I will never understand why after weeks without surf on Lake Michigan, the best forecast always seems to come on a holiday. This time it was Mother’s Day. We watched the forecast for days, hoping the storm would move quicker or slower than anticipated, pushing the waves to Saturday or even Monday. But somehow, defying the laws of meteorology the 7 day forecast held true. In my younger days, I would have been going crazy in anticipation while feeling trapped in a tradition that really could and should be celebrated throughout the year, instead of all on one day. Yet there I was, in Church with my cell phone deep in my pocket vibrating intensely every 10 minutes. I should say that these days, I am definitely more relaxed about getting to the surf and have even given up perfectly good days for “other commitments.” But after two weeks of working out at the gym and swimming in the pool, I was REALLY HUNGRY for some waves! So on this particular Mother’s Day I did something I rarely do well, I planned ahead.
So after some quality time with Mom and multiple return trips to the brunch buffet line, I anxiously hit the road around 2:30 with a couple friends from Grand Haven heading due south… We were so surf-starved even the three hour haul to Chicago remained in our playbook. After nearly an hour on the road, my buddy Erik – known to me as “E,” asked if we should check South Haven. It was still raining then and had been all morning, making the Mother’s Day after-church-breakfast-waiting-lines, borderline – miserable. All the forecasts showed the best waves filling in later in the day and the biggest waves were from St. Joe south and west to Chicago. So as the exit quickly approached, I blurted, “screw South Haven” let’s head further south to St. Joe – let’s Check Ursulas!” After all, we wanted to surf the biggest waves we could find to feed our “lackluster freshwater wave quota” and to make the best of remaining daylight hours on this cold and rainy Mother’s Day.
Another 40+ miles down the road we pulled into the small dirt, beach access lot directly in front of a “wedgy little right” dubbed Ursula’s by the South-End Crew. We eagerly anticipated seeing the solid head high waves that can truly break top-to-bottom on a strong Northeast. But as we approached the bluff, we felt the 35+ knot gales smack us right in the face, cutting through our coats us as if we were naked.
“#%^$ this!” I heard Wally grumble… “Yeah this really does look like poop,” chimed E. Forty-five seconds later we were back in the car on our cell-phones calling our South-end buddies trying to find the magic spot. Would it require another 1/2 hour drive south to New Buffalo or Michigan City, IN? We were lost in a moment of indecision; I was feeling as though I could have possibly “banked” another hour or two of family time and saved the $50 in fuel. Our spirits had fallen to a new low when our die-hard buddy Jack, who could always find a reason to surf, told us he was waiting until 5am the next day to surf the clean-up waves. After hanging up, we immediately pulled an illegal U-turn and decided to throw in the towel and head back north.
The mood was definitely more somber driving back north, and the sting of defeat was especially annoying for Wally – who suggested, maybe a stop by a local watering hole to “drown our sorrows” should be the call… But E reminded us, we still had not checked South Haven. So with a renewed glimmer of hope, we set our sights on South Haven. We knew the waves would be smaller, because in lake surfing if you want the biggest waves, you go the “end of the fetch” – in this case it was a strong North wind and the south-end of the lake was “holding the prize” – or so we thought.
As we approached South Haven, we had to decide whether to check the surf from the bluff or from the lower beach parking lot. The bluff view always made the waves looks better, thus not shattering your impossible dream of fresh-water perfection so quickly. Whereas, the beach view was so low, the waves looked smaller than they actually are, leaving you pleasantly surprised after paddling into your first set. We made the call to do both; first the beach lot, then the bluff to “blend the two” and to keep us from acknowledging just how insane we really are about chasing surf on Lake Michigan.
Needless to say, it was considerably smaller than Ursula’s. But the angle of the coast, the position of the pier and the direction of the wind were providing much more organized lines. And when we finally parked on the bluff and walked to the stairs for a thorough inspection, we did not feel the sting of North gales like we did in St. Joe.. However, it was still cold because it was getting close to 6pm now and the air temp was now dropping into the low to mid-forties(f).
“Well, were here” I said, “let’s do this…” Again, Wally complained about the cold and the size, he was clearly not excited to paddle out into what looked like mostly waist high surf. In his defense, he also did not have a longboard and he knew if this was as big as it would get, he would spend more time missing waves than catching them. Erik quickly offered up his 8’0″ “big-boy-fish” to Wally and finally after seeing a decent set come through, he donned his wetsuit to join us.
Hopping on one barefoot, half-naked on asphalt pulling on 6mm of rubber on a cloudy, windy, forty-five degree day is not one of my favorite activities, but after 2 weeks without waves and 2 hours in the car, the hope and anticipation – commonly referred by all surfers as “pure stoke” that had been building, and was now overriding every negative thought.
As we paddled out, we began to realize the waves seemed even better than our “hybrid model view” we formulated earlier. And after a few fun, waist to chest high waves with very little wind on them, we noticed bigger sets on the horizon marching in as they wrapped around the pier. I then began what my friends would call my borderline-obnoxious hooting and cheering as bigger and bigger sets began to roll in, each cleaner and bigger than the previous set.
Although, most veteran Great Lakes surfers know that if we were surfing these waves on vacation in California or some spot with “real waves”, they would barely elicit a “right on,” but to find solid chest to head high waves without the normal 30+ knots of wind that usually accompanies such events is extremely rare to say the least. As I watched E’s face light up as he dropped in on a beautiful 6′ peak, after a near defeat, I knew that on this cold and grey Mother’s Day, we too had been given a real gift.