Surfing Lake Erie... in Winter

Janet Babin: On a recent windy, rainy day at Cleveland's Edgewater Park, a man pulled his green work truck with covered cab into a parking space close to the shore. He got out, and wearing shorts and a sweatshirt, took out a long white object and headed to the beach.

Rich Stack: We're looking for waves! We're hoping the waves come.

JB: With temperatures in the low 40's, Rich Stack of Cleveland Heights says this is a balmy day for Lake Erie surfing. Stack is trim and in his early 40's. He began surfing three years ago and calls himself a beginner. While the water and air temperature cooperated, there would be no rides - not enough wind to make waves. Back at the parking lot, Stack catches up with a fellow surfer.

Rich Stack & Jack: Jack... hey... waiting... here we are waiting... I've been here like a half hour, stopped out this morning and it was flat. It shifted two hours ago... they're saying the winds are only at 14.

JB: Surfers are fanatical it turns out, about finding the marine report on the internet and through the news, but they often end up coming down to the lake to check conditions for themselves. They say Lake Erie moves quicker than forecasters. Jack, who asked us not to use his last name, learned to surf in California. But he grew up just a quick car ride from Lake Erie.

Jack: When I was in California, I was thinking there has to be some kind of waves that go on in the lake, and I went on the Internet and did the research and found a chat room talked to people, come back on vacation, there was a storm, saw it for myself, and I was like, wow, amazing.

JB: The Great Lakes cover 94,000 square miles and hold 6 quadrillion gallons of water, so it should come as no surprise that surfers have been catching waves in the Great Lakes since the 1960's - in all kinds of weather. Surfers say their numbers have been growing in recent years. The Great Lakes District of the Eastern Surfing Association boasts 30 members, a relatively high number considering the season consists of spring, fall and winter surfing.

Several days after Jack and Rich Stack's failed attempt to catch a ride at Edgewater, an early morning rainstorm spread across the city. Within an hour, surfers descended upon Edgewater park. This time, they went in.

RS: Jack's out there rippin it up... Vince is there... Scott and Jenny broke their board.

JB: About a dozen surfers are in the water by mid-afternoon. They congregate on the outskirts of a cove that creates the Edgewater beach, precariously close to shoreline rocks to their left. Their wetsuits covering everything but their faces, they lay on their boards between swells - real swells of three to five feet - a biting northeast wind pelting their backs as they wait for a chance to ride.

RS: It's an ocean swell - it's approaching an ocean swell.

JB: Stack calls the waves waist high; one and half overhead, and they appear daunting. The lake resembles the Atlantic Ocean. Stack says most people don't believe Lake Erie waves get so high, because they aren't usually on the shore in a storm to see it.

Jennifer Wooley stands on the breakwater and stares through the raindrops out to the whitewater. She broke her board in October, so can only watch. Although today's Lake Erie waves aren't what she'd call epic, she says they're good enough.

Jennifer Wooley: Oh, a southwest wind, it pulled me out, then crashed me into the waves, my board got totally dinged up and I had to crawl up onto the rocks - it was scary.

JB: In the water, Surfer Vince Lavay pushes himself up into a stance at just the right moment, and rides all the way in to shore, pumping the board to get every last ounce of force from the wave. Tim Moran follows closely behind his friend. Smiling, they pick up their boards, wade through a blanket of broken zebra mussel shells, and get ready to paddle out again. Moran says the surfers are usually dealing with much colder conditions, and the ice free lake is extending the season. Still, the weather is only an afterthought.

Tim Moran: Too many people close themselves in. Have you ever thought of skiing or anything, mountain biking, but there's something... it's a bit of a thrill, even when it's cold it adds... it's just a thrill to get out here.

JB: Lavay says although he's surfed 9-foot waves in the Lake, size isn't what really matters.

Vince Lavay: Surfers sort of get into a zen mentality where they don't really care if there's waves - they just wanna be out there and I think guys, it doesn't matter where it is, we just wanna be out on the water.

JB: Each surfer seems to have his or her own style on the board, and watching them tackle the waves is kind of like watching a creative process unfold. Stack says surfing is like no other experience he's ever had.

RS: It takes a long time, but you can't believe what happens the first time. You just can't wait to do it again. It's like this perfect fun thing, you're part of nature almost, you're in a wave, you are the wave.

JB: When the gray day gives way to dusk, and car headlights shine from the not-too-distant highway, the surfers reluctantly head back to shore for the last time, some shivering as they pack up their gear, but their thoughts are still on the next wave.

10 tomorrow, you know where you're going? If it's northwest I'm going to Lorain...

At Cleveland's Edgewater Park, Janet Babin, 90.3 WCPN News.

TM: Anytime you want to come down and learn to surf, you just let us know! Thanks, I'm going to practice at home!

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