surfing-on-lake-superior

A Superior Surf

Updated: By Peter Greve

Home on the Lake

The inland sea, Gichi-Gami, the Big Lake… Lake Superior. Over 600,000 residents call this place “home” and those who live in the basin consider themselves some of the luckiest humans on the planet. As the world shifts from oil-minded to water-minded, we find ourselves responsible for a lake that holds one tenth of the surface freshwater available to the world. It is the largest lake in the world by surface area and its volume can fill the entirety of North America up past our knees. Yet, throughout Autumn and Winter, there are rarely more than a handful of people who enter these waters. It is a notoriously cold lake, taking our sun most of the summer to warm it up. Equipped with a wet suit, surfers are some of the few that eagerly wade into these waters. You may ask or wonder why these “kooks” decided to start surfing in sub-zero temperatures. By the end of the article, you will be asking, “where can I get a board and a wet suit?”.

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Cliff face September Swell Photo Credit: Dan Grisdale Photography

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Photo Credit: Richard Main Photography  @waasaashkaagathering

Freshwater waves are as unique as the people riding them

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Things getting (d)icey on Lake Superior for Jaime Leduc. Photo Credit: @jfleduc10 @yayfredmitchell

Lake surfers are distinct from all other surfing communities in the world. The Lake can be a pane of glass; completely flat and still or it can be a swirling storm; crashing and chaotic. Surfers check their weather feeds for the latter. They scout beaches for clean, rolling waves breaking far from shore. Air temperatures can range from 30 C to -30 C and water surface temperatures between 15 C and 0 C. Ice covers winter shorelines making entering the water feel like slipping into a slushie. The conditions that are perfect for large waves, also coincide with harsh, cold, and windy conditions. Did I mention that icicles merge with beards, stray hairs, and wet suits?  For those of you doubling back to the word icicles, there is a reason why people have not frozen to death and many more reasons why surfing should be on your list of things to try while in Algoma.

Getting in touch with water

Surf-sunset

People start surfing for a variety of reasons. Most surfers love the water or board sports. Some try it out for clout or because they identify with surfer culture. One thing is for certain; being hurtled forward by the energy built up in the biggest lake in the world is captivating. It is addicting. The feeling of skimming across the surface of the water at high speeds is not easily replicated. Sure, you could find yourself a motorboat or sea-doo and get pulled across the water, but you could be cheating yourself out of an intimate connection with the water. To catch a wave, you have to be in the right spot, at the right time, and then balance your weight as the wave curls and you stand up. You have to know and feel the water. In these frigid waters knowing and feeling your toes can be hard enough. Getting in position to catch a wave makes the feeling special because of the effort you need to put into the Lake. This is why there aren’t many surfers on Lake Superior. It is much harder to learn how to surf in this harsh climate than in a plush, never-ending California summer. Those who do take the time to learn the lake and surfing are rewarded by a surfing community that is equal parts rugged, resilient, and welcoming. You rarely experience a crowded beach with surfers competing for waves. When you do encounter other surfers, it’s usually a warm exchange, because of the camaraderie that arises from braving the peculiar conditions of the Big Lake.

Getting started

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Vesa gliding across a clean wave face in Lake Superior. Photo Credit: @superioreastboardshop

For those of you who are currently on the edge of your seat ready to jump into Lake Superior, I would recommend you get in touch with a local expert. They can advise and then rent or sell you gear that will be appropriate for starting out. You should always go out with someone who knows the area you are surfing. Rocks, hidden ledges, and riptides are a few of the hidden hazards avoided by going out with an experienced surfer. In Algoma country, Vesa Luomaranta, a veteran lake surfer of 12 years and owner of Superior East Board Shop, offers quality rental gear that will get you started, and hooked, on surfing Superior. Vesa shares that he is usually, “nice and warm when paddling and surfing. Wet suits come in different thicknesses for different water temperatures. A bit of water can get in the suit, but a properly fitted suit will keep that bit of water in and your body will warm it up. If your suit is too big and loose, too much water can pass through and it will cool you down.” Although he adds “I do get cold trying to change out of my wet suit post surf, especially during the winter months.” It is fascinating that a few millimeters of fitted neoprene between you and the frigid water can be warmer than sitting on shore in a down jacket. Without that half centimeter of insulation, hypothermia would set in within minutes. In addition to the appropriate gear, Vesa says “strong swimming skills are an asset for newcomers,” and “being comfortable getting tossed around in the waves helps too.” It is quickly apparent that Vesa shares his passion for the water easily with others. “We love having people come out and try.” A surfer that regularly visits ocean surf destinations, Luomaranta describes catching a Superior wave as, “pure, saltless joy.”

Surfer sense of community runs deep at grassroot events / Getting stoked

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Chris Dube hollering into the wind. Photo Credit: Richard Main Photography  @waasaashkaagathering

Events like Waasaashkaa: Annual Gathering of Great Lakes Surfers, allow newcomers an opportunity to feel the rush of catching their first freshwater wave within the comfort of a rented or borrowed wet suit and in the company of other newcomers and like-minded folks. The free event takes place in Terrace Bay, Ontario where the locals make a point of getting together annually to rekindle the friendships forged in freshwater. They share their stoke with younger community members trying out the sport and other lake surfers from across the province. Chris Dube, a veteran lake surfer of over 15 years co-organizes the Waasaashkaa event and recommends newcomers “come with lots of stoke!” The event name is rooted in an Ojibwe world view of the lake during storms. It roughly translates to “the lake has whitecaps,” and is meant to inspire awareness and pride in a local indigenous world view and to share respect for the land and water. Dube, also an environmental science and outdoor education teacher at Lake Superior High School, stresses that sharing among lake surfers and newcomers is foundational to building community. “Last time I was surfing, I was by myself and a bear was trying to get into my bag for lunch.” Like many Superior surfers, Dube recognizes the value of camaraderie on the water and what kind of community he wants to build at surf spots. “Somebody showed me and I’m going to show somebody else. And I’m happy to do that.”

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Algoma is freshwater country

Vesa agrees and offers that we are fortunate to live near such a large, remote, and wild lake where surfing is relatively new. “In areas where surfing has been around for a while, it can get a bit territorial when a lot of people are in the water trying to ride the same waves.” In Algoma, we are not yet pressured by large numbers of surfers even though we are situated in a versatile location for a lake surfer. Algoma is adjacent to three great lakes, all of which have their own weather systems capable of cooking up some cool waves.

Photo Credit: @shabbymotley

The gateway Algoma city, Sault Ste Marie, is host to some great post-surf eats and hotels like the Holiday Inn Express and Water Tower Inn that offer saunas and pool to relax after a chilly day in the lake. Outspoken brewery and Northern Superior brewery offer flavours inspired from our landscape like the Precambrian Porter and Gitche Gumee double IPA. For those looking for vegan options, downtown locations like Vibe Eatery and Shabby Motley offer a variety of healthy and hearty meals.

Photo Credit: @emberssmoker

For a classic Algoma experience, surfers might consider Ember’s Smokehouse and Grill, where specialty entrées like venison and rainbow trout are locally sourced. Fresh from farm or lake, to table. It is all a part of an experience that is unique to our region. For the surfers exploring the Superior coast in the northern reaches of Algoma, Wawa hosts a small surfing community of its own featuring both Sandy and Long beach. Naturally Superior Adventures is a good place for lodging and to check in with local guides who often enjoy the thrill of autumn swells. Kinniwabi pines is a restaurant that features a variety of options that make it a gem along this rugged shore. Algoma is a place where you can surf in the morning, snowboard in the afternoon, and spend the evening dining in the city. A place for a freshwater surfer to reside and thrive.

About Peter Greve

Peter is an avid water sports enthusiast, outdoor guide and writer who grew up in Sault Ste. Marie. He is currently studying to become a registered nurse. Lake Superior is always home and holds a special place in his heart.

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