SATURDAY, October 26th: SOUTHWEST GALES TO 35 KNOTS. MOSTLY CLOUDY WITH A
CHANCE OF RAIN SHOWERS. WAVES 10 TO 14 FEET.
Three days before this forecast came out on NOAA, Ed Russo, local weatherman and resident surf forecast wizard predicted that Saturday could be the biggest and cleanest day on Lake Erie this year. Whether he was right remains unknown, but the day that unfolded was indeed remarkable.
Recently recovering from a knee injury suffered on the Stonycreek River, I was hesitant about traveling north to Erie under what would unquestionably be chaotic conditions. Having taken off close to 2-months of paddling anything difficult, I seemed to have lost my confidence. Although my knee was feeling great, I had a hand injury from a work accident that was nagging and I wasn’t certain I could (or should) paddle at all. Still though, the prospect of giant surf just 2-hours from my home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was too much to refuse. Calls went out to the crew, boards were loaded on the roof and the full wetsuits emerged from their summer hideout. Rob was in State College on a long boarding trip but was going to make the 3.5-hour drive in the morning to meet the swell. Jack, anxious to use a 5’9” fish he recently bought on surf trip to Avon, was keen to see what Lake Erie would dish out.
Jack and I arrived first and pulled into the parking lot of Sarah’s and Sally’s at the entrance to Presque Isle State Park. A window between some apartments and trees gave us our first view of the lake and we could see the surface heaving on itself in neat rows. Two surfers raced down the pathway from the beach towards their cars as though being chased by demons. “It’s perfect!” they yelled to us as we made our way to the beach to get a closer look. And it was. Despite the cold temperatures and heavy wind, the lineup was as stacked as I’ve seen it. Chest to head high waves were piling in one after another and everyone in the water was scoring rides. We considered heading up the Isle a little to avoid the crowd but the locals coerced us to stay, something incredibly rare in surfing communities. “You guys can’t leave, this is as good as it gets,” one of them said, a look of disbelief at the thought of us missing even one more second of this event.
So we stayed. After suiting up head to toe in neoprene we made our way to the beach. It took a while to figure out where to enter the water but the local surf crew was more than willing to help and offer advice. Jack made it out without any issues on his fish but I only had paddleboards in my quiver and had to wait a while for a window of opportunity to paddle out. The time came and I charged hard to escape the shore break that was crashing violently on the pebbly sand beach. Remarkably, I emerged outside and was bobbing nervously among what looked like mountains of water surging in from deep in the lake. While the swells were high, the waves were surprisingly cushy. It wasn’t as fast or pushy as it appeared. As I looked around at all the other surfers I felt assuaged and my nerves subsided as I began peak hunting for my first wave of the day. I was the only paddleboarder in the lineup but felt right at home with the other lake surfers. Typically I prefer to surf with small groups of friends or alone, but I was happy to be surrounded by others. The lake is a dynamic place and conditions can change rapidly, especially under the gale force winds of fall.
It took some time but eventually I caught a small left that eased the nerves, assuring myself that I could do this. After peeling off the back I paddled back out and found myself next to Jack in the lineup. We chatted for a moment but then a perfect wave headed straight for us and we both turned and paddled in. I caught the wave and dropped into a steep face, veering hard to the left. I was shocked that I had made it but the ride was silky smooth. After a few seconds of absolute bliss, the wave closed out and I rode the whitewash towards the beach. I glanced to my right to see Jack finishing out the ride as well. It was a party wave and we cheered each other on all the way to shore.
Knowing that I would be able to make it out on my SUP and that the waves were manageable, my nerves were replaced with stoke and intensity. I was rusty but able to catch a few more great rides and Jack was shredding on his new board. My knee and hand held up well. It was great to watch so many surfers cheering each other on and having a blast. There were no signs of any local superiority or wave precedence. It was all about the fun and sharing of the waves. Many in the lineup were willing to share their boards, advice, encouragement and probably their lunch if you asked to near perfect strangers.
As we walked back up the beach we noticed that Rob had arrived. He came out with us and it wasn’t long before he made a committing drop into one of the juicy lefts. The entire lineup erupted with cheers as he made the turn and glided towards the Isle. An injured shoulder kept him from riding much longer but he got what he came for, as did everyone bobbing in the lake in a black suit that day - some excellent Lake Erie waves with the added surprise of great company.
A huge thanks to Andy Pitrone and Neal Luoma for contributing the photos for this blog post! Great work guys, thanks for helping spread the stoke.