The Local Board

Courtesy of Mike Killion

For most Chicago residents, the lakefront is the last place you’d want to be caught on a blustery day.  But the sharp winds and crashing waves off Lake Michigan beckon a small but dedicated group of surfers to the shore, donning wetsuits and ready to dive into the icy waters. It may seem unlikely that such a coastal pastime would catch on in land-locked Illinois, but surfing’s got a real following here.

“Surfing here in Chicago and northwest Indiana is definitely a different and sometimes strange experience,” says Mike Killion, an enthusiastic member of the burgeoning Lake Michigan surfing community. “Next to casinos and steel mills, sky-lined roads…and then you’re right there in the lake surfing.”

Surfing in Chicago is nothing new; according to Killion, the sport can trace its local roots to after the post-War period, when servicemen stationed in the Pacific returned to Chicagoland determined to transplant their newfound hobby to the Midwest. After a childhood trip to San Diego piqued his interest in the sport, Killion began trekking to beaches in Illinois in 2005.  But for three decades, surfing was illegal in city waters. The Chicago Parks District banned “non-motorized flotation devices” from Lake Michigan after a fatal rafting accident took the lives of four young women. This ban kept Chicagoans from taking to their boards. When city resident Jack Flynn was ticketed for catching a few waves off the 57th Street Beach in 2006, he organized a campaign to petition the Parks District to reopen the lake. Three years later, the petitioners’ efforts materialized and the ban was lifted.

Though the repeal of the ban was a cause for celebration for Chicago’s surf community, the decision came with some restrictive caveats. Surfing and other non-motorized activities like boogie boarding and kite-surfing are limited to the 57th Street and Montrose beaches during the summer.  But during the off-season, the free surf zone expands north to Osterman Beach and south to Rainbow Beach.

Fortunately for surfers who hope to enjoy their sport away from crowds of summer beach-goers, the winter off-season coincides with prime lake surfing weather. “Most of the time our best waves are in the winter months when most normal people like to stay inside and keep warm,” said Killion. Photos of the surfers often feature men and women returning to land with jagged bits of ice hanging from their wetsuits like badges of honor.

The Chicago surfing community been making as many waves as they’ve been catching. National and local media outlets have published a number of stories on the surfers, winning respect for them from all over the country.  Killion, for one, has capitalized on the attention by publishing a photoblog as well as founding an online periodical called Great Lakes Surfer.  Even the area’s tourism industry has recognized the potential of Lake Michigan surfing. Last summer, Kimpton boutique hotels in Chicago offered $220 surfing packages that included transportation beaches and drinks to unwind afterwards. However, a hotel spokesperson says that Kimpton is not planning to continue the program in Summer 2011.

Killion voices little concern over the fluid shape and size of the surfing culture. “I’m confident that lake surfing here will continue to grow and progress into something new and creative. I don’t think it’ll blow up huge…its a pretty relaxed scene.”

At the 57th Street Beach the fleeting nature of some of their mainstream acclaim will not stop the surfers from enjoying the waves. The inclusion of 57th Street Beach on the Parks District’s list of permitted surfing locations has carved out a distinct role for the South Side and Hyde Park in the expansion of this intriguing city spectacle. Killion sees the area as distinctly suited to keep surfers satisfied: “57th has Promontory Point reaching out and allowing the wave energy to slow down and wrap in around it…Waves are just as good here or even better than the ocean.”

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