This is a picture taken by I don’t know who but I will give credit when I can. It was taken in Lake Superior a few years ago.
If you’re a surfer you dream of waves. I dream of big, fast glass peeling lines and peaks.
The night before the wind built out of the northwest. A school near my house recorded gusts to 50 mph. The lake was building a swell that would wrap back towards the western shore. I checked the beaches close by around 10 AM as I drove down to the yard I have Orca stored in to tighten her tarp lines. Clean peelers were starting to show.
All day at work I kept checking a web cam that shows the beach I saw the peelers rolling in. I was threading the needle between allowing enough time for the swell to build (and to get some work done) and having enough light left to be able to surf. Finally I closed up shop and headed down to the lake for an on site surf check.
The first beach I checked had stomach to chest high rights racing in before closing out. Steep and fast, but it looked like the lake was so low that the wave was closing out in very shallow water. On up to the next beach north. From the parking lot at the south end of that beach I could see waves breaking out over a rock reef about 400 yards off shore. I met up with a fellow surfer, Peter, who really didn’t know the local spots that well and didn’t get why I was so excited. I raced home to get my gear, it was getting late with just about an hour and half of light left and told him I’d meet him in the parking lot or he could go check out the break just south, maybe with his short board he’d prefer the fast, steep zippers down there. I wanted to make the paddle out and slide down some of those big ones.
I live pretty close to the beach so it wasn’t long before I was back in the lot and Peter was dejected. He said there hadn’t been anything breaking out there since I’d left. Cool, go ahead and surf the other break, I’m sure it will be good, but I’m paddling out there. OK, he’d meet me out side.
It is a long paddle out there, but with the waves refracting along the shore from the swell far outside the water was glassy with very little swell for most of the paddle out. My heart started to beat a little faster as I started feeling the thunder from the breaking waves the closer I got. I’m a strong paddler for a man my age so I don’t mind mentioning that I measure my paddles by how many times I take a break to let the blood come back into my arms. This paddle out was about 4 breaks, maybe 5. These are good chances to assess the situation and alter my course. I chose to paddle north east around behind the reef and the area the waves were breaking. Peter, still thinking the waves were not that big paddled straight out into the dead center of where the biggest waves were breaking.
When you get out to where waves from deep water meet shallow water you can sit on your surf board and ride the swell up and down something like a roller coaster. As the wave lifts you up the air it’s pushing brushes back sending light spray into your face. You get a really good view from the wave peak of where you are, where you want to be and who else might be around. Peter was working hard to paddle through the whitewash of wave after wave, but he made it.
The setting out there is almost surreal. Waves come in groups called sets and last evening the sets were about 5 to 6 waves each. The sky was dark and overcast, not menacing any storms, but low and moody. The horizon picks up a little more light from below the cloud line and appears lighter than the dark water and gray sky. The sun was below the bluff to the west and setting fast. The wave sets first appear as slight, undulating lumps on the far horizon. You know the direction the waves are coming in, you can see towards shore the line the wave peaks break on and by projecting that line back out into the lake you can see where you have to watch. The lump appears, very dark but only briefly and you know this is going to be good. Then nothing, quiet, smooth water with a little swell and you wait. The first waves approaching in the train before the set are tempting to try for, but you take the risk that that lump you saw is till out there, still coming. You’re riding up and down as the waves get bigger in the train and you start getting a sense of where the real set is. It hides from you behind the early waves but every once in awhile you see the tops of the waves out there.
This is when you have to start watching the wave troughs. You want a really clean, deep, wide trough to start sucking up the face of the wave behind it. The water is slate blue, the sky is dark gray, the waves you’ve let go have broken and are thundering down the line with neon white foam flashing and this trough comes at you. You turn and paddle. A look to the side shows the wall behind you getting steep, steeper, almost vertical and you can feel your board starting to slide and you have to decide, no, you have to feel when to stop paddling and when to get up on your board. Your feet swing under you, you grab a rail and turn hard to angle your descent down the face and you stand. Half the board is clear of the water and in the air, you are standing on the rear half as it pounds down the face, you look for the breaking section, turn a little left, step back on the tail to stall a little then lean hard right and shoot across the face for an eternity.
You start to shout, to whoop, to holler. Life is so good. The city, way, way in shore dressed in lights, glistening in the shrouding dark is like a magic fairyland as you sail across the water, legs pumping to absorb the shocks of the bouncing board you’re riding into the dark. You turn hard, pull out the back of the wave and eventually, after maybe one too many waves start your long paddle back to shore keeping an eye on the fellow surfers that have joined you and Peter to get a glimpse of another’s ride, but it is dark and the others are somewhere out in the big swells.
The dark, glassy, swelling inside rolls you on to shore.