Surfing Lake Superior in Winter?!

Adam Breedon riding a wave.

With the low ice cover, the surfing season on the Great Lakes has extended well into the winter. I sat down with Adam Breedon, a student from Lakehead University, president of the Lakehead Surfing Club to talk about surfing on Lake Superior.

How did you get into surfing on the great lakes?

I got into surfing through friends who aren’t from the area. One is from England, and the other is from Vancouver and both grew up surfing. They discovered the North Shore surfing community. They went to the Waasaashkaa Gathering (Waasaashkaa means “the lake has whitecaps” in Ojibwa) and got connected to the North Shore surfing community. After connecting wit other surfers, they realized that they could surf on the lake. One friend Simon, gathered some gear and took me and some friends out. We decided to start a club to get more people out on the lake. As of now, we have partnerships with Surf Ontario and Xcel Canada to sponsor some events. The goal of the club is to try to gather enough gear so we can take people out. Wetsuits are the major barrier since it’s a lot easier to pass a board along then it is to change a wet wetsuit. Surfing on Lake Superior is not like surfing in Hawaii, we need a lot of gear to surf on Lake Superior. As of now, we have 8-9 wetsuits with only 4 good for winter. We want to get as many people out as possible. We are constantly looking for sponsors and fundraising events so we can make the club more accessible to students. We are hoping to do our own event in the fall since we have more fall gear to get more people out.

Why do you like it?

Surfing is really hard. It’s hard to get better. You can’t just take a ball out and kick it around like you can with soccer. With surfing, you might catch 3 or 4 waves in an hour. It’s great exercise because you are constantly paddling. But it’s hard to get good.  You have to constantly be catching waves, but they aren’t constant. I’m a competitive person so I like the challenge. Sometimes you’ll be paddling for an hour just searching for waves, getting cold, and you’ll want to give up, but then you catch a wave and ride it out and it becomes totally worth it.

When is the best time for surfing on Lake Superior?

Sadly, there isn’t good surf in the summer due to limited swell. The best time is from fall to spring when there isn’t ice. Thunder Bay is pretty secluded, so it gets iced over pretty quickly. We went out to one of our surfing spots over at Chippewa beach in November, but it was frozen over. One of our go-to spots is Terrace Bay. There are around 5 different spots within a small area that allows for really great waves. We also go down to Grand Marais in Minnesota where it is more open and good to catch waves. But people surf all over Lake Superior. As long as there are good waves, there are people that surf them.

Surfing in January, 2020.

Do you get cold?

Yes. Very. When you are paddling you stay very warm, but when you’re out on the backline waiting for waves you get very cold. The worst part is not being in the water, but getting changed. Once you’re wet and cold you stay that way. We have to get dressed out in the elements and we get very cold. Sometimes we change in the car, but when a lot of people come there isn’t much room left so we are often left changing on the beach or side of the highway.

A packed car in the winter.

What’s the difference between fall and winter suits?

The thickness of the suit. I have a 4, 5, 6 hood.  There is a hood built-in and the 4, 5, 6 is the thickness in millimeters. 6mm is the torso, 5mm is the mid area and legs, and the 4mm is the sleeves and the hood, which makes this suit good up to late fall. Winter ones get thick and always have a hoof. But in the summer, they are thinner and often don’t have hoods. We also wear booties and mitts that are 7 or 8mm. The only thing showing in the winter is your face. When you get a wave in the face it’s a crazy brain freeze.

How much is a wetsuit?

A used fall wetsuit is around $150 for a decent fall one. But a good new winter suit is $600-$700. So it becomes a decent investment. We are constantly looking for used ones for our club.

How will climate change affect surfing on the great lakes?

Surfing, in general, is getting affected by climate change. On the great lakes, I can imagine bigger storms and altered seasons. The reduced ice cover could increase the length of the surfing season which is a plus for surfing, but for the environment. The increased erosion could also limit access and take out some of the beaches used for surfing.

Do you notice pollution or bacterial growth when you surf?

Yes, one of our spots is Chippewa beach and there is always a sign there for E.coli which concerns us. We try to keep our mouths closed so we don’t ingest it. But over by Terrace Bay, the water is super clear. You’ll get hit in the face and get a nice drink of water. It’s super refreshing. Sometimes we notice garbage, but we also make sure to pick up what we can. The Waasaashkaa gathering has a lot of people that all bring their own food so we are super diligent about cleaning up and leaving it better when we leave especially with the stereotype that goes along with surfers.

How does surfing on Lake Superior compare to surfing in other places?

I’ve only surfed on Lake Superior, but I’m familiar with other places. The lake swell is all wind-generated which leads to inconsistent waves. We want the storm to be away from where we surf because the farther the waves travel the cleaner the waves are. It’s ideal when there’s a big storm in Duluth that sends the waves to Terrace bay. We look for big waves with little wind for consistent waves. Sometimes we are out in the storm and there are waves breaking from every direction and we often end up having our boards get pulled under. On the other hand, in the ocean, there’s a groundswell that makes more consistent waves. The ocean is connected, so a storm in Japan will cause big clean waves in Hawaii because there is so much time for it to clean up.  When we surf on Lake Superior it is usually overcast and pretty grey. It’s not the sunny warm environment like surfing in Hawaii or California.

How often do you get out to surf?

It depends on how consistent the waves are. There is usually a good swell every two weeks. In December and January, all the good waves were down on the south side over in Michigan. Recently there has been some decent stuff in Duluth and Terrace Bay so we’ve been going around there. A lot of it is luck.

How do you keep track of the waves?

We use NOAA data. We look at their wind and wave monitoring date. But there is also an app called “Great Lakes Surfing” that uses the same NOAA data. It creates animated GIFs that show the waves and wind. There is a 72hour window that the app shows, so we’re often checking that to plan our trips.

Are there particular lake characteristics that make for better surfing?

There are a few different types of breaks. There are beach breaks where waves break on the beach and those aren’t good for surfing. We prefer reef or sandbar breaks where they break well before the beach and then you can ride the wave in. There are also point breaks where there is a short peninsula where the wave breaks along the coast of the point. We have spots that we go to, but sometimes we just drive and look for places. There are certain things to look for though. We look for where it’s breaking, how it’s breaking, can I get out there? and for rocks or debris. You also have to look and scope out a route when you get there. Sometimes I get too excited and end up having to come back in and find a better way to get out there because I rushed my plan. There is limited access. Between Thunder Bay and Nipigon, it is hard to see the lake from the highway, so it limits where we go since we don’t want to trespass. We usually stay with open beaches that are accessible to the public or places that are known for surfing. Some people surf at Sleeping Giant, but I have never been there.

What would you suggest for people who want to get into surfing?

Check out the Waasaashkaa gathering Facebook or Instagram page. The gathering is every fall in October. The time changes based on the waves. The people at the festival are super inclusive and want to grow the community. If you want to come to the festival, you can post on the Facebook page and Chris and Yaeko are the admins of the page. They will do their best to find you a suit. I’ve borrowed suits for a six-pack of beer. For any students, we have our club at Lakehead. You can find us on Instagram @ Lakeheadu_Greatlakes_surfing, and I’ll answer any questions. If surfing isn’t your thing, there are also people that come out that whitewater kayak, kitesurf, stand up paddleboard. The surfing community is not exclusive to surfing. It’s for anyone who loves to get out on the water.

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