Never miss a swell

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The Great Lakes contain 21% of all freshwater on earth, and these northern ‘inland seas’ are the source of life to millions in North America. Although their waters lay idle when the weather is tame, we have a long history of devastating swells generated by powerful storms. At the bottom of all five lakes lay hundreds of shipwrecks caught off-guard over the past centuries. The same destructive storms are the source of an ever-growing community of die-hard surfers who believe there are no bad days when you can surf on lake.

Lake Ontario. Photo by TJ Tindale.

Lake Ontario. Photo by Matthew Manhire. 

Great Lake surfers live by Gerry Lopez’s famous credo, “Surf is where you find it.” Some were born/bred here while others migrated from far-flung places. The majority moved to big urban centres in search of opportunity and thought surfing was no longer a possibility. Origins aside, we all share a story of discovering surfing here and how it has shaped our lives. Some people grew up watching  waves on family holidays, but surfing remained a foreign sport practiced in places like California and Hawaii. Some may have stumbled across the ‘Volkswagen-hiding barrels’ from Sheboygan in Dana Brown’s film, Step Into Liquid. Others,myself included, had to travel to a remote surf break in the Caribbean to meet a Great Lake surfer in the lineup to find out that one could surf back home.

Lake Ontario. Photo by Robert Teuwen.

Lake Ontario. Photo by Robert Teuwen.

Those living the big city hustle have to endure long work hours to succeed in their urban pursuits. Life in the city doesn’t automatically offer the same slow paced and mindful lifestyle of a small surf town by the ocean. At first sight, we all seem stuck in the concrete jungle. But if you are determined to find what drives your happiness and keeps you sliding forward, you will find it. For us, landlocked, urban surfers, Great Lake surfing provides a medium to balance the rhythm of our urban existence and a platform to interact with our natural environment. 

Lake Ontario. Photo by Robert Teuwen.

Lake Ontario. Photo by Robert Teuwen.

Lake Ontario. Photo by Sam Moffatt.

Lake Ontario. Photo by Sam Moffatt.

I often get asked how the lakes compare to the ocean, but comparison itself is what keeps us from enjoying things in life for what they are. If you want a technical answer, I can say that the lack of salt makes it harder to float and paddle, and wind swell makes for choppy and mushy conditions most of the time. These swells,resulting from strong low-pressure systems, are short lived so you really have to understand the science and know where and when to surf to score decent waves. Searching for the perfect wave applies here just as anywhere else and we are always exploring beyond the next point. This ephemeral and uncertain quality is the perfect setting for a tight, collaborative, and positive community, one that I haven’t seen anywhere else in my three decades living and surfing all over the world.

People have been surfing on the Great Lakes since the 1960s but in the past decade we have seen a surf scene emerging with new shops, schools, competitions and community initiatives spanning from Kingston to Duluth and everywhere in between. We honour and respect the pioneers who have been surfing here for decades setting the stage for this scene to flourish. We have our own kooks and celebrate and support them; we are all kooks one way or another. We have a great deal of self-proclaimed meteorologists who could have an honorary degree in Atmospheric Sciences from any renowned university. We also have inventors shaping their own boards, and an ever-growing community of explorers riding various shapes, styles and sizes. Moreover, we have a real community of surfers that span generations, celebrating surfing in its most basic essence, every season of the year.

Lake Ontario. Photo by Sam Moffatt.

Lake Ontario. Photo by Fred Lum.

Lake Ontario. Photo by Sam Moffat. 

Our surf season starts in the Fall, as the air and water begin to cool and storms move through the region. November gales bring some of the biggest swell and mark the transition into winter. The first snowstorm is a celebration of our love for cold water; those who paddle out are rewarded with stunning scenery and unforgettable sessions. These are the days of icicle beards, thigh-deep snow and surfing with  icebergs. When the temperature returns to the positive digits in March, we celebrate surviving another winter, and getting into a 4/3 feels like ‘trunking it’ in the tropics. Spring is time to give back and clean our beaches from all the debris that washes ashore during the winter. Lake Ontario goes flat in the summer months forcing us to flock to Erie, Huron and Georgian Bay and  ride some ankle-biter waves, sometimes in board shorts.

For the most part, Great Lake surfers don’t take themselves too seriously. We are a community of misfits from an extensive geographical radius who spend most of our free time obsessing over weather forecasts for those occasional short sessions in the water. We have our own identity and place within this vast landscape of emerging communities of cold-water surfers in rivers, lakes and seas in Canada and beyond. Our scene is still in its infancy but we’ve seen a lot of progress in terms of access to equipment and education, and have noticed a significant shift towards more inclusivity  and support. We have also noticed an ascent in the level of surfing, with the influx of expats from places where surfing is the norm, and local  surfers continue pushing the scene forward.

Lake Ontario. Photo by Lucas Murnaghan.

It’s hard to predict the future, but we hope to continue seeing this organic growth on the Great Lakes. We would love to see more competitions, events and crossover between rivers, lakes and surfers from the east and west coasts of Canada and the United States. With our current environmental crisis, we hope to continue working with organizations, policy makers and our community to protect this magnificent natural resource that keeps us alive and stoked. Over and above that, we look forward to continuing finding the positive side in life and chasing the endless winter surfing lifestyle in such a unique place as the Great Lakes.

Words by Antonio Lennert. Photographs by TJ Tindale, Matthew Manhire, Robert Teuwen, Sam Moffat, Fred Lum and Lucas Murnaghan.

 


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