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January 23, 2009

Is Duluth, Minnesota the new Surf City, U.S.A.?


It will be if Stephen Regenold and his buddies have anything to say about it.

Long story short: Markus Barsch, one of a dozen surfers who showed up to surf Lake Superior on a 20-degree day, told Regenold, in a January 16, 2009 New York Times Escapes section front page story, "It's warmer in the water."


Here's the article, along with photos from an accompanying slide show.
Hanging 10 (Degrees) on Icy Lake Superior

Black shapes bobbed on big waves out from shore. Through the pine trees off Stoney Point Drive, past parked cars idling with their heaters cranked on, the surfers of Lake Superior waited to catch a wave.

It was a Sunday morning north of Duluth, Minn., and a blizzard had overtaken the region. The surfers — apparitions in black neoprene, floating in mist far offshore — paddled and stood when a wave began to break.

“It’s warmer in the water,” said Markus Barsch, 21, a tree trimmer from Ashland, Wis., and one of a dozen surfers who had shown up to shred on a 20-degree day.


Surfing in a snowstorm may sound like a direct route toward hypothermia or certain death. But on Lake Superior, where surfers ride all months of the year, thick wet suits, gloves, hoods, booties and petroleum jelly smudged on exposed skin all form a protective shell against the crushing cold encountered by wave catchers in what is one of the world’s most unlikely surfing scenes.

All around the Great Lakes, from breaks on Lake Michigan to western New York and Lake Erie’s shore, a freshwater surfing scene has emerged in recent years. On Lake Superior, where winds swoop hundreds of miles across open water, surfers swim and paddle year-round to ride waves as tall as 20 feet, rushing tsunamis tumbling on an inland sea.

“There is a spirit of adventure here,” said Bob Tema, 44, a graphic designer from Minneapolis and founder of the Superior Surf Club (www.superiorsurfclub.com), which has a forum, photo galleries and a section on how to surf on Lake Superior.

Mr. Tema grew up surfing at beaches in Honolulu. But for a decade, after moving to Minnesota for a job, he has driven the empty roads around Lake Superior, in Michigan, Minnesota and Ontario, in search of the perfect break.


Unlike the ocean, Lake Superior has no noticeable tides or substantial currents. Its waves are hard to predict. But about 50 dedicated locals, Mr. Tema estimates, obsessively monitor a Web page maintained by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), www.noaa.gov, for hints on when the surf will rise. They click to Web cams (like www.allete.com/lakecam.htm) for a live peek at lake conditions in Duluth, then log on to surfing forums (like the one at the Superior Surf Club — click on “Forum” on the home page), where they discuss barometric pressure, wind direction and weather patterns that might give clues to when the waves are coming.

“You have to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice,” said Mr. Tema, who is self-employed and can move work hours around to accommodate unsuspected waves. He makes a three-hour drive to Lake Superior up to 25 times a year, surfboards and gear stuffed in the back of a truck.

Each fall, Lake Superior’s famous “gales of November” signal the start of the cold-weather surfing season, when snow piles up in the forest and waves pop off the lake. Wind moving from a Canadian front, coursing south and west against Minnesota’s North Shore, pushes water into rhythmic waves at more than a dozen breaks along Minnesota’s lake-hugging U.S. Highway 61.


At the Boulders surf break, where Mr. Tema, Mr. Barsch, and other regulars swam out on that Sunday morning in mid-December, a mile-wide bay was bolstered by a northeast gale. Coming unseen through low clouds, swells kicked up 10-foot waves, the glassy walls of water arching to curl and then trolling in for 20 seconds, set after set, to crash on an icy shore.

The surfers started to arrive at sunrise, an orange glow east on the lake that was soon swallowed by a blizzard that would engulf the day.

By noon, a foot of snow was on the road, flakes blowing sideways in winds gusting up to 45 miles an hour. But a dozen surfers were suited up and in the water, paddling out with their heads down, over waves and into a whiteout, disappearing into an abyss.

“This is wonderful,” shouted Ryan Patin, 30, a surfer running to jump in. It was two hours into a session, and Mr. Patin, who sells newspaper advertising in Minneapolis, had surfed a dozen sets without pause.

In the water, he paddled for five minutes before catching another ride. His board bobbed up and down, and snowflakes stuck to his head.


Mr. Patin peered back when a big wave came, popping up as it curled, then riding with legs spread wide for 500 feet adjacent to shore.

Rob Strom, a regular from the small town of Twig, Minn., lives part of the year in Costa Rica, where warm saltwater offers a more common medium for the sport. But on Lake Superior, Mr. Strom surfs in a 6-millimeter-thick wet suit, its spongy neoprene affording artificial warmth akin to a coat of blubber.

But the surfers do get cold, and parked cars with heaters full on are crucial fixtures at the Boulders break. Mr. Strom, 34, sat in the driver’s seat of his truck, shivering, his face red and moist. “The suit does its job, but my hands are cold,” he said, shaking a glove to initiate blood flow to numb digits.

A bottle of hot water poured down the neck, surfer Wayne Gatlin said, helps ease the process of getting in the water. “We call it jump-starting your wet suit,” said Mr. Gatlin, 21, a ski instructor. He learned the trick from a program director at the University of Minnesota's Duluth campus, which runs a learn-to-surf program each year through the winter. “Pull out your collar and pour hot water in.”

For Mr. Barsch, the Wisconsin tree trimmer, cold water has always been inconsequential to the fun he has offshore. A transplant from New Jersey, Mr. Barsch endured frigid Atlantic waters growing up, including winter surf sessions on the coast near his hometown of Forked River. At the Boulders break, his face turned pink with chill, and icicles grew on the neoprene hood around his head.

In the water, Mr. Barsch stood out among the more experienced surfers of the day. He rode a longboard, popping easily to catch a 10-foot wave, then walking back and forth across the board’s length.


For one wave he stepped up near the nose of the board, booties almost edging over to hang 10 in a blizzard.

The wave fizzled and rolled, a dark triangle of energy, ice and foam. Mr. Barsch coasted to shore, swimming onto rocks frozen and fused like a cobblestone street.

On land, he moved with his board tucked under an arm, trudging back to the point to shortcut a paddle in. He walked with his eyes down, watching each step on the icy shore, snowflakes coming sideways with the wind.

Then he jumped in and paddled away, stroking out to gain a wave. Mr. Barsch duck-dove through a wall of water, the swells growing as the storm raged.

He emerged to swim another few hundred feet, a black shape barely discernible on a mad bay. The waves beat the shore. Mr. Barsch stood again to surf, catching a curl and riding tall, arms out for balance to skim over water, snow swirling on a December day.



Bonus: Here's a link to Regenold's blog post about the experience.

January 23, 2009 at 04:31 PM | Permalink


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I live about half an hour away from Stoney Point. I saw the surfers the other day, and i'm really intrested in learning how to surf, in the winter. It looks really hard. I definitely respect surfers!

Posted by: Mia | Oct 29, 2009 9:26:22 AM

Hey i'm moving back to Minnesota from Hawaii. Where can i surf at home????

Posted by: Bob Thompson | Apr 28, 2009 7:17:06 PM

I used to know a guy who surfed in the waters of the coast of Ireland when it was wintertime. I used to think he was nuts but the thing is that with surfers, they don't care where or how they catch the wave as long as they catch it. The weather as with distances becomes inconsequential in the quest for the next best wave. Seems like the guys in this story feel pretty much the same.

Posted by: Milena | Jan 23, 2009 5:00:03 PM

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