All photos by Mike Killion

Last April, Puerto Rican surfer Dylan Graves hopped on a plane to chase down a swell that was predicted to be 10- to 13-feet at 7 seconds. For a veteran storm chaser like Graves, you'd think that means he set off for a thumping East Coast sandbar or a reef-fringed Caribbean isle able to handle sizeable swell. Instead, Graves' flight was heading to Minnesota—the shores of Lake Superior, to be exact— over a thousand miles away from the ocean.

For the past couple years, Graves has been sniffing out the weirdest waves on planet earth for his video series "Weird Waves"—including those that exist in rivers or lakes. "I always thought it sounded crazy to fly to the middle of the States and find good waves there," says Graves. "On paper, that idea sounded really interesting." So when local lake whisperer Burton Hathaway rang up Graves and told him the mother of all lake swells was about to slam the shores of Lake Superior thanks to Winter Storm Xantos, Graves grabbed his boards and the warmest wetsuit he could find and jumped on a plane.

One of the first lessons he learned when he arrived was that waves formed in a lake can, in fact, still kick your ass—even if you're an accomplished pro surfer.

"We showed up on our first day in Duluth and it was howling winds," says Graves. "I just remember it being shockingly cold and the wind cutting right through my clothes. When I saw the lake for the first time, I was noticing that there were ice chunks floating in the lineup and it looked like storm surf. When you're there, you never know if the swell will be gone the next day or even in a few hours, so we thought that might be our only session and had a go at it."

Unfortunately, Graves' commitment to carpe that diem only got him so far. "The cold I felt on my first duck dive basically just erased my brain," laughs Graves. "I remember the wave and I came up and was like, 'OK, what are we doing?' I've been on cold-water trips and I've surfed in the snow in Norway, but something about this was different—maybe it was the freshwater or the power of all the water moving and the period being so short and not giving you any time to recover. I didn't make it out my first try; I went in, regrouped and told myself, 'I've got to do this because this could be our only session.'"

Turns out, it was far from his only session during that swell. What follows are snapshots from when Graves finally made it out to the lineup, and the rest of what ended up being a days-long swell. Although most would have said Graves was dreaming to think he'd score waves of this caliber in the Great Lakes, that's also kind of the whole point of his series. Sure, some waves are weirder than others, but that's not to say they don't have their day.

"I was out the back looking out towards the lake," says Graves, "and there were swells going by that, if there had been the right setup for one of those swells to break, there could have very easily been a 20-foot wave breaking somewhere. We talked to a lighthouse keeper later, and he said that there are a lot of shipwrecks in the lake because the waves break at such short intervals. The lakes have more shipwrecks than almost anywhere. I had no clue that there was that much power there."

"When people saw us walking around with boards, especially on the day when the swell was peaking and there was basically a blizzard, they're like 'You guys are crazy!'" says Graves.

"The locals were some of the most surf-stoked people I've ever met," says Graves, pictured here doing his best not to slip on icy cobblestones alongside Chase Ledsworth, Matt Smolenski and Burton Hathaway. "The majority of their swell happens during the winter when it's freezing cold and the conditions are harsh. They are some of the most core people in the sport."

"During the first session, once I made it out I got three waves," says Graves, seen here ditching his fins. "I ended up getting slammed onto the shorebreak. There were these huge boulders and the shorebreak was relentless from the period and it just wouldn't let up."

"The thickest suit I had was a 6/5/4," says Graves. "But if there was such thing as an 8675309, I would've worn that."

A stoked-yet-freezing Graves, sharing a laugh with locals Paul Shonfeld, Hathaway and Randy Carlson between sessions.

Graves, going above the lip over 1,200 miles away from the nearest ocean.

"One day we were driving around checking waves and from the road and I saw this wave spit," says Graves, pictured here slotted in a frigid tube. "So we pulled over, saw a couple more spit and started freaking out. I was definitely blown away."

Check SURFER.com tomorrow morning for the first episode of Grave’s new series, “Weird Waves”, featuring his Lake Superior strike mission.

[This feature is published in SURFER Magazine VOL 59.7, on newsstands now.  Subscribe to SURFER Magazine here.]