Snow shoes and surf


The sky cleared after sifting 7 more inches of snow down on us all day Saturday and into the Saturday night. Cold Canadian air was sucked around the back side of the stormy low as it swung up the Ohio Valley, the wind backing a little northwest as we shoveled out. The phone tree lit up as friends checked to see who had actually seen the waves, who was going out today and when.

The air was 24 degrees.

It took me a good hour and a half to shovel out our porches, sidewalks and two vehicles. I grabbed the snow shovel after a breakfast of waffles, raspberries, walnuts, yogurt and plenty of coffee. Shoveling was a good way to get warmed up for the paddle out.

To paddle out into water that’s around 36 degrees Fahrenheit you have to be a little crazy. A good wet suit helps too. I packed an extra pair of long johns, my 6mm wet suit with 7mm booties and 7mm mittens, a extra pair of wool socks and a cooler 2/3 filled with very hot water. It was a little difficult navigating around the snow hills between my house and to the street where my truck was parked with my 9’6″ surf board under my arm but I managed to slide the board into the back of the truck.

Yesterday the surf was likely to be the best at a spot about 20 minutes north of where I live. It’s now a park but was once a fancy resort where large ships would bring folks from big cities around the lake to vacation along the shore or for day trips to cool off in the summer. The ruins of some of the docks and concrete footings along the beach are all that are left. It is a very wide and open bay with a point 4 miles to the north and another point a mile south of where we surf. A NW wind will bring in clean, long lines that peel over the outer and inner sand bars and rocky reefs.

I saw the vehicles of a couple of friends parked along the road above the bluff that leads to the beach as I pulled up. John and Bill were out on an outer break catching shoulder high peelers, Dave was just paddling out.

I started up my truck so that I could run the truck’s heater as I stripped off my clothes and changed into my surfing gear in the truck cab. Over my surfing booties I wore my Sorel boots outer shells and over my wet suit I put on an XXXL down jacket I picked up at an army surplus store last year. I grabbed my board out of the back of the truck and waded down the trail in snow that was almost 2 feet deep. At the bottom of the trail I saw a pair of snowshoes I left my outer boots and jacket there and carried my board down to the beach.

The sand was starting to freeze with large, irregular panes of ice and sand jumbled about just above the wave wash. Above that was deep snow drifting up to the wood line and the concrete remnants of the old resort. Bill and John had been surfing the reefs to the south but it looked as if only Bill was left. Dave and John had been joined by Ryan and Max on the sand bar way out to the north. I strapped my surfboard leash to my calf and watched the waves to make sure my familiar channel was still the best spot to wade out towards and have the best chance of an easy paddle through the bigger waves.

The nice thing about yesterday was that there were quite a few friends out surfing, people I know and have surfed with many times before. And, one other thing, the sun was shining. I can’t tell you how important it is to feel the sun shining in a gorgeous blue sky just at this moment when I’m the most uneasy, this moment of sliding into the very cold water going from an upright, walking, bipedal primate with some easy access to dryness and warmth to a prone, paddling, surfer with expectations of only cold, cold water and wind.

As I started out Bill rode a wave in and started wading in to the beach. He was ready to try the sand bar to the north so I decided to paddle out with him. He said that he had snow-shooed down the bluff. Great idea.

The session was spectacular. Beautiful waves, breaking over the bar and peeling, almost tubing, along clean big faces. There was lots of room and time to trim and cutback, slide up and down the face. We were lining up a good 250 yards out for most of the time. Every once in a while I’d wipe out and go under. Did I mention that this was cold water. Ice cream headache time big time.

Here’s the thing that I find really hard to get across and am always amazed at when it happens. A huge storm comes, cold and snow, ice and wind and you know in your bones that you should be inside by a warm fire. But there is something that drives you to go out, to go out into the snow and even crazier to lay on a thin fiberglass surfboard and paddle out into the winter of Lake Michigan. You are essentially, even when others are out, out there by yourself, in the water. Apprehension is all to natural and it really starts to work on you as you are getting ready, as you wade through deep snow and then water and start to paddle through the icy waves. Soon there will be floating ice in the line up where we surf. But then, there is this amazing change. You see another surfer, several, all friends, in the water with you, catching waves and you start whooping and cheering as they glide by you riding up and up the face of a swelling wave. And soon there’s a wave aiming right down the line for you and everyone starts shouting,”ooooo Todd, that one has YOUR name on it”, “go, go, go”.

And…………. off you go.

And nothing could be better.

That’s an amazing transformation.


Ahhh eventually the cold begins to start taking it’s due. My feet feel it first. It’s not long before they feel like blocks of ice and are about as useful to stand on as blocks of ice. Coordination ebbs. The shadows get very long as the sun drops ever lower. The days are very short this time of year and I am a long way out in the lake and a long way from a warm truck.

Soon I take whatever wave I can in to where I know there’s an underwater gravel bar running out from shore. As waves break over it they push water either north or south of the bar. If you get just to the south side there’s a pretty strong current to carry you south to where you can walk out on a sand beach. I catch some whitewater in to that bar and glide in to the beach.

It’s a long trudge up the bluff. Bill’s got his snow shoes on and heads out ahead of me. I lag behind as the cold really starts to seep into my wet wet suit. Once I get to my truck my hands are like clubs and I have a hard time sliding the cooler full of hot water out of the truck and down to the street, but soon I’m standing with my feet immersed in lovely hot water, my mittens off and I’m pouring pitcher fulls of that wonderful stuff over my head and down inside my suit.

What a lovely day.

There are things that are worth some effort, worth a risk, worth some pain. Amazingly deep joy and bliss are really not available online, or over the cable or at slide of your credit card through Megacorp’s one of a gazillion terminals.

Go. Do something real. And have fun.

3 thoughts on “Snow shoes and surf

  1. Hey Todd:
    Glad you hit it!
    After shoveling for 3 hours on Sunday. I opted for snow shoeing around the ‘hood. Still one tough SOB at 56.
    See you in the water,
    Mark W.

  2. Todd:
    Some of the Sheboygan crew got out yesterday at the “Blue Disease” .
    Way cold when I work outside all week.

    We surfed way north in a Milw. Co. park in ’02 with Will & Moser. It got down to about 12 by the time we were in the park lot!
    Mark W.

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