Overhead and Nowhere Near the Ocean: Great Lakes Surfing
By Andrew Nash
Are you wondering what it’s like to surf the Great Lakes? How about this: glassy waves are rolling in and no one else is in sight – you have it all to yourself. You’ve also got hidden spots that haven’t been surfed yet, camaraderie amongst those who share your idea of freshwater entertainment, and a handful of shark free bodies of wave-producing water to choose from. If you’re willing to drive around the region, you can hit up beaches on different parts of the Great Lakes for optimal surf (depending on wind direction). The lakes do have flat spells and good surf isn’t very frequent, but it isn’t unheard of to surf for days in a row – especially in the colder, stormier months. Sounds pretty sweet, right? It is.
I don’t know where you ride, but you might have to deal with crowds all the time. Do you ever sit in a traffic jam on the highway only to finally arrive at the beach, go out in the water, and then deal with enough people to remind you of a liquefied airport security checkpoint? I never have to put up with that where I go. Sure, swimmers and beachgoers congregate in the summer… but guess what? The same storms that produce waves also drive away tourists and sandcastle contractors. When I go to the beach on stormy days the parking lot is usually empty. Although some lake spots do get crowded, it’s not hard to find a beach in the middle of nowhere that gives you what you’re looking for – without the throngs. For a lot of lake surfers, this is just another day in the office. Plus it’s kind of cool to do something a lot of people still don’t believe is possible.
Many lake surfers have a love-hate relationship with the winter. Although some of the best memories can be made in the colder months, cold is a foe that every lake surfer knows. Unless your idea of surfing is going out in the water a few months out of the year when it’s warmer (which also tends to be the calmer time of year with fewer waves), you’re going to need some suitable gear to surf the fresh water stuff. Even though thick full body wetsuits will protect you from the inhospitable water, spots can become inaccessible in the winter thanks to ice. It all depends though. This past winter I found a beach that was open all season long, with very little ice.
How did I get into surfing Lake Michigan? Well, I’m a transplant from the state of Washington and spent a little bit of time in the West Coast water as a teen (even went to Huntington Beach once). I wasn’t able to get out in the ocean very often, but something about surfing drew me in. After moving to Michigan, I thought this pastime would be placed on hold – until I went to the beach one July afternoon and there was three to five foot surf. I was googly-eyed and have been hooked ever since. It’s a good thing I accidentally moved into a house just down the road from a sa-weet beach.
Although there are many similarities between surfing the Great Lakes and the ocean, there are also some key differences, such as buoyancy, the frequency between waves, and the prevalence of onshore winds and rough conditions. Freshwater is less buoyant than saltwater, so you can imagine how that affects the experience. I’m used to the salt-free shreddables, but someone who surfs the ocean all the time might feel like they’re in a twilight zone of some sort when they catch freshwater waves. On the one hand, you’re riding waves while seagulls are flying overhead. On the other hand, you’re in a freakin’ lake! Swallowing a mouthful of water that isn’t salty can be a little creepy for some first-timers. Since waves on the Great Lakes often break closer together, surfing them can require more paddling and wear your arms out quicker than the ocean. Sometimes it feels like a bombardment of waves, with little time in between. Because storm systems that produce freshwater waves are often closer to shore, lake conditions also tend to be windier than their salty counterpart. However, if you know where to look and when to go, you can find nice break. Like anywhere else, it’s all about the hunt for waves – and the Great Lakes offer plenty of that!
If you want to find out more about surfing the Great Lakes, check out Third Coast Surf Shop (http://www.thirdcoastsurfshop.com/), where you can browse around the online store, stop by the forum (http://forum.thirdcoastsurfshop.com/), and see what lake surfing is all about.