December 15, 2008 saw epic conditions on the North Shore. Not that North Shore—the North Shore of Lake Superior, just north of Duluth, Minnesota, far removed from the swaying palms, soothing trade winds, and 78-degree water of Oahu. I’d even bet that the waves at Stoney Point, Minnesota were better than those at Pipeline that day. Crazy? Trust me, the entire North Shore was flooded, flat, rainy, and brown while surfers on the other North Shore were enjoying chest-to-head high, offshore-groomed freshwater surf. Albeit, the air temperature was minus 10 degrees and the water a not-so-balmy 34 degrees…hardcore doesn’t even begin to describe the surfers of Minnesota’s North Shore!—Justin Cote
After seeing a few photos of the session, we did a bit of research and tracked down Bob Tema from the Lake Superior Surf Club for a quick chat…
What was the water temp that day Bob?
Bob Tema: We’re not really sure because they’ve pulled the buoys in (from the lake) but it’s usually in the mid 30s by this point in the year. It reaches its cold point right about now in mid-December. If it gets any colder the lake will freeze over.
How often does that happen?
On average, it freezes solid every fifteen years but in the winter we always have ice on the shore and floating ice fields that shift around with the wind. The harbors and other shallow areas are always freezing up, too.
Do you guys surf right there in Duluth or do you make treks to other spots?
One of the more popular spots, the Lester River mouth, is right there in town. A little further up the coast, in the wild nature area, is Stoney Point, and anything North of there is kinda secluded—we call it the North Shore ironically enough. So yeah, there’s a bunch of breaks in town (Duluth, Minnesota) and more up North all the way to Canada.
Are you guys wearing drysuits or just normal ones?
We wear regular surfing suits, 6mm with built-in hoods. Personally I wear a 5/4/3mm—I think that’s just fine with a hood, booties, and gloves. I usually stay pretty warm, but it’s usually your feet and hands that get cold fast.
My feet and hands get cold in 59-degree water! Anyway, what’s the local surf scene like there up in Duluth?
It’s pretty amazing and has grown a lot in the last five years. I’ve been doing this for ten years and it used to be just my buddy, Brian Stabinger, and me and we’d only come across another guy every now and then. All of this time we’ve had our site (www.superiorsurfclub.com) so I don’t know if it’s due to the site or just improved communication over the Internet. There’s now a group of about 30 guys surfing around here, and just the other day at Stoney Point I counted 16 heads in the water—the most ever. By California standards that’s a pretty light crowd, but by Lake Superior standards, that’s a pack.
Do the waves come in as sets, or is there just a steady flow of waves?
They come in as sets. The big difference is the wave period—they come in much closer together and eight seconds is considered a pretty long period. That’s because we don’t have 1,500 miles of fetch to draw out the wave period. A lot of times we’re surfing in the middle of the very storm system that generated the surf.
What’s the best part of lake surfing?
I think it’s the whole spirit of adventure and surfing in a really unlikely place. A lot of the places Brian and I have surfed have never been surfed before. We were pretty much the first to surf Stoney Point, another friend of mine, Greg, he surfed out there in the 70s, but only on small and warm days. That was before wetsuit technology really allowed anyone to get out there during the good season; which is late fall and Winter. The whole adventure part of it is really cool and keeps us coming back, and there are plenty of new spots that have yet to be surfed. The way I look at it, we have our own little, cold Indonesia out there.
There are a lot of untapped spots I’d imagine.
Very much so, but there are access issues. The Minnesota North Shore coast is very rugged; it’s all rocks, coves, and cliffs. In many places, there just aren’t roads to get in there. We haven’t gone as far as to get jet skis or anything, but someday, you know? If we take it to that level, we can really get into some of those nooks and crannies.
I’m sure you’ve thought of it before, but why don’t you move to California or Hawaii? What keeps you there?
Well I grew up in Hawaii so I’ve already been there, done that and can go back anytime. I love going back there and surfing, and I go visit a friend in Encinitas (CA), too. Again, it comes down to the adventure thing—I’m discovering untapped and unridden spots out here. The cold aspect just adds to the whole gung-ho part of it. I get away on at least one surf trip per year, I’m going to Ecuador in February, so I travel when I want to get in my warm weather destinations but I’m happy to stay right here in Minnesota to seek out all the great surf we have.
Go to www.superiorsurfclub.com for more photos and info.
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