How to Catch Waves Away From the Ocean

A young woman surfing in a lake

Maksym Fesenko / Shutterstock

Imagine a stereotypical surfing scene: A surfer catches a wave as it breaks close to a palm-fringed beach while bikini-clad spectators look on. But what if we change that picture?

Sure, surfing has its roots firmly in the ocean, but freshwater variations enjoy a healthy following too. Here's how they differ.

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The Great Lakes

Randen Pederson/Flickr.

Surfers on the St. Lawrence River near Montreal catch endless waves each summer, as do off-season skiers and snowboarders in Wyoming's Snake River near Jackson Hole. But for a growing number of boarders, the best place to catch saltless waves is in the Great Lakes.

North America's five sea-sized lakes may lack the ocean's consistent waves, but the crests reach oceanlike heights in some places. When conditions are right, 3- to 5-foot waves are common, with some spots offering storm-created swells that rise to 10 feet. Weather buoys occasionally record 20-footers on the lakes after especially harsh storms. (The waves that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald, the famous Great Lakes shipwreck, were thought to be about 30 feet.)

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Different buoyancies

Randen Pederson/Flickr.

Great Lakes wave sizes can be large, but one major difference between freshwater and saltwater is buoyancy. Boards do not float as readily on freshwater because it has a much lower density than saltwater. Lake surfers have to use wider, thicker boards than their ocean-going peers. Traditional "longboards" are a common sight on the lakes. Some surfers who prefer shorter lengths rely on lighter, more buoyant epoxy boards instead of standard fiberglass ones.

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A quieter scene

Tony Faiola/Flickr.

Lake surfing is growing in popularity, but when conditions are good, there's no comparison between crowded ocean spots and the much smaller line-ups at even the best breaks on Superior, Ontario, Erie, Huron or Michigan. And that's a good thing. On freshwater, you'll catch more waves and have to dodge fewer of your peers. Also, the lake scene is more novice-friendly and there's a greater level of camaraderie, even among people of different skill levels.

Buffalo, New York and Chicago sometimes see surfable waves, but more serious surfers head to more-remote locations like Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Because it touches three of the Great Lakes and weather patterns often blow storms right over the region, it's possible to find prolonged swells at multiple places and simply hop in the car and follow the best conditions as they move from west to east.

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Chilly water


Water temperatures in the Great Lakes are consistently cold, meaning a wetsuit is all but required, even in summer. Hardcore freshwater enthusiasts have been known to paddle out to their favorite break in the middle of winter. Higher winter winds generally mean better waves when the thermometer drops. And because water temperatures for larger lakes fluctuate only a little, ice cover is not the problem that you might expect, given the subfreezing air temperatures.

Great Lakes surfing is only a 50-year-old phenomenon, so there are still "secret" surf spots known to only a few tight-lipped surfers. The idea of seeking out unsurfed spots in the ocean is more unrealistic (unless you have access to a private float plane or an ocean-worthy yacht). Meanwhile, new waves are being discovered every year in the Great Lakes. This concept is attractive enough to seduce some saltwater surfers to head inland and give the Great Lakes a try.