Midwestern Postcard
Earning Summer On The Great Lakes
Words: Morgan Hoesterey // Photos: Mike Killion
“I love Detroit. I love Detroiters. You’ve got to have a sense of humor to live in a city so relentlessly f***ed. You’ve got to be tough—and occasionally even devious. And Detroiters are funny, tough and supreme improvisers.” -Anthony Bourdain

Right now, at this moment, I can’t decide whether I feel like a badass or a crazy person. I’m following my friend Matt Campbell across an ice shelf in Lake Michigan, en route to a surf break that looks questionable at best. With each knee-deep step, the snow-covered ice threatens to give way under my feet, resulting in a chest-deep ice bath. The only thing between the 37-degree water and me is a 6/5/4 millimeter wetsuit that I haven’t spent nearly enough time in to have any sort of faith in its efficacy. Once we’ve made it across the ice shelf to the water’s edge, things really get interesting. In order to make it out to where the waves are actually surf-able, we have to wade through a chest-deep gauntlet of Volkswagen-sized ice boulders that are sloshing back and forth with each passing wave. Matt looks back at me with a big smile on his face. “When I go, you go, OK? And do it like you mean it, you don’t want to get caught in between any of those things on your way out.” Scenarios like this make me appreciate the fact that we’re friends. I met Matt a few years ago and became instantly fascinated with his lifestyle. As I sat watching him shape a surfboard in one of the three shaping bays contained in the big red barn that stands in his backyard, he philosophized, “Your scene is what you make it.” It’s a statement that has stuck with me ever since. Good, bad, or indifferent, he values the experience a situation provides over anything else, and he has a unique talent for making the best of things. As the owner and shaper of BlkBox Surf, a standup and surf board company based out of Oxford, Michigan, a small town about 40 miles north of Detroit, Matt has to work just a little bit harder than the average coastal shaper to keep putting boards on the water, but I’m not sure he would have it any other way. Matt embodies the sprit of the Motor City, and of Midwest surf culture in general. His love affair with the water means he can’t be away from it for very long, even if that means paddling out in conditions that most people find intolerable—and he does so with a big smile.
His love affair with the water means he can't be away from it for very long, even if that means paddling out in conditions that most people find intolerable –– and doing so with a big smile.
In my normal life, on a chilly April day like today, when it’s 41 degrees outside and 37 in the water, surfing wouldn’t even be an option. I’d be sitting on the couch with a latte watching The Real Housewives of Wherever—not getting ready to paddle out. But Matt and his buddies are amped to get on the water. It’s been one of the coldest winters in recorded history. The Great Lakes were, at one point, 92 percent frozen over, making surfing, or paddling of any kind somewhat difficult, if not impossible. So, if for no other reason than because we can, I follow Matt as he steps off the ice shelf, and we work our way through the slushy maze of ice obstacles out into the lineup. It didn’t take long to realize that surfing the Great Lakes is different than surfing in the ocean. The energy required to create waves here comes exclusively from nearby storms, giving everything a “victory-at-sea,” feel. My 7mm gloves make it hard to grip the paddle and my thick booties make it impossible to feel the board under my feet, which moves differently without the buoyancy of the saltwater that I’m used to. After I’ve made it through the relentless whitewater rushing towards the shore, I’m met by a smiling Rob Patton, a good friend of Matt’s and a member of the BlkBox team. Rob had paddled out just before we did and was enjoying his first surf of the year despite the less-than-stellar conditions. Rob yells excitedly and throws me a shaka as I fumble my way into one of my first waves. I manage a bottom turn but then take a digger as my board hits a bump on its way down the line, getting an instant ice cream headache as my face (the only part of my body not covered in neoprene) hits the water. I regain my breath as I climb back up on my board, and promise myself that I just need three legitimate waves before I can call it a win and go warm up in the van. Meanwhile, despite the conditions, Matt and Rob are scoring wave after wave, taking full advantage of the fact that they were able to make it out to breaking water. Rob had explained earlier that the past few months were spent monitoring the Lake Michigan shoreline for breaks in the ice. The first real break didn’t happen until mid-March, when a channel large enough to do interval training on race boards began to open up. “I had a great time training in that channel; I always do,” he told me. “For the first time in a long time you could feel the heave of the swell so the water felt a little bigger—a little bit more alive, even though I was contained.” Both Rob and Matt are avid racers in the Midwest standup paddleboard scene, so any water time at all for them right now is a chance to knock off the cobwebs and prepare for the upcoming season. An hour has gone by since I caught my three pseudo-waves and braved the iceberg minefield on my way back to the van to warm up. By now, even Rob has become content with his wave count and is making his way back in, but Matt is still going strong. Not wanting to waste an opportunity, he won’t stop until he has reached his 40-wave quota. This year, he has committed to the graveyard race at Wilmington, N.C.’s Carolina Cup as a season starter, and the weather hasn’t exactly made training easy, so he is keen to improvise. If nothing else, paddling in and out through the choppy surf is good balance training and he is going to get it while he can. Nothing puts your own wimpiness in perspective like watching your friend tough it out in rough conditions while hiding in the car.
"To surf the Great Lakes you have to be part storm chaser, part cold-weather warrior and part underwater topographer."
To be a standup paddler in the Midwest is a pretty seasonal affair for most, but to the dedicated, this past winter was even more challenging. Improvising, it seems, has been the story of Matt’s and Rob’s life over the past few months. The record cold temperatures have allowed for very little water time, forcing them to find other ways to keep sharp in preparation for the time when paddling and surfing became feasible again. When I wake up the next day at the Campbell Compound, three hours from where we had surfed the previous day, Matt hands me a traditional bow and a quiver of arrows. He has his tractor rigged up and waiting outside, with a huge chainsaw sitting in the bucket on the front. There’s no surf, and the water around here is still mostly frozen, so he tells me that there’s a big day of cross training ahead of us—starting off with a round of stump shooting. For Matt, shooting arrows gives him the same kind of benefits that surfing does during those times when riding waves isn’t possible. “Archery requires singular focus,” he says. “When you are on a wave, you are living in the moment. You aren’t thinking about anything else. The same is true for shooting arrows—you are only thinking about what your arrow is doing. Both are a form of meditation and a way to clear your head.” Carrying our bows and the arrows, I climb on the back of the tractor and hold on as tightly as possible with my free hand as we make our way up the bumpy road to the neighbor’s property. The cute couple who lives there have twenty-something acres of land covered in trees—paradise for someone who likes to get lost in the forest and be alone for a bit. “Stump shooting is cool because it is like surfing a different break every time,” he explains to me, pointing out our first target. “Just like you do with each new wave, with each arrow, you need to come up with a new strategy to figure out your shot.” “Plus,” he laughs, “Who doesn’t like to walk through the woods with a bow?”
Wespend some time running through the bare forest, looking for older or rotting stumps to use as targets. Roaming around looking for spots is reminiscent of paddling up and down the coast looking for isolated breaks, and it is easy to see how this is a good alternative for standup. Our stump shooting adventure comes to an end only after Matt points out a small metal platform twenty or so feet up in one of the trees, accessible only by a small ladder attached to its side. The ladder sways back and forth with each shift of my bodyweight as I make my way up to the small piece of metal that is wedged firmly between a fork in the branches. Once at the top, I fire off a few arrows at the target we decide on and feel like a badass for the second time since I arrived in Michigan. I’ve made it back to the ground and am feeling pretty tough when Matt hands me a helmet and a pair of Kevlar pants. He has agreed to help his neighbor take down a tree or two for firewood, something that he has become very familiar with over the past few months. Matt takes full advantage of where he lives by cutting down dead or hazardous trees to heat his shop and his house during the cold winter months. He pulls the chainsaw out of the tractor, starts it up, and proceeds to cut down a huge dead tree. It becomes apparent while watching him do it that this isn’t his first time. “Cutting down trees is a lot of work, along with cutting it up for firewood,” he tells me as he hands me the still-running chainsaw. “It’s good training for standup though. To do it right, you have to break at the waist like you do in paddling. You also have to use a lot of your core when you lift and stack it. Your arms and upper body get a workout from holding the saw…and we have a really big saw. Here, try it.” Now, people who know how clumsy I can be generally try to keep me sheltered from these types of situations. Handling large machinery capable of taking down trees is not something that I have become accustomed to in my everyday life, so this is a bit of a stretch. As I stand there in my Kevlar pants, holding a huge running chainsaw, I imagine my father’s face if he found out what I was doing. But Matt insisted that the experience would be a good cross training opportunity for me, smiles, and walks me through the tree-falling process. I would have felt like the coolest person ever for the third time on this trip if only I hadn’t gotten the saw stuck in the tree.

There’s a saying in Michigan: If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes. The snowy, chilly spring days have suddenly turned into a pleasant 60 degrees, enough to thaw one of the nearby small lakes. With the first race of the season quickly approaching, Matt is eager to spend some time getting his stroke back, so we pack the boards in the van and head out to the water. Small kinks in his stroke are a byproduct of the lack of water time, and watching him work them out lets me know how lucky I am to live in a place where water time is always available. It definitely isn’t easy to be a water person around here, but these guys make it work. The weather shift also brings with it the potential for surf, and Matt has been diligently checking the NOAA five-day forecast for any sign of a low-pressure system that might provide waves in the area. When choosing a spot, he also looks for different features like coves and piers that might shelter the break from the wind, or areas where the wave energy can wrap around, creating an offshore wind that is ideal for surfing. He says that in order “to surf the Great Lakes you have to be part storm chaser, part cold-weather warrior and part underwater topographer. Above all else, when the opportunity presents itself, you have to be ready to drop everything and just go.” Because the swells typically don’t last as long here, it takes dedication and tenacity if you want to score a decent amount of surf days during the year—even when that means driving five hours in hopes of finding something ride-able. The forecast is showing waves in Chicago, and the anticipation of a swell lures in Matt Lennert, the “Windy City Waterman,” who has decided to join us for the 300-mile trip. Lennert is not one to shy away from an adventure—back in 2011, he paddled 50 miles across Lake Michigan for charity and has been inspiring other Midwesterners to get on the water ever since. As we make the five-hour drive across three states, in the snow, with only the HOPE that we might score some surf when we get there, he and I have a conversation about the dedication required to be a Midwest paddler. Or at least I try to convince him that he lives a burly lifestyle, but he isn’t having it.
“I guess we have just been doing it for so long, you know, chasing the weather and dealing with the conditions that get thrown at us,” he argues. “It’s actually kind of fun to have all the gear, to get all suited up while feeling the anxiety and anticipation that comes along with getting out into the teeth of what Mother Nature is throwing at you. It feels really good when you go home at night and feel like you really did something exciting and special.” Lennert is also quick to remind me that it isn’t always this way here in the Great Lakes. During the summer, they have days where they are out surfing or paddling in trunks with glassy, perfect waves and long tours along the endless miles of lakeshore. I just happen to be here in the spring when things are in transition. As we make our way towards Chicago, the boys are excited about the possibility of good surf. They talk about wind and current patterns and which spots will handle the swell the best. They’re eager to get out there and see what they have to work with. Matt Campbell had told me that springtime for them is a time of optimism, and you can see it in their faces as they anticipate the upcoming session. “Suffering through the winter makes summer all that much more enjoyable,” Lennert explains. “The days when we get to trunk it mean so much more because we did suffer just a little bit and worked hard for what we got earlier in the season. You just leave every session with so much gratitude.”
That’s when I realize that this is life for them; it is just what they do. To me, it seems tough. These guys are willing to do things that a lot of us wouldn’t, and they love it—all of it. They’re proud of where they live, and they appreciate each time they get to take advantage of good weather, even if they have work a little bit harder for it. We show up at 57th street in Chicago the next morning, and despite the fact that it isn’t exactly what we’d been hoping for, we paddle out in the mediocre surf. There is snow on the ground and the outside temperature is significantly colder than it was on that first day. My fingertips are frozen and each fall in the water hits me like a slap in the face. But this time I stay out for more than three waves. I feel like I owe it to them—to experience it like they do. These guys have reminded me to be grateful for the damn journey. After all, the escape and the feeling of just being out there is really why we all do this. Whether or not you’re in 37-degree water and covered in head to toe neoprene is irrelevant; all that really matters is that you have water under your feet and you’re standing there with a paddle in your hand, enjoying it.

This feature originally ran in our Summer 2014 magazine
Digital Feature Designed by Annie Maize

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