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The Great Lakes: The Forgotten Coast

Photo courtesy Broneah

By Joe Bidawid

Within an hour drive from my home are eight wave riding spots, two thermal wind spots that crank with clockwork reliability, and two long jetties that provide butter-flat riding conditions. In a normal year more than half of my kiteboarding sessions are in waves that range in height from waist to well overhead. On bluebird days some of my local spots can rival riding any ocean break or open ocean downwinder.

When I stand on the endless sandy beach, I cannot see the other side. If it wasn’t for the lack of the strong sulfuric ocean smell, it would be easy to forget that you are standing on the shore of Lake Michigan, which features more coastline than the state of California. Around the Great Lakes water system spread over eight different states and two Canadian Provinces you will find countless coastal towns that boast some or all of the attributes my own hometown of Grand Haven, Michigan, has to offer. Simply put, the Great Lakes is the real deal.

Throughout my life I’ve had an insatiable appetite to travel, to explore and chase waves around the world. Since I travel for several months every winter, I have had the fortune of riding in places such as Tavarua, Namotu, the Hawaiian Islands, and most of the Caribbean Island chain. I’ve also called both Hood River and Hawaii my home in the past. Many people are surprised that I’ve chosen Michigan as my home. No matter where adventures lead, I always yearn to return here.

Photo Mike Killion/Third Coast Surf Shop

While Great Lakes waves are infrequent and of lower quality than ocean waves, I have come to cherish the elements, the camaraderie, and drama-free scene. When a fall tempest roars on Lake Michigan and its gale force winds whip up mountains of wind swell, there is no place on earth I would rather be. Unless you have been here to experience it, it will always appear to be a stretch.

However, don’t just take my word for it. If you are not convinced, be sure to ask the likes of Damien LeRoy, Sky Solbach, Ben Meyer, Nicollo Porcello, or Adam Koch who have personally witnessed and experienced the Great Lakes wave riding scene.

The region has produced pro kiteboarders like Best’s Sam Mydysky, North’s Tommy Fields, and Minnesota’s Alex Peterson, one of the world’s top snowkiters. There are more than 20 Great Lakes kiteboard shops with Mackite, Broneah, Kiteriders LLC, Great Lakes Kiteboarding, Boardsports, and Silent Sports being some of the largest in North America.

We also have Kitestock, an annual Canadian event where free love, kite aloha, and wind converge into kiteboarding bliss. The Great Lakes are also home to several hundred of the world’s best amateur meteorologists, all of whom know when the wind swell will descend on their local beaches.

To the experienced kiteboarder, riding Great Lakes waves is an undeniable passion that is part extreme sport and part science. This is largely due to the harsh elements associated with the weather systems that create our waves and the labor of love associated with forecasting the best conditions.

Winds in the region are predominantly frontal. Most of the riding is during spring, summer, and fall between the months of March and November. Water temperatures can range between 45-60º during spring and fall and can reach the low 70s during summer’s peak.

Photo Ben Palmer

Spring and fall winds are generally between 20-35 knots with the lighter summer winds ranging between 12-20 knots. During normal winters ice will cover most of the lakes and riders will trade their surfboards for snowboards as snowkiting takes center stage.

During rare El Nino winters, diehards will brave brutally cold conditions to wave ride year round. Since the conditions on the Great Lakes vary considerably, experienced riders carry a full quiver of kites ranging from 7m to 16m.

Grand Haven, a town of just over 100,000 residents, is considered a small town by Midwest standards. Dubbed Coast Guard City USA by an act of Congress in 1998, Grand Haven receives over one million visitors per year. With its mile-long white sandy beach and hallmark lighthouse, Good Morning America named Grand Haven State Beach one of the top five beaches in the US. How does an inland beach on a lake make this list? Consider that most of the 300 miles of Michigan’s shoreline of Lake Michigan is comprised of white sand.

Photo Bryan Elkus

The world’s largest fresh water sand dunes line the shore towering as high as 400 feet above water. More importantly, Grand Haven has one of the best sandbars in the Great Lakes created by the discharge from the Grand River, one of the largest in the Great Lakes system. Its quarter-mile long rock jetties offer clean and protected wave riding conditions.

The wind fetch on strong southerlies is over 150 miles long. In sustained 20-knot conditions, the outer sandbar at Ferrysburg can easily generate overhead waves. On northerlies, the wind fetch is over 200 miles. As the northerly swell wraps around the southern Jetty, the lines at Grand Haven state park can resemble a mini Rincon.

Once you recognize the sheer beauty and ocean-like landscape of the five Great Lakes, it is important to understand the unique dynamics behind the wind and waves. Great Lakes waves are generally smaller and more playful than ocean waves.

Wind waves on the Great Lakes are different than ocean swell, where waves are formed by isolated storms thousands of miles away from land. Great Lakes waves are a result of considerably shorter running swells and are more choppy and unpredictable than ocean swell. As the key element in Great Lakes wave formation, wind is critical to a successful wave riding experience.

The formula varies at different locations but ridable waves are typically created by winds in excess of 15 knots that have blown over water for more than 50 miles. It takes five to 10 hours of such conditions for waves to be waist high. Frontal weather systems in the region can last from five hours to several days and can generate waves up to 10 to 20 feet tall. Since the smallest lake, Lake Ontario, is 50 miles wide by 200 miles long, you can begin understand the magnitude of the possible wind fetches that can generate quality waves.

Photo Bryan Elkus

Great Lake wave riding is an extreme sport largely due to the extreme elements involved. The stronger the winds, the larger the waves. Our strongest winds are usually during late fall cold fronts where water temperature plummets into the low 50s or high 40s. Wind chill is also an extreme danger. If you can imagine an epic outer reef swell in Maui, now try to imagine kiting in the middle of the ocean storm that generated those waves and you will be one step closer to understanding our waves.

If riding ocean waves is compared to fighting a dragon, riding Great Lakes waves would be considered fighting ninjas. However, the occasional dragon does rear its ugly head. On June 26, 1954, the Chicago lakefront was hit by a 20 foot wall of water called a seiche (pronounced saysh) that swept eight unsuspected beachgoers and fishermen off the Montrose Harbor Pier to their death.

While a tsunami or seismic sea wave is generated by underwater earthquake or volcanic activity, Chicago’s 1954 seiche was caused by a line of thunderstorms racing southwest across Lake Michigan at speeds in excess of 50 mph. The cold downdrafts of air flowing out of the thunderstorms caused a rapid rise in air pressure that pushed a massive bulge of lake surface water toward the southeastern shore. This surge of water then reflected back to the Chicago shore as a large tsunami-like wave.

Today, kiteboarding at Montrose Beach, a stone’s throw away from the Chicago skyline, still has its risks. Unlike the elemental dangers of the lake, riding at Montrose beach without the proper credentials can get you ticketed and possibly arrested. Recently, the controversial arrest surfer Rex Flodstorm, who paddled into four-foot waves at nearby Oak Street Beach, was at the center of the surfing world. While the outside world cried foul, it under-emphasized the unheralded efforts of a valiant group of kiteboarders spearheaded by Mike Urban who have been able to restore order in the kiteboarding community by lifting a kiteboarding ban on certain beaches and have also recently helped lift a surfing ban on some local beaches with the help of the local Chicago chapter of the Surfrider Foundation.

Photo Bryan Elkus

Both efforts were accomplished under strict guidelines and regulations to insure the safety of the riders and beach goers. Before kiteboarding or surfing at Montrose Beach or anywhere in the Chicago area, it’s important to check with a knowledgeable local in order to avert a potential world event. Drama aside, Montrose can fire on strong northeast winds where it is not uncommon to find yourself riding head high waves.

While Lake Michigan is arguably the epicenter of Great Lakes wave riding, the other four lakes can each hold court. Lake Huron is home to over 20 riding spots. Two of them are legendary. Tawas State Park is located in arguably one of the busiest riding spots in the Midwest, where it is not uncommon to find 50-100 kiters on the weekends. The large sandbar offers great learning conditions while the open water offers good wave riding.

Southern thermals dominate most of the summer. Local fixture Jimbo Olfzewski once told me that he rode 22 days in a row in July with most of those days in board shorts. Across the lake on the Canadian side of Lake Huron, a small rock-bottom bay is home to Kettle Point. Kettle Point offers traditional wave riding conditions with a good day dishing out overhead A-frame surf.

Here, when all the stars are aligned, the surf can reach mythical proportions. One of my favorite sessions of the year is always at Kettle Point on the first big north of the year, typically in early August. Ceremonially, this is my season opener for the wave riding season. Tim Blanchard will typically call it the previous evening and an early morning road trip will have us there by 9:00 am as we drive on the beach all the way to water’s edge. These early fall sessions, while fickle, provide a rare chance to ride warm-water waves on the Great Lakes.

Both Lake Ontario and Lake Erie have a relative east-west orientation and are similar in size with a north-south fetch of approximately 50 miles and a west-east fetch of approximately 200 miles. At each lake’s eastern shore there are numerous wave riding spots with long sandy beaches and clear water. Since the best conditions are generally during spring and fall, riders usually bypass the bustling summer beach crowds.

It’s no secret that Lake Erie’s greater Buffalo area on both sides of the border is home to some of the best kiteboarding conditions on the Great Lakes. On the Canadian side, Sherkston Beach is a long-established haven for kiteboarders, surfers, and boogie boarders. On the US side, Angola Beach offers a combination of great learning conditions and, at times, ridable waves.

On the northeastern shores of Lake Ontario, when a beach break called Sandbanks fires, surfers, windsurfers, and kiteborders from the provinces of Ontario, Ottawa, and Quebec point their inner compass towards this legendary spot. Sandbanks, one of our busiest wave riding areas, is also a very busy tourist attraction during the summer months, but since the best riding conditions are during spring and fall, riders generally show up to large empty beaches.

On a busy weekend, it is not uncommon to find 100 riders here with a well-defined lineup of windsurfers and kiteboarders. The wave periods at Sandbanks are some of the longest in the Great Lakes, providing a more traditional wave riding experience and also allowing a forgiving playground for the wave riding novice.

Photo Dave Dalquist

On Lake Superior, owning to its remoteness and notoriously dangerous seas, wave riding here remains the obscure passion of a few souls who prefer not to disclose any relevant details. This is considered the region’s last frontier.

Since the riding potential around the Great Lakes is endless, many of the best spots will forever remain shrouded in secrecy. Certain mystery waves are so fickle that scoring the right conditions can sometimes take years. Good luck trying to get Michigan’s Matt Myers or Ontario’s Chris Cram to tell you about their fickle full-barrel wave or to have Michigan’s Jared Roth tell you about the offshore rock reef that he has been watching for two years in hopes that it will produce the largest wave ever known on the Great Lakes.

The early group of pioneers that brought kiteboarding to the region all started in 1998 and 1999. Many had strong roots in windsurfing and had been eagerly tuning in to kite development. In the fall of 1998, I moved back to Michigan from Hood River and was excited to bring back an inflatable kite. I also became the Naish Kiteboarding Midwest Rep which allowed me to network with key regional pioneers who were blazing trails in their territories.

Having struggled to learn to kiteboard on the Columbia River Gorge that summer, returning home to Michigan was just what the doctor ordered with expansive sandy beaches and steady fall winds. Much to the dismay of a disgruntled local windsurfing crowd, I learned to perfect my skills at Muskegon’s Pier Marquette Beach. Muskegon quickly became the area’s main kite beach.

As more kiteboarders began to use the beach, the kiteboarding area became well defined and far enough away from the windsurfing launch to mitigate any tension. Over time, almost all of the disgruntled windsurfers have become kiteboarders.

At the same time other pioneers in the area were also discovering kiteboarding. In Minnesota, Mark Kedrowski returned home from the Olympic Windsurfing Trials with a Wipika 2-line kite and was bravely able to prefect his riding on White Bear Lake, a gusty inland lake in Central Minnesota. A few hundred miles east, Northern Wisconsin’s Steve Coon, an avid surfer, windsurfer, and owner of Coontail Watersports, had returned from Surf Expo with a Naish AR 3.5.

He pioneered kiteboarding in Wisconsin on Trout Lake, a beautiful inland lake with crystal clear waters and yes, gusty winds. Illinois’s Tim Grossnickle, one of the Chicago area’s avid windsurfers, returned from a windsurfing trip to Maui and brought back a 3 meter 2-line kite. After beating the kite around on North Avenue Beach, he acquired a 7m three-line F-One foil and a 6’7” Bic Surfboard and began to perfect his riding at Wolf Lake, just south of Chicago.

Across Lake Michigan, in Grand Haven, James Otis and Steve Negen were testing the waters of Lake Michigan, not realizing they were pioneering what would become the region’s wave riding Mecca. Negen, owner of Mackite, and Otis, an avid Great Lakes wave rider, had become the area’s kiteboarding disciples who would introduce several key riders to the sport including Skip Schott, Marc Hoeksema, and Brad Knoth.

Across the border in Toronto, Ontario, John Bryja had returned home from Surf Expo in 1998 armed with with a big pink 12 meter Wipika kite and a small directional surfboard. With a small group of riders, one zodiac, a kite and a board, the crew traveled to the Outer Banks to dial in this new sport.

During the winter of 1998, Marty Milne returned to Toronto from Maui with kite stories and inspiration that fueled the infancy of the sport in the Toronto Area. The following summer, Bruce Varsava, armed with his homemade boards, was at the beach every ridable day dialing in his head-turning transitions. Further south in Windsor, Ontario, Canadian collegiate track and field star and well-traveled waterman Tim Blanchard had just returned from British Columbia and was eager to explore the vast virgin riding potential in his region.

Having carefully crafted his skills during a full riding season in Nitinat, BC, Blanchard appeared to be years ahead of everyone else in the region with his polished skills and powerful riding style. He quickly became the poster child for Great Lakes high-performance kiteboarding.

Photo Marge Beaver

My empowering moment in kiteboarding was during my first meeting with Blanchard at a local pub in 1999. With the support of Naish, we were given the green light to promote kiteboarding around the Great Lakes. In true pioneering fashion Blanchard and I went on expeditions to promote the sport by conducting riding demos and teaching shop owners how to ride and educate the community about the potential of the sport in the region.

We ended up in places as far west as the Worthington Music Festival in Minnesota and as far north as the Traverse City Cherry Festival in Michigan. As the region’s and Canada’s first certified instructor, Blanchard would go on to teach hundreds of kiteboarders. Today, Tim Blanchard’s riding is still turning heads and his Surf Culture Canada kiteboarding school in Mitchell’s Bay, Ontario, is still turning out kiteboarders.

During the spring and summer of 2000, the sport had adopted some of the area’s top windsurfers, surfers, skiers, and snowboarders. This brash brass of accomplished athletes would become the region’s first kiteboarding generation. Today, the Great Lakes progression threshold stage is shared by a throng of experienced hellmen and a host of young prodigies. Brad Knoth from Holland, Michigan, is known around the region as “Big Air” and has been able to live up to his nickname while continuously setting the pace for performance riding.

Knoth’s notorious riding style is easily recognizable, especially since he charges the biggest waves on the Great Lakes and often rides in condition that are unridable by most. This human highlight reel is one of region’s most enjoyable riders to watch. Last season during an early fall storm, Knoth kited down the eastern shores of Lake Michigan for 64 miles. The non-stop marathon downwinder started in Ludington and ended in Grand Haven, covering terrain that is consistently beautiful with world class riding conditions for the entire distance. Knoth said, “We ride in fresh water so you ride a bit deeper in the water and, at least for me, a little more on the kite, but the waves are legit and you have to respect them.”

Another avid wave riding devotee is Chicago’s West Hanson. Hanson, a partner in Brokite Kiteboards, has developed a forte for chasing waves and drawing clean lines at popular southern Lake Michigan breaks. Late last fall, Hanson, a Texas native and former Gorge and Maui resident, recalled one of his best sessions of the season, a bluebird day at St. Joe, Michigan. “On Maui, we had a saying about the elephants marching. This refers to the feeling one gets when the waves increase to a size that alarms you. A feeling where the stomach churns, where you feel as though there are elephants marching inside you. Well, the elephants were marching. It was 7m slightly side-on and the waves were 12 to 16 feet and jacking up quickly.”

From the parking lot, I watched Hanson pass up a few overhead waves and settle on a meaty freight train with nice shape to it. He screamed down the face laying into a nice drawn out bottom turn, dragging his back hand on the face of the wave. The wave sectioned out but never broke, joined another wave on the inside, and reformed all the way to the beach. I counted nine bottom turns on that single wave.

Hanson would go on to ride countless waves that day. He said, “As I was driving over, I expected to ride some waves but I never expected the conditions I found. I would have been flabbergasted if it could have been half that incredible, but that’s part of the magic and mystery of driving around the big lake. You never know until you go. That’s the thrilling part of it.”

Another vagabond wave junkie is Jen Hanson from Madison, Wisconsin. Over the last several years Jen has not left a single wave session go untapped. To balance out the solid flat water conditions around his home in Madison, this regular foot has become a fixture at southern Lake Michigan breaks such as Zion, Illinois. Hanson’s forte has become taming gale force winds as it is not uncommon to see him riding a 4m kite in whiteout conditions.

Photo Bryan Elkus

As the wind blows across the region, it arrives in Cleveland, Ohio, on the southern shore of Lake Erie and the home of Joel Hagerman. An imposing figure at 6’4” and 210 pounds, Hagerman is just as imposing on the water as he is on land. His wakestyle riding blends perfectly well with his fluid wave riding style. Haggerman, a Liquid Force Team Rider, is a well-known regional vagabond who will travel anywhere on the Great Lakes in order to score.

Further north, Mike Lanoe, a Naish team rider, is one of Ontario’s most respected riders. Living in an area that boasts several spots with world-class riding conditions and some of the best riders in North America, Lanoe is a standout who has been able to combine a powerful style with an explosive new-school bag of tricks. Lanoe, whose home is within an hour of two frothy wave riding spots, is one of the most diversified riders in the region. He can handle pass, kite loop, and dismantle a wave all in the same session.

When asked what his favorite riding condition are, the affable outlaw pro quickly points to waves. “Currently, I am really enjoying the wave riding aspect of the sport and we have some amazing conditions here in Ontario with a lot of variety. To be a Great Lakes wave rider takes a lot of dedication and love for the sport as the epic conditions don’t come through often enough.”

Considering the vast geography of the Great Lakes, the list of accomplished Great Lakes riders is a mile long. To fill the shoes of world class riders such as Sam Mydysky, Tommy Fields, Matt and Keegan Myers, Andy Bolt, Vytas Cijunelis, Kris Kinn, Catherine Dufour, Chris Cram, Brendan Schnurr, Daniel Steiner, Rob Vanyi, and Simon Gill, a young up and coming crew that includes Erik Merrill, Chris Bobryk, Artem Ognev, Felix Gourdeau, Benoit Carrier, and Alex and Nicholas Prehn is ready to be heard and to continue to assert what the kiteboarding world already knows, that many of North America’s best kiteboarders call the Great Lakes their home.

The number of kiteboarders on the Great Lakes is quickly on the rise and so are the number of windy days per year. In recent years, due to increasingly stronger storms from climate changes, the number of wave riding sessions during each season has also been increasing.

This weather model appears to be in full effect. Scrudder Mackey, PhD, an environmental consultant in the Chicago area, said, “Long term models are predicting more frequent and significant storm events on the Great Lakes, which will generate more significant waves.” Around the Great Lakes, the diehards have taken note and continue to search for the perfect wave, no matter how elusive it may prove to be.

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