Lake Michigan Surfers Promote Great Lakes Protection

Aug 20, 2014

It wasn't surfing weather, but after our conversation Eric Gietzen headed out for a quiet paddle at Atwater Beach.
Credit S Bence

This Saturday, surfers will descend on Atwater Beach on Lake Michigan's shore.  

They're not just out to ride the waves; they want more people to get involved in protecting the Great Lakes.

Eric Gietzen and Kenneth Cole are avid surfers and two of  Surf @Water 2014 creators.

Now a Shorewood resident, Cole is a Chicago native who first took up surfing in Hawaii.

“I was doing my [psychology] internship on Oahu back in 1994. I fell in love with it," Cole says. "It’s the type of thing, once you start it’s hard to stop. So when I moved back to the Midwest, I did an internet search and found out folks were surfing in the Great Lakes, so I dove head-first back into it."

Kenneth Cole and Eric Gietzen - two of the organizers of Surf @Water 2014.

Shorewood native Eric Gietzen experienced his first wave unexpectedly, at a far younger age.

“A wave knocked me down and pulled me out; I almost died. Ever since I’ve been negotiating with waves in Lake Michigan,” Gietzen says.

Years later in 1986, a friend introduced him to a surfboard.

“He came home from Madison with a board he found in a junk pile and we took it out. That’s when we got hooked,” Gietzen says.

Gietzen and Cole are quick to say surfing the Great Lakes cannot compare to an ocean experience, but they say it has special qualities.

“We have this great feeling, this vibe among us that we do something unique and kind of crazy,” Gietzen adds.

He says the surf is usually best here when the weather is really bad, still Gietzen says, “a February day, it’s 20 degrees and I’m out with three of my friends and maybe my sons and we’re surfing; the sun comes out. It’s paradise. So that feeling is something unique to the Great Lakes.”

This Saturday’s event marks the second annual Surf @Water at Atwater Beach.

Here's a taste of last year's event:

It is tucked below the Village of Shorewood. This is a much more sedate scene than downtown Milwaukee’s popular Bradford Beach.

Cole and Gietzen say they aim to keep the event simple, so its mission remains clear.

“The mission is to make people aware of this amazing resource that we have and not necessarily a lot of other stuff," Geitzen says. "Help [people] make a connection of where they live, what we do and the potential of this resource."

“If you want to protect something,” Kenneth Cole adds, “you can’t just do a beach cleanup. It has to go much deeper than that.”

He hopes Surf @Water's film festival will welcome more people to the lake.

“One is about an African American surfer from the 1950s and one is about women over 50, I think, who surf. They’re both really moving," Cole says. "And then there’s one about Great Lakes surfers. It lets people know surfing goes beyond the surfer dude image and is really open to all folks. Which is something I personally would like to see more of here, because I think it’s important for people to come down and feel like they are welcome here.” 

In his other life, Gietzen teaches English at Shorewood High School. He's found a way to weave water awareness into his work. In 1998, Gietzen helped develop a class called Watershed Wisdom.

“We teach our students about the value of the Milwaukee River watershed and some of the challenges facing it,” Gietzen says.

He’s particularly concerned about the impacts of phosphorus.

“What just happened to Lake Erie, it may or may not happen here, but what we have in common is phosphorus," Gietzen says. "There is plenty of phosphorus being dumped in our watersheds and that’s what leads to algae growth and when it starts washing up on our shorelines and people look at it and smell it and see it, they say that’s disgusting, I’m going to the pool. We need to reverse that cycle.”

Gietzen and Cole hope Surf @Water will inspire people to love Lake Michigan, “if you love it, you can save it.”