Gale force winds mean gnarly waves for Michigan surfers

Oct 22, 2019

Gale force winds fueled huge waves on the northern Great Lakes Tuesday with some on Lake Michigan topping out at 13 feet. For some residents in Michigan, the fall storm season is the time to hunker down — but for others it’s the perfect time to jump in the lake.

Tuesday was a chilly, October morning in the northern Michigan city of Frankfort. The rain and the wind gusts from the south were around 40 miles per hour. It wasn't the kind of day most people would want to spend at the beach, but Ella Skrocki isn’t most people.

“We’re kind of a wild bunch here on the Great Lakes,” she says.

Ella Skrocki grew up surfing the Great Lakes. On Tuesday, she braved gale force winds to catch waves on Lake Michigan.
Credit Beth Price / Beth Price Photography

Skrocki is one of a handful of hearty Michigan surfers who braved the wild conditions trying to catch one of the big waves rolling along the shoreline. 

For Great Lakes surfers some of the best surfing happens in October and November. Low pressure systems roll through the region fueling strong winds.

“With these stronger winds... the Great Lakes can get the high waves we see today,” says Dan Cornish, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. 

Such wave action on Lake Michigan is less frequent than say the ocean, and Skrocki calls a day like Tuesday “really special.”

“The gnarlier day on Lake Michigan or throughout the Great Lakes, typically the better surf,” she says.

In a beach parking lot, she squeezed into what she calls her “full winter apparel.” It’s a thick neoprene wetsuit complete with a hood, mittens and boots.

She waxed the top of her board for extra grip and headed toward the soggy beach.

Beth Price is a local photographer and she’s was there to watch.

“It’s not conditions for everyone,” says Price. “I think that sometimes we make it look easy, but it’s not.”

Ella Skrocki catches a wave on a recent trip to Lake Michigan this fall.
Credit Beth Price / Beth Price Photography

In 2004, Skrocki’s family opened up Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak, a surf shop in nearby Empire.

Skrocki says a lot of people have a notion that you can’t surf on the Great Lakes.

“Anytime somebody comes into the shop and says that or kind of gawks at the idea of surfing on the lakes, I just chuckle and make jokes,” she says laughing.

Skrocki is 24 years old and has surfed all over the world — up and down the West Coast, Central America, South America, even India. But still, her favorite memories happen here.

“Great Lakes are definitely my favorite place to surf,” she says. “I’ve been in tropical paradises in bikinis and it’s awesome and wonderful, but days like this when it’s windy and rainy and crazy, it’s kind of all part of the adventure.”

And with that she walked out onto the pier, braced herself for the waves, and plunged into the water. No salt in her eyes and no sharks to worry about, because she’s surfing in late October, in a freshwater lake in the middle of the Midwest.