End­less sum­mer

Mil­wau­kee surfers mak­ing waves with sport, ad­vo­cacy

Wisconsin Gazette - - Front Page - By Lisa Neff Staff writer

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.

PHOTO: RYAN THOMAS BIGELOW

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.

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