Surf’s Up On Lake Superior

All photos courtesy Ryan Patin.

By Alissa Johnson

A new group of outdoor enthusiasts is becoming a force for good on the North Shore—one that might be surprising to fans of traditional wilderness travel. Surfing is a growing presence in northern Minnesota, and surfers have become a voice for everything from beach cleanups to mindful beach development. Here, Wilderness News takes a closer look at this relatively new way to enjoy the pristine nature of Minnesota’s North Shore.

Surfing in Minnesota?

At 31,700 square miles, Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake in the world, and while it can be known for cold, windy days, non-surfers might be surprised to learn that under the right conditions it can produce waves 8 to 12 feet tall. That doesn’t exactly make it a surfing mecca—the average water temperature is 40 degrees Fahrenheit and often colder—but it does make the lake attractive to surfers who relocated to Minnesota and a growing number who are learning to surf on Lake Superior. The key to surfing northern Minnesota is to understand that the surf is variable. Surfer Ryan Patin explained that the swell typically forms in the middle of the night, and conditions can change in a day.

“On Wednesday, it could look like good surf over the weekend and by Friday there’s nothing,” he said. Patin lives in the Twin Cities but taught himself to surf on the North Shore. He made his first attempt on Halloween several years ago. He had never surfed but had watched it on TV, and he figured he knew what to do. He ran into the cold, wavy water and jumped onto the board, but no matter how hard he paddled, he couldn’t get past the break. After 15 minutes, he was exhausted and the waves had pushed him onto the sand several hundred feet down the beach. He remembers “lying on the beach and thinking this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life.”

He gathered himself together and tried again. This time, he walked as far as he could into the water and then got on his board. He made it further, but the act of standing up on a surfboard is deceptively hard. He caught only one wave that day, lying down. But it was enough to get the sensation of being pushed by a wave. Some people call that a spiritual moment, when the energy of the water propels you forward. For Patin, who had raced motorcycles and gone sky diving many times, it was the moment that everything took a back seat to surfing.

Often times, the best swells on Lake Superior occur during winter. Surfers protect their faces from the cold with vaseline, and icicles often form on the hoods of their wet suits.

Element of Exploration

Surfers follow wave maps put out by the National Weather Service to predict swells on Lake Superior.

Despite appearances, surfing is about more than play. There is an element of exploration. Where campers heading to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness have maps to follow, with portage distances and rapids carefully marked, surfers are still exploring uncharted territory.

Lake Superior has more feet of shoreline than the East Coast of the United Sates, so as Patin pointed out, there are a many places that have never been surfed. “There is an element of exploration that still exists with Lake Superior,” he said. Many surfers seek out swells at Park Point in Duluth, Stony Point, the French River, and Lester River. But some of the pioneers of the sport are still trying out new destinations. It requires careful research and constant monitoring of water conditions through the Great Lakes Coastal Forecasting System, which produces a wave map for all five of the Great Lakes.

Surfing in northern Minnesota also requires a love of adventure—and tolerance for cold. The best swells tend to form during winter, and Graeme Thickins, who started the Minnesota chapter of the Surf Rider Foundation in 2007, says it’s common to see surfers with icicles hanging from the hoods of their wet suits. They wear extra thick neoprene wetsuits with booties and gloves. Their hoods tuck into the necks of their wet suits, and they surf in air temperatures that can drop as low as 10 degrees.

“When it’s really cold they put Vaseline on their faces,” Thickins said, adding that surfing in freshwater is even more challenging because the water isn’t as buoyant as salt water. But in spite of the challenges, more and more people are giving it a try. In recent years, surfing has grown from a couple dozen hardy folks to about 200. UMD has started offering lessons, and media outlets like the New York Times have run stories on the growing trend.

Surfing Community as Voice for Good

The result is a unique community. According to Patin, it’s common to know the other surfers in the water. And even when he doesn’t, there’s a sense of camaraderie rarely experienced on more traditional surfing beaches. In places like Hawaii, people often compete for waves. But thanks to the colder temperatures, the sense of exploration and the sheer amount of untapped shoreline, he said, “There are plenty of waves to go around.”

There’s an added advantage to being part of that kind of community. Patin and other surfers know they’re lucky to surf in a place where they can reach down and drink the water. Lake Superior is clean, and they want to keep it that way. They also know that it takes effort to keep beaches clean, and that potential development on the north shore could affect their access to the water. The Minnesota chapter of the Surf Rider Foundation is part of a national initiative to keep beaches free of plastic. Thickins has helped organized annual beach cleanups, where groups of 50 or more—including Patin—gather up more than 50 bags of trash at a time.

“One of the main initiatives of the Surf Rider Foundation is the rise of plastics,” Thickins said. “We want to get all the single use plastics out of our environment because a lot of it ends up in our lakes and streams. It lasts so long, and doesn’t go away, birds get wrapped up in it, and it’s awful.”

The North Shore surfing community has also become a vocal advocate for the shoreline. When a developer wanted to rezone part of Park Point for a four-story hotel, surfers were among the local residents petitioning to save Park Point’s undeveloped beachfront. It makes them a group to watch in the coming years, as a voice for conservation. “Issues like development and water quality naturally go along with surfing,” Patin said. “You want to get involved because it’s essential to something you love.”

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This article appeared in Wilderness News Winter 2012 Issue >

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