Surfing Lake Superior

I was born and raised in Northern Wisconsin, up in the Snowbelt of Lake Superior. In the early 1900s, that area was heavily mined for iron. There was about a thirty-mile iron range that played a huge role in feeding the Industrial Revolution. The highest-grade iron ore in the world was here.

Photos by Rebecca Holm

Gerry Nasi | Montreal, WI

My paternal grandfather worked as an iron miner and a lumberjack. He was also a deputy and a big giant man. There was a lot of alcohol, prostitution, and gambling going on in the area with all the miners, but he was the big brute that they would send into the lumber camps to drag somebody back by the collar. So he was a legend in our eyes. 

By the time I was born, all the iron mines were already closed. Where I lived, there was a prevailing thought that there was something wrong because the mines were gone, that things weren’t going to be good until the mines returned. I kind of lived in the shadow of that all my life. There was a copper mine that stayed open just across the border in the Upper Peninsula, which lasted into the 1980s. When it finally closed, everybody thought that the whole area was going to blow away, but I guess the people who stayed were a little bit tougher than that.

The village of Pence where I lived only had around two hundred people. It was an idyllic childhood in a typical small town with a two-classes-per-room school. We lived a very outdoorsy life, we were on water skis all summer, on snowmobiles in the winter, and always in the woods. That’s where I got my love for the outdoors, which has been a huge part of almost everything I have done throughout my life. 

I didn’t hunt, I found no pleasure in killing things or hooking them by the lips. My brothers and my dad did and spent time with them in the hunting camp and on the fishing boat, but I’d be the guy who would just drive the boat. My family never really judged me for that. Even without a gun in my hand, I was always included.

I am mechanically inclined and very much enjoy junk. Growing up, my brothers and I were always tinkering in the garage, maybe we were building a snowmobile or a car. My mom was good-natured about it. She’d leave her car sitting outside in the winter, and as long as we were working on what we were doing, we could have all the space we wanted. But if we let it sit for a week, we’d find our junk out in the snowbank and her car in its place.

That mechanical nature carried me through my career in construction. We had a family construction business that we ran for twenty-seven years. We built houses, schools, town, and emergency buildings, and stuff like that. It was kind of all-consuming.

I have always been a bit of a science geek and have a tremendous reverence for the weather and the natural world. So when I was in my early twenties, I got my pilot’s license. At that time, nothing was digital. You flew by charts and went by weather. It’s really a very intellectual adventure because there are so many things you have to be conscious of and processing when you fly, which I loved. There’s a real freedom to it. Once you get up at altitude in a small plane, it looks like the world is spinning underneath you. It’s like you’re floating above everything, which is a very cool and otherworldly feeling.

Learning to fly gave me a tremendous respect for the conditions that exist in the natural world. I loved being at the mercy of these larger forces because I was just fascinated by the world around me. We’d see these accident reports, which were almost always down to pilot error or weather. So that really imprinted upon me how vulnerable you are when you’re in the air, and how you really have to respect nature to stay alive. It is ultimately more important to understand the weather than to know how to manipulate the controls on the plane to make it fly. 

Being at the mercy of nature is part of the history and culture of how I grew up. It is this understanding that helped me successful surf Lake Superior and eventually build my cabin and live off the grid in the far northern corner of Wisconsin.

I married young and had three children, so I wasn’t really in the same place in my life with a lot of my peers. They might have just been getting married when I was raising children, or they might be having children while I was getting divorced. That may be why I started surfing on Lake Superior when I was thirty years old.

Gerry Nasi of Northern Wisconsin dreamed of surfing, so he built himself a surfboard to chase the Lake Superior waves.

Listen to Gerry describe how he prepares to surf on Lake Superior.

Living in California and being a surfer was always this dream of mine. So I built myself a surfboard out of wood in my garage and started going out on Lake Superior. I didn’t know how to build a surfboard, but I did get a set of plans and put it together. I didn’t know it would even work, but it seemed like a nice distraction, and it was fun. 

It took a while to get the hang of surfing, but I just tried different things. I failed miserably at it for months and I couldn’t figure out why. I didn’t know about board wax or any technique or anything. Then one day, I happened to pick up a surfing magazine off of a newsstand in the UP and opened it up. There was an ad for a surf shop in Huntington Beach, California, so I called and I got a really nice salesperson. After I told him what I was doing, there was an awkward silence for a moment, but then he gave me a really nice over-the-phone surf lesson. When he asked me about water temperature, I really surprised him when I said it could be as cold as 30-something degrees.

He asked me if that was  Celsius or Fahrenheit. When I said Fahrenheit, he asked, “Oh, where the hell are you?” I said, “Lake Superior. It’s not going well.”

This California surfing salesman told me the biggest thing was that I needed board wax. In the Midwest, we think of wax as a smooth and shiny surface, so it seemed counterintuitive. But he said this wax would make the board sticky so your feet could adhere to the surface. Then he told me about how to pop up and stand on the board. For probably ten years after that call I never had to buy board wax. It automatically appeared in my mail from the surf shop as long as that person was employed there. He kept me stocked, which was pretty cool.

One thing I loved about surfing in Wisconsin is I had to be really engaged with the weather. I could only get good-sized waves when it would storm because it’s not like Lake Superior has ocean waves. After a while, I could gauge how the weather would affect the surfing conditions, and what predictions were actually going to materialize into good storms. It was really rewarding to get out there just as a storm was coming in when the waves were just right and I could get a good ride in.

Predicting the exact timing of the waves was extremely rewarding. Some people snickered, and a lot of people thought it was ridiculous, but I took that as a badge of honor. There is a certain smug reward with doing something that you want to do that people say you shouldn’t attempt.

There was one time when I didn’t think it would be too dangerous, but it was. I went out between the break walls of the harbor and magically caught these almost perfect, well-spaced waves. They were more like what you’d see in the Pacific Ocean and I had the ride of a lifetime time. The second time I paddled out, I wasn’t able to time entry correctly. The wave stalled out and then crashed on top of me. The force of it ground me right into the sand at the bottom of the lake. 

Somehow, I popped up and I was absolutely no worse for the wear. But then a split second later, my big, heavy wooden board came up and it hit me in the face. It didn’t knock me unconscious, but it was very, very close. I still don’t know what happened from the moment that board hit me in the face until I was sitting on the shore and realizing that I was injured. I was incredibly lucky with that one.

Most of the time I didn’t feel that I was in any real danger, though maybe that was hubris. By the time any storm was getting too bad, it would be getting too difficult to surf anyway. But just like with flying, I loved the feeling of being at the mercy of the elements. I had to have a high sense of situational awareness but ultimately was able to feel so close to nature and feel like a small part of these much greater forces.

Today I live in a cabin off-grid, on 20 acres out in the woods overlooking the Gile Floage. After my second divorce, I came out here and stayed in my camper trying to figure out what my life was going to look like. I spent 17 months in that camper through one-and-a-half brutal Wisconsin winters, and one thing I realized is that I was exactly where I wanted to be. So I stayed and this probably is going to be the last place I live.

Gerry describes the impact of his off-grid life in the Northwoods.

Before moving here I spent close to ten years working in the oil fields. I’d be on working rotation, which meant I still lived in Wisconsin, but I would be gone working for months at a time. I built camps for a year, then maintained them for a year, then went to the oil fields in North Dakota, Texas, Utah, and Colorado. Some of it was the adventure of going somewhere different, but mostly it was for the money. 

I worked all over North America in the oil fields from the Arctic down to the Gulf of Mexico, and I’ll tell you, no matter where you go, there’s something beautiful to see. When people talk about places like Nebraska, all you hear is, ‘Oh, that’s flyover country. It’s boring. It’s dull.’ But one of the most amazing spectacles I ever saw was the sandhill crane migration over the Platte River. Literally every sandhill crane on the planet is in this relatively small area at one time around Easter time, and it’s just otherworldly. The flocks would take off and it would literally darken the sun for a few moments. The cacophony was just overwhelming. 

I’m not really proud of the work I did in the oil fields, I saw the ecological impact of fracking. But I guess I kind of rationalized it that if somebody has to be there, at least I’ll try and do the best job I can so it might not be as bad as it could have been. You always have to make the best of whatever hand you’re dealt at any given time. It was stunning to see the explosive growth and the social ills that accompanied the oil industry coming in. And of course, the people who lived there paid a very high price. 

In many ways, it was like witnessing what the mining towns would have been like when my grandparents were working there. It was like the Wild West all over again. I would love to go back now, ten to twelve years removed, and see what life there has become.  I’m sure they must be settling into some sort of a norm, and I think that might put my mind a little bit at ease because I do feel bad about taking part in the environmental scarring and industral blight that was left upon previsly pristine Old West landscapes.

I think that’s why I live the way I do now, in a cabin off the grid. My electricity is generated by solar panels and windmills. There is absolutely no connection to the outside world except for my cell phone. I’ve got awesome 5G here, so I can use the hotspot for internet, or to occasionally watch Survivor or the Packer games. I am keeping a blog about what I’m doing out here, and whether living in the woods had a positive or a negative impact ecologically. 

To figure this out, I factored in everything. My road coming in to the cabin is a little bit more than half a mile long, but I made it myself. For the first winter and a half, I had to snowmobile in and out. But even when I factor in snow removal and everything else, my carbon footprint is about 17% of a normal household, and my water consumption is way below that. My garbage output is also tremendously low. 

As much as it seems counterintuitive, I think it’s a very luxurious lifestyle. Most people wouldn’t associate living off-grid with luxury, but I built this beautiful home myself. There are pieces of driftwood incorporated into the railings and other parts of the home. I wake up to a beautiful view every morning and have a cross-country ski trail that’s probably sixty feet from my door. The winter has become a very social season with people passing by all the time on the trail. They stop and visit with me, so really it’s not that different than the way anybody else lives. 

In many ways, my life is inspired by my grandpa who was an iron miner and a lumberjack. He owned and cared for 120 acres, and he had it looking like a park in there. He only ever cut down the dead or dying trees. He had worked in the lumber yards, and when they got to the end of the forest they’d have to turn around and walk back through the stumps they cut. That must have had an impact on him because he always said, ‘I don’t cut the live trees anymore.’ And now it is the same with me. I never thought about the damage I was doing during the oil field years, but I thought about it a lot afterward. Now, I try to do what I can to live in peace with nature instead.

 

 

Gerry's grandfather was a miner and a lumberjack, whose philosophy of land stayed with Gerry through his years working in the oil fields, and led him to build a cabin and live off the grid in the Northwoods.

 Gerry’s story was produced by Alexandria Delcourt. Check out Gerry’s blog, ‘The Unexpected Mininalmist.

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