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Surf's Up?

Lake Michigan is one of surfing's best-kept secrets. Really.



The custom Illinois plates on the white 1992 Toyota minivan read SURFUN 1, while the license plate holder proclaims STOKED. What a wannabe! How could a Prairie State vehicle even try to duplicate any semblance of coastal coolness? Where does the driver surf? Lake Michigan?

Well, actually, yeah.

The minivan is parked in Steve Ceskowski's garage in Beach Park, Illinois, a small town on the lakeshore about 55 minutes north of Chicago. The other residents of the garage include a lawn mower, an assortment of snow shovels, a hot-pink-and-black Huffy two-wheeler sans training wheels, cross-country skis, two surfboards lashed to the garage wall--one an Innerlight long board, the other a Gordon & Smith midsize thruster--and one beat-up Australian board hanging out in the rafters with a blue Old Town canoe. Ceskowski's fourth board, a custom-designed 1992 eight-foot Bear Bonzer, is showcased on the basement wall in the house.

"That way, in case there was a fire in either place," he explains, "I wouldn't be boardless."

I had heard rumors, echoes really, that there are people who surf Lake Michigan. Like some mythological tale passed down by tribal elders, this seemed a heroic yarn conjured up to bring hope to landlocked midwesterners like myself. I collected shreds of newspaper clippings that joked about the novelty of surfing the lake. And then I encountered someone who actually does it.

Driving to Beach Park, I pictured Ceskowski as a lanky, gracefully aging hippie with longish hair battling gray, who, through a dash of bad karma, has been forced to live out his middle-age years a thousand miles from the nearest ocean break. He probably knows every track on the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds album and addresses everyone as "dude," whether they be man, woman, or child. Oh, and he has a dog named, what else--Moon Doggie.

Need I say I was way off?

Ceskowski, 45, has surfed Lake Michigan for nearly 30 years. A former commercial fisherman, he now teaches American history to juniors at Zion-Benton High School. He has a midsize build, retreating sandy brown hair, a well-kept mustache, wire-rimmed glasses, and an easy smile. He doesn't even own a dog. But he does have two girls, six and nine (neither of them named Gidget), and a wife, Janet, who likes to watch him surf but makes him keep his surfing stuff out of the living room.

He and his longtime surfing buddy Pat Cooper, who lives five miles north in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, are discussing the ins and outs of midwestern surfing, or I should say the ups and downs. Obviously the surf is not up this afternoon, or we would not be hanging out at Steve's house. Pat, 42, is tall with brown eyes and slightly tousled dark brown hair. He has two teenagers.

"In 1990, for the first time, I kept a surfing journal," Steve says. "That year around here the surf was up 95 days. That's one out of every four. I was out 90 of those days."

"That was a good year," Pat agrees. "My favorite months are November through March. That's when the the waves are big, powerful, clean, nasty. At least three feet and up. It gets to be eight to ten here about 12 times a year. But most of the time there's no one to brag to about the sets because there's no one else there."

In the summer, Steve says, you can count on the surf being up one or two days a week. But the best time to surf Lake Michigan is in the fall, between late August and December, when it breaks three to four times a week, the waves are bigger, and the water temperature's cooler. November especially brings huge, chilly waves.

Steve is showing Pat the blue neoprene face mask his wife bought him for his birthday. Fastening the Velcro closure at the back of his head, he models it for us. He looks like a high-tech Billy the Kid out to knock off a bank. The mask will go with the whole midwestern surfing ensemble: wet suit, hood, gloves, and boots. Fending off hypothermia is the name of the game.

Pat tells me they used to smear Vaseline all over their faces to deter frostbite. Make sure it doesn't get on your wet suit, he adds; it eats it. "It's not the water that's so bad. The water's consistently 32 degrees. It's the windchill when you get out of the water and you're wet. Sometimes we pour hot water down our backs." Steve often leaves a big thermos of hot water on the beach to defrost his fingers every few rides.

Another major obstacle is ice. As in icebergs, ice mounds, ice floes. Just getting across the beach from Pat's warm '64 Volkswagen bus to the water can be hazardous. Pat points out that the ice can also ding their prized $475 fiberglass boards. "But when the waves are beautiful . . . " He shrugs a "who cares?" shrug.

And where are the best waves in the midwest?

"Sheboygan," they say practically in unison.

Sheboygan? As in Wisconsin? As in polka capital?

"They have smooth, sandy beaches and a larger variety of waves," Steve says.

"There are several hard-core guys there. They have good parties," Pat clarifies.

But the thing Sheboygan is really famous for is its limestone reef, about a half-mile off the beach and only six feet deep. Great waves but major pain if you wipe out. Only one person in modern history has ever surfed it. "On a big day it's just killer [to look at]," Steve says. "It's kind of a psych thing. Do you wanna do this? It's a half-mile paddle on your stomach to get out there. But it's pipelinelike waves. Twelve, maybe 15 feet. Oh, I'm not kidding you."

"You stand on shore and look at it with binoculars," Pat says. Lee "the Water Flea" Williams, a local longtime surfer, conquered the reef in early December 1992. "I want to do that someday," Steve says.

"We all want to do it someday," Pat says. "But the thing about it is, if it's a good day, you surf near shore. Why risk a good day getting injured? But if that was the only place that broke, believe you me, guys would be paddling out there."

How often do Steve and Pat go up to Sheboygan?

"Any time the phone rings," Pat says with no hesitation whatsoever.

Like a knight stiffly dressed for jousting, Steve is covered in an armor of neoprene a la O'Neill. Cradling his 12-pound midsize thruster under one arm, he navigates, barefoot, the warm sand of Camp Logan Beach in Zion, dodging sun seekers and little kids with sand shovels. A few of his buddies who are already in the water call out to him; he waves back. Before wading out, he secures the Velcro shackle of the board's leash around his ankle and runs his hand along the eight-foot, four-inch deck. Three little fins stick strategically out from the underside of the board's tail; like the keel on a sailboat, they add stability.

The water temp is in the upper 60s, which Steve considers very tolerable. Lying on his stomach, Steve paddles about 80 yards out, through and then beyond the breaking waves. He joins his friends, sitting on their boards in a cluster, scanning the horizon for the next good set. They'll stay out for up to six hours if the weather holds. On Lake Michigan about five to seven waves come in at a time. The goal naturally is to pick the best wave in each set. Wave selection is like dating: you go for the nicest-looking instead of how many you can get, Steve says. Quality over quantity.

Judging the potential merits of each wave slinking toward them, the surfers bob in the water and watch. Today the waves are three- or four-footers. Fresh water is less buoyant than the salty drink of the ocean, so lake surfboards tend to be a bit wider, longer, and thicker.

The water laps gently in rhythm against the fiberglass. A fish jumps. Some people on the beach watch. There's an offshore wind.

Then a tall hump appears on the horizon. Someone yells "Outside!" and points toward the growing shoulder of water. The surfers paddle furiously in the finger's direction, guessing where the wave will crest, pulling up and swinging their boards around, aiming at an angle toward shore. Their backs to the climbing water, they peer over their right shoulders at it. Now is the time to paddle. Hard. The person in the best place takes it. As the wave face gets steeper, Steve feels the speed build up until he has enough momentum to stand. In a split second he's up, slightly crouched with his feet about two feet apart, toes pointed toward the side of the board. He makes a turn and races away from the breaking part of the wave. He finds the fastest part of the wave, slipping into the power spot. The speed is building. It grows.

And then something unexpected happens. The wave is tumbling over itself, tubing. Pipelinelike. Steve is sliding through the hollow part, emerging just a fraction ahead of the water that is crashing and collapsing behind him.

A surfer's orgasm.

The other surfers howl encouragement. Then the wave dwindles. The ride is over. Steve will remember the last 30 seconds for a long time, every time he drives to work or mows the lawn or shovels snow off the driveway.

Steve's first board ever arrived at his family's Waukegan home in January 1964. The 30-pound fiberglass pop-out board came in a big box with a Santa Monica postmark. It was his 15th birthday present, one he'd wanted ever since mailing off his $6 subscription to Surfer magazine. He taught himself to surf on the waves that rolled into Waukegan that spring and summer.

Pat was more, well, seduced into the sport. He was 14 when he saw his first Surfer on the periodical rack at the corner Walgreen's in Zion. "It had a girl on the front with a bikini. I thought that looked pretty good to me. So I bought it, took it home, and that was it. I thought I would have to move to California."

Steve and Pat met in the summer of 1966, when they became two of the 35 founding members of the Dunes Beach Surf Club. Flipping through one of Steve's packed surfing scrapbooks, I can see this was no lightweight club: members even had their own navy blue jackets with the club's name embroidered neatly on the back in white. As several pages of snapshots illustrate, they were clean-cut North Shore high school boys who surfed, had parties, went to contests, and hung out at the beach with their girls--for whom Pat and Steve use the technical term: "surf bunnies."

Pat tells a story about one particular surf bunny, a thin, pretty girl--she was about 98 pounds, he estimates--he met when he was a high school sophomore. He was intent on entering a tandem surfing contest in Grand Haven, Michigan (which was the Lake Michigan surfing mecca before Sheboygan took its place). In tandem the guy lifts the girl and does a bunch of tricks on the board, and this particular competition required that the girl weigh less than 100 pounds. So the calculating Pat asked this girl out, and they headed for the contest. The first time they hit the waves as a duo, Pat dropped her. Needless to say, that was the end of her surfing career. But it wasn't a total wash. She and Pat have been married 22 years.

Toward the back of the scrapbook I see that the old Dunes Beach Surf Club had a reunion recently. Members showed up to surf (and party), children in tow. The surf bunnies were there too, although now they're wives and mothers.

There's also a new generation of midwestern surfers. Steve has taught a lot of his high school students--and his daughters--to ride the freshwater waves. The younger set even has its own club; Rick Boss, 23, is president of the Great Lakes Surfing Association in Grand Haven. The association has about 40 members, and Boss estimates that about 250 people now surf the Great Lakes. First-generation surfers like Steve and Pat provide good advice from their long experience. "They have great styles, and they know how to ride," Boss says.

California, Cape Cod, Baja, New York, the Bahamas, Rhode Island, Florida, Israel, Texas, Puerto Rico, the West Indies--Steve and Pat have traveled all these places in search of surfing adventures. "We even went looking for surf in Louisiana," says Steve. "All we found was Spanish moss and turtles. No waves."

In the hunt for the perfect break, finding new and undiscovered territory is almost as important as the break itself. And for all the exotic locales Steve and Pat have been to, Lake Michigan is still one of surfing's best-kept secrets. "People from California who surf with us, they can't believe there's a way to surf here," Pat says. "They love it. No sharks, no salt, no coral, no jellyfish, no localism."

"There's no dog-eat-dog attitude," Steve adds. "Around here it's real mellow."

Water is a great equalizer, say Steve and Pat; there are no social or geographic tags. They tell a story about how they met this guy surfing, and later, when they were back on land, they found out he was the mayor of Glencoe.

Another time, says Steve, "I was out on the east coast. I paddled out into the lineup and starting talking to the other guys. 'Where are you from?' one guy asked. 'I'm from Illinois,' I said. 'Hah! What are you doing out here?' he said. Then he takes off, and I take off. A wave's just a wave."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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