Our brand ambassador Andrew Jowett caught up with lake surfer and shaper Tim Folkert from Migration Surfboards in West Michigan to find out more about their work and passion for surfing. They have been hand shaping surfboards for the Great Lakes and spreading the stoke for the past few years. Read the full interview below and check out their stunning surfboards.
Can you tell us a little a bit about who are the people behind Migration Surf and what you guys do?
My name is Tim Folkert, and I'm the owner/shaper of the Migration surfboard label. I am a West Michigan native who moved out to Santa Cruz, California after graduating from college in 2003. Out in Santa Cruz, I fell in love with surfing and became highly interested in surfboard design and construction, which led me to become a production surfboard polisher in 2006. In 2009, I began shaping under the Migration label in California. Five years later, my family and I decided to move back to my roots in Michigan. We brought the Migration label back with us and began building boards here in the Midwest. Migration specializes in custom handcrafted surfboards for the Great Lakes surfing community and beyond. Right now I am a one man show doing every step of the board building process in my small workshop in Holland, Michigan.
When did you guys start surfing on the lakes? Can you tell us about the first time you paddled out in fresh water?
I discovered lake surfing in late 2003 while home for Christmas from California. While out for a walk near the beach, I came upon Holland's "Kook Squad" surfing the south pier here in Holland on a cold, windy, and snowy day in December. After meeting the crew and learning about the scene on the Great Lakes, I couldn't wait to try surfing on Lake Michigan. My chance came a few months later in the early summer of 2004 while I was interning at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Northern Michigan. A stiff south wind had been blowing all day as I had been monitoring Piping Plovers (an endangered shore bird) along the southern stretches of the National Lakeshore. The waves continued to build through the day. After work, I raced out to Empire Beach in Empire, MI with my wife (then girlfriend) and we grabbed our first freshwater waves together. The conditions weren't great, but we had a blast in the warm wind and early evening light.
In your opinion, what makes lake surfing so special?
There's no doubt that surfing on the Great Lakes is unique in it's own right, but I think there are a couple things that really define our surfing experience and culture here on the Lakes, and I think they're closely connected. First, good waves aren't often handed to us here, which means we usually have to work for it. Whether it be pouring over weather charts and data, rearranging schedules, dealing with inclimate weather, or driving for hours, most of us put in a lot of time and effort into finding good waves. The neat thing is this tends to be a collective effort between local groups of surfers across the Lakes. When the waves are on, my phone is constantly buzzing with calls and texts with friends and customers updating each other on conditions at different spots or sharing surf reports. Through this communal effort, relationships are built and friendships forged. Which brings me to my second distinction; Great Lakes surfers are among the friendliest and most welcoming community of surfers I've ever encountered. Since our scene is still relatively small, I think we treat newcomers not as threats to overcrowding, but as another person to help scout for the best waves. Kind of like biological altruism. The more eyes watching the forecasts and beaches, the more likely we will all find good waves, even at the cost of crowding the lineup a little. I know this will likely change as our community grows, but it's a pretty special thing right now.
How did shaping come into your life and what was the first board you ever shaped?
As with most good stories, it all started with a girl... Haha! Not long after I began surfing, I met a girl who I began surfing with and borrowing a board from. It wasn't long before we started dating and I began attending church with her. It just happened to be the sam church that a well known Santa Cruz shaper named Michel Junod attended. I met Michel, and eventually ordered my first custom board from him. Curious about the process, I asked if I could watch him shape my board. He happily obliged, and a few weeks later I found myself covered in foam dust and mesmerized by his craftsmanship and finesse in the shaping bay. Several months later I began looking for a shorter board, but couldn't find anything that would work well for me at a decent price. So I decided to try shaping my own. My girlfriend's dad had a busted board that was beyond repairable. I ended up stripping the fiberglass off that board and reshaping it into a 7'2" funshape/shortboard. It was a truly terrible board. But the hook was set, and all I wanted to do was learn the craft of board building. Eventually, Michel took me under his wing and began teaching me the custom board building process. I apprenticed under Michel for 8 years and began the Migration label while working for him. I feel very fortunate to have learned under some of the finest craftsmen on the West Coast.
As a shaper, can you give us your perspective on machine versus hand shaped boards?
Personally, I hand shape all my boards. This is primarily because I love the process of hand shaping and the idea of continuing the craftsmanship and tradition of building custom boards by hand. However, I understand why a lot of shapers have turned to CNC machines to shape their boards. It's much more efficient for production, especially for stock boards. While I'm not against machine shaping, I don't believe you can design a good board on a computer if you can't create a good board by hand in the shaping bay. The knowledge of hand shaping is essential, even when you are designing on a computer.
Can you tell us a little bit about your local surf community in West Michigan?
We have a pretty great community of surfers here in West Michigan. In Holland, there's a solid crew of older guys who have created a friendly and welcoming vibe around here. I've been thankful for their friendship and support. Then there's the younger crew of surfers in St. Joseph, MI who are experimenting with board design and charging whatever the Lakes throw at them. Watching that crew has been pretty inspiring. And with both Third Coast Surf Shop and Wet Mitten Surf Shop on our stretch of coast, access to gear and local knowledge is readily accessible. We are seeing a lot of new faces show up in our lineups in the last few years, but overall it's been a positive thing for our community. We may not always get the best waves on the Great Lakes in our area, but we do get fun days. And surfing with good people often makes up for the less than ideal conditions!
How do you guys as a company contribute for the sustainable growth of your community?
We've had some really cool opportunities to be involved to our local surf scene. My friend and fellow surfer, Greg Field, runs a local non-profit called the ARC Project that we've had the opportunity to work closely with. ARC operates surf and water safety camps for disadvantaged and at risk youth in Holland, MI and Jacksonville, FL. Through the work of ARC, we've had the opportunity to witness some amazing things happen to kids who don't always have the opportunity to have a fun day at the beach. It's pretty special, especially when you consider those kids are at the highest risk for drowning on the Great Lakes. We get to teach them some knowledge and skills that could save their lives.
We also had the chance to lend our voice to the Line 5 oil pipeline issue through the movie "Great Lakes, Bad Lines" last year. This outdated crude oil pipeline runs underwater across the Straits of Mackinac. A spill would impact several hundred miles of beautiful Lake Michigan and Lake Huron shoreline in an area that heavily relies on the tourism industry. The movie explored the natural places recreational opportunities that would be at risk if the pipeline burst through the lens of a fun filled road trip. Protecting our beautiful coastline is essential if we want to continue to enjoy the waves we love here on the Great Lakes, and we were stoked to be included in that project.
What do you think the future holds for surfing on the Great Lakes?
The Great Lakes surf scene is in a really unique sweet spot right now. It is still small enough where it's a close knit community, but we're seeing a lot more people getting involved and more surf shops and resources popping up over the last several years. With this growth in the community, it will be important for us to keep the friendly and welcoming vibe in the water that the Lakes are known for. I'm excited for the future here on the Lakes. I think there are still new breaks to be discovered, especially on remote parts of Huron and Superior. And with better forecasting tools, I think we're going to keep finding better quality surf. It's a good time to be a surfer on the Great Lakes!
What’s your favourite shape of board to surf around here?
I love classic, heavily glassed, singlefin noserider longboards. Since we typically get small and weak surf over in our part of Lake Michigan, these boards fit the bill for most days. Right now I'm on my Crane model, which has a lot of influence from 60's logs, but with some modern enhancements. I'm also working on a few new models of "alternative" longboards that aren't noseriders, but aren't really performance boards either. They kind of fall in the "glider" category. Those boards have been really fun, too.
And last but not least, how does one get their hands on a custom board shaped by Migration Surf?
If you're interested in a custom, you can contact me through email or give me a call at 831-535-3361. I also sell in 5 shops over here on Lake Michigan. We would LOVE to begin offering boards in Canada, but we have some red tape to cut through before we can make that happen. Hopefully soon, though!
Interview by Antonio Lennert. Photographs by Andrew Jowett.