Man versus lake: Chicagoan drinks Lake Michigan straight

By Claire Donnelly

Tim Mack stepped toward Lake Michigan and dipped his ceramic mug into the freezing water.

Blindfolded and fueled by the cheers of dozens of onlookers, Mack chugged the entire unfiltered  beverage.

According to Mack, he drank five mugs of Lake Michigan. Spectators, focused on the feat rather than the amount,  posed for selfies with their new hero.

One cup down - several hundred thousand more to go. Tim drinks his first mug of water drawn from Lake Michigan. (Caroline Kenny/MEDILL)
One cup down – several hundred thousand more to go. Tim drinks his first mug of water drawn from Lake Michigan. (Caroline Kenny/MEDILL)

“I was pretty bummed there,” Mack said in a post-chugging interview. “I was expecting to finish the lake…but I’m feeling a little better now.”

Mack, 23, became an Internet celebrity when he declared that he would drink Lake Michigan—all of it—in 10 minutes on Jan. 9.

Mack started the Facebook event, “I Am Going to Drink Lake Michigan,” as a joke with a few friends. But it attracted the attention of more than 17,000 Facebook users who expressed interest in the spectacle or said they would come to watch Mack drink the lake.

The drink-a-thon last Saturday drew a crowd of approximately 40 people. Attendees huddled together on Montrose Beach, braced against the sleet and snow. Mack said an additional 500 people watched the event as a live stream on the Periscope app.

When he’s not drinking Great Lakes, Mack is a buyer for a Chicago company. He said his sudden catapult to social media fame surprised him.

“When I first decided to do this, I figured it would be me and about seven friends. Next thing I knew, it was up to 2,000 people” following on Facebook, he said in an interview earlier this month.

Brandon Gonzalez, who came to cheer Mack on, said he wanted to see if someone would really drink Lake Michigan—or even part of it.

“That’s dope,” Gonzalez added, laughing.

Tim Mack rallies supporters who have gathered to support him at Montrose Beach where he planned to drink Lake Michigan. (Caroline Kenny/MEDILL)
Tim Mack rallies supporters who have gathered to support him at Montrose Beach where he planned to drink Lake Michigan. (Caroline Kenny/MEDILL)

“We had high hopes today,” said Tim Wichlin, who referred to himself as Mack’s manager and followed Mack around with a boom microphone. The microphone wasn’t connected but added to the dramatic effect.

“I think no matter how successful he was today he tried his best and that’s all that matters,” Wichlin said.

Mack said he had been preparing to drink Lake Michigan since mid-November, and said he initially tried conditioning his body to accommodate unfiltered lake water by drinking one glass per day. According to Mack, this system worked until day three, when he got sick.  He stopped the conditioning and waited until the big day to drink his next mug of lake water.

“When I first started, we had our filter system off so it tasted pretty bad. I started to feel not very good,” Mack said.

He said that after the initial mugful, he switched to drinking lake water from coolers outfitted with special water filtration systems designed by his friend and team “doctor,” Tim Curley, who is not really a physician.

“This is the type of stunt that shouldn’t be done,” said Gary Litherland, a spokesman for the Department of Water Management in Chicago. “You’re exposing yourself to a lot of algae and bacteria and possibly protozoa, things like Giardia. You can make yourself really ill.”

Giardia is a protist (plural: protozoa), a microscopic parasite, and it causes the diarrhea of the illness known as giardiasis.

Ecologist Timothy Davis agreed that, if Mack were exposed to bacteria, he could have become very ill. Davis specializes in harmful algal bloom ecology at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

“I don’t know if the beach he was at has issues with…E. coli, or what we call fecal coli form bacteria…[but] if you ingest water with a high density of E. coli, it can be bad for you,” Davis said.

Fecal coli are bacteria found in fecal matter, and the most common form of fecal coli form bacteria are Escherichia coli, or E. coli.

According to Davis, scientists test for E. coli to determine whether fecal coli form bacteria are present and whether to close public beaches.

Litherland added that waste from seagulls, dogs and other animals makes unfiltered lake water dangerous for human consumption.

“These are things that are found in the lake naturally but that we need to filter out, which is why we have filtered and purified tap water in Chicago,” Litherland said.

So what’s next for Mack? “I’m just going to lay low and try to return to the life I had before drinking the lake. It was a lot of fun but I also learned that fame comes with a price,” he noted.

“I need to re-center myself with those close to me and try and do what’s best for me. Maybe that means eating The Bean in Millennium Park or maybe that means settling down and starting a family somewhere warm. Whatever happens I know I will choose the right thing and there will always be people in my life who support me.”

Photo at top: One down, several hundred thousand to go–Tim Mack drinks his first mug of water from Lake Michigan. (Caroline Kenny/MEDILL)