WORDS BY Brian Willse IMAGES BY Billy Delfs
“Waves are where you find them.” – Gerry Lopez
The Great Lakes have been providing saltless surfing conditions that at times are downright intolerable, other times adequate, and at best, undeniably challenging. And for us lake surfers, Gerry’s words are infused with the satisfaction of belonging.
The exposure lake surfing has enjoyed on social media (or occasionally in a national surf publication) has painted a portrait of the Great Lakes’ waves that could be mistaken for perfect offshore ocean conditions. While many good waves are to be found on Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, most lake surfers don’t ever experience such ideal conditions.
Lake surf gets good when weather fronts bring frigid air, 15 to 25 mph winds, onshore push and unpredictable waves sets. Except for a few summer swells that allow lake surfers to ride in their trunks, the best seasons are fall through spring when the air temps range from 50 degrees down to body-numbing 10 degrees. That’s right: We go with ice in the water.
Our home breaks dot the southern shores of Lake Erie, the shallowest of all the Great Lakes. With an average depth of 60 feet (and only dropping to 210 feet at its deepest), Erie is essentially a giant puddle. This means that, though the wind can whip up 3- to 5-foot waves quickly, the swell can disappear in a matter of hours. It also means Erie has the biggest swing in water temps. It can be 95 percent frozen from January to March but reach temperatures as high as 78 degrees in August.
Only the hardy, the desperate or those hopelessly addicted maintain a regular watch on Midwest weather patterns, crave early morning dawn patrols, and acquire a vast collection of neoprene. For the souls that consider themselves lake surfers, it’s not about finding that perfect wave – because that’s never going to happen on a lake. It’s about just being there in the lineup with a band of foolish hearts, all trying to chase the elusive buzz of their first ride during a beach vacation. Finally, the buzz comes: that moment when we catch that first wave after many frustrating attempts at punching through the shore break. It’s the natural high that continues to draw us out into the waves wherever they form, even if it’s on a lake.
The “small” issue of living hundreds (if not thousands of miles) from the closest ocean break spurs on the thousands of surfers who crave that salty trip. We must improvise and be resourceful by engaging with whatever lies in our backyards. We quietly enjoy the turning heads as we drive to the nearest fresh water, boards strapped to roof racks. We proudly share photos of the icicles that form on our frozen beards after January sessions—all the while keeping the surfer’s code of silence for secret spots, a sacred practice. Yes, there are surfer’s tales of exaggerated wave heights, 200-yard rides and epic hold downs. After all, we’re surfers.
While we’ll never have the consistency of ocean swells or the beach culture of warm-water locations, what we do have is pride—from our dedication to early mornings and freezing temperatures, from patience that may never be relieved, and from surfing the inland waters that nature has provided in our Great Lakes, saltless and stubborn.
So we wake, suit up, and paddle out in an attempt to satisfy our dreams of riding the rare swells they offer.
Billy Delfs attended Cuyahoga Community College for visual communication and design, earning a certificate from the GS program at International Center of Photography. Community and spontaneity are what drive him to create images that tell the real story behind people and brands. For more from Billy, visit billydelfs.com
Brian Willse is the president and creative director of a design firm in Cleveland, Ohio. He has been surfing and stand-up paddle board racing since 2007. He frequently escapes Ohio's north coast with his wife and two daughters to travel to Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, California and North Carolina to surf and paddle salted water. Follow Brian on Twitter @brianwillse and on Instagram @bwillse.