By Vince Deur – a Great Lakes Surfer
For as long as I can remember, I have been mesmerized by water. As a young boy growing up on the Grand River -Michigan’s largest river was my backyard. I would stand in awe as the early spring currents would move swiftly past me. “Where was that water going,” I used to dream, “where could it take me?” Later in the summer, I would watch the waves from the gravel barges break in perfect symmetry across our beach. On our family boat trips, I would be in the stern, eyes locked for hours on the endless curl that peeled from our wake. It was this fascination with waves that really took hold of me as a teenager and continues now into adulthood.
Surfing on the Great Lakes has been a passion for me now for over 25 years, but I was not among the first surfers who ventured out into the fresh-water waves with board in hand; they came another 20 years before me. Since the early sixties surfing the lake has been seen by many as a novelty, especially since most Great Lakes residents still do not even believe you can surf a lake. But these are not lakes; they are truly inland freshwater seas. Each fall as the sunbathers and swimmers leave the beach, lake surfers will don their wetsuits to ride the waves generated by fast-moving fall storms. Experienced surfers will surf into the winter under 6mm of neoprene to harness 6-10 foot waves before the large icebergs force them to put away their boards until spring. It was among these conditions where I learned a respect for the awesome power of the Great Lakes.
The more time I spent on the water, sometimes 3-4 hours per session, the more I began to see and understand the nuances of this environment. From the powerful rip currents that can sweep an unsuspecting swimmer out to sea, to the way the color of the water would change depending on the sky that day or in my case in Grand Haven – the amount of rain that fell the day before. The Grand River winds some 260 miles through large cities like Jackson, Lansing, and Grand Rapids and through miles of farmland and suburban subdivisions before reaching Lake Michigan in Grand Haven. As a boy I discovered the many “treasures” left behind after the spring rains. I would find beverage containers, balloons, fishing gear, paddles, feminine hygiene products, and various other plastics. But as a surfer I began to realize it was the things I could not see that were causing the most problems for us.
The Grand River has always been brown due to the rich soil it travels through. The plume that extends from the pier heads can stretch out 1/2 mile or more on some days and create a stark blue/brown line. However, the dangers for surfers and swimmers are not found in the sediment itself, but what is carried in the sediment. Sewage overflows, industrial waste, pesticides and fertilizers all seep downward and eventually into the river and its tributaries and eventually into our favorite surf spots. In the days after heavy rains, the water would be covered in a slime that reminds you of a strong chemical detergent or on some days an overflowing outhouse. The ear aches and sinus infections would take hold immediately.
It was surfing in these conditions that would eventually push me to try and make a difference. But I never wanted to be an “environmentalist” I saw many of them as unrealistic and hypocritical as they drove their cars to rallies to condemn the system that provided them their luxuries. I was not ready to give up my foam-core surfboard anyway. It just seemed like such a huge problem, how could I possibly make a difference? As it turned out for me, that river really did take me somewhere. My love for waves has led me to circle each Great Lake to capture the stories from surfers about what surfing means to them and recently to join other surfers who are striving to make a difference in 6 countries to highlight their coastal issues for the Eco-Warrior documentary project. Throughout these experiences I came to realize that we are all polluters; it’s just the nature of our world. However, after meeting so many people around the world who are working for change, I know now that we can improve. We can build better sewage treatment plants; we can find cleaner ways to care for our crops and our yards; we can all help keep our shorelines free of trash… but we can only do it together.
Make a difference “in your own backyard” this year; leave the beach or riverfront cleaner than you found it, cut back on fertilizers, pick up pet waste, avoid single use plastic bottles, support your local environmental organizations that are working to make a difference… and try surfing, it could just change the way you see your own backyard.
Co-Chair/ Lake Michigan Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation