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Surfing the Great Lakes

Growing up in Northern Michigan, I didn’t have easy access to the ocean, but I was surrounded by lakes… lots and lots of lakes. We had access to many inland lakes, but also 10,900 miles of freshwater coastline. That’s where the waves can be found. On a stormy day in April, my family and I took a short drive to Holland Beach on Lake Michigan, and I was able to witness just how big the shoreline waves could get. I was amazed that the lake I grew up on could form waves that mimicked our spring break spot in Cocoa Beach, Florida so well. 

I had fallen in love with surfing before I knew that our Great Lakes had a little something to give, too. Home-state breaks were a whole new ball game. Unsalted water, no sharks lurking underneath, and honestly, not a whole lot of lineup competition . Surfing the Great Lakes is euphoric. The waves are the perfect size to paddle into, whether you’re new to surfing or a seasoned pro. When surfing the lakes, you’re not necessarily chasing a massive swell. Wave periods are shorter compared to the ocean, so the power and size of each wave is typically smaller as a result. Oh yeah, it’s cold, really cold. With primetime for surf being September to April, you already know you better be bringing your wetsuit A-game. 0-10°C water doesn’t mess around. But, when you successfully paddle into a wave after waiting so patiently for it, you almost forget where you are; and you forget that you can’t feel your feet. The environment that surrounds you as you float along the uncrowded waves is unlike anything else you’ve ever experienced. Trees tower around the bay as chunks of ice collapse into the water near the shoreline. You can eat snowflakes and hang ten at the same time. It’s bizarre and riveting and addicting. Who knew surfing could look like this? Brave souls are willing to travel hours to arrive at Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, or Lake Ontario for a taste of that fresh coast surf. The conditions are unheard of and trembling persistence is mandatory.

And yet, it’s not just the destination that makes surfing the Great Lakes matchless; it’s the people. Great Lakes surfers are passionate about the sport, to say the least. If trudging through the snow in a 7mm wetsuit doesn’t illustrate an appetite for waves, I don’t know what does! Local surfers live for these conditions. The people I’ve paddled next to are some of the kindest, most encouraging, most fervent people I’ve ever met. Surfing a lake isn’t exactly normal, and it doesn’t take a normal person to want to chase the adrenaline that Great Lakes surfing creates. The stoke is real with the locals. Their attributes of patience, persistence, determination, and true desire to catch a wave aren’t thwarted by the temperature. In their eyes, that’s not an overwhelming obstacle to overcome; it’s just a thicker wetsuit! Surfing is a rarity on the lakes and the locals are always happy to see another face on the water. Kooks are not only happily welcomed but are encouraged to keep coming back for more. The few individuals who chase after these conditions regularly become like family to one another. That’s what it’s all about, the bond of this community runs all the way to its lake water frozen heart. 

Surfing isn’t defined by destination, swell size or quiver; it’s defined by the heart of the person chasing their passion for the sport. Every surfer, novice or otherwise, has a purpose behind getting in the water.

Surfing isn’t defined by destination, swell size or quiver; it’s defined by the heart of the person chasing their passion for the sport. Every surfer, novice or otherwise, has a purpose behind getting in the water. Throughout this 2020 quarantine, it’s been pretty clear that people have missed the feeling of being in the water. These are desperate times. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and sometimes, those desperate measures demand that we slow down and prioritize what brings us back to peace, law-willing. In a world full of chaos and constant adaptation, repose might be the very thing we need to keep moving forward with hope. For Great Lakes surfers, and many surfers around the globe, peace is in the water. No matter the conditions or the temperature, no matter where your favorite break is in the world, we all sit and we wade in the water of possibility. Not because it always promises our preferable outcome, but because, even if it doesn’t, the peace is fully present and hope is ready for the taking if we’re willing to accept it. So, let’s all catch a party wave on Lake Michigan… who’s in? 

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Tony Butt: Oceanographer, Patagonia ambassador, surfer of mammoth-sized waves.