Wednesday afternoon my son and I decided to take a drive south of town with our surf gear. The wind had been building from a steady 20 knots to 30 knots during the day. It was coming out of the northeast with gusts to 40. The surf spots near our house were insane washing machines of huge peaks crashing into each other sending waves in all directions. We had to hustle as it was almost 3 PM and the sun was to be below the horizon before 4:30.
We crossed the high bridge over the Milwaukee harbor in my old ’89 Ford pick-up and could feel the gusts shaking us. The air was getting cold with temps dropping into the low 30’s. Clouds covered the sky. Spray flew high over the sea walls.
The spot we were headed to is about 30 minutes south of our house in a small city with a tiny harbor that only recreational power boaters use. To the east and south of the harbor entrance is a wide expanse of wild beach and woods stretching down to a large power plant way to the south. Sand fills in from around the point just to the north and creates a gentle under water slope up to the beach where waves arc in and peel forever.
We pulled up to the small trail that leads down a steep bluff to the woods and eventually to the beach and parked the truck up against the curb. We took turns changing from our street clothes into heavy winter wet suits. My son changed first and headed down the trail as I changed. Grabbing my board out of the back of the truck I was hit with a gust that sent me towards the edge of the bluff that the trail cuts down. I squatted down and went over the edge, down the trail barely able to keep my board from smashing into the trees lining the trail. Once I was below the lip I was in the lee of the wind and was able to navigate past the crumbling concrete and re-bar, broken glass and tree roots to the trail at the bottom.
A small storage area for the power boats is fenced off just to the north of the trail. The boats are covered in plastic tarps that were flapping with an insane thunderous cackle as gusts of wind tried to tear them off. Tall reeds over seven feet swayed and beat against each other in the wind. Every once in a while you could feel the low shudder of the ground as waves drummed on the channel sea wall.
I found my son sheltering against one of the large, steel barges grounded on either side of the makeshift channel into the small harbor. He looked at me like I was nuts to even think of paddling out into this maelstrom. Maybe I was, but what I saw were clean waist high waves peeling off down into the bay, spray flying off the peaks and night gathering.
The best place to catch these waves was up close to the outer wall or grounded barge, right where the big waves from deep water pitch up over the lake side sand bar just outside the channel. Part of the wave slams against the wall shuddering the ground beneath on impact but part of the wave rolls over the deeper channel water rounding off a little allowing a surfer a chance to paddle into the wave just as it is about to peak up again over the sand bar on the inside of the channel. Then you can drop down into the wave, gaining speed to trim to the wave. Then you trim your rail into it angling across the water rushing up the face to create thrust against your fin gaining even more speed. You paddle out into an angry set of waves past rusting hulks, spray every where, wind screeching and the next thing you know you are skimming lightly across the face of a gorgeous, arcing wave, gracefully dipping and turning in the most beautiful dance with water and gravity.
My son took a few then headed back through the woods and up to the truck as I went for a couple more. A good friend joined me but that’s a stretch of the the word “join” as we each were in our own world of wind and spray and coming darkness. There was no way to shout so you could be heard.
After several more long rides with hard, long walks against the wind back up the beach to the channel I decided to find my way through the woods back to the trail and up the bluff. As I approached the top of the bluff, up the muddy trail with my toes barely holding me from sliding back I had to time my approach between wind gusts as I did not want to be blown over backwards just as I emerged over the top. It was like waiting for the set waves to die down enough to paddle out into the line up. I was able to make it with out damaging my board.
The next day, Thursday, Thanksgiving day, was sunny and cold. The wind had backed some to the northwest and had died down considerably. There were a few hours between baking a pumpkin pie and starting the candied yams for our Thanksgiving Day feast that allowed me to grab my wet, wet suit and board and check a spot just north of town.
What a difference the sun makes. Even though the air is colder a sunny day is so promising compared to the foreboding dark of late fall afternoons. Cheer was to be had, glory at the beautiful lake sending in huge waves breaking with frosty white peaks sending spray in gorgeous veils curving back from swelling lines. Time to forget about the cold, the damp wet suit the long paddle out, the very cold water. Time to rise up with the waves, riding high and paddling hard. Down into the trough, off across the face. These guys were holding their size way in. Shouts and cheers could be heard as friends witnessed glorious rides of friends.
This was an altogether different surf spot, altogether different day but the waves were from the same deep weather system. Today you had to paddle straight out, long and hard. You had to time your paddle so you were heading out between the big sets and you had to watch your drift from currents and wind, know where you were and where you were headed. But that was all fine as the sky was clear the sun was bright and friends were around.
An hour of glorious waves and it was time to head back to the kitchen and finish up making a huge dinner. Family, good food, good wine and a warm home were just enough to draw me away.