Surf’s up, temps down

By Katy Nielsen

Chunks of ice and slushy waves crash on Lake Michigan’s desolate shore, but wading in the water—with well-insulated wet suits—are surfers. For some, this is a way of life—a passion. Despite freezing winter conditions, thousands of surfers plunge into fresh water and brave the elements for the love of the sport every year.

To spectators, it might seem dangerous to surf the Great Lakes in February. However, for those with the right gear, surf boards and up-to-date information about weather conditions, surfing the lakes in winter is the best time to do it.

“There are times when it’s like surfing in a blended margarita,” said Brad Tunis, who works at the Children’s Memorial’s Physician Services Department. “But when there are engine-sized boulders in the water, that’s ugly and no one wants to get hurt.”

Tunis heard about people who surfed the Great Lakes five years ago while working with sailboats on Lake Michigan. His passion for surfing has taken him across the world from Morocco to Ecuador.

“It’s the greatest feeling,” Tunis said. “To me, it’s got to be the closest thing to flying.”

There are some differences between surfing in a lake opposed to the ocean. Artem Abakumov, 23, a junior at Northeastern Illinois University, said lakes contain fresh water, which means less buoyancy and generally smaller waves. Conditions have to be just right to surf on the lake.

“The reason we surf in the fall and winter is because all the winds from Canada come in from the north,” Abakumov said. “I can’t say I love doing it in the winter, but I don’t have a choice. That’s when there are the best waves.”

Big swells are rare and short-lived, so surfers regularly monitor weather forecasts for wave predictions.

“Because [big swells don’t] happen every day, we have to go when the forecast allows it,” Tunis said. “It makes it a little more special because you put a lot of work into it prior to getting out there.”

Bryan McDonald, cement mason and 24-year Great Lakes surfing veteran, said on days when the water gets too icy, conditions can be dangerous. Many Great Lakes surfers also have stories about cheating death.

“If it gets too icy and your board starts hitting stuff, you pretty much have to get out of the water,” McDonald said. “You don’t want to ruin your board and you don’t want a big chunk of ice hitting you in the head.”

Those who brave the elements and surf the Great Lakes are not trying to make a statement or prove anything, Tunis said.

“I love surfing and just being out in the elements, sitting out there is a really blissful experience,” McDonald said. “When the wave goes you ride that and you’re not thinking of anything else but the act of what you’re doing. It’s kind of meditative.”

Anywhere there are waves and he can get to them, McDonald said he’ll be there.

“I’ve surfed in -20 wind chills for an hour and a half,” McDonald said.

Winter surfing requires the right armor. Wetsuits, gloves and booties are necessities, the surfers said. The suit keeps a surfer’s core body temperature warm, which allows someone to stay in frigid water for hours. The suits are generally 6 millimeters thick and cost between $300 and $700.

“The wetsuit is so sealed  you get hot in it before you even get in the water,” Abakumov said.

Despite the insulation the suits provide, some water gets through the material.

“When it seeps in for the first two or three minutes, it’s cold; it’s almost like a burning sensation if it’s the middle of winter,” Abakumov said. “You stay warm as long as you move around, but after two or three hours, your limbs start to get cold. Your feet usually are the first extremities to go numb. When they go numb you kind of want to get out.”

Sometimes a wave will crash into a surfer. Tunis said it feels like having “an ice-cream headache,” or a brain freeze.

Despite the weather, expenses and distances traveled, surfers said it is worth it.

“When you’re in the moment, doing it, you’re thinking about nothing but the act of what you’re doing,” McDonald said. “Everything else just falls away.”