Connecting to Lake Superior through surfing
Posted on: October 9, 2020
Photo of Chris Dube surfing in Terrace Bay by Richard Main

I called up Chris Dube, founder of the Waasaashkaa festival for an interview about surfing on the lake.

Do you want to give a background about who you are?

My name is Chris Dube, and I am a teacher at the high school here in town at Lake Superior High School. I teach an outdoor environmental science. It’s an experiential learning program. I also teach chemistry and biology and the sciences. I’ve been here in Terrace Bay, for close to 15 years. When I moved here, I heard that there was surfing here and I met up with a guy named Jaako who sells surfboards in Thunder Bay. There was also one other guy here in Terrace Bay. The scene was pretty small, but I got to know them pretty well. I quickly became the guy here in Terrace Bay because I live here. There are great waves that happen here. If you know anything about the Lake, you know that in the fall we get a lot of south winds. Being on the north shore of Lake Superior, and especially in Terrace Bay, we have a straight shot north so we have a pretty good fetch with the winds. The last couple of days we’ve had surf, which is awesome, and probably the best start to the surfing season I’ve seen in years. It seems with social media and everyone doing staycations that the surf event has got a lot of attention.

We are really fortunate where Terrace Bay is located because we have beautiful sand beaches and old boulder beaches that collect southeast, straight south, and southwest wind and wave directions. We have sustained wind long enough and fetch far enough that we can actually get decent waves. Two nights ago, I was out surfing, and we had 4 footers. There’s been 4-6 footers for the past couple of days. A lot of our beaches are really accessible. We have a beach right here in town called pumphouse, which is obviously where our pump house is located. You can drive right to the beach. There is also hydro bay and another surf spot out at Jackfish. We hit these various locations depending on the wind speed and direction. Over time you get to understand which beaches collect it best. If it’s bigger you go to certain areas, and if it’s too big then areas get too dangerous or washed out so we’ll go to other areas that are more tucked in. There is a solid group of people who have been surfing for years and that’s why we started the festival.

Photo by Richard Main

The festival is called Waasaashkaa. I wanted to pay homage to the land and the First Nations peoples. I wanted an older word. This is not a surfing competition, so I wanted an old word to really pay homage to talk about the land and water. For me, when I thinking about what Waasaashkaa, it means the lake has white caps. And for me, I love that word. We have people that have trouble saying it, but there’s humor in everything. A lot of people have trouble pronouncing it. Ojibwe words are hard for people who aren’t used to speaking Ojibwe. I always like to say that it’s a syllabic word. I find that Ojibwe words work in triplets, it goes WAA-SAASH-KAA. That is what we call it and it’s a gathering of the lake surfers. We have had people come from all over. We’ve had people from Duluth, people from Manitoba, people from Toronto. I have a buddy of mine from Winnipeg who sells stand up paddle boards on the shores of Lake Winnipeg. Those guys do down-winding which is surfing paddleboards on the waves. It’s a shallow lake so it can pick up pretty good in the summer. I have guys that come from Toronto. There are a few companies in Toronto that have supported us since day one with swag, like Surf Ontario. Jaako in Thunder Bay has been huge in the scene. He has been selling boards for like 20-25 years. There is a solid group of people. The reason I started it was because people get busy, we have kids, we get older, how do we set aside time to celebrate the lake and celebrate the season? Waasaashkaa came out of that. The township of Terrace Bay has been really great. We worked with the golf course and have been holding it out of the golf course. That way we are right at main beach and close to town. The township has been really open to new ideas like this and bringing surfers to the town. They have been great to deal with. The surf event itself is amazing. The scene we’ve tried to create is very open and accepting. I know other places such as in Chicago on Lake Michigan, might be more protective because you live in a place with millions of people. For us here, being relatively isolated in the north, we are open and accepting. The last Waasaashkaa we had kite surfers, kayakers, canoers, we’ve had boogie boarders and surfers. The festival is about celebrating the land and celebrating the lake. People come out who really loves the lake and has a connection to water.

Photo by Richard Main

One thing for me is that is a magical day. When in your life do you have a connection to nature and the connection to people and to each other? These sorts of things happen very infrequently in life so when we are able to celebrate the lake as a gathering, we are gathered here to appreciate the lake and what it has offered us. We get to play with Lake Superior and it’s an amazing feeling. We get to watch the leaves change and feel the wind blow. A lot of people bunker down in the fall especially when it’s windy or rainy. But those are the days that we’re out there playing with the lake and having that connection.

Do you feel that the festival gets more people out than a competition?

Competition is about who’s better, and frankly, I don’t even care. I have a 9-year-old and a 2-year old and I want them out there doing cool things. This year is a magical year, my fiancé and a whole bunch of ladies have decided to get involved and they’re all relatively new to Terrace Bay. They call themselves “the women who surf Superior”. There is a girl in grade 8, a girl from my grade 12 class, a yoga teacher, a dog groomer, a nurse, a paramedic, all these women around here have all come together to get out on the lake and have these experiences together.

The women who surf Superior – photo by Heidi

It can be a little intimidating when you see a group of guys that have been going out for years, as opening as we are to people coming, I think the festival has opened eyes. People go “hey I’m just going to go check this out”. The festival allows people to take the next step and get people into the water. Now there is a great support network of women who all message each other and go out together and support each other. I think that is a really cool offshoot of our gathering, that it’s brought people out. We had a guy last year who heard about us who moved to Thunder Bay the year before and only knew a couple of people and he’s like “ya I just heard about it so I just drove here”. Another guy came who had heard about it and wanted to come to check it out, so I lent him my old suit and he borrowed my board, and now he’s a great friend of mine. I’m not in charge of the community, I promote a certain kind of theme. It’s all about inclusivity and that love to surround yourself with people who are stoked to be out on the water. We had EcoSuperior come two years ago and they did a beach clean-up activity. We have had four therapists come. We have a guest speaker series. I like to have two people talk whether it be surf travel or my buddy Hopper who runs the stand-up paddleboard shop in Winnipeg to talk about down winding. I’ve been talking to Darrel Henkins to bring Parks Canada out. We have talked the last few years to have them be more of a partner. They are there as a partner, but really, we are you, and you are us, and we are just an extension of them. We want to have that education piece and work on that in the future. When people come out surfing to Terrace Bay it’s also to appreciate the land and this area in general. Maybe someone from Toronto comes up and they bring something from out scene back to their scene about conservation or environmentalism. It’s not an explicit part of our event, but it’s there.

My interview with Madison talked about the connection being out on water and being a steward for water.

As an environmental educator, I am outdoors 99% of my day. In my opinion, in order to conserve the land, you must spend time on the land, and feel part of the land, and feel that deep connection to the land. If you’re learning about the land through a book, you’re going to lacking that deep connection. If you’re sharing and liking stuff on Facebook and just seeing it through a post you’re not going to have that deep connection. Madison is right, you need to feel and become invested and connected to the land personally in order to elicit a change. That deep connection to the land becomes part of you and by conserving the land you’re also conserving part of yourself. What I’ve tried to create here and sustain through the creation of the event, is the community. We talk about online communities a lot, but I don’t think we talk much about the person-to-person community and what our surf scene is. In my opinion, it’s a really awesome community of people. We are there for each other and we enjoy spending time with each other. It’s a really cool community. And that’s what I hear when people come out and I meet new people.

photo by Richard Main

How do you see the community growing in the future?

I did a podcast the other day, and the host mentioned that we had 900 followers. I don’t necessarily pay attention to it, but it’s cool. He was like “I don’t even know 900 lake surfers; you have this like cult following”. It is gaining momentum, but it’s these type 2 activities and fringe sports that make their way to the surface whether it be ice climbing, or white water canoeing or kayaking. It’s these type 2 activities that get momentum. How about getting on these big rollers. Nobody believes that there’s surfable waves on the lake, but I tell you I have seen days with overhead barrels. It’s unreal. In October and November you’ve got these huge southwinds. I’ve snow shoed and snowmobiled into surfing spots. I am not even kidding. We have ratchet straps with surfboards on a sleigh and snowmobiled into surf spots. Where does that happen anywhere in the world. It’s unique. For me I love being able to see all the different seasons and play with the lake. I’ve talked to people in Costa Rica and they’re like “if that’s what surfing was I wouldn’t surf because I like being in board shorts in the sun”. But for us it’s like we’re out in -20 with ice beards braving the elements. There are guys like that with the ice beards, but not everyone at Waasaashkaa is like that. A lot of the time, I have buddies with kids and dogs that show up and set up a blanket. We have a fire and enjoy the day. This is where the connections are made. If someone catches a wave, everyone is stoked. But I think there is just as much stoke for the 8 year old who rides the board in on their belly for their first time. That stoke is even across the board. That is what I really about what we created, that acceptance and stoke.

Composite photo by Richard Main

How do you see climate change effecting surfing on the lake?

It’s interesting, when I first started surfing here it was when the lake was low. It was about 10 years ago and everyone was worried that it was historic lows for Lake Superior, but now it seems that we are in historic highs for Lake Superior. I am a scientist and I follow climate change and I see it, but quite honestly I don’t have enough data to have a really strong opinion on it. There is too much local variation from year to year. Was the low water because of climate change? Is the high level because of climate change? Or is just natural variations within the weaher ycles and we’re going to have ups and down. I’m only looking at a 15 year snap shot and I can’t make a really good call on it. All I notice is that just like life, every year the lake changes. One year there is a little creek coming out on the beach. It is different every year. We have high years of snow, low years for snow. Some beaches are deeper now. I’ve watched the Jackfish pebble beach almost entirely wash away. Our pumphouse beach used to be 30-40 feet in the low water years, but now it’s only got about 10 feet of beach. There is a lot of local variation from year to year. When you’re looking at predicting waves and surf, the depth of your becah breaks are extremely important factors to take into count. If you have a foot more or a foot less of water, you’re going to have a different break at different beaches. Every year you go out and watch your waves and adapt and learn with the changes of the lake.

When you’re surfing do you notice pollution, algae, or contamination?

At our spot by Jackfish, I haven’t seen much despite it once being an area of concern. I’ve gone to check it out Blackbird creek and see where it comes out, but quite honestly, our beaches are pristine. Our beaches in town, and at Hydro Bay have a lot of people who hike the trail and they are all “leave no trace”. We still have some nurdles at the one beach in town, and at jackfish, there may be a broken bleach bottle that someone was using as a buoy. The beaches that aren’t walked or combed much, might have the odd piece of garbage that washed up. I find relative to other beaches that I visit in southern Ontario, our beaches are very pristine, Quite frankly I just put my head in the water and drink it. Face into the lake, big gulp, let’s go, and I’m not sick. I think we’re one of the last places that you can do this. We are super lucky and that is something that we celebrate and that is to be celebrated. We are aware of it and we want to keep it that way. What is the mill pumping out into the blackbird and what does that look like. It’s something that everyone in the surfing community is aware of.

Any final remarks?

There is no official event this year, but people are welcome to come but just need to be smart. People can come and check out the lake. Go check out the waves and be a part of it. In future events, everyone is welcome whether you are surfing or just checking out the waves. The town of Terrace Bay is a beautiful little town and the people are very welcoming. If COVID allows there will be an event next year and we welcome everyone.

photo by Richard Main
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