My surfing partner Ian tells me to paddle as hard as I can, and I feel my face cringe as if I were about to receive a shot. A wave breaks behind me. The largest wave of the day is beyond that, Ian yells, the one that I imagine the Weather Channel was referring to when it said ‘5-7 foot swells possible’. I’m still adjusting to the cold water and lack of movement in the wetsuit I borrowed from a friend. It’s two sizes too small.
I paddle and kick, swept up by the breaking wave. I begin ticking off the necessary motions, a bulleted list in my mind: Paddle right, paddle left, kick harder on the right side, slide my hands to the board underneath my chest, hop to my knees, ride it out, try for my feet, stumble off. I’m so used to falling by now that I enjoy the currents that I experience once underwater. It’s dreamlike, floating above the sand, however far under the surface. I let the current carry me for a few seconds, flipping and turning, knowing that these moments are temporary and to be enjoyed, and soon I’ll be back on the board for another ride.
This is the third time I’ve attempted surfing. We’re at McCarty’s Cove in Marquette, Michigan, where notoriously cold water and shallow depths make the initial submersion and paddle out a total bitch, especially for someone that’s not used to subjecting herself to 54 degree water in the middle of October. Those more experienced in the irregular timing of freshwater waves and the overwhelming shivers from that first drop of Lake Superior water down their wetsuit paddle past me, offering expressions that are equal parts pity and annoyance. It’s a good day in the elusive world of chasing Lake Superior waves — average swells of four to five feet pound the shore, and various species of adventure mobiles — vans with Thules, Subarus with bike racks, a wood-paneled Jeep Ckerokee — line the parking area, used primarily in the summertime by those looking for a casual swim or a game of beach volleyball. In just a few weeks, hurricane Sandy will bring 10-foot swells and 45 mph winds into this beach, and Marquette surfers will rejoice. It’s early October now, and the tell-tale gales off Lake Superior bring what those very surfers wait for all summer — some real Midwest breaks.
As we prepare to paddle toward the impossibly gray horizon at McCarty’s Cove, Ian reiterates a surfing custom he had learned while in Hawaii.
“Just take a little drink out of the lake during your paddleout. You’ll feel more at peace out there.”
My expression, clearly warranting this piece of advice, was only accidentally fearful. In reality, I couldn’t wait to jump in, hop over a few waves close to shore and start paddling. Jitters on the car ride gave way to a nervous smile, and now, I gave Ian a reassuring nod and ran in without another word.
This paddleout is among the worst in Marquette. The shallow water that makes it perfect for swimming on calm summer days make for brutal paddling conditions when the wind begins roaring in the fall. I get to water over my head and manage to get a leg on each side of the board I’m borrowing, stealing glances at the others floating about in the surf to see how they’re balancing so well without using their hands or swaying side to side. Shoulders aching from the paddle, and still shivering from the cold water in my wetsuit, I remember Ian’s counsel. Just one little sip, and everything will work out. Maybe I’ll even get to my feet for the first time? With three sessions under my belt, the times I was thrown about underwater and pushed to the shore, too exhausted to exert any more effort, I felt — albeit naively — that I paid at least enough dues to enjoy a brief moment on my feet.
When I was in the clear, gently rolling over waves that would, just 20 yards further into shore be massive walls of white-capped water, I scooped a little bit of Lake Superior up and into my mouth.
Ian, sitting upright on his board a couple yards away, watches my acceptance of his surf wisdom. “You ready now?” He asks, smiling.
It’s been at least 10 seconds when I finally surface, the combination of cold water and colder air giving me an immediate brain freeze. I had felt a tug on my ankle while spinning about in the current, and I realize when I surfaced that it was leash on my borrowed board which had been tossed too abruptly and broken in the underwater chaos. I see my board, out of reach. I kick my foot in hopeful desperation; the board seems to move further away out of spite. I’m stranded.
Realizing the danger of the situation, a “Lake Superior Safety” poster flashes in my mind’s eye. Rip currents are rampant in Lake Superior, killing upwards of 15 people since 2000, and there’s an entire marketing campaign aimed at educating people on the dangers of these waters. There are no rip currents here, I decide intuitively, flipping to my back and propelling towards shore. Thoughts reel; Turbulence and adrenaline. Drowning and how bad my shoulders hurt. How far is shore? Where is Ian? Cold water, cold, cold water.
Ian’s voice is far behind me, telling me to keep going, to stay on my back. Paddle Amanda, paddle! The gray sky is now distorted with a freshwater filter from the rain coming down and the splash of my backstroke. Like a dream, the moment is quickly over and forgotten, onto the next one now. Cold, cold water, sporadic, fearful breathing. Paddling, coughing, water enters my mouth, my throat, my lungs.
Lake Superior is a brutal being. It’s carnivorous, will eat you alive if you don’t respect its undeniable powers. It’s cold. Its effect on weather patterns is random and far-reaching. It played a huge role in what was Marquette’s coldest and snowiest winter to date this year, and in fact, still had wayward ice chunks floating around on June 4. But with power comes the level of respect necessary to keep our distance, or at the very least, take calculated risks for the sake of adventure. The presence of something so big and incomprehensible — like mountains or oceans — is a constant reminder of our smallness, and that even calculated risk can be deadly.