Great Lakes surfers pay no mind to frigid temps

CP goes to Duluth to see what kind of brave souls partake of winter boarding

"Summer means many different things to different people. To some it might mean the thrill of a high-speed catamaran. Others like to float around and soak up a few stray rays. Still others like some kind of inland activity. But for us, it's the sport of surfing."

—The Endless Summer

In 1968, a wide-eyed Greg Isaacson heard those opening lines of the classic surf flick and took them to heart. The 12-year-old from Duluth watched with rapt attention for the next hour and a half. The film was a flowing adventure, full of humor and containing a simple mission: find new waves to ride. To this day, The Endless Summer has a mythic hold on the surfing community. No film captures the spirit of surfing better.

Would Gidget paddle out in sub-freezing weather? Here, Quinn Carmichael drops in on the north shore of Lake Superior.
Bob Tema
Would Gidget paddle out in sub-freezing weather? Here, Quinn Carmichael drops in on the north shore of Lake Superior.
Greg Isaacson first paddled out on a Coleman camping pad when he was twelve. Forty years later, he's the local legend of the Superior surf community.
Emily Kaiser
Greg Isaacson first paddled out on a Coleman camping pad when he was twelve. Forty years later, he's the local legend of the Superior surf community.

Upon graduation, Isaacson went west to fulfill the dream of an endless summer. Abetting him were a couple of buddies. They all piled into a panel truck and didn't stop until they wound up just north of San Diego, surrounded by beach blondes and crashing surf.

There, the neighbor of the squat he rented had a longboard sitting outside, behind the garage, covered in leaves. Isaacson took the hefty fiberglass board—about two times his size—and schlepped it toward the water. "I paddled straight out into the surf, bumping over the waves," he recalls. "Then when I figured it was right I turned the board around, paddled huge, and caught my first wave."

It didn't end well. The back of his board sucked up the face of the curl and dumped him headfirst to the bottom of the wave, which drilled him, rag-dolling his body underwater. "It was a hard wipeout," he says. "Ass over tea kettle. As you can imagine, I was hooked."

Several months and numerous wipeouts later, he was in Washington state picking apples on a farm when a guy told him about a gig in Hawaii. Isaacson suddenly realized he could make a life on the islands famous for glass-smooth breaks. At the end of the picking season, he bought a one-way ticket to Kauai, looking to take up residence in a co-op owned by Elizabeth Taylor's brother called "Taylor's Camp."

It didn't work out, as the camp ran out of space to plop down tents, but Isaacson found a job tending to papaya and banana trees. He'd spend his days in the orchard and every other waking hour in the water. He bummed a board off his neighbor, Bill Hamilton, a local surfer and board shaper. (Hamilton's son Laird grew up to become the most dominant big-wave surfer in the history of the sport, taming building-sized breaks once thought unsurfable with the aid of a jet ski-propelled tow-in.) It was the first time Isaacson really learned how to surf.

Eventually, the aloha lifestyle gave way to a call for family. He left Kauai and the farm, trading the NaPali Coast for the north shore of Lake Superior.

But he didn't leave Hawaii behind completely. When he returned to Duluth he had with him some rare cargo for Minnesota in the 1970s: two Hawaiian surfboards.

Isaacson wanted to surf Lake Superior.

"I'd actually done it before," he remembers, relaxing is his Duluth home, a wooden two-story that overlooks downtown, the bay, and the lake. "My brother blew up an inflatable Coleman camping pad, one of those dark marine-green-colored ones, and goaded me into to riding a wave during a summer storm."

So in 1975, he found himself paddling out onto Lake Superior with a few local fishermen looking at him like he was insane. Isaacson went out in the middle of a storm. He wore the top half of a diving suit, which gave his arms all the flexibility and natural movement of the Michelin Man. This jerry-rigged outfit, combined with the glacial temperatures of the water, allowed him just 20 minutes of water time.

But the first wave he caught was magic.

He surfed a few more waves that day, and came to recognize their rhythm: They closed out fast, breaking onto beaches with a gradual swell, until the waves quickly crested and fell in one swift movement. They were good for longboarding and beginners, creating full little peaks. But the sets were also close together, coming every six to seven seconds, so most of the day is a fight to get past the break and into the lineup.

"My wife and her friends once watched me struggle to paddle out for two hours," Isaacson says. "I probably got less than a minute of actual wave-riding that day."

What was needed was more wind. As a kid, he'd seen thunderous storms that sent curling waves, the same kind he saw in Kauai. They'd be perfect for surfing.

One day, when a winter storm advisory called for residents to stay inside, he went to Stoney Point, a peninsula that elbows out from the North Shore. He crawled along the rocky beach and looked out upon the lake, mouth agape. In front of him, wave after wave crashed against the shoreline with the ferocity of the Pacific. All around he heard an echoing boom. And while the sets were heavy, all of the waves were glassy smooth and curled toward the shore with hollow cores. The closeouts sent a giant lion's puff of white mist into the air.

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