In the 80’s, living just outside Toronto, surfing the Great Lakes was unheard of. That’s not to say that no-one was doing it or had even attempted it, it’s just that it made no sense, at least to me. Sailboarding was in its hay day, and why bother trying to surf knee high, wind swell, when flat water and wind was so abundant in Southwestern Ontario. But today there is an established group of surfers who patiently scour weather forecasts and swell reports waiting to catch some fresh water surf. Movies such as “Fresh”, “Unsalted” and that kooky scene in “Step into Liquid” have given fresh water surfing some credibility.
But mention the Great Lakes as being a ‘surfing destination’ and you will get chuckles from the West Coast denizens who cast it off as some sort of ‘novelty’. But I am all about novelty. It is for this reason that during my summer trip back to Ontario, I had to find some fresh water waves. But trying to find any information about where to surf and when it would be good was next to impossible. It appears as though local knowledge was the key and I had to wait until I was on the ground. When I arrived in Ontario I checked all the usual swell forecasting tools. And, as luck would have it there was big swell forecasted on the eastern shores of Lake Huron for about 48 hours after I landed in T.O. With a few phone calls to old friends and SUP retailer, I narrowed down my location to North Sauble Beach where the Sauble River flows into Lake Huron. I had a little snag, no surfboard. I wasn’t prepared to truck one halfway across Canada only to get shut out, so I left them at home.
It turns out, that it truly is easier to find a needle in a haystack than it was to find a rental surfboard in this part of Ontario. But with my last phone call I found a shop in Sauble Beach that had 2 available for rent. They were 8 foot Bics but at this point I didn’t care. So forty five bucks later I stuck this 2 plus 1, funboard in the back of my in-laws corolla and headed for North Sauble. The guy at the shop, told me the day before was ‘killer’ with locals apparently riding 6’0” fish. And when I hit the beach the swell was still pumping. It was randomly breaking all over the place over sandbars, but every now and then a well spaced set of waist high peelers would roll through. The only thing was is I would have to share the waves with a handful of standup paddlers. Who’s the pariah now?
The real ‘novelty’ of surfing the Great Lakes, in August, on the ‘best beach’ in Ontario started to take shape. The water temperature was a balmy 23 degrees so boardshorts and a rash guard was all I needed. Sure beats peeling on a 5 mil and booties, like I had to do the previous weekend in Tofino.
The waves were pretty tight, kind of like surfing the inside of Vancouver Island, another favourite pastime of mine. So you don’t really have time to grab the rail and turn the board when you see a set roll in so you break the surfer’s code, turn your back to swell and look over your shoulder. The waves were slow and mushy, but paddling in was never more than three easy strokes and the waves never really broke until the hit the beach. They just humped up, started to break over one sandbar, but before they actually broke they would flatten a bit, reform and start the whole process over again until they hit the beach. If you were fortunate enough you could get a 10 second ride in.
But all good things must come to and end and as the wind started to die down, the waves lost their intensity and I paddled in. But my 9 year old who had tried surfing in Tofino, but who wasn’t quite ‘hooked’, waded out to me and asked to give it another go. After a bit of refresher we set out to the deeper water where the waves still had some pop. The first few I gave him a little push, but after that he got the hang of paddling in and never missed a wave. Warm water, easy surf, and sunny weather, are apparently the combination required to hook a hesitant 9 year old on the most addictive sport in the world.
Surfing the Great Lakes may be a novelty to some, but so is surfing the inside of Vancouver Island and now I have done both. Similar to skiing powder, surfing relies on Mother Nature to create and sustain the resource required to do our sport. I recently read an article and the author referred to the act of surfing as a ‘privilege’. Being new to the sport I need to tread lightly. To call any act of surfing a novelty, no matter how inane it may seem, is an unfair representation of the sport. All we really need is that feeling you get when you catch a wave, any wave, anywhere. And that random group of knee high waves in Sauble was all it took to hook a tentative 9 year old. So novelty or not it was a victory for me.