A winter sport pioneer wants you to try this on Lake Superior

MARQUETTE, Mich. (WJMN) — Years after being inspired by “Surfer Dan” to push his boat into the icy waters of Lake Superior, a local kayak instructor is asking the community to try the sport he’s pioneering in the region.

“In the paddle sports community, what I do is sea kayak surfing,” said James Lasak, a 24-year-old kayak guide and instructor. “But if you look at what typical sea kayak surfing is, it’s not what I’m doing.”

Standard kayak surfing, like its board sport counterpart, is often done in the ocean. Searching videos online, you’ll see athletes in blue, spacious waters and wearing short-sleeved wetsuits—if that.

In comparison, the wintertime surf on Lake Superior looks daunting, chaotic and impassible.

Lasak works giving tours and training other paddleboat guides around Munising’s Pictured Rocks in the summer, and lives in Marquette year-round. But on blustering winter days, he can often be found off-shore somewhere in between in search of waves approaching 10 feet.

I met James at his second-floor Marquette apartment in mid-February. Drysuits, helmets, GoPro cameras and other gear covered a pool table in a common area. He was getting ready for what he suspected could be the biggest wave day of a to-date very disappointing season. “What we really are passionate about is the big stuff,” said Lasak, refreshing a National Weather Service wave forecast on his laptop.

“My first realization that this stuff can be done out here in the winter was Surfer Dan,” Lasak explained. “Then I was like, ‘okay, well, we get our big waves in the winter. These surfers on boards are out there in the winter doing it in wetsuits. If dry suits keep you totally dry, why wouldn’t I be able to go out there in the winter in a drysuit?’ I’m just I’m just a surfer at heart chasing waves, but I’m doing it in a boat rather than on a board.”

Intermingled among Lasak’s gear was equipment belonging to Bryce Page, a green kayak guide who Lasak had instructed the season prior. Before Page picked up the sport, Lasak had been paddling into the frigid waters solo.

“Bryce Page came to me as a guide in training in 2023. I’m a guide trainer for Picture Rocks Kayaking, and he was a new trainee,” said Lasak. “He took to the sport is kayaking much like I did. You know, he had no idea that you could do all this stuff in a in a kayak. And he is just completely committed himself to learning everything he can about it.”

The sport is physically demanding, with dangers that can be as unpredictable as the weather. Lasak illustrates his point, recounting a trip he and Page took earlier in the season.

“We’re like, ‘all right, we’re going to paddle the rocks,’ and we were keeping an eye on the forecast. The forecast is always wrong… it just depends on how wrong, on this lake,” said Lasak.

“At the beginning, it was relatively flat, which is what it was forecasted. And then it was supposed to build to 6 to 7 feet as the evening went on. So when we started out, it was maybe 2 to 4-foot rollers coming in and bouncing off the cliffs.

They stopped for lunch at Mosquito Beach boiling water to heat up their hands and feet. In the hour that we broke for lunch, Lasak said, conditions went from 4-foot waves to consistent 6-footers, with some 7-foot crests in the mix. “That’s how fast as they can change,” said Lasak.

He described how the cliffs affect the waves. “What they’ll do is they ride up the cliff, face and then they ride back down the cliff face and they build with incoming waves. So you can have a 4-foot wave come in, build with a 4-foot wave that’s reflecting off the cliff face and boom, now it’s an 8-foot wave. You don’t have time to think. It’s all your reactions.”

“It wasn’t like it was a surprise to us, but now we’re five miles out with 2 hours of daylight and we’re in six and seven foot waves, which still we’re okay. But what happens on the rocks is it’s not a beach, it’s sheer cliff face. So we don’t have a break.”

“So we go another mile, a mile and a half down, down the cliff, face down, down the cliff line before we were really getting concerned with daylight. We’re basically racing the sunset now and we’re still in 6- and 8-foot reflecting waves.

“That’s what the draw is for me. You know, if there’s not that risk, that impending risk, where okay, if you don’t if you don’t do the right things, you know, something bad happen that drives me to perform, you know, at my peak,” said Lasak.

On this day in mid-February, however, the waves don’t deliver as expected. The storm that promised waves half a dozen feet high instead sends 4-footers and blistering, whiteout snow squalls. Despite their high hopes, both Lasak and Page still paddle out to enjoy what they were given.

“It’s an extreme sport and it’s as valid as whitewater kayaking, it’s as valid as downhill skiing or cliff jumping,” Lasak said. “It can take you places and offer experiences that no other recreation sport can.”

Moving forward, Lasak says he wants to connect with people in the community who are interested in the sport, and teach people who want to learn how.

“I know there’s people in the area that would take to this like I did when I first got into it, and I just want to be able to share that with the local community. And then long term, you know, maybe, maybe regionally. I kind of want to be the face of Lake Superior Sea kayaking. I want to be taking people out on these trips,” said Lasak.

To connect with Lasak, he says the best way to get in touch is through his Instagram account Superior Sea Kayak. He invites anyone interested in learning more about the sport to reach out.

Midwest

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