Surfers heading to the beach at Sleeping Bear Point. Photo: Beth Price.
It may be about a thousand miles to the nearest ocean, but you can surf in northern Michigan. While the waves are usually small, the right conditions can produce surprisingly large and high-quality surf. Sadly, those conditions aren’t that common until the fall. But after mid-October, the winds whipping off Lake Michigan really start to pick up. For the adventurous few who surf the Great Lakes, these gales create a unique playground.
Waves are created by wind blowing over water. The stronger the wind and the larger the distance it blows for, the bigger the resulting waves will be. In the midst of the storm, the wind whips the sea into a choppy, foamy maelstrom. But the further these waves travel from the weather that created them, the more time there is for the waves to form themselves into orderly lines of swell.
This works perfectly on the ocean. A storm off the coast of Alaska produces high winds and generates large waves. These waves travel thousands of miles across the Pacific and hit the coast of California. When they arrive, the weather will likely bear no resemblance to the conditions that spawned them. The result is the often perfect surf California is famed for.
Surfers paddling out into Lake Michigan with a snowy South Manitou Island in the distance. Photo: Beth Price.
Lake Michigan is nothing like the size of an ocean. The wind doesn’t have the same opportunity to blow over such large distances and the waves will hit the shore before they’ve travelled very far. So when there is surf on Lake Michigan, you are typically surfing in the midst of the storm that is creating the waves. As a result, the conditions on Lake Michigan can be very challenging, with turbulent waters, high winds, and very strong currents.
Dropping into a head-high wave on Lake Michigan. Photo: Beth Price.
Add to those difficulties the extreme cold air temperatures and frigid water and you can see why surfing Lake Michigan is not for the faint of heart.
Even in summertime, Lake Michigan can be chilly. In November it is downright icy, with water temperatures down in the 40s. By mid-winter, the Lake Michigan water temperature will be well down in the 30s, assuming that it hasn’t frozen over completely.
Such cold demands specialized equipment. Wetsuits are required by early fall. As the winter looms, the wetsuits are supplemented with hoods, boots, and gloves to insulate from the brutal cold. It is not unusual for surfers to emerge from the water with icicles clinging to their eyebrows!
Climbing up onto the wall of “anchor ice” fixed to the shore at Sleeping Bear Point. The surfers’ wetsuits cover them from head to toe. Photo: Paul May.
It may look like madness, but Lake Michigan’s surfers would beg to differ. It is a special feeling to be riding freshwater waves surrounded by such an amazing landscape.
And it’s a great way to ward off cabin-fever!
If you want to get in on the action yourself, we recommend late summer. The water is at its warmest and the winds are starting to become more favorable for generating surf. On a strong south wind, head to Frankfort. On a north wind, take a look around Leland. Just bring someone with you and exercise caution. Lake Michigan is very easy to underestimate.
Your best bet is to swing by either Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak in Empire or the Wet Mitten in Traverse City. They have the local scene totally wired and can equip you with the right gear and point you in the right direction.