Surfing in a giant and frigid body of freshwater might not be everyone’s idea of paradise, but for landlocked surfers, it’s a lifestyle that is embraced with gusto. Great Lakes surfing is challenging, but for the brave men and women who surf there, the obstacles provide a sense of adventure.
While Midwest lake surfing can be rewarding, it is important to know some key things before you go. As with surfing in the ocean, there are a number of factors that go into scoring epic (or even not-so-epic) waves in the Great Lakes, from understanding what generates swell to bringing the appropriate equipment.
If you are an adventure-seeking surfer, the Great Lakes should be on your to-do list. Here are the essential things to keep in mind when planning your trip.
Find your spot
The Great Lakes region boasts more square mileage than Texas, has many areas with little to no access and is a truly international destination, with portions stretching into Canada. Knowing where and what you want to surf is essential to planning a mission here.
The most trafficked area is known as the “other North Shore,” which centers around the lakeside shipping town of Duluth, Minnesota. It’s where the pros go when visiting Lake Superior, and it’s easy to access from the bustling Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area.
Stoney Point is the most well-known and heavily surfed spot in Duluth, but there are other waves to be ridden (and even pioneered) in the area. While Duluth certainly has become the epicenter of Great Lakes surfing, it isn’t the only place to surf, as shredders from Sheboygan to Chicago are getting some too.
Other well-known spots include Marquette Beach and South Pier in Grand Haven, Michigan, the Canadian side of Lake Erie, a number of spots near Toronto on Lake Ontario — including the Niagara River mouth, which can handle sizable winter swell — and Chicago, which has banned surfing at public beaches but still hosts a thriving surf scene.
It’s going to be cold — really cold
Every year, we see images of surfers donning thick neoprene in the Pacific Northwest and in the Northeast, as both the North Atlantic and North Pacific can get pretty frigid in the winter months. However, the Great Lakes can take freezing to a whole new level.
With an average low temperature of 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit in Duluth — even colder once you factor in wind chill — the Great Lakes can be shockingly cold.
“Winter swells mean 30-degree water temps and sometimes subzero air temps; sometimes you get frozen into your wetsuit,” explains local surfer and shaper Alex Brost. “I get brain freeze every time I duck dive on those days.”
Such extreme temperatures make choosing the right wetsuit essential. At a minimum, you will want a hooded 5/4/3 millimeter suit, with 7 millimeter booties and 5-plus-millimeter gloves.
Because the Great Lakes are freshwater, they’re therefore less buoyant than the ocean. While some waves are punchy in the winter, the lack of buoyancy, increased wetsuit thickness and sometimes-soft waves mean stepping up the volume of your board is critical.
While overall volume is a critical element to choosing the right stick, a surfboard with an increased planing surface might also be helpful, as standard shortboards will mean fewer waves caught.
It’s all windswell
Unlike ocean swells, which generally start many miles offshore, allowing time for the swell to organize and clean up, Great Lakes waves are all generated by wind swells. This means very short wave intervals that can produce skull-numbing paddles.
If you catch the first wave in a set, the chances that you’ll be in the grips of a nauseating brain freeze by the time you make it back to the lineup are very high.
Keep it positive
One of the essential elements to surfing the Great Lakes is attitude. You won’t be rocking up to a white-sand beach filled with bikini-clad beauties or bronzed bros. In fact, you’ll most likely be faced with challenge after challenge.
But if you stay positive, you will have an epic adventure. People in the Midwest towns that surround the Great Lakes are friendly and polite, so good manners will go a long way. Don’t be surprised if everyone in the lineup chats you up or invites you for a post-session drink; having a good disposition and being sociable is the key the mixing with the local community.
Prepare for post-session
After you get out of the water, you are going to be cold, and the likelihood of your extremities not having full function is high. Just getting out of your wetsuit can be as daunting as the actual surfing.
Many surfers opt to change in and out of their wetsuits in their homes or hotels, but if you don’t have a short drive to a hot shower, there are some things you can do to help ease the inconvenience of stiff fingers and frozen neoprene. Bring several thermoses filled with hot water; you don’t want to scald yourself, so be cognizant of the temperature. Pouring hot water into your wetsuit will help warm your core and alleviate some of the stiffness from the arctic water temperatures.
Bring core-warming clothing and a mat for changing, and start your car immediately after you get to it. If you plan accordingly, you can have an epic session with enough energy and time left over to hang with your new local friends.
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