Winter storm brings cold, snow and surf

Published 4:56 pm Saturday, February 16, 2013

A surfer rides a wave Monday at Stony Point near Duluth. Derek Montgomery for MPR News

By Dan Kraker

Minnesota Public Radio

DULUTH — In a rocky bay about 15 miles up the North Shore from Duluth, eight-foot waves curl gracefully before breaking and smashing against ice-coated boulders along Lake Superior.

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Though it might seem impossible to many, a thriving scene has emerged on the beach, where about 50 surfers are braving the frigid water for waves they swear can compare to some of the best surfing in Hawaii or California. Wearing thick neoprene wet suits, they congregate at a cove, where 15-foot waves can curl and break on icy rocks.

“This is a hairy day,” said Erik Wilkie of Webster, Wis., where he moved from California two years ago. “This is the biggest day we’ve had this year.”

As he sat before getting ready to surf in his warm pickup truck, Wilkie watched a half dozen neoprene-clad figures bob up and down in the swells. The excitement — and the danger — of catching winter waves, lured the surfers to the big lake.

“Everybody’s elated,” he said. “The danger factor is right up there as high as it can be, the adrenaline is pumping.”

On Monday, the day after a blizzard dropped a half foot of snow, 35-mile-per-hour northern winds gusted over 300 miles of water — what surfers call “fetch” — creating ideal surfing conditions.

Wilkie stuffed his slender 54-year-old frame into two wetsuits, complete with booties, gloves and a hood. He applied wax to his 10-foot board to help him keep his traction, and headed for the lake.

To reach the shore, he tromped through a couple feet of snow from the woods off the side of the road.

“How many other places do you walk down a deer trail to get to the surf break!” he exclaimed.

After Wilkie carefully walking across treacherous ice covered rocks, Wilkie doves into the water and paddled 50 yards out to where the waves were breaking. As if in prayer, he knelt on his board, waiting for that perfect wave, then furiously paddled to reach it. Once he caught the wave, he stood up and rode its crest smoothly toward shore, mist sparkling over his bright yellow board.

Surfers walk along an icy snow-covered path at Stony Point strewn with rocks and iced and snowed over driftwood to reach their launching point into Lake Superior Monday, February 11, near Duluth, Minn. Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Nearly an hour later, after several more sets, Wilkie returned to the shore, his face bright red and cold, but plastered with an ear-to-ear grin.

“OK that was fun,” he said, preparing to head back to his idling pickup truck for warmth. “Oooh. Love to see the waves big. Love to see all my friends getting great rides.”

Meanwhile, Bob Tema was also taking a break. The Honolulu native moved to Minnesota more than two decades ago to study graphic design. After a couple years, he wondered if he could surf Lake Superior.

“Once a surfer, always a surfer,” Tema said. “So growing up, surfing, once you move to someplace where there is no surf, you start to get antsy.”

After a few years exploring the shore, he discovered there’s some excellent surfing on Lake Superior – especially at Stony Point, which he said is the premier surfing spot on the great lake. The best waves come when it’s coldest, when fall and winter storms kick up high winds, big waves and often sub-zero temperatures.

“On those really cold days your eyelids will sometimes get stuck, freeze shut for a bit, you have to kind of pry them open,” Tema said. “Your eyebrows and eyelashes will get ice build up on it.”

The big waves are also intermittent and might only happen every few weeks. To keep surfers informed, Tema founded the Lake Superior Surf Club. Its website allows diehards to monitor wave and weather conditions.