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First, yes, people surf in Michigan. All over the Great Lakes, in fact. Why just last week, we published this story about surfers braving the winter cold, and growing actual icicles on their faces, chasing waves in Minnesota. It should be little surprise the Great Lakes generate surfable waves; all it takes is a big fetch (the amount of surface of a given body of water) and lots of wind. The Great Lakes have plenty of both.

What the Great Lakes doesn’t have is a history of surfing and people otherwise enjoying the lakeshore when swells rise up from the deep. Better wetsuits, the ability to buy surfboards online in communities without surf shops, and just the rise of surfing’s popularity generally have created little pockets of surf culture dotting the lakes. When the winds blow, the surfers are stoked. The hunt is on for stretches of shore holding waves. That, at least partially because surfing is *relatively* new to the lakes, means plenty of undiscovered gold in them thar beaches.

But rising winds and waves have also meant drownings on the lakes. In 2020, there were 108 officially recorded drownings in the Great Lakes, with the most occurring in Michigan. The state already posts red flags on the beaches when the surf is up to at least three feet in height. Beachgoers, however, often ignore the flags and swim or surf anyway, causing water rescues that are costly.

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So the Michigan Department of Natural Resources has proposed a law that would prohibit people from entering the water during red flag warnings, punishable by ticketing or arrest. Regardless of ability level or intent while in the surf.

Surfers, and other lake users who are drawn to windy conditions and high surf, like kiteboarder and bodysurfers, attended a meeting last week voicing serious concerns about a law prohibiting them from surfing when there are actual, you know, waves.

“All of the best days that we have (with) the best conditions are all red flag days.” said Nate Knoth, local Michigan surfer.

“It is a difficult scenario because this order is also looking to protect those who are venturing out into the Great Lakes beaches who are maybe less familiar with some of the dangers that are present,” said Michigan Natural Resources Commission’s David Nyberg. “But then also proposing a limit to recreational access to those who are very prepared.”

 

The state, after hearing from impassioned surfers arguing their case, is reportedly considering carving out exemptions for surfers and other individuals who head to the lakes specifically for big waves. Still, for many, this is a blunt instrument where delicacy is required.

“This isn’t the way to handle it,” said a local kiteboarder to the Detroit News. “To steal everybody’s freedom to enjoy these Great Lakes.”

Top photo: Grant Ellis

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