Many people are quite surprised to learn that you can surf the Great Lakes. Not only is it possible, but quite popular, too. So much so that it is not uncommon to see dozens of surfers at a time enjoying the waves.
Being located toward the southwestern end of the lake makes St. Joseph an ideal surfing destination. Frequent north and west winds especially in the spring and fall create sizable waves. The piers help smooth the waves out making them cleaner, and the sandbars influence where and how they will break. All of these conditions come together to make the area from the north of Lions Park Beach to Silver Beach a great place to surf.
On occasion, when there is a south wind, the same wave-making conditions occur on the north side of the piers at Tiscornia Beach. Some of the most pristine waves I have ever witnessed, however, are created by strong off-shore winds which seem to delay the break and create very glassy waves. Because surfable waves are not constant on the Great Lakes, surfers often travel the region in search of waves. As a result, when it is good, you can regularly meet surfers who have traveled from many miles away.
Over years of photographing surfers, I have gotten to know quite a few, and have learned to identify them from shore. Some ride distinctive colored or patterned boards. Some prefer long boards, some short. A few like to surf on stand up paddleboards, and recently, I have been seeing foil boards. However, the surfing style truly differentiates the surfers. Some prefer certain types of tricks, others a nice smooth ride and still others like the barrels (the hollow part of a wave when it is breaking).
One of the surfers I look for while out taking photos is Lori Stoll-Westlake. She is a mainstay of the Southwest Michigan surf community, an avid outdoor sports enthusiast, a local surf instructor and a delightfully positive person. Recently, I had the pleasure of asking her for insights about Great Lakes surfing and tips for beginners.
What inspired you to start surfing?
I'm originally from Florida, and surfing is something all the cool kids did! As a kid, I was in the water a lot because it is hot down there. I became very comfortable in the ocean so surfing just came naturally.
How would you describe the feeling of surfing to someone who has never tried it?
Surfing is an exhilarating experience. Every ride is different, new and unique because waves are never the same. It can be a struggle at first but when the moment comes where you, the board and the wave are perfectly aligned and gravity and personal expression take over — it's an awesome feeling! You know you can make it or get crushed out there, and that is part of the thrill and adventure.
What is your favorite place to surf in Southwest Michigan?
My favorite place to surf is wherever the waves are breaking the best. It takes some knowledge, intuition and, sometimes, crazy luck to be in the right place at the right time. It is such an endorphin rush when that all comes together, you crest the dune and see beautiful sets rolling in. St. Joe has been home to some of the best rides of my life — lake or ocean!
What are the features of a good surf location?
Unlike the ocean, lake waves are generated by wind. You have to know what wind works where. Some beaches have sandbars that are a good setup for good waves. Wind can cause rough conditions but features like piers, points or bays can provide shelter and there you'll find clean, less choppy waves. Location in relation to wind direction and fetch (flow of waves over a long distance) will make for the biggest waves. Since Lake Michigan is a long narrow lake, the waves can travel far and that is when they get good.
How do you know when it is a good day to surf?
Before all the technology like wind apps and real-time forecasting tools, I used to just look at the sky. If the sky was moving, so was the lake. I would notice the direction the clouds were moving and that would tell me what beach might be working. Also, I learned that right after a storm or gale that causes what we call Victory At Sea (treacherous conditions), there is what I call the Golden Hour. This is the fade that comes when the wind suddenly shuts off. The Lake is still sloshing around but it cleans up when the wind dies.
What are the best seasons to surf?
My favorite time is fall. The water is still on the warm side and the air is crisp and cool. This is a good combination for bigger, cleaner waves. I can remember putting a Thanksgiving turkey in the oven and running to the beach to surf while it roasted. The waves were good, the sky was blue, the sun was out and, on that particular day, there was a full day moon in the sky. I'll never forget it! You see, it's not all about the waves.
What kind of preparation does it take to surf in cold weather?
Good and proper equipment! There are different thicknesses of wetsuits. We wear 6mm in the coldest of conditions. Boots, gloves and hood are a must as well as a proper fitting suit. The only area that is exposed directly to the water is your face. You will experience an "ice cream headache" at first but that eventually goes away.
How would you compare surfing in Michigan to surfing in an ocean?
Some days Mother Michigan gives the ocean a run for its money! Most of the time, surfing the lake is a little more sluggish and less powerful than ocean waves. Also, it can be more tiring to surf the Lake because the wave period intervals are much closer together. If we get six seconds between waves, we call that a good day. The ocean can be a few minutes in between waves on a good groundswell.
It looks like there is wonderful comradery among the surfers. Can you talk a bit about surf culture?
I think the Great Lakes surf culture is the best aspect of lake surfing. There is such an aloha spirit amongst lake surfers — whether from the U.S. Great Lakes states or Canada. Most of us know each other at least virtually through social media and surf groups. There's always a smile, a shaka hand signal and lots of hooting out there when anyone catches a nice one. We all look out for each other and swimmers as well when we are in the water. There are surfers from all walks of life. I'm turning 57 this year and more and more women are showing up, too. I'm still humbled by how kind everybody treats this old lady in the lineup! It's always nice to see the ones who traveled far to join us for a good day. We also have some wonderful photographers who capture the moments. When the pics get shared on social media, the whole community is stoked for days! There may not be waves in our backyard on some days but there are in somebody else's neighborhood. Lake Michigan may be quiet while Lake Superior is going off. Seeing the pictures from our neighbor's good fortune keeps the stoke going almost constantly.
Do you have some tips for learning to read the waves?
Observe the waves when there are a lot of surfers in the water. Chances are that is a good day on the lake. Watch how the waves break and peel left or right. Notice the current between the shore and the waves. Know what way the wind is blowing. Is there a storm out over the lake or has it come to shore and moved on? I usually wait until a storm passes because if a storm is out over the lake, it can get bigger and turn dangerous, but at the tail end of a storm I know it will be fading and safer. Third Coast Surf Shop's website has a great page all about wave forecasting.
Any other tips for people getting started?
Get a surf lesson! I am one of the instructors at Third Coast. You will learn about safety, what hazards to be aware of, where to paddle out so you don't interfere with fellow surfers — courtesy is very important! We have a peaceable friendly surf community and we want to keep it that way! Also, there are Great Lake surf groups on social media that you can join and ask questions. Don't ask "Where is this spot?" You have to put in the work...that's all I'm going to say about that!
What other outdoor sports do you enjoy?
I think surfing naturally blends with skateboarding. I enjoy longboard skateboarding and some skatepark bowl riding — although at my age, I'm afraid to break a hip so I don't push it! I am an avid snowboarder — there's a little softer landing here. Sandboarding is a really fun way to take advantage of our awesome dunes. I also love mountain biking and there are some great trails here in Michigan! Just getting out in nature is my happy place.
Anything else that you would like to add?
I think these adrenaline sports are a great alternative to unhealthy living. I find when I get out and burn calories doing these activities, my body wants to eat good food. It goes deeper than this, too. I think these activities are great therapy for mental health. I'm not a doctor but I believe the "stoke" I'm talking about is because good clean fun can activate the pleasure centers of our brain. I think this can help depression and anxiety, and be a healthy alternative and even treatment for drug and alcohol abuse. Some things feel good but some things are good. Surfing is one of those good things. Everybody needs to find a good thing.