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The arctic freeze in parts of the U.S. hasn't stopped surfers in Minnesota


The Arctic freeze that's blanketed much of the Eastern U.S. hasn't stopped surfers in Minnesota from hoping for the next big winter storm. Last week, surfers flocked to the shore of Lake Superior in subzero windchills in search of tasty waves. Dan Kraker of Minnesota Public Radio reports.

DAN KRAKER, BYLINE: In the Upper Midwest, the best waves often accompany the biggest storms. So last week, surfers here studied the weather forecast for days, as a blizzard lined up just right over Lake Superior.

TYLER RAY: Last-minute vacation. Had to call my co-worker to see if he would cover. Told him it's, like, the swell of the century.

KRAKER: Tyler Ray got off work at 6 a.m. after working a 12-hour overnight shift at a Twin Cities oil refinery. He hopped in his car for the snowy three-hour drive north to hit the waves.

RAY: So I don't even know how tired I am right now because the waves are pumping, dude.


KRAKER: Winds whipped for hours out of the Northeast, pushing waves across hundreds of miles of open Lake Superior water - what surfers call fetch - straight at a well-known surfing spot north of Duluth called Stoney Point. But with temperatures in the single digits, the windchill factor was way below zero.

ERIK WILKIE: That's when the waves happen, is when the snow is the deepest, when it's blowing the hardest, when the wind is blowing the strongest.

KRAKER: I met Erik and Yvonne Wilkie trying to warm up in their pickup when we were interrupted by a passing snowplow.


E WILKIE: The challenges of going surfing is you've got to dodge the snowplow, right? (Laughter).

KRAKER: The Wilkies point to the thick wetsuits they wear to stay alive in the frigid water.

E WILKIE: So I've got almost 10 millimeters of rubber on my upper torso to help keep me warm 'cause I'm kind of a wimpy California transplant, really, up here in...

YVONNE WILKIE: And 7-mil mitts...

E WILKIE: And 7-mil mitts, right.

Y WILKIE: ...'Cause keeping your fingers together helps keep them warmer.

E WILKIE: A little (ph).

Y WILKIE: And our wetsuits are hooded...

E WILKIE: Our wetsuits are hooded, yeah.

Y WILKIE: So the only thing showing is our face.

KRAKER: They say that gives them maybe 45 minutes of surfing before they're ice-encrusted and have to return to the truck. Some surfers even spread Vaseline on their eyelids so they won't freeze shut. Erik Wilkie, who's 63, says what others call crazy he calls rejuvenating.

E WILKIE: Feeling like you're pushed to a survival level that you haven't been to before.

KRAKER: For Yvonne Wilkie, surfing is a spiritual experience.

Y WILKIE: When you're out there connecting with the waters and being able to feel the vastness of that lake out there and see it and be aware of how much power that lake has.

KRAKER: Many here learned to surf in warmer places, and Tyler Ray appreciates the camaraderie of this Minnesota surfing scene.

RAY: Oh, it's totally unique, man. It kind of takes you back to the roots of why we all started to surf in the beginning, which is - it's fun. We're just doing it because we love it.

KRAKER: Ray says it's so cold it's like getting an ice-cream headache from the outside. Still, when he returns from one final session, ice coating his face, he flashes a double thumbs-up.

RAY: I'm cold (laughter). I'm so cold, dude. I'll barely be able to talk.

KRAKER: Ray and other diehards may get to hit the waves again soon. Another windy snowstorm is lining up over Lake Superior tomorrow, and this time the high temperature is forecast to be comfortably above zero.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Kraker in Duluth.


Dan Kraker
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