These Ontario surfers ride the Great Lakes’ wild waves in the dead of winter
When filmmaker Jake Kovnat was growing up in Rochester, he always dreamed of hitting the surf. He imagined himself catching waves on the American coastline and hopped on skateboards and snowboards to tide himself over. He moved to Toronto in 2003 to study film and found an unlikely surfer’s paradise: the Great Lakes.
Surfing the Greats might sound like a rogue sport, but more and more people are flocking to their shores, boards in tow. Kovnat initially assumed they hit the water only on particularly gusty days or for competitions, but Canadian surfers constantly live a life aquatic. The community is smaller than the scores of beach bums you’d find on the coast, but they’re dedicated: they surf in freezing waters, wear heavy-duty wetsuits and brave dangerous, rocky terrain to catch good surf. Kovnat was so inspired by these surfers he decided to create a film documenting the Ontario scene, On Days Like These We Must Surf. We spoke to him about the community and surfing in sub-zero temperatures.
Kovnat surfed his first Great Lake, Erie, in November 2015. “I just got pounded,” he says. “But I was so happy to be out there: I’m floating in this water that’s freezing cold. I should be dying of hypothermia but I’m having a blast. It was a surreal experience. I stood up only once or twice, but I was elated that I was surfing in my own town.” He returned to the shore earlier this year, this time to film. Here, Kovnat’s cinematographer, Kris Bonnell, is pictured filming in Oshawa.
One of Kovnat’s first ambassadors to the surf was Larry Cavero, pictured here on Lake Erie in Port Colborne, a Peruvian-born surfer who works on dental equipment at George Brown by day and runs a surf shop out of his basement in Brampton by night. He’s been surfing the Greats since 2009. “Larry took me out and let me borrow a board for free,” says Kovnat. Cavero features prominently in the film, as does Antonio Lennert, a graphic designer who founded Surf the Greats, a shop and resource guide for Great Lakes surfers.
Kovnat filmed in Lake Erie and Ontario—this shot was taken in Oshawa—primarily in the fall and winter. The best surf occurs from late September to the end of the year, when strong winds yield big waves, there aren’t ice chunks floating around and the water is still a little warm. Storms can bring quality surf in the summer, too, so riders watch the forecast for heavy winds (Lennert even leads forecasting workshops). “We’re like the opposite of everywhere else,” says Kovnat. “The worse the weather gets, the more enthusiastic surfers become.”
Kovnat got this shot at the Scarborough Bluffs. “El Niño made for a mild winter last year, which meant warmer temps on the lakes, not as many crazy storms,” he says. “Still, we were filming in February, and the water was basically zero degrees. It was just like stepping into ice water. You might as well be in the Arctic.”
A common sight in the scene: surfers rising from the water looking like White Walkers, chunks of ice hanging from their foreheads and chins. As soon as they’re on dry land, they race to their cars, blast the heat and melt it all away. While wetsuits generally keep surfers’ body temperatures at a safe level, the ice can compromise their mobility in the water. “We didn’t get as much footage of the guys with the frozen beards as we would have liked,” Kovnat admits, “but I think we still captured the essence in the film.”
Kovnat hopes to expand the short documentary into a series or a feature-length film that covers all of the Great Lakes. He says better surf can be found on Huron and the northern shores of Superior. “Guys in Minnesota and Wisconsin are getting some great surf.”
An earlier version of this post misidentified cinematographer Kris Bonnell as Jake Kovnat.