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Surfing the Third Coast

It was another Sunday afternoon in February, standing outside our motel room with the maids, lifting surfboards through a broken window. If it's so cold your door freezes shut, its probably not an ideal day to surf. But hey, let's try!

My friend and I had met in Australia during a semester abroad and bonded over our love of the waves. I had recently visited her in CA and surfed the northern beaches, so naturally when she came to visit me we had to take on the Great Lakes challenge. Winter surfing in the midwest.


We drove from Chicago to Saint Joe, MI and rented equipment at The Third Coast Surf Shop. The boys said it was flatter than a pancake, so we'd have to wait until Sunday. Three hours after getting locked out of our motel room, we made it to the lake. My head was throbbing before we even got out of the car. The brand new Patagonia 5mm wetsuit I had rented squeezed me in places I didn't know could be squeezed. At least when your brains imploding, icicles don't seem to be much of a threat. The wind was howling at 30 knots and the boards bounced around like feathers. With snow showers and freezing spray there was maybe a 50 yd visibility at times, but as far as we knew, we were the only people out there. Oh, and there was a small craft advisory. You can decide if we were brave or stupid.


The first wave hit like a brick wall. And then the second and the third. We were in a chronic state of 'deer in the headlights'. Within seconds, our eyelashes froze and my fingers decided they had enough. I felt like those kids who pass out on roller-coasters only to wake up and realize they're still on it. I think my soul left my body at one point. A photographer must have spotted us, hoping for some cool shots, but realized there were better things to do than take pictures of a couple of Tin Men trying to swim. Twenty minutes later we were blasting heat in the car, trying to salvage our extremities and melt the glacier that had formed on my GoPro.


We went in for a second round and once the thin layer of water warmed up between our skin and the wetsuit, we were snug as a baby in a blanket. Like a dog in an anxiety vest. Like Clark Kent in his spandex. I felt invincible! The warmth gave us more energy and stamina and after we got our bearings, it was much easier to relax.


The waves on a lake are primarily produced by localized winds blowing across its surface whereas ocean waves get most of their power from offshore storms. This caused the chaotic direction and choppiness. The shorter wave period (interval between the waves) was another reason we didn't go out far. It was exhausting. Like the polar plunge, but over and over and over. Freshwater is also more dense than saltwater, which is noticeable to a short boarder, but with our longboards, it was hard to differentiate. I was surprised that lake waves can be just as big as those on the ocean (the Edmund Fitz Gerald was sunk by a 30 foot wave!) And although that was out in the middle of the lake, shore waves can still get up to 10 feet on a windy day.

I promise lake surfing isn't always a living hell. If you plan accordingly, you could be lucky enough to enjoy clear, glossy waves under a sunny blue sky. Although part of me feels like I've earned something more by catching waves in the worst conditions. This trip was wild. And especially for beginner surfers, it was quite an adventure. Because what's an adventure without a challenge?

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