Milwaukee surfers making waves with sport, advocacy
Eric Gietzen grew up in Shorewood, close to Lake Michigan, seeing the crashing waves and listening to the lore about famous shipwrecks.
“When I woke up in the morning, if there would be big waves, I could hear them,” he recalls.
Ryan Bigelow also grew up in the Milwaukee area.
Neither of them imagined that as adults they’d surf on Lake Michigan.
Gietzen and Bigelow are board members of Surfrider Milwaukee. The chapter is part of a global Surfrider Foundation network, dedicated to promoting and protecting water resources and beaches with coastal cleanups, community outreach and sometimes legal battles.
Membership begins at just $25 a year. “In Milwaukee, our mission has been to get people down to the beach and to show the lake is not just a resource for industry,” Gietzen says. “Our mission has been to get people in the water doing something they probably wouldn’t normally do. We hope they fall in love with the lake. Anything you fall in love with, you are going to protect. And now, more than ever, we need people to love our Great Lakes.”
On Aug. 4, Surfrider Milwaukee holds its annual Surf@Water at — where else? — Atwater Beach in Shorewood.
The event begins with a paddle onto the lake at about 5:45 a.m. to celebrate the sunrise. Then there’s a beach blessing, morning coffee with Colectivo, yoga with instructor Annie Melchior, a cleanup along the shore, surf and standup paddleboard lessons in collaboration with Lake Effect Surf Shop, an evening picnic, Hawaiianstyle music by Ocean Rush and a board swap.
“People are getting stoked about it,” says Bigelow, who works as a radiologic technologist and UWM instructor.
“It’s a fun day,” adds Gietzen, a high school English teacher who also operates a lifeguard service at Atwater Beach.
INTO THE SURF
Gietzen got into surfing in the mid-1980s at Atwater Beach after a buddy came home from Madison with a surfboard found in a garbage pile.
“We decided to give it a go,” he says. “Unbeknownst to me, there was already a somewhat thriving surf culture in Sheboygan” dating back to the 1960s.
Sheboygan surfing has been documented in magazines and films. Travel writers have referred to the blue-collar community north of Milwaukee as the “Malibu of the Midwest.”
“They had a pretty big crew doing their thing,” Gietzen says, adding that surf clubs also existed in Racine and other prime surf spots around the lake in Illinois, Indiana and Michigan.
“But when I started, maybe five or six other guys in the Milwaukee area were surfing. The scene back then was not very big.”
The Milwaukee scene has grown over the past two decades, boosted by shops such as Lake Effect in Shorewood, organizations such as Surfrider, advances in wetsuits and other equipment, and enthusiasts such as Gietzen and Bigelow.
“Right now, this is the golden age of surfing on the Great Lakes,” boasts Gietzen.
“We want to build a community that loves the lake,” Bigelow says. “We want to pass that along.”
Bigelow became involved with Surfrider about six years ago.
“We’re like-minded individuals,” he says. “We just love surfing. And this is a way to share our passion.”
Bigelow remembers as a child watching surfing movies and putting up surf posters on bedroom walls, but he was a skateboarder and didn’t get into the water version until the early 1990s. At the time, he was serving in the U.S. Army and stationed on a base in Hawaii.
“Every weekend, I was at the beach,” Bigelow says of those days.
Observers from the shore might notice Milwaukee surfers use longer and thicker boards instead of shortboards. The reason is freshwater is less buoyant than saltwater.
“A longboard is definitely more soulful. There’s the ease of the glide,” Bigelow says.
“You’ll catch more waves,” adds Gietzen, whose household — with two surfing sons — has 10 boards.
CATCHING A BREAK
Surfing on Lake Michigan is a year-round sport, but some seasons provide better conditions than others.
Surf quality depends not only on geography but also weather, which is why avid surfers track forecasts and learn about wind patterns.
Aug. 4, 5:30 a.m.–8 p.m. Aug. 5, 6:30–9 p.m. Aug. 11, 8 a.m.
Lake Michigan is a “winter lake” for surfers. It’s the best time of year to find surfable waves, and wet suits are better than ever.