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HANGING 10 AND FREEZING TO DEATH

Do you have what it takes to surf Lake Superior?

{This story first appeared in the June 2011 issue of Minnesota Monthly.}

It’s a late fall evening when I get the e-mail I’ve been waiting for: “Waves are going to be good tomorrow. They should be at the Mouth.”

A month ago, this cryptic message would have meant nothing to me. To the average person here in Duluth, the waves on Lake Superior wouldn’t appear to be good for anything right now. They’re huge and unruly, and the weather is cold, rainy, and incredibly windy. Earlier that day, I’d watched my friends get married beside the lake, and I felt sorry for them—it was far from ideal wedding weather.

But now I’m smiling. It’s exactly the weather you want for surfing Lake Superior.

Early the next morning, I drive to the shore and scan the beach for men dressed like seals. For a month, I’ve been trying to meet up with members of the Lake Superior Surf Club, and, in fact, have begun to doubt their existence.

Like all surfers, the club members only emerge when conditions are right—which, for most people, would be all wrong. The surf season on Superior runs from October through March—basically the opposite of when any warm-blooded creature (or cold-blooded, for that matter) would be tempted to dip so much as a toe in the frigid water. If surfing seems a more or less natural way to pass the time in Hawaii, here the pastime borders on antisocial: the lake in winter is not your friend. Given the chance, it will kill you.

But wherever you are, stormy weather equals good surfing. The powerful northeastern winds that batter Duluth in the winter stir massive swells that would give even the most serious SoCal surfers a mighty fine ride—assuming they could be lured away from a life of bikinis and beach bonfires to the giant Slushie that is Lake Superior.

The conditions today are as good as they get. And yet, as I pull up, my hopes fade. The beach is empty. I can just make out the shadow of a surfboard crammed into the back of an SUV as it disappears down the road. I’ve missed them—again.

The Lake Superior Surf Club has been around since 2000, when Bob Tema, Greg Issacson, and Brian Stabinger united to challenge the surprisingly powerful waves of Gitchee Gummee.

Isaacson is a Duluthian, born and raised, but he learned to surf in 1973 during a cross-country backpacking trip that finished, naturally, in Hawaii. Most members of the surf club have similar stories: they’re transplants from somewhere coastal, or they learned to surf in college or on vacation and brought their new addiction home. Desperate to climb back on a board, they bundled up and jumped into the big, cold water right in front of them—America’s inland ocean.

It seems to me like a poor substitute. I’ve lived on Lake Superior for most of my life, and even the biggest waves I’ve seen here would be swallowed whole by the bruisers of Hawaii or Australia. Kelly Slater wouldn’t touch them with a 10-foot boogie board.

So one day I call Isaacson and put the question to him directly: Does the lake actually offer good surfing, or just good enough? He gives me a science lesson. The major difference, he says, between ocean and freshwater waves isn’t their size, but how close together they are. A set of waves on the ocean might be 18 to 22 seconds apart; on Lake Superior they can be as close as 8 to 10 seconds.

That’s a challenge—as is the fact that freshwater is less buoyant than saltwater. Also, the odds of bikini-clad babes welcoming you ashore is exactly zero. Bob Tema has surfed while dodging ice chunks. You’ve got a better chance meeting a polar bear than Gidget.

But that doesn’t make surfing Superior any less fulfilling, Isaacson claims. “The day after the Edmund Fitzgerald sank, I tried to paddle out in some of the biggest waves I had ever seen,” he says. “The waves were 15 feet tall and spilling over the canal walls. That’s when I realized how powerful Lake Superior can really get. Its waves are some of the most beautiful in the world to surf—but it’s a very fickle place to catch them.”  

At this point, I feel it’s my journalistic, if not humanitarian, duty to inform Isaacson that he’s insane. In response, he notes that if there’s enough open water for surfing, the lake temperature must be at least 32 degrees—practically balmy. I tell him that he’s inadvertently proven my point.

That’s when he issues a challenge. How about I try it before I knock it? Full of either macho pride or rampant idiocy, I agree.

When I arrive, the beach looks like something out of a George Romero movie: dystopian, alien, and barren, save for a few crumpled soda cans and other bits of trash. Two massive ore boats are anchored off shore while a dense fog shrouds the city from view. I’m totally alone out here and I’m wearing a wet suit. Or rather, it seems to be wearing me, the Neoprene clinging to every embarrassing square inch of my skin. I feel like an andouille sausage that just ate an andouille sausage.

Suddenly, I realize I’m not actually alone. I turn to see a mangy mutt and an aging hippie, a guy best described as granola-y. He grins at me from under his faded beret, his ratty beard parting to expose some worn-out choppers.

“Going surfing?” he asks, as casually as if he’d encountered me at the supermarket. As if I’m not standing on a sub-freezing beach in a wet suit. But then, the only people out here on a day like today would be crazy people.

“First lesson,” I reply. “You ever try it?”

“Hell bro, I’ve been trying it for 12 years,” he says. And then he’s gone, jogging quickly away from me, as though he’s decided that of the two of us, I was the more ridiculous.

Finally, Bob Tema arrives. A club co-founder and my surfing instructor for the day, he looks sleek, even cool, in his wet suit. He’s 50-ish, with distinguished-looking salt-and-pepper hair. But he shakes hands like a frat boy, a complicated series of moves that ends in a half-hug and an ironic “hang loose” gesture. There should be some kind of greeting just for Superior surfers, I think, a kind of shiver, like dogs shaking off water.

He’s brought two boards, a small, streamlined one and another as big as my car, covered in dummy-proof foam. He hands me the latter.

Paddling out, Tema slices through the surf while I bob along like driftwood. Finally, when we’re far enough out, he tells me to get up on my board. This is easier said than done. The lake, lacking buoyancy, is unforgiving, and many times I send the board shooting out in front of me like a foam-covered missile. For a while, I just practice riding waves into shore on my belly, which feels about as close to surfing as heating a Hot Pocket does to cooking—if much more terrifying.

Then Tema tells me to get up on my knees. No hands, just knees. And when I finally get it right, my hands out to the side partly for balance, partly to aid the prayers I’m muttering, I ride a wave all the way in to shore. My vision seems to blur a bit around the edges, to soften and glow. Maybe it’s the cold. But for a few brief moments, I forget my responsibilities at work, in fact I forget that I have a job. I’m a beach bum, as surely as if those nearby ships were carrying coconuts. My face freezes in a perma-grin.

I manage the trick a few more times. I even get a little good at it. And that’s when it hits me. Not a wave. Not the cold. Not the ridiculousness of being out here. It hits me that to balance on a board, to walk on water, is to be at the mercy of something larger than myself. It’s to let go—to hang loose. No matter where you are.

Now, when the weather turns nasty, I often take the long way home, driving along the North Shore. And when I spot the unmistakable shape of a tiny black sausage riding a surfboard into shore, Neoprene-covered arms raised in victory, I smile. I know the feeling, dude, I know the feeling.