Near a rocky bay about 15 miles up the shore of Lake Superior from Duluth, Erik Wilkie sat in his warm pickup truck, watching a half-dozen neoprene-clad figures bob up and down in the eight-foot, aquamarine swells.
“This is a hairy day. This is the biggest day we’ve had this year,” said Wilkie, who was so excited his words came in bursts. “So everybody’s elated. The danger factor is right up there as high as it can be, the adrenaline is pumping.”
It was the day after a strong winter storm. Its 35-mile-per-hour winds created ideal surf conditions. They blew out of the north allowing waves to develop over 300 miles of water — a distance surfers call “fetch.”
Once a surfer, always a surfer, so … once you move to someplace where there is no surf, you start to get antsy.
It was actually kind of mild…25 degrees. Wilkie stuffed his slender 54-year-old frame into not one, but two wetsuits. After putting on booties, gloves and a hood, only his face is visible when he headed for the lake.
Wilkie carefully made his way across ice-covered rocks, dove into the water, and paddled 50 yards out to where the waves were starting to crest. He knelt on his board, as if in prayer, waiting for that perfect wave. Then he paddled furiously into position, stood up and rode near the top of a six-foot wave, mist sparkling over his bright yellow board.
Nearly an hour later, after several more rides, Wilkie came to shore, his face bright red and cold, but plastered with an ear-to-ear grin.
“OK that was fun,” he said. “Oooh. Love to see the waves big. Love to see all my friends getting great rides.”
He headed back to his idling pickup to warm up. Bob Tema was also taking a break. The Honolulu native moved to Minnesota more than two decades ago to study graphic design. After living there a couple years, he wondered… could he surf Lake Superior?
“Cause once a surfer, always a surfer, so growing up, surfing, once you move to someplace where there is no surf, you start to get antsy,” he said.
After a few years exploring the shore, he discovered there’s some excellent surfing on Lake Superior. When he first started 15 years ago it was just him and a buddy. Now he estimates about 50 surfers ply the winter waves. He says surfing scenes have popped up around the Great Lakes – from Sheboygan, Wis., to Marquette, Mich., — but the premier spot is on Lake Superior, at a place called Stony Point. But the best surf arrives when it’s coldest, when fall and winter storms kick up high winds, big waves and often sub-zero temperatures.
“On those really cold days your eyelids will sometimes get stuck, freeze shut for a bit, you have to kind of pry them open,” Tema said.
The big waves are also intermittent. They might only happen every few weeks. So Tema’s founded the Lake Superior Surf Club with a website where diehards can monitor wave and weather conditions. Many have flexible schedules so they can leave at a moment’s notice.
Mark Anderson drove up early from St. Paul, where he’s an underwriter for a large bank. Anderson grew up in the Twin Cities but learned to surf visiting cousins in San Diego, and still can’t quite believe he’s doing the same thing in Minnesota.
“I don’t care where you’ve surfed before, there’s no file folder for standing in the snow, and jumping off of an ice covered rock into Lake Superior to go catch waves that any surfer anywhere in the world, pro or beginner, would envy,” Anderson said.
Anderson acknowledged the waves here aren’t generally as big as the towering waves that can crash into Hawaii and elsewhere. But he said there are times when they come close.
“The biggest and the gnarliest wave I’ve ever caught in my life was right out there,” he said. “It had blown 50 to 55 for a day and a half, and there were 14-foot faces out there breaking just like on the TV show ‘Hawaii 5-O.’”
Later that morning, Bob Tema caught a big, eight-foot wave. He crouched low on his board and cut under a curtain of spray that curled over him. The iconic surfing image–except for the wetsuit.
“Look at him get covered up!” Wilkie said. “Right on, Bob, a little tube ride! That’s the ultimate.”
Erik Wilkie, the southern California transplant, said he made it look easy, but Lake Superior surfing can be dangerous. There’s the ice cold water. Plus, surfers aren’t as buoyant in freshwater as they are in the salt. And Wilkie says the waves come much faster than in the ocean, every five seconds or so.
“If you take off on the first or second wave and you wipe out, then you’ve got four, five, six, eight waves coming right behind you to smash you in the head, before you can get back on your board and swim out of there to safety,” he said.
But in the 15 years Bob Tema’s been surfing Lake Superior, he said there have been no major injuries. Eric Wilkie said it’s a close bunch of surfers who look out for one another. He said there’s a warmth and camaraderie in the surf scene here unlike anywhere else. Kind of funny, he mused, that would happen in the coldest surf water imaginable.