Three months ago (back in late August) my wife and I planned to visit some of her family members on Thanksgiving up in Madison, Wisconsin. I had never been to that part of the world in Winter, but like everyone else, I knew that the weather could get extremely cold up there. After having probably the most wave rich Summer and Fall Hawaii had seen in a long time, I was almost looking forward to being away from the ocean (and surfing) for a week or so to let old wounds heal.

Weeks of combination swells in Hawaii had left my legs wobbly and my shoulders tired from duck diving the unusual amount of winter sized surf that we have been receiving for weeks on end. I called my brother-in-law one day in September and we joked about trying to surf on Lake Michigan if we got lucky enough to see any swell. I watched the potential lake swells week after week on Surfline Premium. Literally 21 days at a time would go by without seeing even the smallest blip of swell in Northern Wisconsin.

Then a funny thing happened… In early November, conditions started to look right for the setup of a major cold spell that could bring tons of snow to Iowa through Illinois and may actually push a south swell onto the shores of Northern Wisconsin. I called my brother in law (Davey) and we talked about the possibility of bringing boards with us to Wisconsin. I assumed that – just like on the East Coast – the swell window would probably either move or disappear all together. With family obligations, the only day we would have for surfing would be Black Friday.

As we got within one week of Black Friday, I went into my garage in Hawaii and pulled out a 5/4/3 Xcel suit that I hadn’t laid eyes on since my college days in Virginia Beach back in 2009. I threw the 5/4/3, booties and gloves into my suitcase and laughed thinking of the baggage fee I would pay to bring a suit and gear that I probably wouldn’t even get the chance to use. I brought a leash but decided not to take a board. The conditions could range from SUP to short boarding and change at any time, so it would be impossible to know what to bring. I figured that worst case – people are so nice in the Midwest that I could probably borrow a board. Davey had mentioned just before the trip that he was really sick and hardly felt up to leaving the house – let alone surfing in the cold, so I was thinking that I may have to make-a-go of the surf alone. Luckily a shop called EOS is open during the winter in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and from Hawaii I was able to set up some surfboard rentals for if the conditions materialized.

On Thanksgiving, Davey and I decided that we were going to pull the trigger and head from Madison to Sheboygan. This trip would include a 30 min Uber ride to the airport to pick up a rental car and then a 2+ hour drive North to Sheboygan. As we began our journey at 6 a.m., both Davey and myself could hardly speak, the cold air and flu season had left us with coughs and sore throats.

We passed frozen streams every couple of miles while driving and tried not to let doubt creep in as the strong wind pushed our rented Toyota Prius from side to side. We came up with a simple plan for surfing and staying warm… We would seek out a particular longboard type wave, ride big boards and keep moving. When we finally pulled into Sheboygan and got a glimpse of the lake, our first thoughts were pretty negative. The wind was blowing probably at 40 mph and waves were whipping side shore. The surf was so out of control that it was actually intimidating – seeing cold water smack a nearby lighthouse so violently. Even being used to big Winter surf in Hawaii, the water in the Great Lakes that day looked perfectly suited for drowning and not having fun surfing.

We saw a local pull up next to us and take a quick glance at the water. As he was about to drive away, I stopped him to ask a few questions. The local turned out to be the owner of the EOS surf shop and he directed us to a more sheltered part of town to check the waves. We drove about one mile north and couldn’t believe our eyes. Perfect waist to shoulder high lines were wrapping around an extremely long jetty and making for perfect, soft peelers. The owner of EOS was nice enough to open 45 minutes early just to get us in the water faster. Davey ended up getting a 9’2 single fin and I rode a 10’1”, sticking to our plan of trying to stay as active in the session as possible. EOS is situated a few streets back from the coast amongst a number of other small shops and good looking restaurants. That area actually reminded me a lot of the West Santa Cruz in California, with plenty of small shop owners chatting with loyal customers that they had probably known throughout their entire lives.

We got geared up and then after nearly slipping and falling on ice in the parking lot, we chanced walking out on a very slippery looking Jetty and jumped off the end of the rocks right into the surf. The swell had built up a lot since we had first laid eyes on it, 40 minutes earlier. We immediately realized that 40 deg fresh water feels much colder than 40 deg salt water. Fresh water has this syrup like feel to it, and moisture sticks to one’s face longer than salt water would.

The timing and feel for the sets was difficult at first. With a 3 second swell interval – the sets would vary from large outside head high plus bombs, three wave sets to sometimes random one wave sets. At first we both took some head high bombs on the head. In certain spots in Hawaii, waves of that size would probably dislocate both shoulder if someone attempted to hold on to a longboard while taking waves on the head. Great Lake wave power was super mellow in comparison and was no problem to duck under with a longboard. The power was more similar to somewhere like San Onofre. Mellow, but in a good way when it came to long boarding and riding SUPs.

 

As we started to get in rhythm with the surf, it became apparent how incredibly fun the surf can get in the Great Lakes. We clocked one 48 second long wave on the GoPro. The surf began to remind me of a few big windy sessions on the outside reefs of Waikiki back in my teenage days. Long, mellow waves despite how crazy the horizon looked with white water everywhere. The surf was perfect for longboarding, mostly trimming and doing some white water climbs, constantly sweeping back and forth with lefts and rights.

Our GoPro filming didn’t last too long. Using a bite mount in freezing air left my teeth sore and it hurt to eat for a few days afterwards from so much cold air hitting my gums. I normally set up a Soloshot to film but had been warned that cold, moist air can wreck the motors in those things.

We ended up surfing for about two hours. All in all, we couldn’t ask for a better one day surf trip. The Great Lakes have so many unique coastal features and so many friendly locals that anything surf wise seems possible. Absolutely worth going if any reader is ever up in the Great Lakes region!

Dr. Brett Carey D.P.T.
CEO and Chief Medical Officer
Kalo Physical Therapy Multi-speciality Group (KPTMG)
South Kohala | Kona | Honolulu
Cell: 808-987-6795
Fax: 808-660-4237

 

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