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.
Stand Up Paddling on Lake Huron
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.’
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.
SUP in Ontario
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.
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.
Watching the Seagulls
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.
Great Bend, Ontario
Later in the week, we start out near the southern boundary of the Pinery Provincial Park and paddle north with the wind at our backs.
Gliding along with the wind-driven bumps that nudge us steadily toward our designated endpoint.
The afternoon sun wanes, and the strong winds that propelled our journey weaken as our downwind adventure transitions to a calm sunset cruise.
We approach Grand Bend’s south beach – the horizon aglow in ascending shades of orange, red and violet layers.
The lighthouse tower stands at the end of the pier – a silhouetted sentry watching over the harbour mouth.
After a day on the water, we are eager to refuel, sipping ice cold beers on the patio at a beachfront watering hole.
The shops, bars and restaurants of the strip pulse with music and the infectious vibe that endless summers are made of – a little something for everyone.
For a more relaxed atmosphere, we need only travel a few minutes north of Grand Bend on Highway 21 to arrive in Bayfield, a small heritage village.
The town square offers shopping, food and drink with an impressive selection of Ontario craft brewed beers, regional wines and even fresh-pressed juices and smoothies.
Bayfield also has a picturesque beach with a fairly consistent pier break for surfing that goes off with a strong west wind.
A little further up the highway still, we find the most impressive freshwater surf break on the Great Lakes – Kincardine’s Station Beach has been voted one of the top places to surf in Canada – second only to world-famous Tofino, British Columbia.
Here, you can rent a board, compete in a SUP race or just check out the summer scene in Lake Huron’s premier surf town.
If summertime crowds don’t appeal, an off-season visit can also be memorable – the ‘West Shore Huron Classic’ surf competition gives a firsthand glimpse of true lake stoke.
Although weather conditions ultimately dictate whether or not the contest is a go, the festive atmosphere and genuine appreciation for the Great Lakes can be felt among the participants and spectators alike.
The contest not only showcases the best freshwater surfers from the Great Lakes community.
As a designated qualifier event for the ‘Tofino Rip Curl Pro’ Canadian Surfing Championship. It also draws a handful of surfers from around the world.
The lack of a nearby ocean does little to deter stand up paddlers and surfers here – Lake Huron may seem a lifetime removed from world famous surf breaks like ‘Pipeline’ on the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii, or ‘Mavericks’ in Northern California.
But that has not hindered the emergence of a true freshwater surf renaissance that continues to thrive.
From the pioneering lake surfers who paved the way – braving ice, snow and bitter cold, to the youngest grommet wetting his or her paddle for the very first time.
The Aloha spirit is certainly alive and well on Lake Huron and throughout the Great Lakes region.
If You Go:
Retail & Rentals:
West Shore Clothing and Surf Shoppe – Kincardine, Ontario
Races & Contests:
Author Bio: Scott Arseneault is an adventure-minded traveler with a passion for storytelling. His travels are often inspired by the natural environment, the people and places he encounters along the way, and a desire to share these experiences with others. Since his introduction to stand up paddling and surfing about six years ago he has found himself immersed in surf culture, and he rarely hits the road or water without a board of some sort to compliment his notepad and camera.