The Inertia

This Is A Reflection on the Unsalted Stoke of the Milwaukee Surf Scene

The surf scene in Milwaukee is like anywhere else. The stoke is the same – sans salt. Photo: Ryan Bigelow

The Inertia

“Now, gentlemen, in their interflowing aggregate, these grand freshwater seas of ours….possess an ocean-like expansiveness. They contain round archipelagoes of romantic isles. They have heard the fleet thunderings of naval victories. They are swept by Borean and dismasting winds as direful as any that lash the salted wave. They know what shipwrecks are, for, out of sight of land, however inland, they have drowned many a midnight ship with all its shrieking crew.”
-Ishmael,  from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick

Like the glaciers that shaped our coast, our lives are written in ice.

Our shorelines are ancient. When asked, limnologists will describe to you the massive forces that carved and shaped the bays and reefs that define our breaks. Maritime historians will regale you with harrowing stories of hurricane-force storms that have swept common sailors into heroic acts, and would-be heroes into watery graves. Native inhabitants will chant for you a story of their people that goes back thousands of years, and in that chant they’ll reveal to you the sustenance they’ve drawn from our local watersheds, and the fact that the place to which those rivers run is a living entity unto itself. We are unmistakably northern people, and our weather, most of the year, keeps us moving at a brisk, honest pace. Politicians cast envious eyes toward our most prominent resource, and the earliest European explorers of this place marveled at the potability and immensity of our sweetwater seas.

If you live on one of the two ocean coasts, much of our après-surf behavior would be familiar to you. A quiet conversation about the coldest wipeout of the day gives way to silence as the latest NOAA report is broadcast from a glowing phone (favorable buoy readings and offshore winds will rouse us before sunrise for a classic dawn patrol). Talk of hearty dinners is followed by plans for putting off other responsibilities for yet another day of good surf. As we unload, you notice that our gear is heavy: fully hooded 5/4 suits accented with boots and mitts. Our lives mirror your own in many ways, but not all.

There is one notable exception: when we paddle out, we paddle into fresh water. The scene described above – the weather, the gear, the smiles – is all routine for us. Along with most of our neighbors and colleagues, a majority of the surfing world is not aware of our pursuit, and they may not care. But for us, freshwater surfing offers a rich pairing of challenges and payoffs that rival those of our saltwater brothers and sisters.
Where we surf, cold is routine; cold is always the theme. It’s not uncommon for us to paddle out into water that is thirty-five degrees, then turn around and catch a wave that’s breaking into an offshore wind chill of 20 below zero. Where we live, the opening of a surf shop is news-worthy, and it wasn’t too long ago that we’d have to drive for days just to visit one. Where we live, there is no “surf lobby,” there are no surfers running for office, and access to the best spots is largely restricted. If, in mixed company, we try to describe the aesthetic pleasures of our pursuit, we are met with the blank stares of those who don’t know or care about the untapped resource that looms just outside the haze of their busy lives. So, like the peregrine falcons who establish nests, hunt, and raise their young in the most unexpected and industrial pockets of our city, we occupy a unique niche: we aren’t supposed to be here, but we are thriving.

And it is in that thriving that we share a bond with the earliest mainland surf-pioneers. We are the surf pioneers you’ve read about in the history of our sport. We have stepped outside of the usual perspective, revised the way most people see and enjoy this place, rearranging our lives according to the wind, the waves, and the sky. Although our freshwater conditions are not ideal, we celebrate the many benefits of our special role in this place. We have our own pantheon of local surf legends whose stories keep us inspired; we honor our children’s futures by spearheading beach cleanups, freshwater awareness events, and watershed health projects. We surf 40 or 50 times a year at the relatively uncrowded break of our choice, and on those rare days when everyone makes it out into the lineup, there are always undiscovered options to explore up or down our coast which, if stretched out from end to end, would cover almost half of the earth’s circumference at the equator. Invariably, on the best day, at the best spot, we find ourselves alone or in the company of three or four good friends. While these experiences are by no means unique, they are becoming more rare in the ever-crowded world of surfing.

Milwaukee. Firing on all cylinders. Photo: Ryan Bigelow

Milwaukee. Firing on all cylinders. Photo: Ryan Bigelow

Some of us paddle out with decades of surfing experience, but our unique location cultivates an ethic foreign to many coveted ocean breaks: at its core, surfing has very little to do with establishing territory, snaking the guy we don’t know, or starting a brawl in the lineup – just a few of the nasty side effects that have taken center stage in places where surfing is an accepted and popular activity.

But, if the uniqueness of our place is the thing that sets us apart from saltwater surfers, it’s the sameness of our pursuit that binds us to them: we are fit; we enjoy the simple challenge of planning an entire day or week around a good swell; our local watersheds and weather systems operate in ways that make sense to us, in ways we have made sense of, and we are proud of our ability to accurately describe what’s happening at our favorite breaks simply by noticing how the wind is moving through the trees; we embrace the final wave of each session, our first steps back on the beach, exhausted, chilled, numb, so flooded with endorphins that each slow step consumes our senses, confirms our salvation.

The sensory pleasures of hanging a dank wetsuit up to dry or, during a flat spell, mixing catalyst with resin to patch a ding are not lost on us. We debate, argue, then drive together to a spot at least one of us is sure will be firing. Our shoreside gatherings are marked by films, family, and good food. The rhythms of our aquatic wilderness surge through our bodies and minds long after we have left the water. And it is that vital rhythm we crave when we cancel important plans so we can paddle out again on the next good swell.
While certain dynamics of wind and weather are the same on saltwater as on fresh, we recognize and readily admit the realities of our place. At the same time, we celebrate the fact that our freshwater pursuit connects us in elemental ways with our saltwater forebears and our present-day ocean surfing peers. Like most seasoned surfers, the desire to travel runs strong in our lives, and most of us find our way to a saltwater coast at least once a year to mingle with the crowds. Once we arrive, our experience confirms what we already knew: a surf lifestyle is achievable in our freshwater environment.

The way we see it, our freshwater pursuit will never reach mainstream proportions, and the conditions on our coasts will never rival the power or shape of ocean-borne waves. Nevertheless, we are inspired by the same forces that have inspired surfers through the ages. What was it that inspired Tom Blake, a native of our state, to immerse himself in a waterman’s lifestyle? On this point, the biographers agree: it was the very freshwater seascape of his childhood (the same seascape of our lives) they claim, that ultimately determined the course of his life. In fact, before he ever left the coves and beaches of his childhood, Blake was already familiar with big surf and raging seas. When he found out that Duke Kahanamoku was riding waves in Hawaii, he probably looked out over the wild expanse of Lake Superior and thought, “Of course!”
What it comes down to is this: the geography of our Midwestern lives has been shaped by the same forces as Blake’s. But the midwest is a big place. That label, as common as it is, somehow fails to establish who we are, where we are, and what we love to do.

As surfers, some of us struggle with this question: Who are we? Do our waves define us?  Understandably, some of us are moved to boast through pictures, stories, and festivals that yes, you can surf on a lake; others work hard to preserve secret spots and access points so that they might enjoy those rare freshwater days with just a few of their closest friends.

While issues like these sometimes divide us, the unique geography and climate of this place also connect and inspire us in ways that are uniquely midwestern.

Over 10,000 years ago, the original inhabitants of this place found something special when they settled: abundant marshes, natural harbors, and majestic horizons defined by our planet’s greatest natural resource: clean, abundant, fresh water.

Thousands of years later, the first French explorers encountered this bounty and exclaimed, “La mer douce!”  Sweetwater sea! They found themselves in a place where clean, potable water was as easy to find as the water beneath their feet.

Entire cities now occupy those abundant marshes. Streets and interstate highways span most of our natural harbors, and many creatures that once thrived here have long since moved on.

In spite of these changes, one essential element has remained: our water.  Thanks to the abundance they provide, these lakes, and the rivers that nourish them, have attracted new attention. These days, folks from all around the world have cast their envious gaze in our direction. From scientists to surfers, professors to politicians, our bounty has never looked better:  Sweetwater indeed.

As surfers, we’ve managed our portion of the resource quite well for the past several decades.  We get out in the water when it’s good, we see old friends in the lineup, and we gather when we can to celebrate our unique pursuit.  But what does the future hold?  Are we, as some claim, at the end of the Golden Age of Great Lakes surfing?  Has that era only just begun?

What it comes down to is this: surfing has allowed us to become intimate with the midwest in a way most midwesterners have never even considered.  It is the logical outcome of a lifelong love affair with our most precious natural resource.  What you see here is an attempt at preserving that resource. Like a family album, it’s an attempt to capture a shared lifestyle that we all hold dear.  Our water really is our salvation.  Each time we paddle out, we are saved by the unique connection we’ve managed to establish between a pursuit so seemingly foreign in a place so perfectly home.

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