The Other North Shore
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On Lake Superior’s winter shores, what look like boulders lining the beaches occasionally turn out to be giant, dirt-covered ice blocks.

There are many ways one could go about measuring it. I’ll spare you the boring details, but the first thing you should know about Lake Superior is that it is the biggest lake in the world. Its shoreline is nearly three times longer than California’s. It contains enough water that, if emptied, it would flood all of North and South America to a depth of 12 inches. In the winter, the lake rages with ferocious storms that generate ship-eating 30-foot waves. Perhaps you’ve heard Gordon Lightfoot’s famous song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”? The Edmund Fitzgerald was a 700-foot monster of a ship, not a vessel to be trifled with, but in 1976 Lake Superior trifled with the Eddie Fitz anyway and in a stormy tirade sent her straight to the bottom of its icy waters. So in the sense that it is a basin-contained body of freshwater surrounded by land, sure, technically, Lake Superior is just a lake. But when you first set eyes on it, you do not see a placid lake. You see a mighty ocean stretching endlessly to the horizon, angry whitecaps tossing in the distance.

I got my first look at Lake Superior from the frozen shores of Duluth, Minnesota, on a bitterly cold evening this past March. I’d come to Minnesota because I’d always harbored a weird fascination with the Great Lakes, that forgotten backwater of American surfing. I wanted to get a sense of that isolated Midwestern surf scene. I wanted to know the (presumably) rugged surfers who drive hundreds of miles to their favorite stretch of lake, chisel boards free from the roofs of their snowbound cars, trudge through forests and thigh-deep snow, paddle out for a few frigid waves, then emerge from the water with icicles growing from their shocked, pink faces.

Marko Djordevic, geared up for a brisk Minnesota session.

My plan was simple: meet some lake surfers, have them show me a few mud-brown mushburgers, then abuse the magazine’s expense account at the best breweries I could find. I’d ply the locals with beer, and they’d answer my vaguely insulting questions about why they lived in Minnesota or Michigan or Wisconsin, instead of, you know, next to an actual ocean where surfing doesn’t require courting death from hypothermia or, worse, iceberg bludgeoning. We’d bond, we’d share some hearty laughs, there’d be a comical misadventure or two, and my article would be well on its way.

But what I hadn’t planned on was finding a freshwater right-hander that reeled and spit like an Indonesian dream wave. I hadn’t expected to peer through a gap in the trees while flying along a snow-covered Minnesota highway to see a shallow reef folding big hunks of Lake Superior into a below-sea-level death slab. I hadn’t expected to drive past rocky pointbreak after rocky pointbreak, each one beckoning with untapped potential. I’d gone to Lake Superior expecting novelty. I returned home wondering how soon I could go back.

SRFP-160200-GABON2-40
No sun-tanning on this beach.

If you spend much time banging around on the Internet researching Great Lakes waves, you’ll quickly pick up on two things. First, there’s a ton of variety. Rights, lefts, beachbreaks, reefs, even a classic pointbreak or two; The Great Lakes’ wave pantry is stocked with a little bit of everything, fickle as it may be. Plus, all five lakes—Superior, Michigan, Ontario, Huron, and Erie—each get surfable waves from time to time, generated by quick-moving winter storms that can arrive from any cardinal direction. With enough patience, the right kind of low-yet-optimistic expectations, and a really, really good wetsuit, the possibilities for surf in the Great Lakes are far more plentiful than you’d think.

The second thing you’ll learn from the Internet is that nearly all of those possibilities have already been explored and documented by a guy named Burton Hathaway. Hathaway, with a name like a character from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, must surely be one of the highest-frequency Facebook users on the planet. Every day, he fills his page with shots of strangely shaped and weirdly colored waves, most of them in Lake Michigan near his Racine, Wisconsin, home, but he’s hunted waves all over the upper Midwest. I first learned about Hathaway earlier this winter while reading an online story about him surfing in Minnesota in minus-50-degree weather. As I read the article, I knew right away: This guy smiling goofily and waving at the camera with frozen lobster hands and icicle dreadlocks sprouting from his wetsuit hood, he would be my guide.

“Dude, this looks like it’s gonna be the one, dude,” Hathaway told me over the phone just days before I boarded a plane for Minneapolis. Hathaway speaks with a deep Spicoli drawl, and loves the word “dude” more than anyone I’ve ever met. “The winds are gonna be blowing, like, 50 knots in the middle of the lake. You guys are really gonna score, dude.” He was watching a storm building rapidly just northeast of Lake Superior that was pushing swell toward the lake’s western arm, and he’d been sending me positive updates daily.

Wisconsin resident Burton Hathaway is easily the most stoked surfer on the Great Lakes. Hathaway and his traveling partner Will Wall gladly drive all night, strap on thick neoprene, and dodge icebergs for even the slightest hint of short-period lake swell. Hathaway and Gray, two minds thinking alike.

When I first called Hathaway to suss out the possibility of him showing me around the Great Lakes, I was surprised to learn that he’s originally from Newport Beach, California, had competed as a member of the Huntington Beach High School surf team, and only moved to Wisconsin with his wife in 2006. I paused: Could a guy from California really know the lakes well enough to be a reliable swell forecaster? I needn’t have worried.

“I was pretty clued in on the surf scene before I even got here,” Hathaway told me. “My first day in Racine, I showed up at the lake in my wetsuit, and some random guy gave me a board to ride. The waves were overhead, dude, on my very first day here! I was so stoked.”

Just after arriving, Hathaway immediately set about wringing every bit of surf lifestyle he could from the lakes. He won a contest at a nearby wave pool in 2007, where he met fellow Californian transplant Will Wall, who soon became his surf-tripping sidekick. Next, Hathaway started running an Internet surf report for the lakes. He eventually started his own surf wax company, too: No Salt Surf Wax. Now he spends most of his day loading trucks for UPS. Every single surfer I spoke with in Minnesota knew Hathaway.

“Yeah, we’re transplants,” Hathaway said of his and Wall’s place in the Great Lakes surfing hierarchy. “But there are so many guys who come and go at the lakes, and Will and I are still here. You know who the real local surfers are when they stick around through the winters.”

You're unlikely to find a more surprising backdrop for surf, not to mention a more surprising water source.

In the weeks that passed between our first phone call and my leaving for Minnesota, Hathaway had been sending me a nonstop barrage of texts featuring photos of stunningly good freshwater surf. It was difficult to believe that the photos came from the Great Lakes, except that the backdrops and the color of the water were so clearly not marine, with chalky gray waves peeling in front of cliffs covered in bright amber washes of maple and birch trees. Hathaway had also been texting with pro surfer Alex Gray, who has family in Minnesota, had been on hunting trips there before, and had long wanted to add Minnesota to the comprehensive list of bizarre places he’d surfed. Gray had seen enough of Hathaway’s photos and heard enough about the building swell to be convinced that the trip had potential, so he signed on at the last minute. When he showed up at the Minneapolis airport, he was dressed head to toe in camouflage, which might normally help to blend in with local Minnesotans, but not when you’re dragging surfboards through baggage claim.

Hathaway and Wall planned to drive nine hours from Racine to Duluth, where we’d meet them and, hopefully, our swell. I bought a plane ticket for Minneapolis—a short drive from Duluth—just as the National Weather Service declared a winter-storm warning for north/central Minnesota and sternly advised against all travel in the area. Heavy snowfall and freezing winds were rendering most roads impassable. The last thing Hathaway said before we left: “You guys will be fine, dude. Just make sure you’ve got survival equipment in the car. In case you get stranded.”

For Minnesota surfers, even an hour-long session is worth the endless driving, the numb feet, and the facial icicles.

Just after arriving in Duluth, weary and hungry from driving through blinding snows for three hours, we pulled into the very first eatery we could find: an aging brewery on the North Shore of Lake Superior. There were two cars in the parking lot. Amazingly, both were loaded down with surfboards. This was a very good omen.

We trudged inside the brewery, a cavernous red-brick building so old it looked as though it might still burn whale oil for heat. We found a corner booth and ordered a round of beers. Almost immediately, a cheerful middle-aged man approached our table and asked if we were surfers. He had a camera looped around his neck and was smiling at us expectantly. Next to him stood an eager woman in her 20s, clutching a reporter’s notepad across her chest. They were from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, they explained, and were in Duluth to document the unusually large waves. Another good omen.

While we talked and the reporter scribbled notes, a small crowd of friendly, outdoorsy-looking guys began collecting around our table. They were surfers from all over the Midwest, all of them lured to Duluth for the same swell that brought us. A few of them had recognized Gray and came over to shake hands and nab selfies. Some had surfed nearby earlier that day, and they showed us photos of small, gray-green waves peeling in front of ice-shrouded boulders. They talked excitedly about Stoney Point, a right-hander just up the road and probably the best-known wave in the Great Lakes. They even provided us with vague directions on how to find it. Soon the scene around our table had become a beer commercial: bearded guys in flannels laughing, slapping each other’s backs, and sloshing pint glasses everywhere. The good omens were really coming fast and furious now. Hathaway was right: We were going to score, dude.

Hathaway and Wall finally met us in our hotel’s parking garage later that night, looking bleary-eyed from their hell drive. In person, Hathaway was smaller than I’d imagined, a wiry guy who bounced around on both feet while he talked, with a long, tanned face and mournful, but alert, eyes. Wall, with whom I had also chatted on the phone before coming to Minnesota, was a cherubic figure, quiet and serene. They’d brought their friend Marko Djordevic, a new-ish surfer from Milwaukee, who is one of those crazy people you occasionally see photos of plunging over 50-foot waterfalls in a kayak.

Because they were dedicated lake explorers, I’d expected Hathaway and Wall to show up in heavily armored expedition rigs, built to power through deep snowdrifts in search of never-before-surfed ice waves. Instead, I looked behind them to see a battered early 2000s Toyota Corolla with what appeared to be a dozen surfboards strapped to the roof.

Hathaway, blasting a freshwater lip.

Even though they didn’t show up until after midnight, Hathaway and Wall thought it best that we crack it at dawn to avoid any issues with late-morning winds. We set our alarms for 5 a.m. with plans to hit Stoney’s at first light, eager to finally see these mysto lake waves.

The next morning, however, Hathaway and Wall slept in after a late night celebrating the swell’s arrival. Our increasingly frantic calls went unreturned, as did our pounding on their hotel-room door. After weeks of morning texts from Hathaway, this was a curious time for him to go silent. But we knew more or less where Stoney’s was, so we set out to find it on our own. As we pulled out of the garage, we passed the Corolla sitting there, forlornly, boards still strapped to the roof.

Djordevic squints through the snowfall.

A strange thing about surf on Lake Superior: Even with a decent swell running, if there’s not a bit of interesting bathymetry to trip it up, the shore will be relatively waveless. We discovered this searching for Stoney’s, crunching along a snow-covered road mere feet from the lake. The water sloshing weakly to shore looked depressingly lifeless—not so much as a hint of a wave. The map on my phone showed that we’d passed Stoney Point, and with no way of knowing where else to find surf, I was about to suggest that we return to the hotel and hope that Hathaway had woken up. But just up ahead, a giant plume of whitewater smashed into a pile of rocks and exploded over the road. Two trucks with surfboard racks on their roofs were pulled over to the side of the road and we glided to a stop behind them. Oh, look. Stoney’s.

As we pulled in behind the parked trucks, we swiveled our heads toward the lake and watched a set of five waves approach the reef and double up into overhead peaks before racing off as spitting right-hand tubes that ran for a good 50 yards. It was one of the most surreal things I’ve ever seen. Two hardy, rubber-covered souls were just pushing off from the rocks, paddling to greet this bit of freshwater heaven.

We had known this wave had potential. While I wouldn’t recommend this, we taped Gray’s iPhone to the dashboard of our rental car for the drive from the airport to Duluth and watched Unsalted, a 2005 documentary about Great Lakes surfing. Joe Curren and Bron Heussenstamm surf Stoney’s in the movie, but it’s a whole different wave during their session—rippable, Trestles-like walls. We would have been thrilled to score those waves ourselves, but what we had in front of us was so, so much better. I’m sure Curren and Heussenstamm would agree.

If you're preparing for a Great Lakes surf excursion, make sure your truck is stocked with coldwater survival gear.

Gray, between bursts of jumping up and yelling “Can you believe this!” into the lightly falling snow, scrambled to pull on what appeared to be every single piece of neoprene ever made. The air temps hovered in the low 20s this morning, and the water was somewhere near 35 degrees. The skies made it feel even colder: bleak, gray, no wind, no life. It was like surfing in Fargo. Fortunately, the icebergs that frequently block the lineup had retreated a couple weeks before.

As Gray paddled out, more trucks began arriving, some with drivers already wearing full wetsuits, hoods, booties, and gloves—amazing considering the hours these guys had driven like that to get here.

I shuffled down the road to find a good vantage point, picking my way through a thick birch forest before emerging onto a rocky outcropping that looked right into the tubes pulsing through the lineup. The young newspaper reporter I’d met the night before was standing there already, watching and taking notes as a local surfer blew the steep drop at the wave’s peak and was pitched mercilessly into the shallows.

“How will I know which one is Alex?” she asked me, just as Gray, on a bright-orange thruster, scratched into a set wave from deep behind the peak, backdoored the throaty tube section, got spit out onto the shoulder, then started hacking around on the face, finishing with a big whack on the end section right in front of us. “Oh my,” she said, jotting down some more notes. We could hear hooting from the road above as the locals scrambled to join him in the lineup.

Upon seeing perfect peaks and spitting barrels, temperature become just another number. Gray, barely able to wait as he waxes up.

A few things to know about surfers in Minnesota: They leave their cars running with the heaters roaring full blast while they surf, and frequently return to their vehicles to thaw in the sauna-like cabs. In a sadistic bit of defiance to the weather, many of them stand barefoot in the snow while they put their wetsuits on. Some will put themselves through all this for a single session before turning around and driving for hours back home. They greet visitors warmly, without the mistrust that so many other surfing cliques have for outsiders. It’s so cold, so isolated, and so fickle that they really have no reason to fear an onslaught of newcomers or travelers crowding their spots. What surfer is going to fly five hours to Minnesota or Wisconsin when they could just as easily book a ticket to Hawaii or the Caribbean or Mainland Mexico and almost assuredly get much better waves?

Up on the road, I’d noticed a guy who looked to be in his 50s, walking his dog and poking his head into the locals’ car windows as they suited up. While I was rooting through the back of our car for hand warmers, the dog-walker suddenly appeared next to me, proudly holding a yellowed funboard with “True North Nomad” plastered on the front. This was Greg Isaacson, a Great Lakes surfing original and most likely the first person ever to surf Stoney Point.

Isaacson was born in Duluth, and, like many Midwesterners, was so enthralled by The Endless Summer when it toured his town in the late ’60s that he immediately decided to become a surfer. Isaacson moved to San Diego after high school and lived in Hawaii for a time, but returned to the North Shore of Lake Superior in 1975. Missing the surf, he was shocked when he discovered not just rideable waves, but high-quality waves peeling in front of Stoney Point. He spent the next few decades surfing there mostly by himself, his only audience a few disbelieving fishermen.

Greg Isaacson, a midwestern surf pioneer.

“This wave always reminded me of Velzyland,” Isaacson told me, reminiscing about his time on Oahu, “but with a bit more of the deep-water, Sunset-like punch.” I could imagine the punishment Isaacson would have absorbed surfing Stoney’s by himself in the late ’70s. Freezing conditions, terrible wetsuits, nobody around to watch your hypothermic body succumb to the icy depths. Sunset would have felt like a cakewalk.

Hathaway and Wall showed up later that morning, just as the wind clocked onshore. The waves were still quality, but the wind blew away the sheen of perfection we’d seen that morning. They paddled out for a few waves, greeting Gray, who’d already spent nearly three hours in the lineup. Hathaway later explained that Stoney’s breaks about 15 times per year, but we’d hit on a particularly rare combination of long-distance swell with no local winds mucking it up. He was like a proud father. That icicle-dreadlocked, lobster-handed guy I’d first seen smiling at me through a computer screen a few weeks back had called the swell perfectly.

“Holy shit,” Gray said when he finally came stumbling up the frozen road. “I don’t really know what I expected, but it sure wasn’t that.” He waved a numb hand at another set unloading on the reef and mumbled something that sounded like “what a wave,” lips nearly frozen.

Lake Superior is home to occasionally fantastic waves, and bald eagles.

Despite staying out all night raging with a Jane’s Addiction cover band in downtown Duluth, Hathaway and Wall met us bright and early the next day, with plans to head north to poke around a few other spots they had scouted in previous winters. We’d hung out with them the night before at one of the 8,000 student-friendly burger-and-beer spots in Duluth, a town loaded with college campuses. Over burgers and plates of fried cheese curds, Hathaway explained that he and Wall had seen lots of nooks and crannies near Stoney’s that looked surfable.

As they told us about the possibilities—the prospect of adventurous exploration, the chance to ride never-before-surfed waves—you could see how being a Great Lakes surfer might not be just bearable, but desirable. Like Hathaway, Wall also moved to Wisconsin from Southern California after marrying a Midwesterner, but for Wall the transition was much tougher. “It really tore me apart,” he told me between sips of beer. “I didn’t want to go. I thought I’d have to stop surfing. I knew there were little waves here, but I figured they were a novelty.”

Wall cites meeting Hathaway at the wave pool in 2007 as the real catalyst for his becoming a dedicated lake surfer. “I remember Hathaway telling me that he’d seen lots of spots on his maps that looked surfable, and that we should get out there and hunt them down,” Wall said. Their first trip was an exploratory journey to the northern tip of Lake Michigan. They scored fun little waves and the hunt was on. They’ve surfed in Indiana, all over Wisconsin, and in waves that break near Chicago—places so unexpected, they’re exotic in their own way. “The adventure really makes up for the cold and the inconsistency,” Wall explained. “But we don’t even think about the cold anymore.”

In the morning, we loaded up the cars and pulled out of the hotel garage to discover that the weather had soured, with ominously dark skies, driving snows, and bitterly cold winds that tried to rip your soul out through your lungs with each breath. We stopped by Stoney’s to see torn-up 3-foot waves with no takers, and hit the road to find one of Hathaway and Wall’s discoveries.

As we chugged north toward the Canadian border, passing shacks that sold smoked fish and Minnesota’s famed wild rice, we were stunned by the surf possibilities of Lake Superior’s craggy coastline. We pulled over to look at so many setups I lost count. All of them are probably rideable at some point, and probably hold quality waves a few times each winter. There was a river-mouth setup near an iron-ore mine that churned out an ice-cold version of a decent day at Santa Barbara’s Sandspit, except with 10-foot-wide hunks of ice bobbing in the surf. There was the left-hand pointbreak that Jamie Sterling famously scored in 2011.

All kinds of chatter between sets in this lineup.

At one point, Gray yelled to stop the car after spotting another potential gem, just visible through a gap in the trees. I put the car in four-wheel-drive, powered down a snow-filled trail, and drove into the backyard of somebody’s shuttered vacation rental. We stood next to a covered hot tub, awestruck, watching as a shallow reef pumped out a grotesque left-breaking slab. Every other set had at least one makeable tube, but the rest of the waves surged up onto dry reef. It was impossible to tell how big it was. Two feet? Head high? How many times had this spot pumped out world-class waves for an audience of vacationers cozied up in the same hot tub that we spent 15 minutes trying to figure out how to turn on?

We turned back after our little freshwater Mullaghmore discovery to get a few waves at the river mouth. Occasionally, curious and understandably concerned lookie-loos would pull off the highway and stand on an overpass above the beach to gawk at the deranged surfers trading copper-colored waves among the icebergs. To them it must have looked like people surfing in a giant glass of iced tea. Bald eagles, which swarmed around here in large numbers for some reason, twirled in the freezing winds overhead, occasionally swooping toward the lake, talons outstretched. I never saw one catch a fish.

Gray, 1,200 miles from the nearest ocean.

After our last surf session, we gathered back at the Duluth brewery where we’d had our first beers and met our first lake surfers. Hathaway, Wall, and the rest of the surfers had all returned home, but they’d be back next fall when the first cold fronts once again began to stir Lake Superior’s unfathomably deep waters. Next door to the brewery was an ancient pub called The Pickwick. It was at the Pickwick, in 1966, that the first successful expedition to the North Pole was planned by an astonishingly unlikely group of men from Duluth—a mechanic, a doctor, and an insurance salesman, a teacher—none of whom had arctic overlanding experience. They’d simply thought it would be fun, and so what if it was cold? They were Minnesotans. They wanted adventure. They’d deal with the cold. The cold was the adventure.

As we sat drinking next door to The Pickwick, I couldn’t help but think of those brave men, and about Wall’s philosophy that the wave-hunting expeditions and the spirit of adventure made being a lake surfer worth the brutal conditions. “I don’t know how you could be more dedicated to surfing than these guys are,” Gray later told me. “This might be the best trip I’ve ever been on. These guys are so stoked; they’re living the surf life way up here, doing it their own way. It’s incredible and we’re lucky to have shared a part of it.”

I couldn’t have agreed more with Gray. We’d expected novelty, but we’d found honest-to-god waves, and a group of surfers who work harder than anyone else in the world to ride them, enduring patience-testing flat spells, all-day drives, and unrelenting, mind-bending cold. You haven’t seen real commitment to surfing until you’ve seen it, unbelievably, in a place like Minnesota.

Justin Housman is the Features Editor for SURFER Magazine.
This feature is from "Home of the Brave," our 2016 special edition Big Issue, on newsstands and available for download now.

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