The waves of Milwaukee’s surf culture

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Photo by Adam Horton

John Altmann is not a stereotypical surfer guy.

The words “dude” and “bro” aren’t even in his vocabulary.

And one of his favorite surfing spots is — believe it or not — Lake Michigan in Milwaukee.

Altmann gets the same reaction each time someone discovers this about him: surfing in Wisconsin?

“I get that all the time,” he said. “I just say to them, ‘It’s better than you think.’ “

Call it an anomaly, but Altmann and a select number of devotees are living proof that a surfing culture exists not only in Southern California, but in southern Wisconsin.

It’s like a secret,” he said. “A bunch of us have this secret.”

If that sounds crazy, consider this: Lake Michigan surfers do their thing in the winter, when the waves on the Great Lake pick up enough to ride.

And, yes, it is cold.

“You have to have the right gear,” he said. “Or you suffer.”

Altmann was a 28-year-old cement contractor when he picked up his unusual habit from another Lake Michigan surfer. At the time, Altmann worked summers in Milwaukee and skipped town in the winter to ski in Wyoming.

That all changed the day he discovered surfing.

“It was just really exciting,” he said. “I think I got, like, maybe a couple of rides, which in hindsight was pretty good.”

It wasn’t quite like any activity he tried before. “It’s kind of like a dance,” he said. “It’s about connecting with the water and the energy. It sounds so stupid, but it gets into the realm of magical and spiritual.”

After discovering surfing, Altmann headed for the water instead of the mountains in the late fall and winter. He took off work every year and drove around in his 1973 Ford van searching for surfing sites. His passion took him to the top spots in the world: Hawaii, Florida, California, Mexico, Costa Rica.

One year, Altmann surfed all winter while crashing in actor Christopher Lloyd’s posh guest house in Santa Barbara, Calif. He plans on bunking with friends in South Africa later this winter. But Altmann never leaves town without first getting his fill of Lake Michigan.

A excellent day for surfing in Lake Michigan may be just an average day on the ocean, Altmann said. The lake waves are smaller and less predictable. Some days, a two-hour session might afford just five minutes standing up on the board.

Then there’s the potential hypothermia. Even with a sturdy wetsuit to keep warm, limbs stiffen and faces go numb. One November day in 1995, Altmann and his surfer buddies endured a windchill factor of 6 degrees below zero just for some killer breaks on Bradford Beach.

“Your body starts to shut down with the cold,” Altmann said. “After 45 minutes, I don’t care what you’re wearing; you have to get out of the water.”

Despite the hardships, Altmann considers Lake Michigan one of his favorite surfing spots. Unlike coastal waters where there’s fierce competition for waves, Lake Michigan’s forbidding environment fosters a low-key and tight-knit community. Altmann estimates that fewer than 30 people in the Milwaukee area regularly surf Lake Michigan’s chilly but uncrowded shores.
Plus, there’s just something about surfing a Great Lake.

“Maybe it’s just the novelty of it,” Altmann said. “It’s a California thing. It’s not supposed to be here.”

I wrote this in 2005 for now-defunct Milwaukee weekly MKE

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Educator. Podcast addict. Wrote a book about creativity: http://bit.ly/thecreativejourney

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