In which a traditionally oceanic culture appears to be thriving in an unheralded and challenging freshwater environment.
On December 15, 2016, Larry Cavero runs out of the spray-flecked waters of Lake Huron just north of Collingwood, Ontario, and bolts for his car. He exchanges a few quick words with his buddies, then jumps in his vehicle. They’ve been surfing a rocky break of limestone tumbled from the nearby Niagara Escarpment; the rock shelves, constellated with Ordovician fossils, drop off in such a way here that a consistent northwest wind kicks up an easily accessible wave. But the wind has shifted, so now they’ll move east a couple of kilometres. Such adjustments are standard fare in the lives of surfers the world over, but that’s where the similarity ends.
Cavero’s toes are frozen, so he grabs a thermos and pours the remainder of his tea into his neoprene booties for a fleeting moment of relief. He blasts his car through a snowbank at the edge of the parking lot and heads down shore, passing liquor and convenience stores en route to the next break. To his right, the escarpment rises 250 metres straight up, its slopes striped white by Ontario’s largest concentration of ski areas, each of them blowing plumes of manmade snow into the –10˚C air in a bid to accommodate the hordes of Torontonians who will flock here during the upcoming Christmas holidays. Outside his car again, the icicles dangling from Cavero’s goatee clack together in the bitter wind off the water, the only salt in the air the curse words exchanged to describe the cold.
This is Great Lakes surfing.
For each person you tell about the Great Lakes surf scene, there will be a thousand who don’t believe you. But a quick geography lesson shows why these lakes are surfable: they’re enormous. Often described as inland seas, Lakes Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie and Ontario represent the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth, with some 17,000 kilometres of shoreline containing 21 per cent of the world’s freshwater by volume and an average 5,700 cubic metres of precipitation falling somewhere on their surface every second.
Stretching 1,200 kilometres from the western tip of Lake Superior, straddling the border of Northern Ontario and the American Midwest, to the eastern shore of Lake Ontario in upper New York state, the lakes span two time zones. Each water body has its own unique characteristics: the shores of Superior are rugged and uninhabited, inspiring many of Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris’ iconic works; the human population increases around Huron, but its northern shore remains wild and undeveloped; Michigan, the only lake completely contained within the U.S., has 12 million people crowding it in cities like Chicago and Milwaukee; as the water flows on into Erie and Ontario, the population density increases, with both encircled by industrial, agricultural and urban development.
Where surfing is concerned, the lakes benefit from size, orientation and a mid-continental position that sees them raked by strong weather. Unlike ocean surfing where the waves you ride—the swell—might be caused by weather thousands of kilometres distant, on the lakes you’re essentially surfing in the belly of the beast.
“Waves form as a result of strong, low-pressure systems moving through the area,” says Antonio Lennert, co-founder of Toronto’s Surf the Greats, a surf shop that also offers forecasting seminars and surf lessons. “Associated winds cause friction against the water. Strong winds blowing consistently from the same direction, moving water in one direction, create ripples that join one another as waves. The farther they travel, the bigger the waves. But low pressure also brings bad weather—that’s why it’s usually snowing or raining when we’re out there.”
The reason so many photos of ice beards like Cavero’s fill outdoor social media feeds is that cold temperatures are on the surfer’s side as well.
“People see pictures of days when it’s windy and cold, people bundled up, and they say, ‘you guys are crazy to do that!’ But I think we’d be crazy not to.”
“Air and water temperature also influence wave size; the colder the temps, the larger the waves,” adds Lennert. “The best season in Toronto tends to be late fall into spring when water temperatures are close to zero and air temperatures are on the minus side. We don’t need a lot of wind when it gets that cold—a 15-kilometre-per-hour breeze will generate metre-high waves. And conditions are cleaner when winds aren’t that strong.”
The surf spots themselves vary widely—from beach breaks to shore breaks to point breaks and even reef breaks (while coral reefs don’t exist, other bathymetric features stand in as reef-likes structures). Locations are as varied as the lakes themselves. Some are public, others require trespassing to access. Some have beautiful backdrops of windswept pines and the granitic Canadian Shield, others are back-dropped by the steel arches of bridges and industrial infrastructure. Water can be the idyllic aquamarine of Lake Superior or the chocolate-milk brown of mud-bottomed Lake Erie. To function, each break requires that weather conditions be “just so,” and unlike long-frequency ocean swells, such conditions usually last only a matter of hours, making for all-the-more-precious sessions and high-grading local knowledge.
The closest thing to a definitive history of Great Lakes surfing is Surfing the Great Lakes by P.L. Strass. Published in 2000, the book lists an unknown American infantryman who returned to Michigan from Hawaii as a pioneer surfer of Lake Michigan. More than likely, that infantryman was Dr. David H. Seibold of Grand Haven. Many consider him first to surf the Great Lakes.
“After graduating dental school, I worked for a year at a clinic in Hawaii that took care of indigent kids,” recalls the 90-year-old from his Grand Haven home. “My buddy in the navy wanted to take up surfing. At that time, you could pick up a navy life raft—balsa wood covered with heavy canvas—for $15. We stripped the covering off one and cut two surfboards from the wood. They were just over ten feet long. Not the best-looking creatures, but they worked. I took mine to Waikiki, and eventually learned to surf quite well there. I promised my wife Dotty that I’d sell the board. But I didn’t. I brought it back to Grand Haven when we set up our dental practice. That would have been fall 1955, and that’s when I began surfing Lake Michigan.”
But having a de facto Hawaiian surf link didn’t mean things were going to go as easy on the rough-and-rugged Great Lakes.
“I remember my first time. I was quite excited—the waves looked good. They weren’t ocean waves, but I thought they were doable so I gave it a try. I wasn’t quick enough at first to get up, but I finally learned the technique. Local kids followed in my footsteps—the Beatons, the Whites, Rusty Graham—they became the better surfers. But I kept it up into my sixties. Until I wasn’t quick enough to get up anymore. I still have a surfboard, but I gave my old balsa wood board to the local museum.”
While Seibold is naïve to what Great Lakes surfing has become, he’s excited to learn about modern-day exploits. “Isn’t that something?” he says of the now estimated 2,000–3,000 Great Lakes surfers. “I think that’s just wonderful.”
In those pre-Internet days, surf scenes developed independently throughout the Great Lakes. As the Grand Haven scene grew, another group sparked in Cheboygan, Michigan. Then Cleveland. The Wyldewood Surf Club was formed in 1965 out of Port Colbourne, Ontario, on the north shore of Lake Erie, and from its beginnings, was an international club with both Canadian and American charters. Member “Grumpy Bob” Sobering, who first surfed in 1970 then picked it up again in the ’90s, recalls the old days fondly. “We used to phone Environment Canada’s weather information line out of the Hamilton airport,” he relates.
“Anytime we had good swells, we’d try to get our photos in surf magazines, but they’d snub us.”
“It was a buck a minute, but you’d have to sit through three minutes of it to get to the marine weather report. ‘The buoy reading from Port Colbourne; 3 feet at 4 seconds, the wind at 18 miles an hour out of the southwest.’ Then you’d go, woohoo—there’s waves on Lake Erie!”
Surf forecasting wasn’t the only thing different back then.
“In the ’90s, we were surfing in 3-millimetre wetsuits and thought we were kings. Now, you can buy a 6-mil wetsuit with merino wool lining and stay in the water 3–4 hours. Why should an old guy like me be grumpy about that? Because we worked our asses off trying to figure it all out and now kids can just drop their gold card down on the counter and be out there in the lineup. It’s getting crowded and it’s gonna just keep getting bigger and bigger, the surfers more and more entitled, the established spots less and less accessible. Parking is going to be the biggest issue. Right now, surfing the lakes is on a popularity peak, but half the people there are only doing it because it’s a fad.”
Indeed, the Great Lakes surf scene is thriving, with more websites than ever, surf shops, competitions and beach clean-up events. As with anywhere surfing takes root, localism is also
rearing its ugly head, as those who’ve surfed on their own for 20 years suddenly find themselves having to share waves. But now, there’s even a magazine to chronicle these growing pains— Great Lakes Surfer’s Journal , launched out of land-locked Ann Arbor, Michigan in 2017.
“Anytime we had good swells, we’d try to get our photos into Surfer Magazine or wherever, but they’d snub us,” says editor Brian Tanis. “I started the magazine because there was just so much going on that was never covered in mainstream surf publications. We needed a little voice of our own. It’s such a big community. Now, doing the mag I realize how big the scene actually is. It’s growing fast—faster in Canada.”
If there is any deterrent beyond temperature to surfing the Great Lakes, it’s water quality. With 22 cities boasting populations over 100,000 ringing their shores, pollution is a huge issue. Between industrial waste, agricultural runoff, sewage, algae blooms, fluctuating water levels (due to climate change and dams) and invasive species like common carp, zebra mussel, and the now-ubiquitous Phragmites reed, ecosystems around the Great Lakes are stressed. Even plastic pollution, typically associated with the world’s oceans, is a problem here, recently measured at more than six million bits per square kilometre.
Back in 1969, because of industrial runoff, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River infamously caught fire where it enters Lake\ Erie. President Richard Nixon signed the U.S. Clean Water Act in 1972 that kick-started the lakes’ cleanup, and the Obama administration recently committed $300 million a year to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (Trump’s recent budget would completely cut the program). On the Canadian side, governments, NGOs and individuals are all contributing to restoration and protection of the Great Lakes, including federal-provincial initiatives such as the Canada-Ontario Agreement on Great Lakes Water Quality and Ecosystem Health. The 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between Canada and the U.S. aims to restore water quality and ecosystem health.
“There’s been a lot of improvement in sewage treatment and wastewater management in the last 30 years,” says Krystyn Tully, vice-president of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, a charity working for swimmable, drinkable, fishable water. “But it’s hard to say whether the lakes are overall getting better or worse because we have a growing population and climate change, so as we make progress in some areas, we get other issues thrown at us.”
Escherichia coli outbreaks are common around the lakes. A result of sewage overflow or runoff from livestock operations, E. coli bacteria can cause everything from gastroenteritis and urinary tract infections, to neonatal meningitis, hemorrhagic colitis and other illnesses.
“Lake Ontario is definitely hard hit,” says Tully. “It’s last in terms of water flow, so everything in the other Great Lakes eventually passes into Ontario. And it’s first to get ballast water discharge and other pollution when ships come [down the St. Lawrence Seaway] from the Atlantic Ocean. So, it’s the most stressed. But Lake Erie is the shallowest, and often flagged for being as bad as Lake Ontario because of the algae pollution it experiences from agricultural runoff.”
Algal blooms in Lake Erie include the presence of cyanobacteria. Colloquially known as blue-green algae, some produce powerful neurotoxins known as microcystins that can kill wildlife and humans if ingested. One such bloom shut down the Toledo water supply in 2015. “Algal blooms are something anyone who spends time in the water should be able to recognize,” warns Tully. “They look like an oil slick, so if you see one, your spidey senses should go off.”
Governmental agencies and organizations like Waterkeeper keep a close eye on water quality in certain areas, but can’t monitor every location around the lakes.
“The surfing community has been helping us to collect water samples and monitor recreational areas,” says Tully, “sharing information of what they see on the water, which is great because they tend to go into more isolated and less traditional areas than those swimmers and beachgoers use.
They’re also advocating for cleaner water, and it’s really important to have extra voices explaining why it’s important to protect the Great Lakes.”
With these facts in hand, shouldn’t people be scared to surf the lakes? Not really. As Tully is quick to point out, she swims in Lake Ontario herself. “The message is that there are amazing places to swim and paddle and surf on the Great Lakes. Concern over specific places doesn’t mean you should write off an entire lake. Water quality is like weather in that it changes every day. Take the time to become informed about what those changes are, just the same way you’d check temperature or rainfall when heading out.”
On June 7, 2011, Helene Alegre drove to Providence Bay, the one place she believed there might be decent surf on Manitoulin Island. Lodged between the North Channel of Lake Huron and Georgian Bay, Manitoulin is a two-hour drive south from her Sudbury home, and took her
through towns most only pass on a cross-Canada road trip. Much like Doc Seibold 56 years before, she rolled up to the bay wondering if surfing was even possible. But when she finally set eyes on what lay beyond the sandy beach, it was exactly what she’d been hoping for.
“I saw the white surf line and freaked out. My surfboard was in Tofino, but my dad had an old windsurfing board, so I’d brought that. It had the centre dagger slot, and I’d sprayed foam into it and just sort of shaved it down. It was so ghetto,” she recalls, “but I hit the water running. The nose was wobbly, and it wasn’t good at going straight, but I didn’t care. I surfed all day long. I was so excited—no one had surfed there before!”
Alegre became addicted to surfing three years earlier on a trip to Tofino. “I spent two weeks basically camping on the beach. I was totally hooked. Then when I came home, I didn’t know you could surf the lakes, so I started doing trips everywhere else whenever I could.”
For the next couple of years, she lived on a diet of macaroni and rice so she could afford surf trips to Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Then she remembered Manitoulin. “My dad had a fishing boat there and there were days when the waves were so bad none of the boats could go out. And I thought, I wonder if you could surf those waves?”
Between industrial waste, agricultural runoff, sewage, invasive species, and fluctuating water levels due to climate change and dams, Great Lakes ecosystems are stressed.
On bathymetric maps of the area she searched for elevation changes that would make surfable waves. She watched forecasts and prevailing winds, and began exploring the Manitoulin shoreline. The spot in Providence Bay seemed most likely to work, and it did. Since that day, Alegre has pioneered many more breaks around the island, becoming a staple of the Manitoulin surf scene and a part of its growing history and lore. In return, surfing, she avers, has given her more than she could have imagined.
“It has changed my life in every aspect,” she says. “Everyone goes through things when they’re younger right? High school is tough, kids are tough, there’s bullying and girls can be mean. Had I been able to surf growing up, I don’t even know what my life would look like today. I don’t regret anything, but since then, it’s like a big piece that was missing is no longer missing. It has completely changed the way I feel about the world, about myself.”
As the Great Lakes surf scene continues to grow around such personal watersheds, the unique photos flooding newsfeeds will follow; surfers climbing snowbanks, surfers with icicles on their eyelashes, surfers waxing up in –20˚C. But the lure is in the challenge, and the future of surfing on these inland seas is as big as the lakes themselves.
“People see pictures of days when it’s windy and cold, people bundled up, and they say, ‘you guys are crazy to do that!’ But I think we’d be crazy not to,” says Alegre. “You have this amazing chance to do something that you’re so passionate about that not a lot of people do. Let’s face it, we’re not all born in Hawaii, so it’s up to us to make what we want out of what we have. I have the opportunity to do my favourite activity on one of our biggest freshwater lakes. So, why wouldn’t I?”
Why not indeed. For hardcores like Alegre and Larry Cavero, a Peruvian-born surfer who lived in Toronto for 17 years before realizing he could actually surf the Great Lakes, any day on the water is a good one—frozen toes and all.