Freshwater Shredding In The Great Lakes
Where: Eight states and one province share the Great Lakes, which consist of Lakes Michigan, Superior, Huron, Erie, and Ontario. Spanning from Minnesota to New York, these inland seas offer freshwater peelers and overhead wildness.
What: A smorgasbord of surf spots that work when the wind speed and direction is right, tucked away and far from the ocean, surrounded by masses who have no idea the waves on these lakes can be ridden. You can surf the Great Lakes facing an urban skyline or a secret spot down a long dirt road—the choice is yours.
When: Although you can surf certain beaches year-round (depending on how much ice forms in the winter), the best time to scout the lakes is the fall, when the wind is howling and water temperatures are nipply but acceptable. Fast-forward a few months and shelf ice can take over, which makes beaches inaccessible and frustrates surfers. There are no sharks, but taking a chunk of floating ice to the head or becoming hypothermic is no joke. Spring can be good, but forget about the summer, when there are weeks of pancake-flat boredom. However, when the occasional summertime storm hits, it’s nice to ditch the neoprene and enjoy the more humane temps. All in all, September through December has the best waves with more tolerable conditions. Past that, it gets radically cold.
Why: The lakes aren’t comparable to good days on the ocean, and the fickle surf can test your patience—but when it works, it’s worth it. If you know what to look for when trying to find clean, glassy lines, you can use that knowledge and some detailed maps to get out and explore. Finding rideable sets rolling in on a beach that’s rarely or maybe even never been surfed can be exciting in and of itself.
How: If you live in the US, getting here is simple. You can fly or drive, depending on where you live. Once here, many of the breaks are easily accessible, although some require a bit of a hike. Stony Point is a popular spot on Lake Superior, located near Duluth, Minnesota, which many consider one of the best places to surf the Great Lakes. Making your way to the wave is a cinch, thanks to the Duluth International Airport. If a big swell is forecast, you’ll definitely enjoy your time on Superior’s North Shore. Prepare yourself, though—aside from being the largest of the Great Lakes, it’s also the coldest, with an average overall temperature of around 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Waves in excess of 30 feet have been reported, and if you doubt that, look up the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald in November of 1975. Another well-known break can be found on Lake Michigan in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, where the annual Dairyland Surf Classic is held (Chicken Joe from Surf’s Up was straight outta here). You can fly in to the General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee, which is a little more than an hour’s drive away. I could write a laundry list of breaks throughout the Great Lakes, but these are the only two areas I’ll sell out this time around.
Places To Stay: Deciding where to stay is easy—once you know which part of the Great Lakes you want to surf. For some of the better waves, you might want to set your sights on Lake Superior—but that isn’t to downplay the other lakes. There are plenty of beachfront hotels in the more touristy areas, but if you’re going into the sticks, you might have to settle for a dingy motel. You can find a lot of nice bed and breakfasts, as well as weekly rentals.
Places To Eat: The dining situation here is pretty much what you’d expect. In the more populated cities, all the typical restaurants and fine food you crave will be at your fingertips; and even some of the rural towns have lakeside eateries with damn good food.
Babes And Dudes: When the lakes wake up, they often do so with rough onshore storms during colder seasons. Bikinis? Try four layers of clothing and mittens.
Crowd Factor: Overall, the lack of crowds is a nice benefit of surfing the lakes. Some spots have a busy lineup every now and then (by lake standards), but there are a ton of hidden gems where you’ll be the only one around—and even some of the best locales are often empty.
Stuff To Bring: In the summer, the number of days you can shortboard are few, so a longer board might be a good call. In the late fall and winter, you’ll want a hooded 6/5 with booties and gloves. Depending on where you’re staying, you might be able to rent or buy gear from a local shop. The seasons are strong—muggy summers and bone-chilling, subzero winters.
If The Surf Is Flat: This region is all about the outdoors. You can hike through sand dunes, take a ferry to spend the night on an island, fish, hunt, paddleboard—the fun goes on. Climbing to the top of a bluff and looking across the lake could provide a view you’d never expect to find in the Midwest.
Helpful Websites: For board rentals, forecasting linkage, and more, stop by Third Coast Surf Shop, located on the south end of Lake Michigan and at thirdcoastsurfshop.com. Also, visit surfriderlakemichigan.org and Burton’s site at nosaltsurf.com.—Andrew Nash
General Surf Travel Tips
-If you have a smart phone, turn off all data, roaming, and cellular services, unless you want a cell bill that’s bigger than your trip cost. Most places it’s way cheaper to buy a prepaid cell phone there, a calling card, or use Skype.
-Dental floss is a great way to sew up a wetsuit tear. Just drop a sewing needle in your toiletry kit and you’re set. You were already planning on bringing floss, right?