There are over 1,000 miles between the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Superior. The massive Great Lake, which covers 31,700 square feet between Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (UP) and Ontario seems like an unlikely spot for a burgeoning surf scene and, yet, some intrepid surfers are braving one hell of a brain freeze to surf waves that can reach up to 20 feet, thanks to powerful winter winds blowing across the lake’s surface.
For those surfers, the sub-zero temperatures (above and below the water) hardly matters. “I’m a real surfer that lusts for the waves, so I’m not going to let anything stop me,” says Dan Schetter, who’s been braving frigid waters since the mid-nineties and surfs three times a week through the winter. “This is where I grew up, ice fishing and hunting and shoveling snow. We have harsh winters, so I’m used to the cold. And surfing here has given me this new way to experience my home.”
Winter surfing is almost a compulsion, explains Allen Finau, one of Schetter’s fellow surfers. “I was born in Maine and grew up in the Outer Banks, plus I’m Polynesian, Fijian, and Tongan, so it’s like I’ve got thousands of years of surfing in my DNA,” he says. Finau surfed competitively until he was 15, giving it up until he crossed paths with Schetter in the UP last year. “For me, not surfing in the winter felt kind of strange. Then I just had this inner voice saying if I didn’t get back in the water, I’d be done. I feel like surfing is the opposite of dying, so it’s like when I’m surfing, I’m living.”
But it’s not about the adrenaline rush. “I hate danger. I hate the cold,” says Finau. “Getting in the water is healing for me… it’s practicing the art of being present.”
It’s hard to think of anything but the present surfing during January through March, the best time to catch surfable waves on the Great Lakes. “Imagine you’re using a hammer and you hit your thumb—that’s what my junk feels like from the cold,” says Schetter. “It feels like I’m going to implode. I don’t necessarily want to suffer like that, but after I caught my first wave, it was an instant addiction.”
Getting in the water is healing for me… it’s practicing the art of being present.
Part of the appeal of surfing Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is the constantly changing landscape—as the temperature and wind chill fluctuates, so do the water and ice levels. But as beautiful as they are, the boulder-sized icebergs and slush clogging up the shoreline make even getting into the water an ordeal. You might find yourself slithering across the ice on your belly to find open water, says Finau, or you might need the skills of a rock climber to navigate the craggy rocks on the shoreline.
So it should goes without saying that safety is of utmost importance out on the UP, not just because of the dangerously low temperatures. “Sometimes, I wonder if I’m putting people in danger just by doing my thing, but everyone makes their own choices,” says Schetter. This isn’t like summer surfing, where almost anyone can grab a board and give it a go. It involves a ton of preparation.
Before he starts chasing waves, Schetter goes through his checklist: “Make sure your phone is charged just in case the car doesn’t start, and make sure you’re close enough to walk to somewhere you can heat up. Think: Do I have enough warm—not hot—water on hand to de-ice when I get out? Which direction are the currents going? Do I have any pulled muscles? Is there a better way up through a spot? Is the ice coming? How far away is it? Is the swell growing? When is it dying? Is the wind switching?” Every surfer should be aware of their surroundings, but in the UP, not being prepared could be the difference between an adrenaline high and hypothermia—or worse.
That’s not to say Schetter and Finau are immune to precarious situations. “Recently, I caught a wave but my board had already iced up… I slipped off it and the leash came undone,” says Schetter. “I ended up near a bunch of reinforced steel bars sticking out of rocks, and it was all slush so I couldn’t climb out and the waves kept jamming me into the corner. I kept slipping off the board, and all my energy was going into paddling through thick, icy balls and oncoming three- to four-foot waves. Finally, I broke out to get back to shore.” Twenty minutes later, he went back to that same cove; the structure had changed so completely that he was able to walk out and back on ice.
In a scary situation like that, gear can make all the difference. “I actually don’t wear a thick suit every time I go out; mobility is important and you want to constantly be moving to keep your heart rate up and keep that engine fired up,” says Schetter. Knowing your conditions is crucial: A 5/4 millimeter wetsuit with a pair of long johns underneath gives you more flexibility, but may not stand up against the cold; a 9mm suit will protect you from the cold, but may not give you the mobility you need. “And keeping your wetsuit repaired is a good thing, because if you have ice water coming in through holes, it really matters,” he adds. “Pay attention to your suit because they are perishable and you have to be delicate with them.”
But don’t be precious about your board. “A lot of surfers are real protective of their boards; me, I’m more hardcore,” he says—which makes sense when you’re surfing straight into icebergs. “A soft top board is really good because it’s less likely to get dinged.” And there aren’t exactly a ton of surf shops that can repair boards in the UP.
Body awareness is also key. “Ice beards look awesome, but when they freeze, it’s like 35 pounds or more on my head,” says Finau. Once you ice up, you’re carrying all that extra weight on your head and shoulders, so “you need to be really aware of your posture standing up straight so you’re not straining your back,” he adds.
If your goal is a badass photo with an ice beard, or just getting to say you surfed in sub-zero temps, you might be better off staying on shore. “Anyone can do it, but you need to have an expert with you—that’s the only way to be safe,” says Finau. Winter surfing isn’t for surfing newbies. Just like you crawl before you run, know how to surf before you throw in frigid variables like ice and wind chill. “If you don’t have the proper equipment and the proper skills,” Finau warns, “the cold can hurt and even kill.”