Each fall and winter, storm systems send blustery wind swell through the Great Lakes. In this moment of summertime heat, here’s a look back (and forward) to what those sessions entail.

Instead of an ocean that goes on for thousands and thousands of miles, we’re focusing on water surrounded by land—an enclosed microcosm of an ocean, really. And not the Havasu-lets-all-get-hammered-and-make-bad-decisions type of lake either. The lakes I’m talking about are light years away from those scantily clad coeds with serious daddy issues basking in the southwestern heat. These lakes dish out some serious ice cream headaches.

Glaciers gouged out the five Great Lakes, creating the biggest lake system on the planet. They contain six quadrillion gallons of water — one fifth of the world’s unfrozen freshwater supply. Their total shoreline, including islands and channels, extends for some 10,900 miles—more than the West and East coasts combined. The waves are created by 20-40 knot squalls, so no ground swell, and they can bring with them winter air temps as low as -20 degrees Fahrenheit. Sure, there may not be the danger of getting whomped by big surf, but the potential for hypothermia and/or being taken out by a mini iceberg the size of a Buick Le Sabre are indeed real.

For diehard Great Lakes surfers Burton Hathaway and Mike Killion, surfing 5–10 sessions a month (their average) is no easy task, but they manage – scouring the Northern shores of Lake Superior, home to some of the Great Lakes’ most diverse and consistent spots. As Mike says, “It all depends on the ice flows and such. If the Lakes freeze we can’t surf.”

When was the last time you were worried about your local spot freezing? Crowded, yes. Sewage spill, maybe. But the prospect of water’s freezing point stealing away sessions from your already limited water time? That can only happen in one place.

“It’s about a 5 – 6 hour drive up to Lake Superior from Milwaukee for Burton,” says Mike. “Add another hour, hour and a half for me coming from Chicago.”

Their trips pass through Milwaukee and Green Bay as they head for the Upper Peninsula where the road vanishes into whiteness. The desolate Northern Midwest seems eons away from any discernable waves.

In one of their final 3 AM trips of the season, Burton and Mike braved a massive snowstorm. They blew out a tire halfway through the trip and found themselves alone, in the middle of nowhere with snow pounding down and sub-zero temperatures. They didn’t have the right tools for the jack and tire, so Mike called roadside assistance—a smart thing to have when making these ventures.

The tow truck got there in under an hour, and when he arrived the lug nuts were so frozen that he broke his tool trying to get the tire off. Thankfully, he had a power drill and was able get the tire changed. They spent the next morning fixing the wheel instead of surfing. When they finally reached the frozen waters’ edge, the waves had gotten bigger and better—turned out for the best.

“That’s all part of what you sign up for when surfing the Lakes,” Mike says. “That and a lot of driving. Swells usually come with the big storm systems and when we see one lining up properly we can get out there before it hits, get the beginning of the storm surf, brave the weather, and wait for the clean-up. Sometimes when we get stuck in a snowstorm it can take 10 hours or more. I mean we could’ve just driven to the ocean in that time. The main thing is the water temp, though. That always gets us no matter how prepared for it we are.”

  • Stu

    I’m always intrigued by pics like these.  On the one hand, it’s cool that people will find waves wherever they are.  On the other hand, if you have ANY desire to surf on a regular basis, why on earth would you live on a lake in the middle of a snowy hell?

    • the roller

      Stu,

      People are similar  to ants. Nothing stops us.

      On the other hand, some people are not like ants…

      So i guess, we will always have complainers.

      • Oso

        Stu may be good at spotting the obvious but expressing a preference isn’t the same as complaining.

    • C.Teach

      Short answer = neoprene. Long answer: If by “regular” you mean every Saturday then you’re right. If by regular you mean surf an average of over twice a week then you’re misunderstanding. You must be wiling to leave work early, skip mother’s day, your kid’s birthday, etc. (done, done, done) but it’s up that often and more.
      By the way, if you have ANY fear of sharks why on earth would you live on the coast in the middle of natural disaster hell? Earthquakes, landslides, forest fires, hurricanes… can we talk about water shortages and LA crime? Sorry that was a cheap shot.

    • C.Teach

      Short answer = neoprene. Long answer: If by “regular” you mean every Saturday then you’re right. If by regular you mean surf an average of over twice a week then you’re misunderstanding. You must be wiling to leave work early, skip mother’s day, your kid’s birthday, etc. (done, done, done) but it’s up that often and more.
      By the way, if you have ANY fear of sharks why on earth would you live on the coast in the middle of natural disaster hell? Earthquakes, landslides, forest fires, hurricanes… can we talk about water shortages and LA crime? Sorry that was a cheap shot.

    • C.Teach

      Short answer = neoprene. Long answer: If by “regular” you mean every Saturday then you’re right. If by regular you mean surf an average of over twice a week then you’re misunderstanding. You must be wiling to leave work early, skip mother’s day, your kid’s birthday, etc. (done, done, done) but it’s up that often and more.
      By the way, if you have ANY fear of sharks why on earth would you live on the coast in the middle of natural disaster hell? Earthquakes, landslides, forest fires, hurricanes… can we talk about water shortages and LA crime? Sorry that was a cheap shot.

  • ctwalrus

    I left the beach to go to college(only way that i was certain that i would actually attend classes) in Erie, Pa……..then i discovered that you could surf the lake!     i built a board in the basement of our group rental and had mom send me my wetsuit……The year was 1965….

  • Burton

    When you have grown up in Southern California all of your life and have surfed for over 22 years and meet the girl you  are going to marry sometimes its not your choice to move away from the ocean, could’t buy a house in California wat too expensive . Just super stoked to still be surfing out here on The Great Lakes and to be searching for that next freshwater wave. The Great Lakes are truly the last frontier in the surfing world and actually I am proud to be a Great Lakes surfer. Burton http://www.nosaltsurf.com