As the late August sun began to sink below the horizon and a wide smile crept across his sun-drenched face, 48-year-old Jason Gorski stood in the sand and proudly pointed to the surf break he had called home for over three decades.
"No man, everything I need is right here!"
In retrospect, it was unnecessary to ask the man known as J-Bird if he'd rather live next to an ocean. I already knew that answer. The diehard surfer and paddler had spent his entire life playing in the freshwater and possessed an unrivaled passion for his hometown waves.
"I can't live more than a few minutes from the water," said Gorski. "I left to college, which was only an hour away, but I had to move back."
Missing out on swell was a price too high for a man who has an infectious stoke for the water. But it isn't a world-famous wave in California or Hawaii that had claimed his soul, J-Bird was talking about Muskegon, Michigan.
As the largest city on Lake Michigan's eastern shoreline, Muskegon boasts a rich history of industrial manufacturing and a wild rumor that its downtown was built with stolen Confederate gold. But it is Muskegon's prime location that has earned it the distinction as being one of America’s most unlikely surf destinations. Centrally located on the lakeshore, the area can pick up wind swell from several different directions, primarily in the fall and winter, which equates to a precious 30 to 40 days of surf each year.
"People will say, 'You can't surf in Michigan,'" said Gorski. "They should have told me that when I was 14, because that's when I started riding waves!"
First Generation Diehards
The inaugural Great Lakes Surf Festival was less than 24 hours away and J-bird worked with a crew of volunteers to prepare for the big day, figuring out how to display a 50-foot surfboard using some lumber, screws and ingenuity.
The first-year event had been spearheaded by local waterman Joe Bidawid. The father of two was a former professional windsurfer and a pioneer in bringing both kiteboarding and SUP to the Great Lakes area. Now he was looking to cement his area's surf culture for future generations, his two young boys being a large source of inspiration. Bidawid sees his Midwestern surf community as a modern-day throwback to the laidback surf culture that captured people's hearts and imaginations in Bruce Brown's legendary 1966 film, Endless Summer.
"When I watch that movie, I think that we have that vibe here," said Bidawid. "We have something that is special."
It's a lofty claim for a place that doesn't have an ocean within a thousand miles of it. But as I met more local paddlers and surfers, I began to get a sense for what he was talking about.
Folks like Joe and J-Bird were not merely outliers, but rather core members of a growing community of paddlers, surfers and kiteboarders, all frothing for their next chance to get on the water. The conditions they endure to get these freshwater waves that demonstrates just how dedicated they are. While mid-winter air temperatures routinely drop into the single digits, it's only the lake freezing over during the coldest months that prevents them from surfing year-round.
For a warm-blooded Californian, just the thought of paddling out in those conditions made me shiver. But for these freshwater rippers, the thrill of wave riding was too much to let icy water stop them. This was especially the case in the early 1980s, when most of these diehard watermen began surfing as teenagers and used any means necessary to keep the stoke alive.
"The stoke comes from the desire to do it," said 51-year-old Chris Matteson. "Because we wanted to [surf] so good, we did some crazy stuff to get into that cold water. Like putting on wool socks with plastic bags over it and old Converse tennis shoes on our feet just so we could go out into the cold water and have fun."
The teenage years were much the same for Marc Hoksema, one of the area's most well-respected watermen. Today the 48-year-old water photographer enjoys the comforts a six-mil wetsuit and a lithium heated vest, but his early years of surfing in the middle of winter involved wearing a two-piece, three-millimeter wetsuit, bolstered by a pair of long underwear made from cotton.
"What good was that doing me?" Hoksema laughed. "I had no idea. I was getting hypothermic and I didn't even know what hypothermia was, I'd be coming in and everything was undulating."
With the late summer sun warming my face and the balmy Lake Michigan water lapping at my feet, I tried to imagine the sub-freezing conditions they spoke of. Carrying my board across snow instead of sand, jumping into water strewn with icebergs as the howling 20- to 30-knot winds whip up the ultimate prize: freshwater waves.
You don't have to be dodging icebergs and growing ice beards to find stoke on the water in Muskegon, but for the wave-hungry crew of J-Bird, Chris, Marc and Joe, they had each spent over 30 years chasing the freshwater surf in all seasons, ice water be damned. Nowadays, they were embracing their opportunity to share their stoke with others.
"You get excited to tell people about it because there is that unbelievable aspect to it," said Matteson. "Most people don't perceive Michigan as a surf destination."
He's not wrong. Even among those living in the area, surfing's role as a viable recreational activity is just beginning to catch on. Unlike surfing's typical hotbeds on the left and right coasts, Michigan's surf culture is still in its infancy and that's one of the primary factors that drove Bidawid to create the Great Lakes Surf Festival.
"There is an opportunity to cement the rich [surf] history that we have and showcase that to the general population in the Great Lakes," said Bidawid. "We were the first generation at the Great Lakes, but we want to empower that next generation."
Being the first generation of local surfers does come with its perks. Uncrowded lineups, an untainted love for surfing and an inclusive vibe that is rare in 2018. As much as they want to spread the word to others, they realize it's a hidden gem they have the privilege of enjoying.
The fog that hung low over Pere Marquette Beach did little to dampen the mood when the Great Lakes Surf Festival kicked off on Saturday morning. The spacious shoreline was already buzzing with eager attendees that spent the past night camping on the beach.
With an eclectic mix of local vendors, live music and smorgasbord of free classes and lessons, it didn't take long for the laidback beach vibes to wash over us. The attitude towards surfing in this part of the country was different: it wasn't jaded or callous and being a clueless beginner wasn't going to get you featured on Instagram's @Kook_of_the_Day. Instead, the Great Lakes Surf Festival attendees seemed to all be in pursuit of a common feeling, the same one that Mike Hynson and Robert August pursued around the world in the Endless Summer.
Chris and J-Bird were renting standup paddleboards by the lakeshore and eagerly watching first-time surfers and paddlers learning the basics of their favorite sport. The waves were flat, which is pretty normal for the summer, but a boat was creating small waves so that the participants could get a small taste of that magical feeling that only a surfer knows.
The lifelong surfers looked as though they were trying to will the first-timers into the one-foot bumps. Hoping a single ride might spark the same stoke that has filled both of their lives.
"I wanted there to be waves so everyone could see what a little gem this place really is," said Gorski. "But as you can see, everyone is stoked."
Despite the tiny waves, we watched as the new surfers were laughing, smiling and high-fiving. It probably didn't hurt that their instructor was a local surf pioneer, Larry Larsen, who bought his first surfboard in 1966 and has been surfing in Lake Michigan for over 50 years. And with more than 150 people signing up for the surf lessons, local interest in the sport is clearly growing.
As Larsen and Bidawid continued to convert new Midwestern watermen, I signed up for the Pro-Am SUP race, which would run as a five-mile downwind run later that afternoon. For myself, it represented an opportunity to check off two firsts from my list. My first-ever race and downwinder.
Thankfully, the race was not a high-pressure affair. Here on the Third Coast, as it's called in these parts, the atmosphere was relaxed as we shuttled to the start line in a board-stuffed sprinter van. I chatted with a fellow racer who also happened to be from California. He eagerly told me about his experience in Michigan the previous year when he happened to score great surf on one of those magical fall days in Muskegon.
"When I got back to California, my buddies told me that I missed a great swell at Malibu. Then I showed them a picture of Muskegon's surf and told them that they were the ones that missed out."
At this point, I desperately wanted to experience what everyone kept telling me about. Those fabled freshwater waves that had fostered a surf culture with so much passion and excitement. I didn't have to wait long.
After the short drive, we carried our boards and paddles down a steep flight of stairs to the sandy beach below. A gust grabbed my board as my feet sunk into the sand and whitecaps danced out to the horizon. Conditions for the downwinder looked pristine. While the waves at the shoreline may have been lacking, the waist-to-shoulder high bumps offshore was all the energy we would require.
I was finally about to be surfing across Lake Michigan.
After they drew a line in the sand to represent the start, we were off and into the water. Glad to have not stumbled off the start, I took a few strong strokes and quickly aimed the bow of my board parallel to the coastline. After settling into a rhythm, I found myself in a fun battle with a fellow racer, Will Faison, who I later learned was also running his first downwinder.
Before long, I stroked into my virgin downwind bump and was fired up to be gliding across the lake. The stoke was only quelled once I realized Will and I were battling for the final spot on the podium. We jockeyed back and forth for nearly 45 minutes, a memorable way to get my first taste of surfing and racing on Lake Michigan.
In the final 50 meters, we were in a dead heat. Our boards rubbed, I fumbled my leash detachment and watched the final podium spot slip away. The defeat stung but was quickly overshadowed by the realization that Lake Michigan was much more than a surf destination, but also a downwind haven.
"We call ourselves the Bump Brothers and we're chasing downwinders on Lake Michigan all the time," said the Men's Pro-Am champion, Matt Hasenrich. "It's an adventure to chase [bumps] when you live in the Midwest because you are always going with what the wind gives you."
On that particular day, the wind was at our backs and my eyes were opened to Lake Michigan's possibilities. Not just in the waves that the diehards pursued during all seasons, but as a pristine destination for all paddling.
"The reason I live here is that my life is a 10-mile downwind run from Muskegon to my home in Grand Haven," Bidawid told me as the festival was wrapping up. "I do it on a kite, a SUP and sometimes I'll just surf and end up miles down the beach. It's really accessible, stunning scenery and I want to welcome anyone who hears about this and is curious about the scene here."
It's a goal that Bidawid and countless other Muskegon surfers have been pursuing for years and word is beginning to spread.
Changing with the Seasons
The following day, we bid farewell to Muskegon's diehard surf culture and drove about two hours north to the quaint town of Frankfort. The surfing bug had taken longer to spread up the coastline, with many people still unaware about the Michigan surf culture, but that was beginning to change.
61-year-old Jim Rogers operates the Chimney Corners resort. Nestled on the shoreline of Crystal Lake, the stunning 400-acre property has been open since 1935 and features a historic lodge and old-fashioned cottages shaded by lush forest. It's an idyllic setting.
With Michigan winters essentially shutting down his resort, he spent time down in Florida and always surfed there. But once back home in northern Michigan, surfing never even crossed his mind.
"I'd been surfing my whole life and it never dawned on me that in my backyard I could surf Lake Michigan," said Rogers.
He wasn't alone. As we staged our boards along the shoreline on Sunday evening for a sunset paddle with Rogers, a few ladies in the midst of a happy hour session inquired about our boards.
"A paddleboard?" Barb exclaimed quizzically after learning the name of our giant crafts. "I thought those were just for school teachers."
After proving we wouldn't fall off our giant surfboards, we paddled past picturesque lake homes and watched as the sun slunk below the tree tops. Rogers talked about the different pace of life in these parts of Michigan, how long-time residents who lived in the area were very in tune with the weather and the seasons, from the migrations of wildlife to brilliant fall colors.
"If you are waiting for the wind to blow or the waves to be right, you'd wait forever," said Rogers. "For me, SUP has filled a huge void for watersports."
Of course, Rogers eventually caught onto surfing in the Great Lakes. After sitting on the beach and watching guys catch waves one day, he mustered up the courage to ask to borrow a board and paddled out in blue jeans.
He knew surfing had been around in the Frankfort area during the 1960s, as he had seen old boards sitting in the rafters of local barns. But for some reason, the sport seemed to die out and go away, until about 10 years ago when a surf revival struck Frankfort. Rogers recalled watching in amazement as several local kids borrowed boards and tried surfing for the first time. He knew he witnessed something special.
"I felt like I saw surfing beginning all over again," said Rogers. "I'll never forget that, it was a great day."
The reason for the sudden revival?
Rogers believes the X-Games, Unsalted (a 2005 film about Great Lakes surfing), and snowboarding all played a part in bringing it back. However, there was different influence at play.
"I credit those guys from Muskegon, South Haven and Grand Haven for getting it going," said Rogers. "They started bringing boards and would travel up and down here."
After being embedded in the local Muskegon surf culture for the past few days, his admission did not surprise me. People like Joe, J-Bird and Chris have a passion for surfing that is as contagious as it is hardcore. But it's not just about surfing, it's also a sense of pride for their community and the good vibe that comes with it.
It may not be for everyone, but I was left with the impression that there is something very unique and welcoming about Michigan's paddling culture. At its best, it is a secret oasis of freshwater waves, pristine downwinders and incredible seasonal paddling. At its worst, it can be brutally cold and downright scary.
Though perhaps it's that toughness that weeds out negative aspects of surfing culture that many of us would rather live without: localism, egos, and aggression. These guys aren't paddling because it'll make them one of the cool kids or to stoke their egos, they paddle because they love the sport. It's honest, pure and among those I had the pleasure of meeting, the stoke was as genuine as I have ever encountered.
"It just seems like the right place for me," J-Bird had told me a few days before. "And really, people don't understand that we have all this goodness, right in the heart of the United States."
I finally did.