Surfing Lake Superior: Great waves, but not for beginners

Wave of ice cold water
A large wave of ice cold water crashes into Eric Wilkie of Webster, Wis. as he prepares to enter the waters of Lake Superior at Stony Point Monday, Feb. 11, 2013 near Duluth, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

In a rocky bay about 15 miles up the North Shore from Duluth, eight-foot waves curl gracefully before breaking and smashing against ice-coated boulders along Lake Superior.

Though it might seem impossible to many, a thriving scene has emerged on the beach where about 50 surfers are braving the frigid water for waves they swear can compare to some of the best surfing in Hawaii or California. Wearing thick neoprene wetsuits, they congregate at a cove, where 15-foot waves can curl and break on icy rocks.

"This is a hairy day," said Erik Wilkie of Webster, Wis., where he moved from California two years ago. "This is the biggest day we've had this year."

As he sat before getting ready to surf in his warm pickup truck, Wilkie watched a half-dozen neoprene-clad figures bob up and down in the swells. The excitement -- and the danger -- of catching winter waves, lured the surfers to the big lake.

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"Everybody's elated," he said. "The danger factor is right up there as high as it can be, the adrenaline is pumping."

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On Monday, the day after a blizzard dropped a half-foot of snow, 35-mile-per-hour northern winds gusted over 300 miles of water -- what surfers call "fetch" -- creating ideal surfing conditions.

Wilkie stuffed his slender 54-year-old frame into two wetsuits, complete with booties, gloves and a hood. He applied wax to his 10-foot board to help him keep his traction, and headed for the lake.

To reach the shore, he tromped through a couple feet of snow from the woods off the side of the road.

"How many other places do you walk down a deer trail to get to the surf break!" he exclaimed.

After carefully walking across treacherous ice covered rocks, Wilkie dove into the water and paddled 50 yards out to where the waves were breaking. As if in prayer, he knelt on his board, waiting for that perfect wave, then furiously paddled to reach it. Once he caught the wave, he stood up and rode its crest smoothly toward shore, mist sparkling over his bright yellow board.

Eric Wilkie of Webster, Wis.
With nearly 10 mm of wetsuit between him and the cold, Eric Wilkie of Webster, Wis. grabs his surfboard from the top of his truck Monday, Feb. 11, 2013 at Stony Point in Duluth, Minn. "I'll be out there for an hour, hour and a half, or if I ride three big waves or have three big wipeouts. Whichever comes first," Wilkie said of his Monday surfing plans.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

Nearly an hour later, after several more sets, Wilkie returned to the shore, his face bright red and cold, but plastered with an ear-to-ear grin.

"OK, that was fun," he said, preparing to head back to his idling pickup truck for warmth. "Oooh. Love to see the waves big. Love to see all my friends getting great rides."

Meanwhile, Bob Tema was also taking a break. The Honolulu native moved to Minnesota more than two decades ago to study graphic design. After a couple years, he wondered if he could surf Lake Superior.

"Once a surfer, always a surfer," Tema said. "So growing up, surfing, once you move to someplace where there is no surf, you start to get antsy."

After a few years exploring the shore, he discovered there's some excellent surfing on Lake Superior - especially at Stony Point, which he said is the premier surfing spot on the great lake. The best waves come when it's coldest, when fall and winter storms kick up high winds, big waves and often sub-zero temperatures.

"On those really cold days your eyelids will sometimes get stuck, freeze shut for a bit, you have to kind of pry them open," Tema said. "Your eyebrows and eyelashes will get ice build-up on it."

Kyle Wilson of Rice Lake, Wis.
Kyle Wilson of Rice Lake, Wis. catches a wave on the way into shore Monday, Feb. 11, 2013 at Stony Point near Duluth, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

The big waves are also intermittent and might only happen every few weeks. To keep surfers informed, Tema founded the Lake Superior Surf Club. Its website allows diehards to monitor wave and weather conditions.

Many surfers have flexible schedules that allow them to break from their routines at a moment's notice.

Mark Anderson drove up early Monday from St. Paul where he's an underwriter for Wells Fargo. Anderson grew up in the Twin Cities but learned to surf visiting cousins in San Diego.

"There's no file folder in your brain for this," Anderson said. I don't care where you've surfed before, there's no file folder for standing in the snow, and jumping off of an ice-covered rock into Lake Superior to go catch waves that any surfer anywhere in the world, pro or beginner, would envy."

As Tema crouched low and rode under a curtain of spray from a big, curling wave, Wilkie, the southern California transplant, cheered from his warm pickup.

Wilkie said Tema makes it look easy, but Lake Superior surfing can be dangerous. There's the ice cold freshwater, which is not as buoyant as saltwater. Lake waves also appear every five seconds or so, much faster than those in the ocean.

"If you take off on the first or second wave and you wipe out," Wilkie said, "then you've got four, five, six, eight waves coming right behind you to smash you in the head, before you can get back on your board and swim out of there to safety."

But in the 15 years that Tema has surfed Lake Superior he said there have been no major injuries.

Wilkie said the close bunch of surfers look out for one another, with a warmth and camaraderie unlike anywhere else. Kind of funny, he muses, that would happen in the coldest surf water imaginable