The Skrockis welcome people from around the world into a close-knit surfing community in the tiny Lake Michigan village of Empire, just like they’ve always belonged. Hang ten with the Skrockis and their Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak shop.
The warmth of Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak in Empire is more than its daffodil-yellow doors and the natural light that pours through the shop’s large windows. The heart and soul—the true warmth—of the shop has everything to do with those who work there. There’s a humble genuineness about Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak, one that seems lost in most places these days. But here, in small-town Northern Michigan, this holds firm.
(Plus, who doesn’t love a shop with a dog? From my first visit several years ago, I remember meeting Mimi, Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak’s adorable, scruffy shop dog—and a member of the Skrocki family.)
Featured in the August 2019 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy.
On a Wednesday morning in early August, I meet up with Ella Skrocki, daughter of Beryl and Frank Skrocki, the founders of Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak, at the trailhead of the Empire Bluff Trail. She greets me with a hug and introduces me to her dog, Lela.
Ella is a free spirit, intentionally moving in the direction of what matters most to her, what makes her feel alive. She’s pursued, caught and made waves out in California, at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, throughout Latin America on a road trip with Lela and beyond. She’s also surfed countless waves in Empire. Ella exudes a contagious energy for freshwater surfing, the Great Lakes, Northern Michigan and life in general.
As Ella interacts with people on the trail—both those she knows and those she doesn’t—I can’t help but feel as though she’s the Queen of Empire. (I think she’d cringe at that statement.) She’s warm, welcoming and confident. She’s social. Because Empire is so small, it almost feels as though Ella and her family are more than simply owners of the local surf shop—and they are.
The Skrockis are people who care for other people. They care about sharing Northern Michigan and Lake Michigan with other people—and teaching others to respect and be safe in the water. There’s a magnetic energy to the Skrockis, and I think it has everything to do with the fact that they live life based on their passions. I can imagine it hasn’t always been—and, at times, still isn’t—easy, but there’s a richness of spirit that comes with finding their true north.
Beryl Skrocki has rarely spent a summer away from Northern Michigan. Growing up, she, her parents and five siblings would spend June through August at the cottage her parents built in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Once she had a family of her own, Beryl, her husband, Frank, and their three kids, Ella, Reiss and Annabel, would do the same. Every year, once school was out for the summer, the Skrockis packed their car, left their home in Chelsea, Michigan, and drove Up North, staying until school was back in session again.
With the birth of Annabel, their third and youngest daughter, the Skrockis outgrew their house in Chelsea and started looking for a bigger home in the area. After searching and failing to find a home within their budget in their ideal location, Beryl and Frank decided to make what many considered a bold move.
“We were like, ‘Let’s just totally mix it up and move to where we escape every single weekend,’” Beryl says. Frank sold his business in Ann Arbor, and the family sold both their house in Chelsea and their “fixer-upper” in Arcadia.
“We packed a U-Haul and moved up here,” Beryl says. “That’s when a lot of our friends thought we were nuts, but we knew we’d make something happen.”
Frank got a job with the Leelanau Outdoor Center before landing a job at ProAct Services in Ludington, where he still works today. Beryl worked seasonal jobs at Cherry Republic in Glen Arbor and a general store in Sleeping Bear Dunes. It was during that time she began to give thought to opening a freshwater surf shop in Empire.
In her downtime, on walks on the beach, Beryl would look out at kayakers along the coast. Nostalgia for her summers spent living in the water, not just on its periphery, rushed to the surface. “I’d just spend every minute out on the lake in our little rowboat body surfing, sailing, windsurfing.” Little wheels started to turn in her mind. “I wanted to share my love for the area and my love for the big lake with others,” she says.
Around this time, Beryl was also interested in surfing.
“I tried to buy a surfboard and couldn’t find a place to buy one, so I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll just buy a fleet of surfboards,’” she says.
And that she did.
In 2004, two summers after the Skrockis relocated to Northern Michigan, Beryl, Frank, Ella, Reiss and Annabel opened Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak in Empire.
“We took all of our earnings from the sale of our house in Arcadia and put it straight into the shop,” Beryl says. “It was 100 percent a leap of faith in a big, big way.”
For some, the freshwater surf shop made complete sense. It left many others scratching their heads. During those first summers, the Skrockis spent a bulk of their conversations with customers explaining what the store was all about. Were people really surfing the Great Lakes?
“Honestly, it was just a smattering of people,” Beryl says. “It’s changed so much it kind of makes my head spin. It’s pretty cool that this crazy little idea has blossomed in that way.”
With Frank working in Ludington—a job that pays the family’s mortgage and keeps food on the table—Beryl believes part of Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak’s success is that it was never about the money.
Since the shop is family owned and operated, Ella, Reiss and Annabel have grown up working in the store. Ella started working when she could see over the counter. “I wholeheartedly love the store,” she says. “It’s not only a fun work environment, but it’s also shaped my life. I definitely would not be the person I am today without this business.”
Now in her 20s, Ella feels a greater sense of responsibility with the shop not only because she wants to let Beryl relax more but also because it means so much to her. It’s terrifying to imagine it not being in her life.
“Mom keeps telling me, ‘The moment you stop coming back and stop working in the shop, it’s shutting down,’” Ella says.
So, alongside her siblings, she’s tried to put all of her time and energy into taking on more roles and trying to make it a more sustainable business. Ella, Reiss and Annabel all work in the store as well as out on the water, teaching lessons and leading camps. As the siblings play a bigger role in the day-to-day operations, long-term planning and fuse their own ideas into Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak’s future, Beryl is starting to take a step back.
Owning and operating the store hasn’t been without its challenges for the Skrockis. Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak was founded on the family’s stoke for freshwater adventures and wanting to share that with others. However, sharing that passion and excitement with others often means the Skrockis don’t have time to get out on the water, or do anything, as a family.
“It’s actually a really rare occasion that we can all get together and go do the things that we love and that we promote and that we allow other people to enjoy with their families,” Ella says. Still, what the Skrockis have gained and continue to gain is far greater than these challenges. A benefit they value most? The way the shop has brought people with similar values and lifestyles together and grown rich, deep friendships and community.
“Our closest friends are because of this business,” Ella says. “The majority of my friends are part of the surf community.”
That community has grown organically through the shop itself as well as through lessons, camps and other events hosted by Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak. Right now, the store offers two camps every summer: Sleeping Bear Xtreme Waterman Camp and Ladies Shred Camp. “The Waterman Camp, our kids’ camp, is so much fun,” Ella says. “Every day we do something depending on the weather. It’s designed from a lesson my parents taught us growing up.” No matter the weather, the Skrocki children were always doing something outside. No matter the weather, there’s always some type of fun to be had.
It’s a lesson that Ella, Reiss and Annabel carry with them still, and through the camp, they want to teach kids the adaptability they learned as children, to embrace whatever is thrown their way.
And of course, forging a livelihood that’s based on the whims and weather of the Great Lakes means coming to respect the lakes.
“More often than not, people who visit or even live in this area take the lake for granted or underestimate its power,” Ella says. “So for kids, it’s especially important to understand that the lake is a force that’s not to be messed with, that it’s so unpredictable. We hope this camp teaches them to respect the lake in that aspect, to keep them out of harm’s way and also to take care of this playground.”
Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak’s newest camp, the Ladies Shred Camp, is based on similar principles of adaptability and embracing the cards you’re dealt—be it the weather or something else in life. As Ella says, “I hope these women also find empowerment through surfing, standup paddle boarding, yoga or whatever it is we practice that day and with the support of other women. I hope these things expand or enhance their ability to deal with whatever life throws at them in a healthy fashion. I love being able to watch people succeed. To provide a toy for somebody and then watch them come back feeling on top of the world because they tried something new, had a blast and saw the lake from a different perspective, that’s so gratifying.”
Beryl says, “While it’s ridiculously rewarding to sell somebody their first surfboard or their first skateboard or whatever it is, I just love meeting people, talking to them, introducing them to fun stuff, introducing them to our area—this area and lake that I’ve loved since I was a little girl.”
For the Skrockis, it’s always been about sharing their love for the water and the fun that comes with freshwater adventures. That is the contagious quality of the shop and what they do. Spend more than a few seconds with any of the Skrockis—on the big lake, if you’re lucky—and you can’t help but be drawn into the magic, light and positive energy that surrounds that love for their true north.
Emily Hopcian is an Argentina-based writer with a focus on outdoor adventure and social and environmental impact storytelling. // Beth Price takes photographs that reflect her passion for a healthy, active and adventurous lifestyle. She is based in Traverse City.
Ella Skrocki’s top 5 tips for surfing, SUP-ing, kayaking and more.
Know your limitations and respect the lake. Start small. Go out in forgiving, manageable conditions and gain true confidence before allowing your ego to put you in a dangerous position. The lake is more powerful than you are. Identify your hazards before entering the water.
Practice proper ettiquette. It is vital to respect other surfers and paddlers. There is a surfers’ code that’s necessary to follow. Don’t drop in on others. Give surfers the right of way when paddling out. Practice proper board control. More respect and safety among those in the water will yield more positive energy in the lineup.
Go out with the proper gear. Never enter the water without proper neoprene or attire to keep you warm, dependent on the conditions. Always paddle out with the necessary safety equipment. This includes leashes or life jackets, dependent on the surf craft—surfboard, SUP or kayak.
Paddle out with a buddy. It is much safer and heaps of fun to paddle out with someone by your side. Whether paddling the coastline or a river or going out into the lake to surf, conditions on the Great Lakes can change very quickly. It’s important to have someone with you if and when they do.
Study the forecast and coastline. We live in such an abundantly rich place in terms of bodies of water and the shape of our coastline. When itching to paddle or surf, study the wind and weather to determine where the best places to paddle out are. Your options are endless. Put some time and energy into studying weather patterns, go on a surf safari, strike out a couple of times. When you find a clean wave all to yourself, your session will be that much more rewarding.