On a cool fall day in 2007, Robin Pacquing slipped on a wetsuit, grabbed a surfboard and headed into Lake Ontario.
As a teenager, Pacquing had been a huge Baywatch fan and learned to love surfing during a family trip to Hawaii. As an adult, she went on to surf the waves off Tofino, British Colombia, never dreaming she might do the same just outside her door.
So when Pacquing – who grew up by Lake Ontario just west of Toronto – discovered a small but enthusiastic Great Lakes’ surfing community, her reaction was typical: “I thought, ‘What? People do that here?’”
On the Mississauga shoreline that fall day, she was determined to try it out. As she got to her feet, a lone man walking his dog on the beach cheered her on.
“It was a small wave, but it felt huge,” she recalls. “I was completely overwhelmed. I thought here I am surfing the Great Lakes. I’ll never forget that. And God bless that man – it was nice to have a witness.”
Today, she describes herself as obsessed with surfing the Great Lakes, where waves can get as high as 8 feet (2.5 meters) and the best surf happens in the fall and winter. That’s when cool air temperatures, combined with warm air rising off the water, create the best conditions for wind. Pacquing has since become a close observer of lake winds and how their strength and direction affect surf.
“If the winds are strong and you’re willing to drive, you can find surf within a three-hour radius of Toronto,” she said.
As she tried out various shorelines, Pacquing started making friends among the women she met, many of whom were just as taken with the sport.
In 2014, she helped organize a weekend surfing gathering on Lake Erie and when it was over, everyone wanted more. That’s when she and Lisa Parkes, a surfer from Cobourg, Ontario, decided to create a group to bring together women of all abilities to surf and stand-up paddleboard the Great Lakes.
They called it Lake Surfistas.
Today, the group has more than 1,100 members, mostly on the Canadian side of the lakes, with a handful of members in Ohio and New York. It connects female Great Lakes surfers for both informal and formal gatherings, including a yearly “Ladies of the Lakes” event on Lake Erie – on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many members feel strongly about being stewards of their environment, so Lake Surfistas also hosts stand-up paddle board cleanups of local rivers leading into the Great Lakes. This summer, as COVID-19 numbers dropped, they were able to hold a small cleanup on Toronto’s Humber River at the mouth of Lake Ontario, pulling out from the water everything from plastic bags to tires.
Toronto resident Jordan-na Belle-Isle, a surfing instructor who helped organize the Humber River event, says it’s important to have a women-only group like Lake Surfistas. She is bothered by how often media highlight a female surfer’s gender: “A surfer by definition is not a male surfer. It’s just somebody who takes a surfboard and goes out.”
“I find, as a woman who surfs, there’s not always a great entry point. It can be very intimidating. There’s sometimes a lot of ego,” she said. “With Lake Surfistas, if you’re new and have questions, people are more likely to give you a good answer and to be more welcoming.”
Lake Surfistas member Jen Zuccato agrees. She says without support and tips from other women in the group, she probably would have been too worried about hurting herself. When she tried winter surfing for the first time this year, she was especially grateful for a buddy.
“Even though I’ve grown up in Canada, I hate the cold,” she said. “I paddled out to my friend, and she had icicles all over her face, but she was smiling and having fun.”
Zuccato, who learned to surf in the Dominican Republic, says freshwater surfing is a very different experience. You’re not as buoyant because the water is much less salty, and it can be more difficult to predict when the winds will be just right for good surf.
“But when it works, it’s magical,” she said. “I’m hooked.”
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Featured image: Robin Pacquing of Lake Surfistas surfs the waves of Lake Ontario. (Photo Credit: GLN)