Jake Bresette looked out over Lake Michigan on a gray January day in Milwaukee. Ice chunks as big as basketballs knocked together along the shoreline; boulder-size hunks rose and fell farther out.
Sure, he knew the risks. Those waves, though. “They were just these perfect, peeling, glassy, beautiful waves …”
So he waded in and slid belly-first onto his surfboard, paddling out in the thickest wet suit he owned. Minutes later, Jake was slipping between ice slabs on the vertical ride back in, on the cleanest Midwestern waves he’d ever surfed.
People have been surfing the Great Lakes since at least the 1960s, when the Lake Shore Surf Club formed in Sheboygan, Wisconsin—now called the Malibu of the Midwest for its great breaks. And while it’s hard to know how many people catch Midwest waves, enthusiasts estimate that it’s in the thousands.
Jake and his wife, Alaina, moved back to Milwaukee from out west a decade ago and have watched the momentum build. In 2016, they opened Lake Effect Surf Shop, stocking surfboards, wet suits and shirts bearing slogans like “Surf Wisconsin” and “Beer, Cheese, Surf.”
It’s the newest addition to the Midwest surf scene, which counts at least six shops around the shorelines of Lake Michigan. “When our store opened in 2005,” says Sam Hill of Third Coast Surf Shop in St. Joseph, Michigan, “we were the only shop in the Midwest selling surf stuff.”
If you want to catch some freshwater waves yourself, most shops rent equipment and can arrange lessons if you call ahead. “It usually takes three to four good sessions to really get the hang of it and to get comfortable out there,” Jake says.
Midwest waves are smaller and choppier than ocean waves, their surfaces more textured. And while good ones can pop up here year-round, the best season is the coldest—from November to April, when you need a serious wet suit, hood and boots, as well as the experience to handle winds and rip currents. Winter’s coming to the Midwest. Might as well own it.
Lake Effect also sells a shirt that says “Wiloha.”