught in rip currents since 2002. That is doubled that of the other four Great Lakes when combined. Lake Michigan also has the most drownings, with an annual death toll near the total sum of the other four Great Lakes. This lake is particularly dangerous due to its shape, which features two unbroken, opposing shorelines that span 307 miles north and south. The unique shape creates the opportunity for deadly rip currents.
What is a Rip Current?
A rip current is a water current that can occur near beaches with breaking waves. A rip is a strong, localized, and narrow current of water which moves away from the shore, cutting through the lines of breaking waves like a river running out to deeper waters. A rip current is strongest and fastest nearest the surface of the water and can pull swimmers out from the shore at speeds up to eight feet per second for hundreds of yards.
Be on the lookout this summer for rip currents on Lake Michigan.
Before your next visit to the beach, learn how to spot a rip current and what to do if you get caught in one. Always check the local beach forecast for any warnings, and exercise caution.
IF CAUGHT IN A RIP CURRENT
♦ Don't fight the current
♦ Swim out of the current, then to shore
♦ If you can't escape, float or tread water
♦ If you need help, call or wave for assistance
♦ Know how to swim
♦ Never swim alone
♦ If in doubt, don't go out
More information about rip currents can be found at the following websites: www.ripcurrents.noaa.gov and www.usla.org
Drowning? Flip, Float, and Follow
“Flip, Float, and Follow,” is a campaign and drowning survival technique by Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project to help people remember how to successfully escape a variety of drowning accidents in the Great Lakes such as rip currents, long-shore currents, and structural currents.
1️⃣FLIP: Flip over onto your back and float.
2️⃣FLOAT: Float to: keep head above water; calm yourself down, and conserve energy.
3️⃣FOLLOW: Follow the safest course to safety: do not fight current; follow current to assess which way it's flowing. Swim perpendicular to the flow. If too tired to swim, continue floating and try to signal for help.
Prevention is the Best Way to Save Your Day!
Don’t just bring a life vest, wear it! This life of yours is 100% your responsibility.
More on Water Safety
Do not swim when Rip Current warnings are posted or large crashing waves are present, which can cause rip currents. These strong currents rush out into Lake Michigan and can carry even the strongest swimmer with them. If you get caught in a rip current, do not try to swim against it. Instead, swim parallel to the shoreline until you are out of the current.
Lake Michigan is generally clean and safe for swimming but it can become contaminated with harmful bacteria. Do not enter the water when a health hazard warning is issued or posted. If you do, you risk intestinal illness, skin rash, or eye, ear or respiratory infections.
Parents and guardians must keep a constant watch of children in the water.
Stay out of the water when there are high, breaking waves and rip currents.
Rip currents are caused by a sudden break in an offshore sandbar that releases water rapidly back into the lake. Rip current conditions often occur when the wind is out of the north. These dangerous currents can also occur in waters adjacent to seawalls, artificial reefs, and erosion control structures; stay clear of these areas. Obey posted and verbal rip current warnings.
If being pulled out into deeper water by a forceful, unexpected rip current, DO NOT PANIC. Follow the rip current or try to swim out of it by swimming parallel to shore until the pull outward into deeper water subsides.
Bring plenty of water, sunscreen and insect repellent. Wear a hat, shoes and sunglasses.
Stay on marked trails to protect the plants and animals of the dunes.
Stay out of the water when rip current warnings are posted.
Stay off the shelf ice. It is full of hidden, thin spots and gaps that people can fall through.
Stay out of the water when signs are posted to alert you to high bacteria counts. The bacteria may harm your health.
Watch for strong winds blowing away from the beach that can hijack rafts and beach toys.
Do not feed the gulls or other birds. Human food is unhealthy and encourages them to flock. When they flock, they make the beach dirty.
Prohibited Activities on the Beach
The removal of natural items such as rocks, shells, and fossils.
Wood and charcoal fires on the beach. West Beach and Lake View Beach do have dedicated grills in the picnic areas.
Launching, landing or operating any unmanned aircraft (e.g. model airplanes, quadcopters, drones) on lands and waters administered by the National Park Service within the boundaries of Indiana Dunes National Park except as approved in writing by the superintendent.
Stay off the shelf ice! Despite its unusual beauty, don't risk your life. Enjoy the view of the shelf ice—from a distance! When frozen, Lake Michigan looks much like the Arctic. Unlike the arctic landscape, the lake ice is full of hidden thin spots and gaps (often further hidden by a layer of snow). Venturing out onto the ice is a sure way to risk death. For more information, visit our Shelf Ice page.
Walking on shelf ice is extremely hazardous. Persons falling through hidden holes and weak spots can quickly disappear from view making rescue difficult. Death is likely. Ponds, creeks and other waterways are not monitored for safe ice conditions. Subsurface water flows can create unseen thin areas making these locations unsafe. Access to frozen ponds places wintering animals under additional human-caused stress.
Stay warm. Dress in layers of loose-fitting clothes (including headwear) and keep your feet and hands dry. Minimize exposed skin. Keep an eye on the wind chill to help prevent frostbite. Gently re-warm any waxy-looking skin and seek medical attention.
Dressing properly can also prevent hypothermia. Early signs of this potentially fatal cooling of the body include intense shivering, loss of coordination and confusion. If you see symptoms, seek warmth and immediate medical care. Prime temperatures for hypothermia are actually above freezing between 30-50ºF. Don’t hike alone.
Last updated: July 14, 2023
1100 North Mineral Springs Road
Indiana Dunes Visitor Center phone number.