Great Lakes surfers pay no mind to frigid temps
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Once, Stabinger was at a ski resort in Colorado when after a few morning runs he went back to his slopeside condo for a break and turned on the weather channel. "I shouldn't have done it," he recalls ruefully. In front of him the weatherman pointed out a swirling low-pressure system heading directly south of Lake Superior. By next morning, Stoney Point would be firing.
As he left his condo and returned to the chairlift, his thoughts turned to surfing. "I figured that I could ride up the chairlift, head right back down the hill, grab my bag, and catch a van to the airport. Then I could try to catch a flight back home on standby, taxi it back to my house, pick up my car in the early morning, and drive up to Duluth just in time for the last few waves of the day."
The reality of his addiction struck him in the face. "Here I was, slopeside in Colorado with a Jacuzzi in my condo, and all I'm thinking about is how I can return home so I can go jump into a 30-degree lake."
After several more beers, the guys start to tell tales about various waves as though they were memorable relationships. But a simple question tosses them: Why? Why would a person drive through the snow for two and a half hours to jump in a lake that's on the cusp of freezing?
Tema pauses, looks up, looks back down, smiles wide, and says, "Every day I go out it feels like an expedition. And I get to know that some days, in some different spots, I'm the very first person ever to surf these waves. It's a special feeling. And you can combine that with the very few days a year you get to do it. So it makes it more...meaningful."
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