Winter not keeping local surfers down
Some people sled. Others ski. Once winter rolls around, most confine their winter activities—movie watching, video gaming, drinking, sleeping—to the indoors. A few diehards manage to kick it outside once in a while, but seldom do they make it to the beach. Aside from the crazies doing the Polar Bear Plunge on New Year’s Day, Lake Michigan manages to slosh around icily and relatively devoid of humans throughout the cold season.
And then there are the surfers.
“It’s all about getting in your car, driving, and finding those spots where you can get in,” says local surfer and Transworld Surf’s Great Lakes correspondent, Burton Hathaway. “Some guys will bring ladders and drop them in off the ice shelf.”
Unfortunately for these guys, the best time to catch waves is also the coldest of the year: Only during the fall and winter months do the waves surge high enough to warrant picking up a surfboard. According to Hathaway, the surfing season here lasts roughly “from mid-August until the ice fills in,” and during this time, the lake temperature will plummet from a lukewarm 70 degrees to just above freezing.
“A couple weekends ago, it was about minus 25 with the wind chill,” says Hathaway, who surfed for an hour and a half that day—about the limit the human body can stand in a wetsuit.
In fact, in the dead of winter, shedding off that coat of rubber skin isn’t so easy. It needs to thaw first. “We bring bottles of hot water in a cooler, and then we’ll thaw out in our cars,” says Hathaway. The wetsuits aren’t exactly lightweight either. The thickest of the thick are up to 7 mm or more in width and can retain about 12 pounds of frigid lake water. Tack that onto a heavy pair of rubber boots, and you’ve gained some serious poundage.
“It’s mental, not just physical,” says Hathaway. “It’s always good to surf with someone.” Which is true. When these surfers take a spill, the falls come hard. Lake Michigan has none of the buoyancy of the ocean. There’s no salt on these waves, which makes the water seem denser and the currents stronger.
“It feels like you’re in slow motion,” says Hathaway. But that won’t stop him, not one bit. “We’re like popsicles out there, but we gotta get one in.”