All over the world there are pockets of surfers waiting for that tidal bore, tanker or lake swell to give them their fix.
In Canada sits one such community of great-lakes based surfers, where a harsh and fickle playing field has spawned a community of passionately dedicated surfers and photographers. We recently caught up with one such Great Lakes enthusiast Ryan Osman to see some of his work and find out more about the scene.
Who are you, where are you from and how long have you been shooting?
My name is Ryan Osman. I am a recent graduate from the Water Resources Engineering Master’s program at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada and I am a Great Lakes surf photographer.
I was born in Mauritius, a small island in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar. I am very fortunate that growing up, my parents would take my brother, my sister and I for hikes, spend days at the beach and eventually start travelling abroad on family trips. As long as I can remember, I have always enjoyed the ocean and travelling, but I was never really keen on being in front of a camera. Eventually on our family trips, I started becoming the family photographer.
It was in 2011 that I moved to Canada to pursue my degree . Completing my degree was very time consuming and intense. I found time during the holidays to do photography, something I had grown passionate about over the years. In 2014, I jokingly submitted a photo to the University’s journal of the visual and literary arts and made the cover. Less than a year later, I decided to buy a new camera and really work on improving my photography skills. I was hooked.
In 2015, I took a trip to the East coast of Canada. While surfing, I injured my knee, and so, I found myself on the shore for a large amount of time photographing surfers. I loved it. There is something so captivating about surf photography – being able to capture shots of people who are so “in-tune” with nature, and becoming aware of the amplitude and power of it. When I came back to Ontario, I spent even more time on my photography.
One day, my friend Mark (who is a surfer) told me about trying to go surf the Great Lakes at a spot by his home. Before moving to Canada, I was completely unaware of the Great Lakes, and like many, I had no idea people surfed there. I was pleasantly surprised. I started surfing the Great Lakes with my friends Mark and Pat on a regular basis, and that slowly became the main focus of my photography.
Tell me about the waves there?
The Great Lakes can be surfed all year round, except for a couple months in the winter when they freeze over. The Great Lakes rely on strong winds to generate waves (low and high pressure systems).
These winds are produced by local weather systems in the region. Consequently, the waves we have are generally smaller, less powerful, less predictable and have a shorter period than ocean waves. Surfing on the Great Lakes involves a lot of paddling, being able to read the waves and adjust quickly to the changing wind directions. However, you can’t underestimate the power of the Great Lakes.
Waves on these lakes can get big, especially during winter storms. Waves up to 30 ft have been recorded and have sunk quite a few ships.
How do you go about finding the best spots? Does doing so require a unique knowledge of geography and weather patterns or are they similar to the kind of knowledge base you need to find waves in the ocean?
There are still a lot of undiscovered spots on the Great Lakes. If there are decent winds, you can probably surf anywhere. But to find better waves, it is a similar process as on the ocean: you tend to look for formations like piers, bays, coves or even the geology of the lakes. You also want to keep in mind the wind direction and how consistent the winds are going to be because the waves are so heavily influenced by these factors.
To score the ‘best’ waves, it sometimes requires travelling quite far. I have spent numerous hours in the car with my friends at crazy times just to go surfing at the better spots. I’ve also often met people who have travelled from far (sometimes over 6 hours) to surf for just one session. Many of us invest much time trying to get to the best waves because we are so passionate about surfing.
We could have often settled for the smaller and mushier waves, but travelling for that long for something better is part of the fun I guess. I always find that the best way to get started and find more consistent surf spots is to connect with the surf community. You will learn a lot from other experienced surfers and they will often help you know when and where to surf. Some local surfs shops have even started doing weather forecasting workshops to help new surfers better understand where to find waves.
Tell me about the surf community there?
I feel lucky to be surrounded by such a stoked community. In general the surf community is very diverse, tight and committed. There are surfers of different levels and age groups. People don’t only surf on the Great Lakes; you also have paddle boarders, windsurfers, body surfers and kite surfers. Everyone surfs happily together. There are smaller pockets around each lake and certain spots; but when you get in the water, all the surfers are stoked and welcoming.
Great Lakes surfers face very harsh and cold temperatures (sometimes below -15oC when accounting for the strong winds), wear 7-6 mm wetsuits for most of the year and yet everybody is having fun. I think that this a direct result of an older generation of landlocked surfers who decided to share their stoke with other landlocked surfers or surf enthusiasts. Also, there is currently a lot of surfers and shop owners who have contributed to keep the community together. I often see experienced surfers helping new surfers to get started.
I’ve seen quite a few times someone drop in on another’s wave and they end up just laughing it off. Another thing that I also find awesome is that more people/surf shops/ organizations (like the Lake Surfistas) are encouraging girls to go out in the water. The Great Lakes surf scene mostly consists of male surfers, but more girls are getting out there, and that’s a good thing for the sport and for the community in general.
How have the waves and the location lead to the creation of a unique surf community?
Being landlocked can be extremely frustrating, especially for people like myself who grew up by the ocean and have had to move more inland. A lot of people in Canada and in general tend to think that lakes can’t produce waves and can’t be surfed all year round. So, when you have a group of individuals, who suffer from ocean/waves withdrawal, and they discover that the Great Lakes are surfable, the stoke levels just skyrocket.
All of us know that the Great Lakes don’t produce the same caliber of quality waves as the oceans, but we are all so happy to be able to just go surf after work, on the weekends or in general. Any person who loves surfing, who got landlocked and suddenly discovers the Great Lakes becomes so stoked to go surf them.
The best time to surf the Great Lakes is during the cold months of the year. I would say that cold water surfing creates a very close knit community. I’m always amazed by the number of surfers who are out in such bad weather to catch some waves. Canadian winter storms are fickle and really cold, but it gets our blood pumping I guess.
What’s your favourite thing about shooting there?
Shooting on the Great Lakes make me so happy to be outside and in the water with my friends. I personally find that working in an office can be difficult and stressful (or maybe I’m just a millennial!). It feels amazing to just forget about all of that for a little bit and enjoy the nature that surrounds me.
It’s exciting! The conditions can be harsh but I really like how everyone is just smiling and happy to be out there. The waves are less predictable, your camera lens port starts freezing over and it requires a lot of swimming just to get a decent photo. The Great Lakes are tough and unwelcoming at times, but the whole experience can be so rewarding.
What’s been your best or most memorable experience?
There’s been quite a few memorable moments over the years but I will never forget my first surf session on the Great Lakes. It wasn’t that the waves were amazing, but just seeing for myself that you could surf the Lakes, and discovering this great “escape” was so special. It was the beginning of a new chapter of my life. I remember my friend Mark taking me to surf his home break and me being so stoked when I finally saw the waves and got in the water. It was a lake and there were waves!
See more of Ryan’s great work on Instagram and his website.
Want to share your photos? If you've got a great gallery of your local spot email us [email protected]