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‘It’s just so beautiful’: Ontario surfers hit the Great Lakes in the winter

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Robin Pacquing is a founder of Lake Surfistas, a group of women who surf and stand up pattle board on the Great Lakes – Jan 17, 2020

For one Ontario surfer, one of the hardest things about getting out on the water in the wintertime is leaving the house.

But once that part’s over with, the first wave Shazia Mazhar catches when the weather freezes over feels like magic.

“Being out there and standing up and gliding down a wave and seeing the landscape with the bare trees and the snow on the branches, it’s just so beautiful and so peaceful,” Mazhar told Global News.

“It’s just such a magical feeling, and then there’s so much gratitude that I can do this at my front door.”

Mazhar first got into surfing about six years ago on a trip to Nicaragua. “I was terrible at it,” she said. “But I knew it was something I wanted to try and keep doing.”

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That same summer, in 2014, Mazhar took up stand-up paddle-boarding on Lake Ontario. She didn’t surf in the winter at first, but she’s now been doing it for about four years.

READ MORE: Nova Scotia surfers enjoy catching waves year-round

Right around the time Mazhar got into surfing, the first get together was held for a group of women, now dubbed the Lake Surfistas. Formerly known as Ladies of the Lakes, the group surfs and stand-up paddle-boards the Great Lakes.

“We wanted to have a place where women can discuss it and feel safe and ask other women about what surfing is like here and get the answers that they need,” Robin Pacquing, one of the group’s founders, told Global News. “A lot of it had to do also with the lack of resources that I had.”

Pacquing learned how to surf in Hawaii and Tofino, B.C. around 20 years ago. In about 2005, she learned that it was possible to surf the Great Lakes.

“Back then, there were literally three or four other women surfing in Toronto, and we kind of clung to each other so hard because there were no other women to surf with,” Pacquing, who lives in Pickering, Ont. said. “The whole idea of [Lake Surfistas] is basically honouring the first female friendship that I had when I first starting surfing the Great Lakes.”
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In addition to Lake Surfistas, Pacquing is also a member of the Wyldewood Surf Club, a group that formed in 1965 at Wyldewood Beach on Lake Erie in Port Colborne, Ont.

“It’s actually one of the longest-running surf clubs on all of the Great Lakes,” Brad Petrus, a member of the group, said. “The founding members were both American and Canadian – they were from either side of the border.”

Petrus told Global News he learned to surf in Australia and then lived in Europe, where he was a surf instructor and ran a surf school. He moved back to his home in Port Colborne, Ont. about six years ago. He had surfed in the area before that but only during visits.

“Growing up here, I never knew [about] it, never was into surfing, ” he said. “When I went away and fell in love with it and got deep into surfing … I started doing more research and fell into learning about surfing on the Great Lakes.”
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READ MORE: Tofino becomes training ground for Canadian surfers hoping to make Olympic debut

While surfing the Greats in the winter can be calm, picturesque and exhilarating, there can also be a number of safety concerns.

“It’s definitely cold, and that — for safety — is really important,” Mazhar said. “Especially in the winter, we always surf with another buddy.”

During the colder months, Mazhar said she wears a six millimetre wetsuit, thick gloves and boots. She said it’s important to watch out for ice shelves and chunks in the water that can harm surfers.

“Hypothermia will come and get you and will be a problem if you don’t have the right equipment,” Pacquing said. “Make the investments to get the proper gear.”

After getting the right equipment, she added, it’s important to know the winds, weather forecast and what to expect before getting in the water.

Robin Pacquing surfing.
Robin Pacquing surfing. Provided/Ang Millard
Shazia Mazhar surfing.
Shazia Mazhar surfing. Provided/Aly Ambler

“If you’re new to it, we always suggest to either take a lesson first or see if you can connect with a friend or another surfer who might be able to take you out,” Antonio Lennert, a Toronto surfer and founder of the Surf the Greats shop, said.

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Other safety concerns, he noted, include drowning, especially if a person is a poor swimmer, as well as getting caught in the rip and ending up in the middle of the lake.

“The conditions change very quickly. It doesn’t take long for the waves to go from … knee-high to chest- or head-high,” Lennert said, adding that once surfers become more experienced, they can start to figure out how much wind generates different wave sizes, as well as the most optimal time to go out on the water.

“It is tricky,” Lennert said. “We do workshops to teach people how to forecast waves and safety.” The Toronto shop, located in Leslieville, also sells winter surfing gear. “Just like any other extreme sport, there are always risks, but it can be done safely,” he added.

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12-year-old Okotoks girl prepares for world wake surfing championships – Aug 24, 2018

For Mazhar, the most challenging thing about surfing in the winter is managing the cold appropriately.

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“I just lose track of time even though I wear a watch, because I enjoy it so much, but I also have to take care of my body,” she said.

The Toronto woman lives with Raynaud’s syndrome, which causes Mazhar to lose circulation in some areas of her body quickly.

“[On] the coldest days, I’ve got to make sure that I’m not in for more than a couple hours because warming back up after can be really tough for me,” she said.

Other than that, Mazhar loves surfing in the snow.

“When it’s the middle of winter and snowy, there’s no one around,” she said. “It’s very quiet, so there’s a huge tranquility to think you’re in the middle of a city of four million people, and often it’s just two of you out there.”