Surfing the Freezing Waters of Lake Superior in the Dead of Winter

When you think of surfing, balmy beaches and warm summer days come to mind. But not for everyone. Take this one group of surfers from Minnesota who don’t seem to mind diving into the freezing waters of Lake Superior in the dead of winter for a little hardcore action.

This die-hard group of surfers have been spotted riding the waves of the Great Lakes, near Stony Point, during winter, literally emerging from the cold water with icicles hanging from their faces and thick wetsuits. The peak season for surfing at the lake is said to be between January and March and the surfers seem to love it even more if there’s a winter storm, because that means stronger waves. The wind’s long and powerful rush across the lake’s surface that powers the tide can create waves that can go up to 10 – 12 foot high. There have been times when the wave action has reached 30-foot on Lake Superior, during the throes of a raging storm.


Photo: NOTL Surf Club

Matt Nelson, a surfer from Two Harbors, Minnesota, said he only began winter surfing last spring and he’s already loving it. According to Markus Barsch from Wisconsin, “It’s warmer in the water.” Burton Hathaway, from California, explains the apparent paradox: “Lake Superior is the deepest of the Great Lakes so it holds its heat longer into the winter.”That also makes it the last lake to freeze over, which is nice because you can’t surf on a frozen lake.” Burton said that the day he went surfing, the water temperature was between 36 and 38 degrees (2 degrees Celsius), while the air temperature was minus 12 degrees (-24 degrees Celsius). But if you factor in the wind chill, it was like 50 degrees below zero (-45.5 degrees Celsius).


Photo: NOTL Surf Club

The winter surfers generally prefer to wear 6mm black wetsuits with 7mm booties and 5mm gloves. They also need to apply copious amounts of Vaseline to avoid losing their face or nose to frostbite. The surfboards are different too – thicker and wider than those used in the ocean because freshwater isn’t as dense as saltwater. Freshwater surfing, according to Burton, is a totally different experience. “You feel like you’re surfing in slow motion on some of these waves. You’ve gotta be in good condition, too, because as cold as you are, you’re actually better off being in the water, because it’s warmer.”


Photo: NOTL Surf Club

“The toughest part is changing out of your thick, cold wetsuit,” said Burton. “You have to wait until all the ice melts off, which can take up to 30 minutes or you’ll rip your wetsuit trying to get out of it. Some guys leave their cars running and heaters on full blast while they are out surfing.”


In spite of some great surfing locations in California or the East Coast, Burton said he’d always prefer coming out to the Midwest. “It’s always an adventure and we go on surf trips all over the Great Lakes. Stoney Point, Minnesota, a beautiful pointbreak that comes out of deep water on the north shore of Lake Superior – it’s a well-known spot that’s been in the magazines and is basically the Mecca of Great Lakes surfing.”


Photo: Facebook

“It’s crazy. In the back of your mind you know you can die surfing in these very harsh and unforgiving conditions, but we live for surfing out here on the Great Lakes, and that is our passion.”


 Photo: Facebook


Photo: Facebook



Sources: Surf Transworld, Surfline

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