Gale-force winds and snow squalls: two things that usually mean you're breaking out the shovel to clear your driveway if you live along the Great Lakes. So why are people swapping out that shovel for a surfboard?

Surfing the Great Lakes isn’t just a winter pastime, but the substantial waves created by low pressure systems bringing with them what the average Joe would consider lousy weather between November and March are just too hard to resist for surfing enthusiasts.

Lake Ontario can manage waves in the 8/10 foot (2.4-3 meter) range… Image: Jordan Fritz

Major urban centers like Toronto and Chicago each now have approximately 1,000 winter surfers huddling along the shores of Lakes Ontario and Michigan on any given day, respectively, while Cleveland is getting in on the action along Lake Erie and Rochester, New York sharing the Lake Ontario crests with Toronto.

…while Lake Superior has 20-foot (6 meter) crests. Image: David Joles. See more on startribune.com

When you rely on sub-freezing temperatures for your sport of choice to have what would be considered optimum weather conditions, you can expect a little ice as part of the deal. Since there are no tides on the Great Lakes and surfable waves can only be created by high winds, the more blustery the better for most surfers and paddleboarders.

Patience is a virtue when thawing out post-wave ride. Trying to remove a still-frozen wetsuit can result in fabric ripping and irreparable damage being done to a $1000 investment. Image: Jordan Fritz

The tools of the winter surfing trade include barrels of Vaseline to slather onto any exposed skin to prevent frostbite, plus a thicker and wider surfboard-necessary to make up for freshwater’s lack of density and buoyancy compared to ocean saltwater.

Heavily insulated hooded wetsuits along with winter-rated boots and gloves may weigh a substantial amount (roughly 12 pounds once they’re wet), but it means Great Lake surfers can last up to 3-4 hours on their boards in the water. During winter storm season waves can range anywhere from Lake Ontario’s 8-footers (2.4 meters) all the way to Lake Superior’s 20-foot (6 meter) crests.

Waves that size (combined with swirling snow squalls) usually make for some frozen beards out of the water. It’s common for surfers to have to wait 30 minutes for their wetsuits to thaw before they can change out of them (usually in their vehicle with the heater blasting).

Daniel Schetter regularly surfs in Lake Superior. Image: Cory Genovese / PhotoYoop

The water is cold, but it’s still warmer than the air temperature. The growing winter surfing community is increasingly active on social media, but unfortunately for those wanting immediate live updates cell phones are best left onshore in the toasty embrace of a vehicle. Icy beards and eyebrows make for great photo-ops, but it’s tricky snapping a decent selfie with a frozen iPhone.

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Jay Moon

Jay Moon is a writer who has turned the wanderlust that found him backpacking around Canada and the U.S. as a young lad into a writing lust that has him embracing the opportunity to cover topics about anything (and everything) he can get his now middle-aged eyes, ears, and hands on.