Great Lakes Glide: Stand Up Paddling on Lake Huron

Lake Huron may be far from the surf breaks of Hawaii, but that hasn’t stopped the freshwater surf renaissance that thrives here.

Stand up paddle boarding. Photo by Scott Arseneault
Stand up paddle boarding. Photo by Scott Arseneault

Over the past decade, stand up paddling, or SUP as it is also known, has emerged as one of the fastest growing water-sports in the world. The Great Lakes region is no exception.

With the second largest surface area and longest shoreline of the five Great Lakes – Lake Huron is a stand up paddler’s dream – beaches, islands and inlets to explore, recreational and competitive racing events, downwind paddling adventures and plenty of respectable albeit temperamental waves to be ridden at freshwater surf breaks that dot the nearly 3900 miles (6200 km) of shoreline.

The southwest region of Ontario is home to the Canadian stretch of Lake Huron, and accounts for a significant portion of the ‘Fresh Coast.’

Stand Up Paddling on Lake Huron

Standing along the shoreline, I watch as waves hurl themselves onto the beach with percussive precision – each thunderous impact keeping time like the slow, methodic beat of a lonely drum.

I’m not going to let the icy air stop me. After a glance at Lake Huron, I crawl into the back of my pickup to pull on a thick, hooded wetsuit, followed by neoprene booties and eventually gloves. I smear the exposed part of my face with a thick layer of Bag Balm hand cream to delay the build-up of ice that will eventually hang heavy from my eyebrows and whiskers – the coveted ‘ice beard’ worn as a badge of honour among cold water surfers around the globe.

I head for the beach cloaked in my ice water armour – paddle in hand, board braced under my arm in an attempt to keep the howling winds from ripping it away, sending it down the beach in true tumbleweed fashion.

Upon entering the water, the first blast of frigid water slams my chest high and quickly infiltrates my wetsuit – reminding me that I am very much alive. I take a deep breath and dive below the surface. As the initial shock of the bitter lake temperature dulls, I resurface and clamber up onto the board. Moving quickly to my feet, I begin to pick my way through the messy, choppy waves.

SUP on the waves. Photo by Scott Arseneault
SUP on the waves. Photo by Scott Arseneault

As each crest approaches I plunge my paddle into the roiling froth for stability and drive the nose of the board into the wave face, before breaking out the backside. Depending on the wind and wave conditions the paddle out can be punishing – at times seemingly impossible. Wind-driven waves here on the lakes tend to stack up on each other in closely-spaced groupings leaving little time to recover before the next liquid steamroller closes in.

Eventually I am able punch through earning a much needed chance to catch my breath while I wait for the next set of waves to roll in. After a brief respite I set my sights on a wave and paddle furiously to get into position – just in front of where it is breaking. The wave rises up behind me, my back to the open lake, as I prepare to drop in.

Just when I think all is good, the board suddenly kicks like a mule and shoots out from under me. My legs instinctively scramble toward the front of the deck but the nose is already pointing to the grey skies above.

The ride is aborted and I tumble into the spin cycle of an industrial strength washing machine – the liquid force nearly stretches my ankle leash to its breaking point, threatening to break free from the board and send it racing to shore without me.

Another spectacular wipeout witnessed only by a few unimpressed seagulls and a lone dog walker on the beach. This exhausting process is repeated for hours and I even manage to score a few long, satisfying rides among my countless failed attempts. The exhilaration that accompanies wave riding in any form, never fails to fill the soul with joy, and provide a deep sense of fulfillment that can be so elusive in our day to day lives.

These are the realities of surfing and stand up paddling on the lakes in fall and winter – with the harsh conditions often persisting well into spring. Always invigorating, always humbling. But with the warmer weather comes more accessible paddling conditions making it easier for everyone to get involved, from novice to elite.

Downwind paddling is another form of SUP that is a thrilling alternative when the shore pounding surf is down but the wind is still cranking. On a downwind run, paddlers typically use long, narrow boards to ride waves in open water and longshore (running parallel to shore) currents.

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