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Stoked on Superior surfing

Diehard dudes shiver through winter on lake near Duluth

By Jerry Zgoda

Star Tribune of Minneapolis

TWO HARBORS, Minn. -- Greg Isaacson once listened through winter nights for the sound of the surf -- "Like shotgun blasts" -- reaching Oahu's famous North Shore.

He is 30 years and 4,000 miles removed from the Hawaiian Islands. But when the weather is just right, when a northeasterly gale roars overnight toward a different North Shore and rattles the timbers of his house on Duluth's Skyline Parkway, Isaacson feels it. Come morning, he peers from his deck through binoculars down the city's hillsides and measures Lake Superior pouring onto Park Point.

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"If it's breaking two feet on Park Point, it's four or five feet on the North Shore," he said. "It's always twice as big up on the North Shore."

And if the waves are breaking high at Lester River or Stoney Point or Beaver Bay, there probably are surfers in the water. No matter the month. No matter the air or water temperature. No matter the wind chill, for that matter.

On those days, surfers arrive before sunrise, boards piled in the backs of SUVs and vans, Thermoses filled with hot coffee, bags of potato chips within reach. Already they are dressed in thick, hooded wet suits, which, along with necessary neoprene booties and gloves, will protect them from near-freezing water . Vaseline is smeared on the only exposed skin -- around the eyes, nose and mouth -- to repel water and keep it from freezing to the face.

"Full body armor," said Bob Tema, a Minneapolis graphic designer who grew up in Hawaii and has lived away from the islands' 80-degree days and 20-foot winter swells for the past 14 years.

Most of these Minnesota surfers are, like Tema, transplanted Californians, Hawaiians and East Coasters. A few, like Isaacson, are native Midwesterners who learned to surf in distant oceans and returned home unable even in fall or winter to disengage themselves from a sport founded in freedom and self-expression, with a pull powerful enough to inspire its own music and culture.

For more than 20 years, Isaacson surfed mostly alone, accompanied occasionally by a buddy or a skeptical salmon fisherman. Raised in Duluth, he caught the sport's irresistible wave after seeing the 1960s film "The Endless Summer," in which two surfers travel the world searching for the perfect wave.

He moved to Hawaii right after high school and returned home two years later, just in time to see the November 1975 storm that sank the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald and pounded Park Point with 20-foot waves. The next spring, he surfed Superior for the first time in a bulky wet suit, what he now calls "Gumby surfing."

Isaacson, a contractor by profession and surf philosopher/writer by passion, had heard reports in recent years that others surfed there as well. Then, one day after he bought a computer, he discovered Tema's "Superior Surf Club" Web site, started four years ago to spread the word about the inland sea's surf potential.

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Isaacson prefers to surf spring and fall, "when the big winds change." (Summers usually produce few suitable waves). Others, including Tema and surfing buddy Brian Stabinger, surf any time the conditions are right: A day or two after a storm has pushed eastward across Superior. The storm first produces northeast winds that stir swells 400 miles away and then switch to the north and northwest, producing surfing's preferred "offshore" breezes that create crisp, individually breaking waves.

The dangers are many. There are stray currents that can carry experienced surfers and strong swimmers tumbling several hundred yards into rock cliffs downshore. A falling surfer can get hit in the head by his board. Fatigue is a factor because Lake Superior's fresh water is less buoyant than ocean salt water. Then there is the numbing cold. Surfers almost always go with a buddy.

The rewards on a morning when Arctic air reaching open water creates an ethereal meeting of the heavens and Earth can approach spiritual revelation. Isaacson considers it meditation.

Surfers have a word for it: Stoked, the euphoric feeling found from the catching of a wave.

"It's you and the wave and the energy, dropping down," Isaacson said. "It truly is a time when nothing else in the world matters. There are those moments when I feel like God knew what he was doing."

Of course, most sane people associate those days with palm trees and tropical trade winds.

"People want to see blue paradise," said Stabinger, a Minneapolis audiovisual systems programmer who traveled with Tema to Ireland in November to surf the remnants of winter storms there. "Apparently, that's the appeal. But this is so much more of an adventure."

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