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Surfers seek perfect wave on Lake Superior

Stoney Point on Lake Superior northeast of Duluth Friday afternoon. Clint Austin| Forum News Service

DULUTH — Waves as tall as double-decker buses were cracking against the massive rocks of Stoney Point. No one dared paddle into that water.

But the storm swells in the next bay over, called Boulders break, were just right. And that’s what brought more than a dozen surfers to Lake Superior and Duluth this week just as many storms do. When most people are taking shelter from the storm, these athletes are rushing into it, looking for the perfect wave.

“You could tell for miles this storm was coming,” said Russ Johnson of Minneapolis, who like most Lake Superior surfers monitors when to surf on the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration website or that of the Lake Superior Surf Club.

These surfers Friday were taking advantage of the second day of what they said was good Lake Superior surfing in a spot that bears the right conditions only a few times a year.

“Each storm is unique,” Johnson said. “And I’ve never been out here where you could surf two days in a row at Boulders.”

In conditions like this, surfers paddle out from snow-covered rocks under a gray sky and bob in a row, waiting for the right waves. Some talk with fellow surfers and some look as if in quiet contemplation. Stoney Point and Boulders are among the most popular spots for surfers, many of whom drive from Canada, Michigan or southern Minnesota to surf this part of the lake.

The waves Friday at Boulders were shoulder- to head-high and ran relentless, close together in the bay about 20 minutes north of downtown Duluth. The whipping snow from Thursday that dropped 10 inches in Duluth had eased to a soft fall, and the water temperature was at least 33 degrees.

In California, said Minneapolis resident Jon Kirkeide, they call 40-degree surfing water “hard water.”

That makes Lake Superior water concrete, he said.

That means thicker, neoprene wetsuits, gloves and perhaps two pairs of booties. Johnson rubs Vaseline on his face on colder days. The worst part of cold-water surfing is the face-flush, he said. That’s when a surge of water hits you in the face, goes over your head and gets into your wetsuit.

“It’s the worst ice cream headache of your life,” he said.

Even with a dozen surfers astride long or short boards at one time in the bay spread out reading the water, it appeared there was room for everyone Friday.

“This is the warmest group of surfers I’ve ever surfed with,” said Erik Wilkie of Webster, Wis., a longtime surfer on the North Shore. “I’ve surfed in Hawaii, California for years and Florida. These guys are so kind to each other. We all look forward to the storms to get together.”

That’s important for Great Lakes surfing, he said, which some say is more dangerous than ocean surfing.

“The waves are closer together. The currents are stronger. The water is not only fresh, but cold,” Kirkeide said. “To surf here, you need to acclimate yourself to the weather.”

Wilkie, a native of Southern California whose wife also surfs, said a core group has grown to about 40 to 50 surfers regularly using the area. And they watch out for each other, he said.

“It’s real important we each lifeguard for each other,” he said. “There’s no pushing guys out of the way to get your waves.”

The water, not having the buoyancy of saltwater, is harder to balance in. Surfers who use short boards display a lot of athletic prowess, Wilkie said, because it’s harder to get waves in fresh water.

Johnson, who just graduated from the University of Minnesota Medical School, came up for vacation. He has surfed Lake Superior for five years after having lived in Australia, not wanting to give up the sport.

Ice crystallized on his facial hair, Johnson had been out several times Friday and had gotten longer rides. They typically last 20 to 30 seconds, he said.

“Any time you can catch a ride from the point all the way down to there,” he said, pointing to the shore, “that’s pretty cool. That’s pretty cool for Duluth, Minnesota.”

The waves on Lake Superior aren’t always as powerful because they aren’t generated thousands of miles from shore like ocean waves, he said.

“That being said, Stoney Point can tear you apart,” he said.

The storm created dangerous, bigger waves Friday at Park Point and Stoney Point, which is why everyone was at Boulders, surfers said.

Wilkie, easily identifiable in his red wetsuit and receiving greetings from everyone who passed by carrying a board, rested on a log to watch his friends surf.

“It’s the nature here; why we love it,” he said, of riding a 3-foot curl against the backdrop provided by Mother Nature. “A tree-lined and snow-covered hillside in the middle of April? No place else.”

Article by Jana Hollingsworth of Forum News Service

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