In “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” Gordon Lightfoot sang about the perils of getting caught on Lake Superior when “the gales of November come early.”
But for Alex Brost and an expanding group of die-hard surfers landlocked in the Midwest, these dangerous winter storms present a unique opportunity to partake in one of the world’s most unique surfing experiences.
Surfing the Great lakes -- more specifically the icy waves of Lake Superior -- isn’t for the faint of heart. It has all the dangers of ocean surfing (minus the sharks), with the added risk of hypothermia. The lake is only surfable from late fall to late winter, when the water temperature hardly reaches 50 degrees and can reach freezing. Brost said he has literally surfed around ice chunks on Lake Superior.
Waiting for waves
Surfable swells are rare and fleeting -- occuring maybe a dozen times per winter and lasting less than 24 hours. They only form in weather certain conditions, forcing the surfers to keep a sharp eye on the forecast.
“What you look for is a big, low pressure system coming over from the Midwest,” said Brost, owner of Idol Surf shop who has surfed around the world. “What you’re looking for is wind blowing in a Northeast direction really hard -- 20-30 knots (25 mph) minimum.”
The distance wind travels over water is known as “fetch.” The longest freshwater fetch in the world is from Lake Superior’s North East Angle to its western-most tip, making the scenic coastline just north of Duluth, Minn. a hot spot for surfing the Great lakes. While waves can reach 28.8 feet on Lake Superior, they are typically between knee- and head-high once they reach the shores of Duluth.
Surfable swells are infrequent and can pop up on short notice. Brost said it’s not uncommon for him to drop everything and drive overnight to Duluth, only to find the conditions didn’t add up or, as in one case, an iced-over lake.
Just catching a swell is half the battle and an accomplishment in itself.
“When it’s good, it’s good,” Brost said. “First you surf the storm, try to find the protected point to get out of the wind. Then, the wind switches and then you get really calm, glassy waves called the ‘clean up.’”
Serious gear for serious conditions
Wearing the proper gear is absolutely crucial for surfing the Great Lakes. Exposure to water below 50 degrees is an invitation for hypothermia, which can cause clumsiness, confusion and fatigue. There’s also a risk of cold shock -- a reaction to cold water that causes the human body to involuntarily gasp and potentially inhale water.
Brost said a 5 to 6 millimeter thick hooded and sealed wetsuit is a must-have. The suit should be form fitting. In fact, Brost brought his to a tailor to have it customized for his body. If the suit isn’t sealed and fitted properly, water will rush into the seams, putting a quick end to a rare surfing session.
Specialized boots and gloves are also necessary, and should be thick enough to be warm and grippy enough to hang on to a cold, wet board. Brost said gear for surfing the Great Lakes can be hard to come by and suggested searching online. Third Coast Surf Shop carries wetsuits, gloves, boots and boards. Surfboards come in several lengths and can be found at Third Coast Surf Shop or Idol Surf. However, most lake surfers -- if not all -- are seasoned ocean surfers looking for a unique experience, and therefore already have boards.
Becoming a lake surfer
Brost grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis and spent his free time doing watersports on Lake Minnetonka. In 2007-08, he and his friends experimented with creating a big enough wake behind their boat to actually surf on, and Brost even made his own wake surfing board. At one point, he thought he had invented wake surfing -- but it turns out someone else had also invented it had been around since the 1950s.
His penchant for water and board sports carried into college, when he travelled the coast of South America and fell deeply in love with surfing. Upon returning home to Minnesota, Brost was desperate to catch a wave and stumbled across the Superior Surf Club, an online forum of lake surfers that tracked weather conditions and met up for winter swells.
“It was a small thing back then, maybe a dozen or twenty guys doing it,” Brost said. “In the last few years it’s caught on, especially at (University of Minnesota-Duluth). It’s grown a lot in the last 5 years.”
Now, there are Facebook groups and pages that make surfing the Great Lakes more accessible.
Brost said lake surfing is the most welcoming and friendly surfing culture in the world -- and he’s surfed on every continent except Antarctica. There is definitely a pecking order to decide who surfs which waves, but overall the sense of community is very strong, especially as lake surfers rely on each other for safety in the stormy, cold waters.
Aspiring lake surfers should hone their surfing skills on the warm, consistent waves of the Pacific Ocean, from Southern California down to Central America. Although experience wakeboarding and snowboarding may help with balance, nothing can replace time on a surfboard watching and reading waves.
“In surfing, you spend around 99% of the time paddling and 1% surfing,” Brost said. “ I always advise (people) to take a lesson. Just bringing the gear to the lake and thinking you can figure it out is a mistake. There’s so much timing and awareness – it’s very stressful. When waves are breaking over your head, it’s easy to go into panic mode and an instructor can help you through that.”
A wakeboarding instructor himself, Brost said some of the best surfers and water sport athletes are strong swimmers with yoga experience.
“It’s funny to see really ripped men try to surf,” Brost said. “That raw muscle doesn’t really help much and their wives that do yoga end up riding circles around them. They don’t get humble – they just get angry.”