When you think of surfing, Oahu, Bondi Beach, southern California and other tropical climes come to mind. But, believe it or not, they surf way up north in Duluth, Minnesota, in winter yet.
Why Winter Is Surfing Season in Minnesota
Catching a curl on a subzero Lake Superior isn’t easy, but some locals can’t get enough.
One of the biggest hits of the 1960s, the Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird,” originated in landlocked Minneapolis, where “hanging 10” seems laughably implausible. Up on Lake Superior, Minnesota’s surf scene is no joke. That is, unless catching a curl on subzero waters after brushing ice from your frozen eyelashes is funny to you. Papa-oom-mow-mow, cowboy.
“It kind of feels like a fairytale,” says “Big Wave” Dave Rostvold, who shapes boards by hand at his Duluth-based workshop Castle Glass Surfboards. “Surfing is a dream for a lot of people around the world. To be able to do it here in the Midwest, that’s a dream come true.”
After happening upon surfers working their magic on the frigid Superior waves, Joe Herron asked permission to photograph them. For both Herron and Rostvold, it took plenty of patience and study to gain any kind of confidence. Surfing is a deeply esoteric sport whose proponents are justifiably protective of their knowledge, especially in the North Shore’s frigid waters. Good waves are a finite resource, and mastering simple maneuvers, like “popping up” into a standing position, can be deeply humbling.
“It’s funny—I can both see that I’ve improved immensely since I started, but I’m also still really bad,” Herron says, chuckling. “It’s very tough, it’s physically demanding, it can be scary, but certain people just enjoy those kinds of activities.”
Bigger winds make bigger waves, which unfortunately means Superior is at its most surfable between November and February—when water temperatures barely tickle the high 30s. You need boots, gloves, and a high-quality, 6mm-thick hooded wetsuit. Herron says surfers warm up in their cars between “sets” of waves when temperatures become unbearable. He recalls photographing an experienced friend who somehow surfed for four straight hours in -17° windchill.
It’s easier to stay warm than you might think, though. All those waves mean you’re constantly in motion, to fight the current or stay in position. “What happens then is that your body heat gets elevated,” Herron explains. “So despite the fact that it’s very cold, if you’re always moving, you’re staying somewhat warm, provided you have a thick enough wetsuit.”