Riding frozen waves

In the 2001 documentary film “Dogtown & Z-Boys,” about the birth of skateboarding culture in Venice Beach, California, in the late 1970s, former members of the Zephyr competition skateboarding team describe the skateboarding style they developed as an emulation of surfing on a static, concrete landscape. In the drought years of 1970s California, they rode their skateboards in concrete drainage ditches and empty swimming pools. Concrete waves.

In “Skateboard Kings,” a documentary shot decades earlier, featuring the same skateboarders while they were actively engaged in catalyzing modern skateboarding, skateboard is depicted as a secondary pastime for the Zephyrs, pursued when the the ocean failed to provide the kind of waves necessary for their first passion: surfing.

My own limited experience with surfing has left me with little doubt as to why people become so passionate about it, even to the point of traveling the world in search of good surf, as Michael Hynson and Robert August did in Bruce Brown’s 1966 film “The Endless Summer.”

Here in the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan, the Endless Winter is more familiar to us. I’ve heard of surfers around here who put on dry suits and ride the waves of Lake Superior in December. But by all accounts, the Big Lake’s early winter waves are too big, ragged, gnarly, and unpredictable for me to contemplate trying my luck.

So I’ll use frozen water as a stand-in for surf. On Tuesday, I went to Mont Ripley to test some analogies between snowboarding and surf riding.


The light in the establishing shots to “Endless Summer” is singular. The shots are of sunrises, sunsets, and afternoon sun. There are bright yellow and orange skies, and heat waves distorting the people, their cars, and their surfboards. Brown probably achieved the garish effects using some pretty heavy filters. The Tuesday afternoon light on the Keweenaw snow was colder, a blue cast rather than a golden one. My ski goggles have yellow lenses, however, so it looked something like surf light.

The Wait

Part of surfing is floating in the ocean, astride the board, legs dangling in the salt water, waiting for the next wave. Sitting on the chairlift, legs dangling in the air, has something in common with this, though the chair’s arrival at the top of the slope is much more predictable than the arrival of the next good surfing wave.

Catching a Wave

When the right wave does come along, out there on the surf break, you point the nose of your board toward shore and paddle like crazy. It requires a well-timed burst of really intense paddling to catch a wave, or else it just rolls right under the board. This aspect is pretty singular to surfing, but it requires the same sort of mindset I try to put myself in at the start of a snowboard run: a concentrated state of excitement.

Riding the Wave

The greatest satisfaction I have experienced as a novice longboard surfer is settling into the curl of a long, clean wave and taking it for a long, smooth ride parallel to the shore. It’s a sensation that’s hard to describe, but I was able to approximate it by making long passes across the face of the ski hill. There was a lot of ski traffic at Mont Ripley on Tuesday, so I only attempted a few of these transects. But with gravity propelling me on a long, smooth line, and the sun shining yellow through my goggles, I was definitely riding a frozen wave.