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Surf’s Up: Minnesotans Hit the Waves on Lake Superior

by Darla Mae Swanson

Two surfers trudging through thick snow in their wet suits, holding their boards; there are tall evergreen trees around them.
Photo Credit: Ryan Rumpca
Surfers brave the snow in northern Minnesota.

A growing community of Minnesota-based surfers and artists are diving into the sport and finding inspiration and excitement in the cool waters of the Great Lake.

She pulls on a wetsuit, thick and hooded, stashing gloves and booties in a bag. The temperature outside is cold; A storm has blown in from the west. Up in the sky, a flat, gray layer of nimbostratus clouds create a blanket. Giant, white flakes swirl in the early spring air, blowing in a wind that sweeps across Lake Superior. Driving north of Duluth on Scenic Highway 61, her car skids on ice and snow. Glancing at the lake, her heart thumps. She is ready. As she pulls onto Stoney Point Drive, tall waves crash on a rocky shore. There are others in wetsuits, carrying boards to the shoreline. It is time to go surfing.

Surfing has been around for centuries, dating back to premodern times when Polynesians practiced it as a religious art form. In the United States, surfing became popular in the mid 1900s, including a handful of early surfers on the Great Lakes. Today, lake surfing is increasingly popular for Midwesterners, like the hearty population of surfers who brave the cold waters of Lake Superior. Peak season runs fall through winter. While surfing is still active during summer, it is the coldest seasons that offer the tallest waves.

In Duluth, Minnesota, surfing on Superior has become a regular pastime for some locals, a course taught at the University of Minnesota Duluth (yes, college credit is available), and a photo op for North Shore artists. 

Learning to surf is not a simple task. Carly Weiss, a Sauna Guide in Duluth, moved to the area from Wisconsin in 2017. She saw pictures of surfers in Superior and thought it seemed unattainable for herself. When she befriended some local surfers, all male, she began getting onto the lake to try surfing. 

“I would describe surfers on Lake Superior to be very strategic … [We] pay attention to the weather, almost to a fault …”

Lone surfer holding a white and blue board, standing on a rocky shoreline. There are evergreen trees in the background.
Photo Credit: Ryan Rumpca

“I was really excited the first time. It was more difficult than I thought. I went in with a lot of confidence but definitely was humbled, the lake wasn’t making it easy to paddle out [to] catch a wave … it was cold, and it was stormy,” said Weiss, who didn’t get up on her board that first time surfing. 

By her fourth attempt, Weiss was able to get up on her board. With very few female surfers on the scene when she began surfing, she kept rocking the waves and has been joined by an increasing number of female surfers on Superior. 

Developing a style is where surfing becomes an artform. Some people have a lot of grace to their method, while others present a more powerful and aggressive form. The body moves in ways that are distinctive to everyone.

Weiss’ fellow surfing buddy, Ian Lundborg, is a carpenter and freelance artist. His interest in surfing came out of a childhood passion for board sports—snowboarding and skateboarding. Lundborg loves the surfing culture, adrenaline rush, the look of the early morning lake with sea smoke hanging on its surface, and the spiritual connectedness he feels on a wave.

“Any activity on nature while it’s moving, you’re just riding it,” he said. “[You have to] read a wave when it’s coming, know how you want to ride it … visualizing yourself on a wave before it’s even there.”

A person stands on a surf board and balances on simulated waves in a swimming pool. They are holding a cable with one hand as they balance their body.
Photo Credit: Noah Lukan
There is no wave to ride, but the surfing courses at University of Minnesota Duluth are based in a pool that has a current and strong flowing water. Pictured here is Anna Burggraff surfing in the pool during one of the courses.

Surfing has become so popular in the Duluth area there is a block of courses teaching the sport at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). Randy Carlson, Coordinator for Recreational Sports Outdoor Program, and Cora Seroogy, Aquatics and Risk Management Coordinator, work at the college teaching the skills it takes to surf successfully and safely. They are both avid surfers who have surfed warmer waters like Costa Rica and the Gulf of Mexico. 

The surfing courses at UMD are based in a pool that has a current and strong flowing water. There is no wave to ride, but a board can be used to do a variety of surfing skills including balancing and turning. Surfing on Lake Superior deals with a lot of current and learning to manage that is as important as learning to ride a wave. Some courses include live surfing on Lake Superior, though not during the tumultuous winter months, which can be a dangerous time to surf. Both Carlson and Seroogy surf Superior year-round, including the winter months.

“I would describe surfers on Lake Superior to be very strategic,” said Carlson. “[We] pay attention to the weather, almost to a fault … I know where the low pressure is in Colorado right now and how it will evolve and impact Lake Superior in two days. I’m predicting what’s going to happen by looking at what’s happening west. Winter surfing is the best because we get cold air pushing on cold water for the largest distances … a northeast wind will blow on the water of Lake Superior for [hundreds of] miles. That’s a great fetch.”

Fetch is the distance wind travels over open water. When there is great fetch, there are great waves. That makes for great surfing. But the waters of a lake as big as Superior aren’t warm—ever. That makes surfing, especially during prime winter and spring seasons, a sport for the hearty.

Seroogy laughs and sighs as she describes the urge to surf during a cold-weather storm, “[You have] a ton of adrenaline. It’s cold, surreal. It’s just like this feeling that you have to go … it doesn’t matter what’s going on … nothing else matters,” she said, adding, “The first wipeout is the worst. It’s just shock of the cold water and [thinking], damn … then you’re like, let’s do it again.”

Carlson added, “If you’re not as hard on yourself the first time you crash, that cold moment is temporary … [but] if the lake is really wild, you need to have an exit strategy. It’s always easier to get into the lake than it is to get out of the lake. You’ve got to be honest with yourself with where your mental and physical state [are] … if you’re cold you need to get out of the lake … That’s a crucial thing to understand.”

As unique as it is to teach surfing in northern Minnesota, the North Shore surfers share something in common with surfers across the globe — their distinct styles and the beauty of surfers on water. It is this juxtaposition of human-made sport (balancing on a board) mixed with nature-made wonder (water and waves) that provides an opportunity for art to be captured by artists, a.k.a. photographers.

A Minnesota native, Ryan Rumpca became interested in surfing through the lens of his camera. He sometimes wears a wetsuit to photograph surfers, placing his camera in water housing (which keeps it dry). While he has tried surfing, he prefers to capture others as an outsider looking in, creating art in picture form.

A surfer wearing a full wet suit catching a wave.
Photo Credit: Ryan Rumpca
Developing a style is where surfing becomes an artform. The body moves in ways that are distinctive to everyone.

“Everyone has their own style. It is [artistic when] everyone is in black, especially in a snowstorm … you can kind of see who the people are because of how they surf,” said Rumpca, describing the variation in surfing style from person to person.

It is this intriguing contrast and composition of a photograph that makes for a great work of art. Distinctive. Brave. Flowing. Balancing in a chaotic environment. These are the surfers of Lake Superior. 

Video courtesy of Twin Cities PBS.