Ever since the early 20th century, modern surf culture has been nearly inseparable from that of its capitals — Hawaii, Southern California and Australia — which provide the seemingly necessary ingredients of sun, sea and a certain easygoing spirit. ‘‘The trees also grow down to the salty edge of things, and one sits in their shade and looks seaward,’’ Jack London wrote of Waikiki Beach in a chapter about surfing in his 1911 travelogue, ‘‘The Cruise of the Snark.’’ But as the sport has grown in popularity — in 2020, it will make its debut in the Summer Olympics — its recipe has changed as well. With the right wet suit, you no longer need the sun, and so adventure athletes looking to escape oversaturated beach towns have over the past decades made surf spots out of less hospitable coasts: Iceland, Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and even the Arctic. Perhaps more surprising is that, as a burgeoning cadre of enthusiasts who happen to live in landlocked areas are proving, you don’t even need sea.
The freshwater surfer, who might be anywhere from Wyoming to Wisconsin, must be doggedly determined, forever searching for waves and often contending with challenging conditions — shallow and rocky riverbeds, floating chunks of ice in winter (and, in the case of the Great Lakes, fall and spring, too) and roiling waters. But for the die-hard, these added challenges make success — that natural high experienced during a ride, when everything else seems to fade away — all the sweeter. Freshwater surfing, then, isn’t so much about securing a spot in the lineup or perfecting your technique as it is a testament to the art of making do.
Which isn’t to say it doesn’t have its advantages — there are no tangled beds of seaweed or peckish sharks in these waters — or that the waves, while generally smaller, are always wanting. Last winter, a storm over California and Nevada churned up waves on Lake Tahoe that, at six feet, rivalled those breaking 200 miles west on the shores of the Pacific. Braving 30 to 55 miles per hour winds, a handful of locals grabbed not their snowboards but their surfboards, and paddled out into the haze. In the wilderness surrounding Jackson Hole, Wyo., when the springtime snowmelt from the Rockies flows into the Snake River at a rate of about 8,000 to 12,000 cubic feet per second, it creates a five-foot wave at a stretch south of Jackson known as the Lunch Counter, a class III whitewater not for the inexperienced. Here, the swell is accessed by jumping off a rock that juts out into the river, dodging whatever kayakers and rafters come into the crosshairs and then muscling back to the base of the wave. If (when) a wipeout occurs, a surfer might be carried a quarter-mile downriver before reaching a place calm enough to get out.
Or take Sheboygan, Wis., a small industrial city on the western shore of Lake Michigan that, in addition to bratwurst, has become known for waves in the four- to eight-foot range, which form because of strong fall and winter winds during low pressure systems. The summer’s waves, while less consistent, see gentler breaks perfect for beginners, who meet back on the beach for sunset cookouts. Between these two groups, the town supports its own surf shop, Eos, which sells and rents boards and offers private lessons. Two years ago, another surf shop, Lake Effect, opened down the shore just north of Milwaukee.
Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, there’s Munich’s 950-acre green lung, the English Garden, through which runs the Eisbach, a 1.7-mile-long man-made river with a naturally occurring wave. Surfers queue in this woodsy spot, surrounded by century-old maples and oaks, for their turn in the waters. Some 1,400 miles north, hard-core cold weather surfers ride the (salty) waves of Norway’s Lofoten Islands, which lie just above the Arctic Circle — but it’s the country’s Vosso River that may have the most dramatic freshwater breaks of all. Here in Voss, a mountain town of 14,000 situated between two fjords an hour and a half east of Bergen, a crystal-clear stream offers modest and even warmish waves — in summer, it’s possible to go in without a wet suit — as well as views of white-barked birch forests. Surfing beneath snow-capped peaks may sound dissonant, but the sense of harmony and satisfaction it invokes is not. As Jake Bresette, owner of Lake Effect, says, ‘‘There are always waves somewhere — you just have to find them.’’
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