"We have the best waves on the Great Lakes": California surfer now hangs 10 on frosty Lake Superior
DULUTH, Minn. – In the winter, Stoney Point on Lake Superior is as scenic as it is quiet. But every once in a while, the point turns into paradise for a band of surfers.
"We talk about Minnesota, surfers in Minnesota. The coldest conditions, the warmest friends. I love it here, you know. Like no place else in the world," said 63-year-old surfer Erik Wilkie.
When conditions are just right, Erik and his son, Garet Wilkie, drive from Danbury, Wisconsin to surf here. Erik is so well-known that the locals have given him a nickname.
"We call him 'The Oracle' on occasion, because he'll get the emails and the phone calls, 'When is it happening?'" Garet said.
The problem is you may not know until the day of. Erik grew up in southern California, where the waves are more predictable. He went to college in Wisconsin, met his wife, and settled down. But at one point, the entire family moved back to California, in part because Erik missed his childhood waves. That's when he made a discovery.
"We learned that we have the best waves on the Great Lakes. We're only 90 miles from where we had just moved away from," he said.
So they moved back to Wisconsin.
"And I'm so glad we did," he said.
Erik learned that people have actually been surfing Lake Superior since at least the 1970s. But it wasn't until the early 2000s when a film called "Unsalted" was released, that surfers really began to show up – even in January.
When they surf in the winter, the water temperature is between 33 and 36 degrees, just above freezing. But the air temperature can be below zero.
"The ice clings to your face in just a matter of moments, and it's just so crispy," Erik said.
So they dress for the frigid conditions.
"We've got about a quarter of an inch of rubber right there, a quarter of an inch of neoprene," he said.
Wetsuits, gloves and booties are a must.
"Without that equipment, you got about two minutes in the water, you freeze to death," he said.
Instead, on a good day, they can last about 45 minutes before the cold takes over. But there's another danger here: To surf, you have to know how to swim, because the waves are unpredictable and unforgiving.
"Out here it won't wait for you. It will dump you under, and you'll be down there for just as long as the wave wants you to be," Garet said.
Dave Rostvold helps eliminate some of the risk. A few years ago, he caught an entrepreneurial wave and founded Castle Glass Surfboards, crafting boards just for Great Lakes surfers. He now makes about 150 a year for people across the country.
"It's other-worldly. It's very special. We're kind of pinching ourselves all the time out there that we're doing this in our backyard," Dave said.
It's hard to believe for a lot of people, but not for Erik. He's surfed everywhere, but his favorite wave to catch is the one in his own backyard.
"The childlike feeling that everything else in the world goes away and all you're doing is focused on riding that wave and feeling the smoothness and the connection with nature for that moment," Erik said. "It doesn't last but a few seconds, but oh, it's a memory of a lifetime."
Erik says they go in pairs, and they actually surf on private property with permission from the landowners.
He spends a lot of his time keeping an eye on the National Weather Service, because he says the best waves come after a storm clears.
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