Ryan Gerard knows better than most anyone that you don’t need to live near the ocean to live a surfer's life. His Third Coast Surf Shop has two locations on Lake Michigan: one near Silver Beach in quaint St. Joseph, MI, and the other just to the west in New Buffalo, MI -- a popular waterfront getaway just an hour's drive from Chicago. Third Coast offers rentals, repairs, lessons, a surf camp for kids and a line of surf gear and accessories. Since Gerard started this Midwest surf operation in 2005, he's had a solid customer base that's a mix of serious fresh-water surf fans and curious tourists.
"I'm from South Bend, IN, and started surfing in 1998," Gerard says. "I learned how to surf on Lake Michigan, then moved to Santa Cruz, CA to teach surfing lessons and build surfboards at the Pearson Arrow surfboard factory. I moved back to Michigan to finish my education at Northern Michigan University." It was his passion for Great Lakes surfing in particular, he says, along with a niche that hadn't been filled, that soon led him to open the largest surfing-specific shop in the Great Lakes area. Third Coast has become a hub for the surfing community here, hosting social events and as well as an online forum and blog that surfers visit for info and conditions, plus social events.
But Gerard--or most anyone else--isn't likely to stack up a Great Lakes surfing experience against one in, say, Southern California. ""There are four big differences [between lake and ocean surfing] for me: 1. The lack of consistent waves here versus most ocean locales, 2. The size of the waves (they're generally smaller here), 3. Fresh water, and 4. The biggest for me as a surfer: the noticeable lack of power in most lake waves compared to ocean waves," he points out. "I love surfing on the Lakes, especially when we get good waves, but it is hard to beat the consistency and power found in most ocean waves," says Gerard.
Still, when conditions are optimal it might be easy to confuse Lake Michigan with the ocean, and it's the thrill of the hunt for those ideal situations that so many Midwest surfers love. The bad news? Those conditions usually come together in the fall and winter, when serious winds can foster waves that are six feet high. To ride them and brave the bitter conditions, surfers don thermal wet suits and boards that are longer and thicker (traditional ones less buoyant in fresh water), with only floating chunks of ice getting in their way. (To see for yourself, watch the 2005 Midwest surf documentary "Unsalted," or start with this clip.
The hearty souls who come out in the cold make up only a fraction of Midwest surfers; plenty of people get out on the water in the warmer months for good, not perfect, wave riding. The location is a good one for beginners. The crowds are smaller than at the popular surfing spots on the coasts, and the gentler waves require a smaller learning curve.
"There has been steady growth in the number of people surfing throughout the Great Lakes region," Gerard says. "I see that continuing to happen. The feeling you get when you feel the rush of air and water as you catch your first wave is hard to describe, and I am sure it is a little different for everybody. I can say that the feeling for me in the beginning has been one I continue to chase, and often find!"