A storm rages on a December afternoon. Most sensible people in this part of the Great Lakes are hunkered down at home. But not Mike Calabro. He, along with a few other hardy souls, is riding out the storm on a surfboard. “If you want to live here and surf, you can’t let a little cold stop you,” he says, as he wiggles into a wetsuit on the southwest shore of Lake Michigan.
Surfing the Great Lakes in the dead of winter might sound like the pastime of a few masochists, but the sport is flourishing in the region thanks to epic conditions fans can find only in the winter. These days, though, climate change and pollution are threatening the future of this increasingly popular activity.
Surfing on a lake
For many people, surfing evokes images of sun-kissed Southern California or Hawaii. But the Midwest claims deep roots in the sport, too. One of the world’s most influential surfers, the late Tom Blake (who revolutionized the design of surfboards by making them lighter and faster) hailed from the shores of Lake Superior. And a few pioneers were riding waves here as far back as the late 1940s.
The first time Mitch McNeil, president of Surfrider Foundation Chicago, saw a surfboard was in 1967 at Chicago’s Abercrombie & Fitch, when the store was a high-end outfitter of specialty items such as fly-fishing and safari gear.
Today you can buy a board in one of dozens of surf shops across the region, including destination surf towns such as St. Joseph and Grand Haven, Michigan, and Sheboygan, Wisconsin, aka the “Malibu of the Midwest.”
“The number of surfers has probably doubled since I opened the shop in 2003,” says Ryan Gerard, owner of Third Coast Surf Shop, in New Buffalo, Michigan. “There’s now a healthy local scene. And it’s become a novelty for travelers, like, ‘I finally surfed the Great Lakes.’”
But the die-hard know the best time to surf the lakes is from November through March, when high winds and storms push big, consistent waves topping 20-30 feet with overheads (high crests), barrels (tunnels that surfers glide through), and rides lasting a minute and longer.
“These aren’t just good waves for the Midwest. These are good waves for anywhere,” says McNeil, who has surfed from Hawaii to Portugal since he began chasing waves on Lake Michigan in 1968.
Risks—natural and man-made
While the region’s cold-weather waves are some of surfing’s best, the challenging conditions aren’t for everyone. The surf can flow thick and slushy like a Slurpee or load up with ice the size of golf balls and even bowling balls. Surfers have to be vigilant for sheets of ice as big as parking spaces, as well as changing shore conditions, where fast-forming ice shelves can make escape impossible.
Even the frequency of lake waves—every four to five seconds versus 15 to 30 seconds in the ocean—poses a challenge, as the rapid-fire barrage of freezing water has been known to pin down fallen surfers.
Some local surfers worry about the effect climate change has on rising water temperatures in the Great Lakes. Ice cover on the water has dropped by as much as 75 percent over the past 40 years, according to a report by the Environmental Law & Policy Center.
Less ice can increase lake effect winds and create good waves, but it also increases shoreline exposure, making beaches more vulnerable to erosion. “The beach is disappearing because the water is so high, which makes access in some places almost impossible,” says Gerard.
More pressing is rampant pollution. Surfrider Chicago, along with the city of Chicago as a co-litigant, sued U.S. Steel in 2018 for dumping hexavalent chromium into Lake Michigan. The chemical is the same carcinogenic manufacturing byproduct made infamous in the 2000 film Erin Brockovich.
“Surfers were getting sick, and after a yearlong study and diving into the data, we found the cause and realized we had to do something about it,” says McNeil. In 2018, U.S. Steel agreed to pay $601,242 in civil penalties in accordance with a proposed settlement under an EPA consent decree. Lawyers for Surfriders argued the punishment was too low, pointing out that the maximum statutory penalty can be as high as $10.7 million.
Since the settlement, U.S. Steel has admitted to more violations. As of press time, Surfrider Chicago, the city of Chicago, and other environmental organizations were pressing the courts for a more severe penalty and ongoing oversight.
Finding silver linings
As McNeil and others continue their work to clean up Lake Michigan, they continue to surf. “It’s Russian Roulette,” admits McNeil, “but the reward is the hugely invigorating interaction with nature.”
Calabro sees the bright side. “There are no sharks and no saltwater to eat away at your gear,” he says, half joking, before turning serious. “Winters in the Midwest can be dark, gray, and pretty tough. Seasonal affective disorder is real,” he adds. “Surfing here is tough, but it gets me outside, and it makes me smile.”
With that, Calabro drags his board into the 33-degree surf, which the storm is now pushing into overhead waves. He bobs and rises, then disappears into the maelstrom. In a few hours, he’ll clamber up from the frigid shoreline with eyes partially frozen shut and a beard of ice.
After firing up his van’s heater to melt the ice from his wetsuit’s zipper, he’ll change into dry clothes. Only then, through skin rubbery with cold, does a slightly maniacal and exuberant smile surface. While everyone else was locked up inside, he was out riding waves of a lifetime.
Aaron Gulley is a Sante Fe, New Mexico-based journalist who has written for two decades on traveling, cycling, and sports and fitness. Find Aaron on Instagram.