Everything You Never Knew You Wanted To Know About Surfing In The Great Lakes

by Matthew Dursum September 12, 2021 6 min read

How do you feel about the idea of battling 33°F freshwater, chunks of ice, and sub-zero air all for a few decent waves? 

With a reputation for tranquil waters filled with yuppies on speed boats, it’s no surprise people experience shock when surfing the Great Lakes for the first time — especially when the weather patterns align to bring occasional freshwater perfection. For some, quivering next to a frozen car for minutes while finagling thick wetsuits around their limbs, all for short-lived wind swell, might not seem all that appealing. Yet for others, these elements — and the icy beards they produce — are a seasonal love affair. Regardless of the obvious discomforts, Great Lakes surfing offers something the ocean rarely does anymore: a chance to escape crowded lineups in water that’s as refreshing as a glacial stream. 

Growing up in Northern Michigan, I was oblivious to the already present, albeit isolated, surf culture that was blossoming here. Surfing seized my life while visiting family in Florida and I became obsessed with it when I went to college in California. From there, I spent the next two decades chasing surf around the world. The more waves I scored, the more photos and videos I noticed of people surfing Michigan’s frigid waves. I developed a strong desire to return home someday and experience the sport that’s affected my life so deeply, at my true home break.   

Same lake, diffferent coast. Dylan Graves, getting weird just across the pond (for real this time) in Wisconsin. 

Great Lakes surfing started in the mid-fifties and early sixties when Michigan locals, who learned the sport in places like California and Hawaii, brought it to the lakeshore. From then on, the surfing community remained relatively isolated. Places like Sheboygan, Wisconsin and Grand Haven, Michigan started to develop their own tight-knit crews of toughened locals. Surfing here requires patience, persistence, and grit — qualities that are reflected in the hardened personalities that live and breathe lake surfing. Even though the lakes are surrounded by large cities, the hostility and remoteness of the terrain, inconsistency, relentless cold, and unpredictability of swell events has kept the crowds to a minimum, especially in the Northwest corner of the state. And this, in surfing’s Olympic age, is a rare blessing. 

“We could have paid our full rent for ten years by collecting a quarter for every time someone told us, ‘you can’t surf on Lake Michigan!’” said Ella Skrocki. Ella’s parents Beryl and Frank Skrocki, with their young children Ella, Reiss, and Annabel, started Sleeping Bear Surf, the region’s first full-service surf shop in 2004. Like all surf shops, theirs functions as the center of the region’s surfing community. The Skrocki family has been selling boards, gear, and surfing camps and lessons since the shop’s inception, yet leading grassroots environmental campaigns and water safety classes have become dually important for them. At the center of their activism and values lies respect for the environment, the community, and most crucially, respect for the lake. 

Lake Michigan’s 1638 miles of shoreline is a treasure trove of setups. Thick forests and lovely sand dunes create an entrancing backdrop, especially with a coating of snow. When the stars align and a sustained north or south gale blasts the coast for hours, many places start to fire. During peak season, which runs from late fall to late winter, there will often be three to five surfable days per week with one or two days of head high plus surf. In terms of quality, Northwest Michigan’s harbors, reefs, beach breaks, and points can produce some of the best waves the Great Lakes have to offer. “We get swell from almost every wind direction,” the sisters explained. “We’re very fortunate that most of our beach access is public, a lot of the shoreline everywhere else is private,” Annabel added. 

According to Ella, “The biggest reading I saw on Lake Michigan was around 27-28 feet.” Readings like this only occur in the fall and winter when cold fronts move across the relatively warm lake waters producing low-pressure systems. Large short-period waves, strong shifting winds, powerful rips, and piercing cold are typically produced by these conditions. During average winters, a thick layer of gnarled ice will form on the lake shore, effectively putting the breaks on the surf season. Sometimes the entire lake freezes over. Even during warm winters, patches of basketball-sized ice will form, an obvious hazard for surfers. Regardless of the possibility of head traumas, the cold temperature itself can be deadly.

“Within ten to fifteen minutes I went from ‘yeah I’m pretty cold’ to ‘holy shit, I’ve gotta get out of the water!’” Said Ella, recounting a time she was stuck in a rip. Even for experienced surfers, the cold can affect your ability to focus on your environment, making the shifty lineups more challenging. For swimmers, boaters, and beachgoers these conditions become deadly. The grim reality is that hundreds of drowning deaths occur on the Great Lakes annually, with Lake Michigan taking the majority. 

And this, as you must know, is the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. On November 10, 1975, the 729-foot long freighter was sunk and ripped in half by waves during a violent storm on Lake Superior, taking the lives of 29 people. The Mighty Fitz is regarded as the most famous Great Lakes shipwreck of all time and inspired a song by Gordon Lightfoot. Photo: Greenmars/Wikipedia Creative Commons  

Still, more people are picking up the sport on America’s inland coast than ever before. Social media relays pictures of Lake Michigan’s waves and anyone can score a cheap foamie from Amazon or Costco. According to the Skrocki sisters, “Our [surfing] population isn’t growing as sustainably because of that. We would love it if people first got the foundational skills, awareness, and respect for the lake and the sport.” With increased traffic in the normally uncrowded lineups comes the inevitable frustration from the locals. As far as the local response goes, Ella reaffirmed, “We’ve always been lucky here in the Great Lakes, because it’s been such a small community, we’ve never had those types of problems.” So far, aggression and overcrowding remains rare. How many places in the world can you say that about?

When talking to Ella, Annabel, and their friends it’s apparent that there’s a shared obligation to shape the community and the hard work is paying off. “Surfing crappy surf inconsistently is gonna make everyone surf that much better,” said Ella. A few of their students have become local standouts and as these kids progress and travel to wave-rich regions to develop their skills, things could get interesting. 

Can you do tubes there? Yes, you can do tubes there. You might just need to drag your ass a little more to slow down. Photo: Beth Price

Mixed in with the locally groomed talent are the transplants. People who moved away and returned still make up a good proportion of the line-up. Like me, they often bring their egos and expectations with them. Reflecting on my first lake session, on a balmy 20° F February afternoon, I was over-hyped. Heavy winds had been blowing SSE up Lake Michigan’s spine for over 24 hours ahead of an approaching blizzard. In a rush, I donned my new 6-5-4 mil wetsuit, gloves, and booties and hit the cold water. 

The rip zipped me out towards the lineup. The waves were overhead, perfectly groomed by the offshore local wind and peeling before hitting an inside sand bar that created endless sections. Very quickly, every brain freeze and painful body movement from the cold and excessive neoprene started to peel my ego and expectations away. Within thirty minutes I was getting over it. I looked over and saw the locals of all ages, oblivious to the cold, with warm glowing smiles and infectious stoke. Watching them, the conditions, and the incredible landscape of snow-capped forests, sand dunes, and cobalt-colored water around me I put my head down, sucked up my pride, and faced the elements like everyone else.

It was fun.

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