Catching waves is exciting but so is breathing in the moments of solitude that surfing allows. I’m learning the art of both.
This essay is featured in the September 2017 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy!
It’s a warm, blustery September day. My heart skips a beat. I’ve been waiting for a day like this—a day fit for surfing Lake Michigan—since I returned to Frankfort nearly two weeks ago.
I slip into my bikini, slather on some sunscreen and grab my rental surfboard from the bed of my dad’s truck. My feet dance in the sand as I make my way down to the water. I’m beaming.
This is it. For the past nine months as I’ve learned to surf in the San Francisco Bay Area and grown slightly enamored with the Great Lakes surf culture, I’ve dreamed of returning home to Michigan and surfing Lake Michigan, one of my all-time favorite bodies of water.
Today’s that day. Today is the day.
I stop at the water’s edge, set my surfboard down, and Velcro the board’s leash around my right ankle. The wind pushes messy waves toward shore. It’s by no means a perfect day for surfing, but I don’t care. I’m here, and I’m giving it a go.
I stretch a little, retrieve my board and step into the water. Lake Michigan kisses me gently. She feels surprisingly warm on my feet, my ankles, my legs. This is my first time surfing sans wet-suit and booties, my first time surfing outside the chilly, dark Northern California Pacific. I love the warmth and hug of my wetsuit, but in my bikini, I feel myself developing an altogether new relationship with my board, the water and surfing. I’m feeling it all from another angle. It feels different; it feels good.
I hop on my board, paddle out beyond the break and sit up, my legs straddling the board. I wait for the first wave. I’m at the point now where I can catch the first wave and ride it well. I don’t overthink it; I go with it. Today, I do just that. I surf a short distance, tumble and fall into the water. The first big fall, where I go fully under, refreshes and invigorates me; it leaves me craving more.
I resurface and paddle back out to a place that feels good. The wind and the waves push me farther down the coastline. I do my best to maintain my position, to not drift too far from where I started.
The waves keep coming—big, rolling waves—but they aren’t breaking. “I got lucky with the first ride,” I think to myself. I sit in the water. My board and I roll with each passing wave. I read the waves as they come my way and patiently wait for one to break. Surfing is a practice of patience. Catching waves is exciting but so is breathing in the moments of solitude that surfing allows. I’m learning the art of both.
Today, as I bob with the waves and wait for a decent ride, I look down. I look down and become lost in the clear turquoise of Lake Michigan—a lake I’ve known and loved my whole life—in a way far different than I ever have before. I marvel at the clarity of the water, the color of the water, the softness of it, the freshness of it. This water is a gem. It centers me, balances me, drowns me in peace. I marvel at the fact that I can see my legs and my feet as they eggbeater kick below the surface, rotating me and my board. I study them and feel the way they push and pull against the crystal-clear water. I memorize the way my hands gracefully enter and pull the water, a motion that’s all too familiar to me after 18 years of competitive swimming.
For so many reasons and in so many ways, I feel at home in water; it centers me in ways other spaces simply cannot.
But not all water is the same.
Lake Michigan looks and feels far different from the Pacific. In California, although calming, thoughts about what lurks below the surface dance through my mind. That’s not the case here. Mostly because I can see straight clear to the bottom. Through Lake Michigan’s blue-green hues, I can see her sandy bottom feet below me.
I’ve seen whales, dolphins and a seal while surfing in California—and quite literally hundreds of other surfers—and while that sea life is magical in its own way and California has some pretty stunning views, it only took this one surf in Lake Michigan to make me realize this is where I want to surf. The water in Northern Michigan is unmatched in color, unsalted in substance, clear of crowds and forever has a special place in my heart.
I can’t keep track of how many times I’ve fallen in love with this lake. Every time is something different. Lake Michigan knows how to surprise and delight me, especially when I’m least expecting it. Today proves that.
In so many ways, through so many activities and through numerous observations and emotions, this place and this lake are my home. When I’m in the water in Northern Michigan, I feel at home; I feel at peace within my home.
Emily Hopcian writes from Bariloche, Argentina. emilyhopcian.com.