Words & Photos: Logan Kellams
Warm waters, salty air and tropical landscapes… this is what we usually equate surfing too, but here in the Midwest, the perfect wave comes in a different season all together. Waves in Lake Michigan rarely come with sunny skies and a warm breeze. These rolling waves come with massive temperature changes, sustained winds, strong currents and ice cream headaches that chill you to your bones. Because of these sea-like characteristics, the freshwater lakes we call home are often referred to as the Inland Seas. Here in Grand Rapids, Michigan we flock to Lake Michigan when the waves are firing, occasionally making the trek up to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to find massive swells on Lake Superior, the second largest lake in the world. With over 10,000 miles of freshwater coast, Great Lakes surfers will travel hours to find the perfect wave to enjoy all to themselves.
Great Lakes Surfers are shaped from a different type of fiberglass. This core group of surfers is so passionate about living the search that they don’t wait for warm waters to find their perfect wave. Great Lakes surfers charge at the chance to dive under a freezing fresh water wave just to find the perfect untouched set on the other side. Battling intense winds and below freezing temperatures are all in a days search. To survive these conditions while finding your wave garden paradise we have created a cheat sheet for your next cold water surfing adventure, where to find the waves and what to bring:
Surf Forecasting in Michigan
Believe it or not forecasting is more important than how fly you look on the beach. Learn the points, pier angles and wind directions that work with every spot. Listen to the old kook ripping on his duct tapped board and don’t ever pretend that you hold the magic 8 ball because Michigan weather is crazier than your ex holding a bag of wet cats. Here’s your best bet for avoiding that: lakeswell.com
7 Coldwater Surfing Essentials (from Great Lakes Surfers):
1) Dress Prepared – For most surfers you have one good wetsuit to get you through the entire year but let’s be honest, you enjoy the bulk of it shredding in boardies with raw nipples. For Great Lakes surfers there is a wetsuit for every season. Our tip to you is make sure your winter wetsuit is up to par. And remember, thicker is not always better. Our favorite this year is Xcel’s Drylock 5/4 Hooded Suit lined with TDC, aka Thermo Dry Celliant. Pair with 5 MM gloves and 7 MM boots and you’ll be the warmest freshwater seal in the water.
Find it here: Xcel - Men's Drylock TDC Hooded Fullsuit 5/4
2) Come Prepared – Always bring your favorite short AND long board. One thing we’ve learned driving an hour to find the perfectly angled pier or just the right beach break is that Michigan weather changes at a hat drop and so do the waves. Beach webcams can only show you so much detail and let’s be real here, it’s easier to strap two boards to your roof than it is to kick yourself all day for bringing a shorty to a long board party. Nine times out of ten you will see a horizon of longboarders, but there are those extra stormy days when having your short board handy will leave you on cloud nine the entire drive home.
3) Changing Station - In the winter most Michigan shoreline parks are covered in CLOSED signs… and so are their public restrooms. Unless you’re traveling in style with your RV you will need a place to strip down. If you have to do it outside, save yourself the chills by ordering a Surf-fur water parka. This windproof, waterproof, fleece parka is a must have for any cold water surfer. Throw it on for a quick surf check then let it be your beach-side changing booth.
Find it here: SURFFUR The Original Water Parka
4) Beach Showers - Before you pull your wetsuit off you’ll probably want to break off those icicles that have formed along the brim of your hood and along your beard. Here’s a great lakes surfer inside tip, fill your RinseKit with hot water from your kitchen sink before you hit the road. Then when it’s time to defrost your face you have two gallons of warm water to rinse off your ice mask and even rinse the sand off of your booties and board.
Find it here: RinseKit
5) Warming Tonic – If you’re like me, you can’t spell morning without coffee… or something like that. After spending hours in freezing waters you are going to want something warmer than your car heater to bring you back to life. We fill a huge thermos with Caveman Coffee and bring our CamelBak travel thermoses to the party as well.
Find it here: Caveman Coffee
6) Burning Tonic – Coffee is step number one in the warm-up process; the second comes in a smaller thermos…usually a flask. If you’re not a big coffee and whiskey guy then head to the nearest brewery to warm up and get your blood flowing again. We’re lucky to call Grand Rapids, Michigan home, otherwise known as Beer City USA. You’ll never have trouble finding a local watering hole here. We’ll even buy you a drink if you catch a few with the locals.
7) Love, True Love – The last piece of advice from one cold water surfer to another… make sure your girlfriend has a camera. Don’t have a girlfriend? Find one. She doesn’t have a camera? Buy her one. My starter camera was the Nikon D3200. It will be an investment that you won’t regret! Take it from me!