It’s a chilly April day at Shorewood, Wisconsin’s Atwater Park. A few people walk their dogs along the paths cutting through the park, but for most it’s not warm enough to be out enjoying a day at the lake. The beach is empty, save for the belonging of three surfers out in the water, waiting for a good wave.
Though surfing on the Great Lakes is more popular now than it’s ever been, most people don’t associate the two. The climate here is very different from Hawaii, where surfing began. The lakes don’t have strong currents and tides like the oceans, so waves are dependent on the weather. Strong winds can kick up waves as high as 5 feet, paltry compared to the ocean, where a wave isn’t big until it’s at least 20 feet. The weather is typically 70 to 80˚F in Honolulu no matter the time of year, but in places like Milwaukee and Marquette, Michigan, winter weather can drop far below freezing. This makes for an unpredictable surf season, since winter storms create bigger, better waves than in the summer, but once the lakes freeze over, there aren’t waves at all.
The earliest surfers on the Great Lakes had more issues with the cold than just ice. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, when lake surfing began, surfers couldn’t stay in the water during colder months even before the lakes froze over because they couldn’t stay warm enough.
“It was very, very seasonal,” said Eric Gietzen, “or you had to be crazy to get in the water.”
Gietzen has been surfing Lake Michigan since 1986. When he began surfing at Atwater park, the only exposure protection he had was a scuba diving wetsuit that he shared with a friend. They would build a bonfire on the beach and when one was out surfing, wearing the wetsuit, the other would warm himself by the fire. When the guy in the water got too cold, he would come back in to the beach and they would switch places.
Though there are a few times a year when the water and air are both warm enough that lake surfers can wear just swimsuits, today Gietzen wears a 5/4 neoprene wetsuit specially made for surfing, along with a hood, boots and gloves. The core areas are 5mm thick to keep him warm and the joints are 4mm to allow for better flexibility. Scuba diving and surfing require very different ranges of motion, so while a scuba wetsuit was thick enough to keep him warm in the ‘80s, it made surfing a lot harder because the thinner, more flexible parts were in all the wrong joints. Scuba divers don’t often need to reach over their heads the way surfers do to paddle into a wave, so having a wetsuit designed for surfing makes a big difference in how much effort surfing takes.
Advances in wetsuit technology made it easier and more fun to surf the Great Lakes, but the biggest factor in the popularity of lake surfing is probably visibility. When Gietzen began surfing, there were five guys in the Milwaukee area who surfed. Now Gietzen is part of the Milwaukee chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, an organization that helps protect shoreline around the world from construction and pollution. This year will be the fourth year the Milwaukee Surfrider Foundation host an event called Surf @water at Atwater Park. Every August the Milwaukee surf community comes together for the day-long festival to celebrate and share Great Lakes surf culture, providing surf and stand-up paddle boarding lessons to newcomers and watching surf movies on the beach.
Surf @water is sponsored by local Milwaukee businesses, but other surfing events around the Great Lakes have gotten wider attention. Sheboygan, Wisconsin, the mecca of surfing in the midwest, had a contest for many years called the Dairyland Surf Classic sponsored by Corona.
Though the terrain along Sheboygan’s shoreline creates much more consistent wave breaks than elsewhere around Lake Michigan, the one or two days of good surf at a time aren’t adequate for competition. The Dairyland Surf Classic hasn’t run since 2012, but Gietzen thinks it was more important as a reason for lake surfers to gather and socialize every year than as a competition. After the Dairyland Surf Classic was canceled, several other events began all around Lake Michigan to take its place, from luaus and smaller competitions to general celebrations of surf culture like the Surf @water event.
The community is a big draw for some people. “If you like it and you get hooked, you’re kind of in a little club,” said one surfer coming in from the water. She learned to surf growing up in New Buffalo, Michigan and moved across Lake Michigan to Milwaukee for graduate school because she loves the culture of the Great Lakes region so much. “I can’t not live by the Great Lakes.”
Another part what draws people to surfing the Great Lakes is that there have never been more than a few hundred active surfers here. “One of the big themes in surfing is looking for the wave that no one’s ridden,” said Gietzen. Since surfing is relatively new to the Great Lakes and very few people surf, there are still plenty of unknown spots left to discover. “That spirit is still alive and well in the Great Lakes. It’s a pretty rare thing.”
John Moser, another long-time lake surfer, has spent the day checking out various spots around Milwaukee. He isn’t impressed with the waves today and decides not to paddle out, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t get to spend some time in the water. While walking on the beach to one less well-known spot, he got hit by a wave. “It just drenched me. My girlfriend’s electric key I’m sure is not electric anymore.”
A few more tourists might be checking out the Great Lakes surf scene this year since two professional surfers made the trek to Minnesota last winter to check out the waves on Lake Superior. Alex Gray and Alex Brost, big wave surfers who usually surf wave 20 feet or higher, came to see what kind of waves a major storm can create on the Great Lakes.
“I think it’s great that they do it,” Gietzen said. “It’s fun, but those guys aren’t coming here for the big surf, they’re coming here because some sponsor is saying ‘That’s going to get you some exposure.’”
Though the number of surfers on the Great Lakes is increasing and visits from professional surfers brings exposure to the lakes, Gietzen doesn’t see any sort of shift toward the Great Lakes becoming a consistent place for surf tourism.
“At the end of the day, it’s not the ocean and it never will be.”