Surfing Lake Michigan

Lake Michigan Surfers
Kate drove up to Ripon, Wisconsin–everyone in unison: "the birthplace of the Republican Party"–to visit our old Berkeley friends Robin and Jim. I hung around the house with Dad for most of the afternoon and just at the moment I was about to succumb to the urge for an afternoon nap went out for a walk. From the Brekke North Side headquarters it's about a mile and a half out to the lake, and that's where I went. Then strolled up the beach in Loyola Park for half a mile taking in the wintry shore scene. Suddenly I realized a surfer was in the water.

The sight was remarkable first because this was the first time I'd seen anyone surfing out on the lake (that probably says more about my long-time absence from these parts than the willingness of the locals to turn Lake Michigan into a wave-riding scene). But the real surprise was that someone was out today. In Northern California, cold conditions go along with surfing: the water temperature off San Francisco dips into the high 40s during the winter and never seems to get above 56 (and of course in some places along our coast, the real challenge is the ferocity of the ocean conditions: big waves and strong currents). 

But in Chicago today, the highs were in the upper 30s, and the water temperature was 40. I would say that qualifies as frigid. Apparently, you can conquer anything with a modern wetsuits and a refusal to consider any pastime ludicrous.

I approached the surfer and asked whether I could take his picture. Yeah, he said. And how about sending him a copy? (I did.) The storm that came through last night featured a strong northeasterly wind that was forecast to raise 12-foot waves in Chicago and along the southern end of the lake. Those conditions brought Dave, the surfer, and his buddy Kevin, out to the beach at Loyola Park. 

Dave said the conditions in the water weren't great. Instead of swinging to the northwest, which would have created good waves, he said, the wind remained northeasterly and the waves were choppy and confused. He said he had only heard about surfing in Chicago last fall and had first gone into the water here in October. 

Dave's friend Kevin I saw bobbing off a little jetty at the north end of the Loyola Park beach. Swell after swell passed; my inexpert eye didn't see any epic rides pass him by. He paddled into the beach and joined Dave. I waylaid him, too. He said he's been surfing in Lake Michigan for 15 years. Question in the form of a statement: "The best waves must be in winter." Yeah, that's generally true, Kevin said. But until 15 years ago, wetsuits weren't good enough to protect you from the lake cold. "Ever been in the water when there was ice?" "Yeah," Kevin said. "I've had ice on me," Dave said–the air being so cold it would freeze the water on the outside of the wetsuit. 

"I don't goof around here too much," Kevin said. "This is sort of my beach of last resort. It's a lot better down at the end of the lake"–around the Indiana Dunes–"some really big water down there." 

It was sunset. I started to leave the park. The two of them walked up to the north end of the beach, and they were heading back into the water. 

4 Comments

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4 Responses to Surfing Lake Michigan

  1. Good stuff. What’s cool (from this left coast surfer’s perspective) is that it seems surfers on the Great Lakes have been getting more and more respect over the years. The surfing media used to laugh at these guys, but over the past few years the tide has turned (pun intended) from ridicule to recognizing their dedication. In the magazines, surf adventure and surfing weird, far-flung and cold locations is getting equal treatment beside tropical perfection. I’ve never been up there, but I’ve surfed some odd beaches and conditions. If I was on the lakes and I saw decent waves, I’d love to ride them. Hell, why not?

  2. Thom

    “Good stuff,” seconded. Reminds me of a story I read in a UO student publication, KD Magazine, on a few local river surfers who could be seen riding the perpetually gnarly swells river currents create around boulders and other obstacles. A first few looks haven’t turned up an electronic copy of that story, but if I find one I’ll send you a link. Just amazes me the lengths people will go to for a fun ride.

  3. Dan

    River surfing sounds like a whole ‘nother level of difficulty. Maybe wear a helmet for the rock work involved. Would love to see the article.
    The thing about these lakes is, yeah, conditions can change in a hurry. One thing I’m always impressed by — and this goes back to Ocean Beach in San Francisco — if you’re going to go out in these waters, you have to be completely self-reliant. No life guards and only long-shot help from the Coast Guard if something goes wrong.

  4. The Eisbach river in Munich is famous for its surfing scene: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTTct6xBIc8

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