Hearty surfers ride waves on the Rust Belt Pipeline
Boarders find big waves in the stormy Great Lakes.
CLEVELAND (AP) -- A shadowy figure staggers from the frosty, frothy surf and heads toward shore as seagulls pick through sandy garbage on the Edgewater Park beach -- a two-minute drive from downtown.
Although the sun is shining, a biting, 30-mph wind whips in from Canada, churning the murky Lake Erie water and making it feel more like November than May.
The thought of plunging into the 45-degree liquid, recently thawed following a winter of record snowfall, chills the bones to their marrow. But as Rich Stack, his face red and swollen after spending two hours in the icy water, walks slowly up the beach clutching his 9-foot long surfboard, he looks as if he couldn't imagine being anyplace else.
"Not bad conditions," says Stack, pulling back the black hood of his insulated wet suit. "On a scale of 1 to 10? Ah, it's only about a 2. It gets much bigger here."
Bigger, that is, in big enough to surf big. It's true. Not far from the mouth of the Cuyahoga River (the same one that caught fire in the 1970s), hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean and within sight of factory smoke stacks, surf's up -- in Ohio.
The right conditions
In fact, when the wind is right, the barometer just so and a low-pressure weather system tracks across the Great Lakes, there are days when big, California-like waves crest from Sheboygan, Wis., to Buffalo, N.Y.
"It's the Rust Belt Pipeline," says Dr. Joe Wellington, a transplanted Californian who discovered Great Lakes surfing while attending medical school at Case Western in Cleveland. "And we got it all to ourselves. There's no crowd."
As it turns out, the 1978 song "There's No Surf in Cleveland" by the Euclid Beach Club Band was mistitled.
Because for decades, die-hard surfers have been carving wave faces, shooting through their curls and generally hanging 10 on all five Great Lakes: Erie, Huron, Michigan, Ontario and Superior.
And of the estimated 500 who surf during the peak season from September to November, there are a hearty few who brave conditions better suited for polar bears and penguins to catch a few waves.
In the depths of winter, when the air temperature is in the 20s, the slushy water is in the mid-30s and maneuvering around a 15-foot block of ice is essential for one's survival, they are surfing.
"We like it cold," said Stack, of Vermilion, Ohio. "You get icicles and stuff hanging off your face. Sometimes, man, it's like arctic cold."
It's on those rare winter days when the break at Stony Point, Minn., gets so large and "clean" that -- for a few hours -- it can rival any wave on Hawaii's famed North Shore. And it's on the days when it's snowing sideways and Chicago's O'Hare Airport is closed that a dedicated Great Lakes surfer might drive 10 hours for three hours of bliss on his board.
"When everyone else in Cleveland is inside because the weather is so bad that their house is about to get blown away," Stack says, pointing to some white water bashing into jetty rocks, "we're out here."
Bobbing on 2-foot swells, Vince Deur pounded the unsalted water in frustration and screamed.
"I yelled, 'C'mon Lake Superior, give me all you got,"' Deur recalled of the day in November 1990 when his passion for lake surfing nearly killed him. "And then she grabbed me and took me under."
Then a college student at Northern Michigan, Deur was cutting back on his surfboard in a deep section of a break near Whitefish Point, Mich., when he was "barreled" by a 15-foot wave, pinning him to the lake's floor.
He resurfaced, gasped for air and about the time he thought he was OK, a treacherous rip current sucked him out beyond the breakers, sending him off in the direction where the Edmund Fitzgerald sank during a storm in 1975.
"I was scared, in big trouble," Deur said. "I didn't know what to do. My friend saw I couldn't get out and ran for help. He got a guy with a boat and they were putting it in when the lake finally let me go.
"I came out of the water a totally different person."
Back on the beach, Deur picked up a video camera that had been toppled by the wind, looked into the lens and breathlessly pledged to one day make a film about the wonders of Great Lakes surfing.
"My mission," said Deur, a lifelong resident of the summer resort town of Grand Haven, Mich., who first watched surfers on Lake Michigan as a teenager.
Deur's testimonial provides the opening to "Unsalted: A Great Lakes Experience," the 38-year-old's documentary that examines the unknown history of surfing on the nation's largest freshwater bodies.
Deur pieced together the 56-minute film using some of the 150 hours of his own footage and home movies shot on 8 mm as far back as 1958 by Great Lakes surfers, who all share a passion for the sport.
"It has to do with experiencing something in nature that is so unpredictable and uncontrollable," Deur said. "On a wave, you get a chance to harness Mother Nature for a couple seconds. That power, that moment never leaves you. It's very spiritual."
Deur's film opened last week in California, surfing's mecca, where skeptical locals came away with a newfound respect for their Midwestern longboard brothers.
"I had one guy say, 'No way those are lakes. It looks like Big Sur,'" Deur said. "People hear lake and all they can think about are pine trees and rowboats. The film's a real eye opener."
For a critical segment, Deur brought in two professionals from California who had never before surfed the Great Lakes.
One of them, Bron Huessenstamm, expected the worst Jan. 20 when he paddled out into choppy, 38-degree water -- more than 20 degrees colder than he had ever experienced.
"I thought it was going to be really bad," said Huessenstamm. "I thought it would be short waves. It wasn't anything like that. They were the best waves I had surfed in months, including in California.
"Yeah, I'd go back. Totally."
Atop a hill at the western end of Edgewater Park, a statue of German composer Richard Wagner watches over a break dubbed "Sewer Pipe."
"You can get hurt real bad at Sewer Pipe," warns Stack, who fails to mention you can get real sick, too.
Up on the beach, a few hundred feet back from the water's edge, a sign is posted about one of the area's recreational hazards. It says: "WARNING: THE LARGE ROUND BLACK DISK ON THE CONCRETE WALL MAY OPEN AND DISCHARGE UNTREATED SEWAGE AT ANYTIME."
No, this isn't Malibu. But for surfers like Stack, it's a little piece of surfing paradise.
Perched on a granite pedestal, Wagner stares out across the water clutching his gloves and perhaps some sheet music. For Cleveland's most diehard surfers, the likeness of Wagner has become a symbol of their obsession.
Wagner Surf Club
"When we're all in the water, and nobody's on the beach, Wagner is outside with us, too," said Stack, a member of the Wagner Surf Club, which holds "meetings" in an abandoned industrial space near downtown.
Inside the club's surf shack, stories are retold of bitter days on the water when the frozen spray off a wave's lip feels like tiny needles piercing the skin. Those are the moments that bond Great Lakes surfers.
"We're extremely odd," admits Deur. "We all know what it's like to be outcasts. People don't have to get it. Snow is falling, the water feels like gelatin and we're hoping for big waves. It's crazy."