Great Lakes surfers pay no mind to frigid temps

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

In 2002, he ran into two guys from Minneapolis who'd been surfing the waves off Park Point. Their names were Bob Tema and Brian Stabinger. "I immediately began to ask them if they'd ever surfed Stoney," he says. "They hadn't. So I told them about the nature of the wave. And Bob, he was from Oahu and looked stoked. So some weeks later I took them to Stoney when it was firing. Bob and Brian sprinted from the car and ran down toward the break like it was going to vanish before they touched it."

After Isaacson introduced Bob and Brian to Stoney Point, word quickly spread via their website, Superior Surf Club. And when, on a whim, the two sent in photos to Surfer and Surfing magazines, the editors published them.

Isaacson was all smiles, even through personal hardships. Decades of adventure sports caught up with his spine. This year, he had to have his top four vertebrae fused together, which left him bedridden for six weeks.

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.

His recovery remains ongoing, and it's forced him to stay away from the waves. "The water feels colder when your neck is filled with pins and screws," he says.

As he drives back up to his place, he talks about his love for the surf culture he helped start. "I know why I left. And I know why I came back, although I didn't know I'd find a wave like Stoney in my backyard. Now when I go down there I see, like, 20 guys on it. Feels like karma coming back to me. Because it's humbling and powerful to see all these guys out there in the water surfing my wave."

IN 2002, the Library of Congress chose to preserve The Endless Summer in the National Film Registry. The induction committee concluded that the film was "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

It was around this time that Bob Tema and Brian Stabinger first rode Stoney Point under the tutelage of Isaacson.

These days, Tema wakes up early every morning and heads to his computer to see if any waves are in his near future. He checks the weather reports like a fantasy player checks stats or a trader tracks stocks. He goes straight to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration's website and studies the weather patterns. The self-employed graphic designer looks for any signs that could point toward a good day of surf. He'll check back on the weather around noon, again in the late afternoon, and once more before he heads to bed. Being a successful Great Lakes surfer requires knowledge of atmospheric conditions, constant observance, and luck.

"It's different compared to Oahu," Tema says, referring to his childhood home. "There, I'd just glance outside the window to see if the surf was up that day. And even if I missed that day, I know it'd still be good for the next three or so."

A few weeks ago, at the Dubliner Pub in St. Paul, Tema and Stabinger tossed back some beers while discussing the addiction of Great Lakes surfing. To illustrate the point about obsessively tracking weather, Tema pulled out his iPhone and punched up the NOAA website. He zeroed in on a national map and pointed toward a low-pressure system. "Those isobars are what we're looking for. We really want each system to drop south of Superior. That's perfect. But we're learning that other patterns will produce good waves at other spots." He mentions a break just around the corner from Stoney called Boulders. When winds exceed gale force and other spots are blown to bits, Boulders produces a waist-high wave that breaks long and clean enough to cramp your legs.

As he talks, an eavesdropping bartender does a double take. She just overheard a group of guys talking about surfing. But she also heard Duluth being referenced in the conversation.

Stabinger leans in and says, "I also check weather several times a day. But if there is a good system coming in, I check it every couple minutes." He has the look of dapper young professor, pairing a collared shirt with a sweater vest and sporting a cabbie hat.

As he talks about surfing, his words get quick and sentences roll out like agitated water. The lithe surfer got his start in South Carolina, but says he didn't really surf anything good until he came to Minnesota. He believes the key to surfing the lakes is a dedication to drop anything for a few hours of riding. A Great Lakes surfer must own his schedule, or have a kind boss, like Stabinger has, who lets him scamper off now and then if the waves are right.

But Stabinger also has a boss at home: his wife.

"I've bailed out on dinners, parties, and even a Thanksgiving meal to chase surf," he says, laughing. "I even went out the day before my wedding."

He goes on to explain why "wife points" are key. During the spring and summer, Stabinger is Mr. Wonderful. If there is a party, or movie, or restaurant his wife wants to experience, he'll make it happen. To him it's an investment, because once Labor Day hits, he can't be trusted to make any date. From fall to early spring, everything revolves around surfing. He even worries about going on vacation, not-so-jokingly referring to the Law of Waves on the Great Lakes: They come when you leave.

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