Great Lakes surfers pay no mind to frigid temps

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

Here in Duluth, he was watching waves stronger and smoother than some legendary ones he'd surfed in Hawaii.

Isaacson grinned. Then he started to laugh. He'd found the holy grail of Great Lakes surfing.

  

Oahu-born Bob Tema traded board shorts for a full-body wetsuit. Surfers last about two to three hours on Superior before they start to lose feeling in their extremities.
Brian Stabinger
Oahu-born Bob Tema traded board shorts for a full-body wetsuit. Surfers last about two to three hours on Superior before they start to lose feeling in their extremities.

ISAACSON WOULD SOON discover that such waves were rare. For Stoney Point to fire, it needs a specific combination of weather factors. Unlike ocean breaks that come from swells generated by storms thousands of mile away, Lake Superior waves rely primarily on local winds.

"The good part about Lake Superior is that its size is comparable to a low-pressure system. With the right wind direction there is plenty of fetch [horizontal distance over which wind-generating waves can travel] to maximize wave height," says Dave Schwab, oceanographer for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.

This all-important low-pressure system is a critical factor in the creation of Stoney Point's pitching breaks. The system usually comes down from the north and swings above or directly through Superior, but sometimes it dips south of the lake, creating a counterclockwise wind system that pushes northeast. With the low-pressure system comes stronger surface winds, which have the power to shove the thicker, near-frozen lake water.

The winds that whip around the Great Lakes in the winter aren't known for their warmth. The Great Lakes surfers regularly paddle out in zero-degree weather with wind chill reaching minus 10. "One time," says Laddie Strzok, a 24-year-old local who started surfing Superior in his teens, "we paddled out in 15-below weather with a wind chill of 30 below. We did it just to try it out. We didn't last long."

When surfers emerge from the lake, icicles dangle from their suits. And out on the water they have to pump their shoulders every so often to break apart sheets of ice that form on their backs. If it's too cold, ice chunks the size of Mini Coopers roll through the waves, making it impossible to surf. (Isaacson admits that some guys will paddle out if the waves are pretty and the ice chunks are only the size of bowling balls.) But the break also needs just enough ice on the lake to groom the water. "Ice smoothes the top of the water out just like kelp does in the ocean," says Vince Deur, director of Unsalted, a documentary film about the Great Lakes surf culture. "Without it, the surface would be choppy."

The perfect weather combines with the funky geological feature that is Stoney Point. The rocky outcropping juts out into Lake Superior like a swollen shoulder. As a result, one side of its shoreline faces directly into northeast winds that push billions of gallons of water. Combine that with a deep underwater channel that runs into a steep incline and you've got all the ingredients for a surfable wave.

"It truly is one of the most unique gems on the Lakes," says Deur. "But what makes it so incredible is also what makes it so rare. Eight, nine months of the year, it's not working."

The forces come together only about 15 days a year. Within each of those days is a tiny five- to seven-hour window when the waves break clean. So the Great Lakes surfers must wait until the very tail end of the storm, or force themselves to paddle among popcorn waves, heavy snow, and sleet. Guys like Isaacson quickly learn the virtue of patience.

"The best is when the sun peeks through the clouds," he says. "And every time you ride over a wave paddling out, the mist in front of you forms a rainbow, just like it does in Hawaii."

  

LAST NOVEMBER, on a day with tiny flurries but no real wind, Isaacson, now a silver-haired 52-year-old, drove through the red-bricked port city of Duluth. The place feels as much like a surf town as Huntington Beach feels like snowmobile country. Extended-cab trucks with four-wheelers strapped in their beds cruise past. The men (and women) wear Carhartts for both work and dining attire. And the freezing air rips into your lungs like asbestos.

As Isaacson makes his way through the center of town toward Park Point, the car creeps along at a slow and cautious pace. The first time he paddled out from Stoney Point he lasted about 45 minutes thanks to the new full-body O'Neil wetsuit he'd bought. And it was the best 45 minutes of surfing he'd ever had on a "freshie." The waves peeled over him just like in Kauai, going from dark blue to a thinned-out, soft green hue. The water, while heavy—due to its near-frozen state—felt like glass.

For the next 20 years, Isaacson usually surfed Stoney Point alone.

"It's humbling. And you have to be confident in your abilities," says Isaacson. "That wave is heavy. One slip and it piles on top of you hard."

One day in the early '90s, Isaacson fell off the nose of his board, plunging into the curl. The force that tumbled over him was enough to break his board leash. When he came to the surface, another wave was about to break on top of him. He duck-dived down into the icy water. The waves slammed his body closer to the rocky shore. Knowing he couldn't fight the current without his board, he swam down the shoreline to a safer area, dodging big waves breaking over him by repeatedly diving underwater. After climbing out safely onto the beach, he walked along the shore to fetch his board; it was getting bashed against the rocks like a helpless piece of driftwood. As he made his way back to his truck he turned around to see the savagery he barely escaped. "It's a wave of consequence," he says.

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