STONEY POINT, Minn. – The promise of big waves drew them to the water's edge before dawn.
A Jeep nabbed the first spot along this point on Lake Superior north of Duluth, dimming its headlights. Then a van, a truck, a few SUVs. On top of each, a surfboard or two, covered in snow.
The surfers checked their phones: 10 minutes to daybreak, 29 degrees. They rolled down their windows to hear water crashing against the rocky shore. They took off puffy jackets and pulled on neoprene wet suits.
"Those clean, clean waves that are coming in — that's what we were dreaming about," said Mike Jost of Alexandria, jumping out of the van. The 40-year-old frantically waxed his board, unable to keep his eyes off the lake's gray water as it grew tall and curled over to white, again and again. "Oh my gosh, it looks so good right now."
A decade ago, just a few surfers might have showed up here for a good swell, anxious to ride what a storm had brewed. But thanks to warmer, more comfortable wet suits and a growing online community, a new wave of surfers has discovered Lake Superior's North Shore, creating competition for its best curls.
It's a strange conundrum for an unlikely surf scene on an inland sea.
"It used to be everybody knows everybody," said Bob Tema, 51, one of the pioneers of North Shore surfing, pulling the cover off his board. But these days, "there are new faces all the time."
By 9 a.m. on a recent morning, the line of vehicles was still growing while a dozen men took turns on the 10-foot peaks. After forecasts predicted 40-knot gales, they had trekked from Grand Rapids, the Twin Cities, Wisconsin. They buzzed about word that a pro surfer from California was among them.
A thriving tribe of surfers means it's less likely someone would brave the frigid waters alone, longtime surfers said with appreciation. But they also noted "a little more tension" as people vie for waves that rise irregularly, usually after a storm, and break at only a few spots along the shore.
"There have been some days where I've driven up, looked at the lineup and thought, 'I'm not even sure I want to go out,' " said John Hatcher, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth. "There's just too many people in the water."
The North Shore is no sunny, sandy Southern California, where onlookers lounge in board shorts and bikinis, said Erik Wilkie, 57, who moved from California to Webster, Wis., eight years ago.
The best Lake Superior waves arise after "a wicked blizzard," Wilkie said. Chilly water requires thick suits, hoods and booties, which constrict surfers' ability to feel the board and the wind's direction, he said. The suits can get icy, locking surfers inside.
But icicles hanging off a surfer's hood are "almost like a badge of honor," Wilkie said. "Some of the young guys try to see how much ice they can get built up."
Trading tips and forecasts
As a handful of surfers bobbed and paddled near Lester River's entrance into the Big Lake, sleet turned into snow.
Jake Boyce, 29, stepped from the water and along the snow-flaked rocks, his green board tucked under his arm. He grabbed a water bottle from his truck, ate a stick of venison, texted his wife. It was his fourth straight day on the water, with even better waves to come.
"I have extra surfboards, extra wet suits," Boyce said. "There's not much that can stop me now."
Unlike the North Shore's early surfers — who studied the sport in California and Hawaii — Boyce grew up in Duluth and learned to surf on Lake Superior, catching his first waves along Park Point's sandy shores. In temperatures as low as 17 below zero, he now surfs at Stoney Point, the most popular spot, and a few others he'd prefer to keep quiet.
Today's surfers post forecasts on Facebook groups dedicated to North Shore waves. A few days before the March storm hit, Wilkie shared one from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: "gale warning," "40 knots," "waves building to 8 to 11 feet."
Surfers once had to become amateur meteorologists, veteran surfers said, able to predict a good storm, if not a sunny day. But they did not share their findings widely.
"It was kind of understood … that you didn't say in advance, 'there's a swell,' " Hatcher said. "Because the people who knew that, knew that and didn't need to be told in advance.
"So that's changed, and not everybody's particularly happy about that."
But gone are the days of surfers driving for hours to the North Shore, only to get skunked, said Randy Carlson, a recreational sports coordinator at UMD. "That's been replaced with heavier crowds and being more patient and taking turns."
Carlson, 50, is partly responsible for the crowds. For years, he has been teaching UMD students how to surf, starting them in the swimming pool. He believes that, along with the number of surfers, the skill level has increased as well. "The good waves are being ridden," Carlson said.
The pro approves
Some surfed until dark, standing in buckets and on towels to strip off their wet suits. Later, they were drinking beer at Fitger's Brewhouse when they heard that Alex Gray, a pro surfer from California, was at a nearby booth.
They rushed over, spotting him among a crew from Surfer magazine. The men had just arrived to write about the swell and photograph Gray — who treks to places like Tahiti, Hawaii and Micronesia — surfing a lake for the first time.
"What are you guys doing here?" Jost said, holding back a grin. "These are our waves!" The group laughed, reaching over the table to shake hands.
The California surfers peppered the locals with questions: What time will you get out there? (Before first light.) How cold is the water? (33 degrees.) How big are the waves? (Overhead.) The Minnesotans pulled up photos on their phones and told tales of surfing in water slushy with snow and ice.
"We get waves that are as high as the ceiling in here — and clean," said Jost, who owns a wake surfing business called Hangloose MN. "You just gotta have enough heart to get out there and bear the cold."
Surfer Magazine featured Great Lakes surfing in 2005, when a documentary on its history was released. Californians, their beaches overrun, were fascinated by the cold conditions that kept crowds away.
"For us, chasing uncrowded surf is kind of a big part of the draw of going different places," said Grant Ellis, the magazine's photo editor.
Even now, the North Shore surfing community is too small to support a surf shop. "Who knows how these boards end up in Minnesota?" Hatcher said with a smile. To get a new wet suit, "you order it online and hope that it fits you," Carlson said. Surfers sell one another boards, offer up old gear and trade tips.
On a Facebook group, a surfer recently asked: "Does anyone know where to buy … wet suit glue in Duluth?"
"My house," someone replied.
At Stoney Point the next morning, Gray, the pro surfer, pulled on his booties and declared himself "blown away" by the waves. "It doesn't look any different than the other waves I've traveled to," he said, "other than I'm about to walk down snow."
Boards waxed, Jost and his friend, Alex Brost, 30, ran along the snowy road to a path through the trees, down to the water. They were first on the waves, which were glassy, big, "double overhead." The best of the season, surfers later said. They bellied over several curls before Jost caught one, standing with his arms out, riding down the line.
Soon, a handful of other surfers would join them. But for a few moments, in the early light, Jost and Brost had the lake to themselves.