Surf's up! In Cleveland?

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Great Lakes provide ideal waves for many brave surfers.

CLEVELAND -- A shadowy figure staggers from the frosty, frothy surf and heads toward shore as seagulls pick through sandy garbage on the Edgewater Park beach -- a two-minute drive from downtown.

Although the sun is shining, a biting 30 mph wind whips in from Canada, churning the murky Lake Erie water and making it feel more like November than May.

The thought of plunging into the 45-degree water, recently thawed following a winter of record snowfall, chills the bones. Rich Stack, his face red and swollen after spending two hours in the icy water, walks slowly up the beach clutching his 9-foot-long surfboard, looking as if he couldn't imagine being anyplace else.

"Not bad conditions," says Stack, pulling back the black hood of his insulated wet suit. "On a scale of 1 to 10? Ah, it's only about a 2. It gets much bigger here."

Bigger, that is, as in big enough to surf big. It's true. Not far from the mouth of the Cuyahoga River (the same one that caught fire in the 1970s), hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean and within sight of factory smoke stacks, surf's up -- in Ohio.

In fact, when the wind is right, the barometer is just so and a low-pressure weather system is tracking across the Great Lakes, there are days when big California-like waves crested at Sheboygan, Wis., to Buffalo, N.Y.

"It's the Rust Belt Pipeline," says Dr. Joe Wellington, a transplanted Californian who discovered Great Lakes surfing while attending medical school at Case Western in Cleveland. "And we got it all to ourselves. There's no crowd."

As it turns out, the 1978 song "There's No Surf in Cleveland" by the Euclid Beach Club Band was mistitled.

Because, for decades, hardcore surfers have been carving wave faces, shooting through their curls and generally hanging 10 on all five Great Lakes: Erie, Huron, Michigan, Ontario and Superior.

And of the estimated 500 who surf during the peak season from September to November, there are a hearty few who brave conditions better suited for polar bears and penguins to catch a few waves.

In the depths of winter, when the air temperature is in the 20s, the slushy water is in the mid-30s and maneuvering around a 15-foot block of ice is essential to one's survival, they are surfing.

"We like it cold," Stack says. It's on rare winter days that the break at Stony Point, Minn., gets so large and "clean" that -- for a few hours -- it can rival any wave on Hawaii's famed North Shore. And it's on days when it's snowing sideways and Chicago's O'Hare Airport is closed that a dedicated Great Lakes surfer might drive half a day for three hours of bliss on a board.

"When everyone else in Cleveland is inside because the weather is so bad that their house is about to get blown away," Stack says, pointing to some white water bashing into jetty rocks, "We're out here."

lm's a real eye opener."

For a critical segment, Deur brought in two professionals from California who had never before surfed the Great Lakes.

One of them, Bron Huessenstamm, expected the worst Jan. 20 when he paddled out into choppy, 38-degree water -- more than 20 degrees colder than he had ever experienced.

"I thought it was going to be really bad," Huessenstamm says. "I thought it would be short waves. It wasn't anything like that. They were the best waves I had surfed in months, including in California.

"Yeah, I'd go back. Totally."

Atop a hill at the western end of Edgewater Park, a statue of German composer Richard Wagner watches over a break dubbed "Sewer Pipe."

"You can get hurt real bad at Sewer Pipe," warns Stack, who fails to mention you can get real sick, too.

Up on the beach, a few hundred feet back from the water's edge, a sign is posted about one of the area's recreational hazards. It says: "WARNING: THE LARGE ROUND BLACK DISK ON THE CONCRETE WALL MAY OPEN AND DISCHARGE UNTREATED SEWAGE AT ANYTIME."

No, this isn't Malibu. But for surfers such as Stack, it's a little piece of surfing paradise.

Perched on a granite pedestal, Wagner stares out across the water clutching his gloves and perhaps some sheet music. For Cleveland's most die-hard surfers, the likeness of Wagner has become a symbol of their obsession.

"When we're all in the water, and nobody's on the beach, Wagner is outside with us, too," says Stack, a member of the Wagner Surf Club, which meets in an abandoned industrial space near downtown.

Inside the club's surf shack, stories are retold of bitter days on the water when the frozen spray off a wave's lip feels like tiny needles piercing the skin. Those are the moments that bond Great Lakes surfers.

"We're extremely odd," Deur says. "We all know what it's like to be outcasts. People don't have to get it. Snow is falling, the water feels like gelatin and we're hoping for big waves. It's crazy."

Associated Press writer James Prichard in Grand Haven, Mich., contributed to this report.

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