Northern Wilds Magazine
Surfing has been happening on the Great Lakes since at least the 1940s. | KEVIN JACOBSEN

Surfing Superior: Keeping the Stoke Alive on a Cold Lake

Imagine a cold, dreary April day on Lake Superior.

The sky is overcast and gray. Sleet is falling onto the patches of snow and ice that linger on the exposed trunks of trees, whipped sideways by a steady northeast wind. Standing on the shore, just out of reach of the largest waves, the only sounds that can be heard are those of bending trees and crashing water.

For most people, jumping into Lake Superior on a cold, windy day sounds like the definition of insanity, but for the North Shore surf community, days like the one described above are when the lake is at its best.

“Up here, it doesn’t matter how cold it is—when the surfing’s good, you gotta go,” says Jerome “Jerry” Fischer, owner of The Back Alley in Duluth. “You just never know when they’ll be back.”

“People think we’re crazy, surfing out in the cold water,” says Adam Goplin, a local “legend” who learned to surf in Oregon, before moving to Duluth with his wife and kids in 2015, “but it’s not as bad as it looks.”

“The wetsuit technology has come a long way since people started surfing the Great Lakes,” continues Goplin. “A lot of times, the only thing that’s keeping me from surfing longer on a cold day is that my shoulders ice up—it’s hard to paddle when your shoulders are covered in ice.”

For some surfers, the fact that surfing is often best on “bad weather days” was the reason why they got into the sport in the first place.

“I’d always see people surfing on days where I didn’t know what to do,” says Kyle Johnson, Duluth-based adventurer who has been surfing for just under two years. “Surfing happens in that in-between season when bike trails are closed, but there isn’t enough snow to ski.”

“On the crappiest days when there is nothing else do,” continues Johnson, “that’s usually when there are waves.”

Back Alley owner Jerry Fischer and Navie holding up a Castle Glass board. |JERRY FISCHER

Surfing has been happening on the Great Lakes since at least the 1940s. Recently, however, it has gone through a relative “explosion” in popularity according to Jerry and the other surfers interviewed for this article.

Now, when the waves are “good” at some of the more popular surf spots like Park Point and Stony Point, it’s not uncommon to see lines of neoprene-clad people in the water out chasing waves.

“Within the nine years that I’ve been surfing [the North Shore],” says Goplin, “I’ve seen the amount of people out surfing on any given day quadruple in size.”

“It can be frustrating at times, no doubt,” continues Goplin, “But you know, I’m a part of it, I’m a part of the chaos. And, so long as people aren’t in over their heads, are being safe, and are keeping the stoke, it’s awesome that they’re out there. I love that the sport has caught on like it has, and I’m grateful for the community that has sprung up around it.”

At the center of the growing North Shore Surfing community is The Back Alley—a small coffee/surf/local art shop tucked away down an alley in west Duluth.

Deceptively inconspicuous, The Back Alley, as a business, offers surf gear, specialty coffee drinks, local art, and “events for all,” but its value to the community goes well beyond the quality of its goods.

“We’re all about supporting local,” says Jerry, “from local coffee roasters to local artists to local board brands like Castle Glass. It’s not all about surfing—that’s just something that brings us together, something that helps us connect.”

“The way I see it,” continues Jerry, “community is everything, and The Back Alley is here to be a good host for its community.”

Since opening in 2018, The Back Alley has become a gathering spot for the local surf scene. It’s both a place where beginners can go for gear and insight into how to safely get into the sport, and where seasoned surfers can find reliable “beta” on surfing Superior’s unique, often elusive, freshwater waves.

The North Shore surf scene is definitely alive and thriving. | BOB KUBITZ

“When someone new to the sport comes in to buy a board,” says Jerry, “we educate them. We walk them through ‘Superior surf etiquette,’ how to read conditions, and how to stay safe and make good choices. Helping people find the right gear is one thing, but making sure they know how to use it, that’s a big part of what we do.”

“We don’t offer classes yet,” continues Jerry, “but we’re all about education, and classes are something that we’re trying to figure out. We’re hosting a kid’s camp at Park Point, though, this summer, which is going to be super fun.”

Jerry grew up in Ellsworth, Wis.,—a small farming community with a population of 3,000—before moving to Duluth for school in 2008. Except for a three-year stint between 2014-2017 living in St. Paul, Jerry has considered the North Shore home ever since.

“Like a lot of people, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life when I started school,” says Jerry, who graduated UMD with a degree in economics and marketing.

“Not going to lie,” continues Jerry, “I’ve forgotten a lot of what I learned [in school], but the experience was great for networking, for connecting with the community.”

While living in St. Paul and working other jobs, Jerry and his wife Riah had the idea to start hosting “Back Alley Pop-up” events out of the garage in their apartment unit. At these pop-ups, Jerry and Riah sold vintage finds, local art, a variety of “cool stuff” from family and friends, and leather camp chairs—a.k.a “Jerry Chairs”—that Jerry still crafts and sells today at The Back Alley.

“We had three [Back Alley pop-ups] down in St. Paul,” says Jerry. “My family would come and bring stuff, and we had friends that would bring gear that they didn’t use, art, and whatever else. A lot of the local brands that we carry at The Back Alley—like Leather Works Minnesota—first started working with us at the pop-ups.”

“But then,” continues Jerry, “when we moved back up to Duluth, people kept asking us where our next pop-up was going to be. That’s when we started looking for space, and when the idea for The Back Alley started to come together.”

It wasn’t a seamless transition from pop-up events to a brick-and-mortar shop, but with the support of Jerry and Riah’s impressive community of surfers, artists, and craftspeople, coupled with a serious effort on their part—juggling jobs and parenthood in the pursuit of this dream—The Back Alley eventually transformed a forgotten garage in Lincoln Park into the social hub that it is today.

Duluth surfer Carly Weiss covered in ice. | CARLY WEISS

Sipping coffee at The Back Alley as a non-surfer, I found the culture and the community atmosphere of the place to be contagious. Everyone who walked in the door that morning seemed to know each other, and those who surfed were happy to share their experiences on the water.

“The first day that I stood up and actually made a turn,” says Brent “Butch” Johnson, who bought his first surfing set-up from The Back Alley two seasons ago, “that was an amazing day, but, in my mind, that’s not what it is all about.”

“The in-the-water experience,” continues Butch, “where you’re sitting on the energy of the Lake, just feeling it, and looking back at the city, or out across the Lake. Just being in the water, in a lot of ways, that’s the best part of surfing.”

“My first time out in the waves, I wouldn’t describe it as scary,” says Carly Weiss, a Duluth surfer who, according to Jerry, absolutely rips on a surfboard, “but it was hard, it was really hard.”

“I was surprised at how discombobulating it was,” continues Weiss. “I just felt like, I had this little board under me in these massive waves, and I didn’t know what to do with it, so I kept getting tossed around. Learning [to surf] was humbling.”

Since catching her first wave in 2018, Carly has become a passionate member of the surf community—surfing Superior in all of its weather, and traveling as far as California, Mexico, and Puerto Rico in search of waves.

“There is a strong community of female surfers up here,” says Weiss. “I know a number of women who surf, and it’s fun to be in the water with other women.”

“When I first learned to surf it was mostly with guys,” continues Weiss. “It’s fine to surf with guys of course, but it’s comforting to surf with other women.”

For more information on what it’s like to surf on the North Shore, stop by The Back Alley for a cup of coffee, or visit:

Related posts

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More

Verified by MonsterInsights