Surfing’s playing field has forever changed. The spirit of human exploration, perseverance, and resiliency has opened up frontiers beyond the warm waters of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. This new landscape doesn’t come without its challenges; cold water, ice chunks, inconsistent and short swell windows. We sat down with Great Lakes surfer Alex Boutilier in this week’s Six Set Sunday.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. How old are you? Where do you live?
I’m not your average 19-year-old surfer, I am currently landlocked living in Waterloo Ontario studying math and business at Wilfrid Laurier University. However, growing up my family spent the summers in Nova Scotia. I have only surfed the lakes for around 3 years consistently. Until a few years ago I had no clue that the Great Lakes could even produce real waves.
You mentioned your family has roots in Nova Scotia; did you start surfing there?
Yeah, my brother and I have been extremely fortunate to have a father who pushed us into waves every day, all-summer-long on The South Shore of Nova Scotia. We were massive groms back then. We had a group of friends who all had cottages in the same village. We would get hand me down boards from Jacob Albury and surf as much as possible, and as we’ve gotten older we still have a blast scoring the occasional summer swells.
What’s the biggest challenge when it comes to surfing the lakes?
The biggest challenge as a surfer is progressing beyond an intermediate level. To get good at anything in life you need to practice as much as possible and the Great Lakes are significantly less consistent than any ocean, this puts you at a severe disadvantage.
What’s your favorite aspect of surfing the lakes?
The reward you get when you know you’ve scored an epic session in a place where 99% of people wouldn’t even know has waves.
What do you do when the surf is flat?
Obviously, I dream of moving out east, or to another country. However, I do a good number of strike missions to the east coast to chase hurricanes and nor’easters which help relieve the urge for waves. Hurricane Florence this fall was pretty sick in Rhode Island.
What lake has the best waves? Can you answer that without stepping on any toes?
From personal experience, I can definitely tell you, Lake Huron. I have had some ocean-like days during the fall and early winter before it freezes over. However, I haven’t been able to make the journey to Lake Superior and Michigan which definitely have some great spots. The Great Lakes have such long coastlines there is plenty of room for everyone.
Does localism exist on the lakes?
I have experienced localism only a few times and as a whole, the Great Lakes surf scene is a really encouraging community. It’s hard to build the idea that you own a spot when it only breaks a couple times a season and you have to time it perfectly to score the brief window of waves. Most of the people who surf the lakes are from around the world and are just stoked to be able to escape their job and enjoy a few waves.
What do you use for gear, boards, suits etc.?
The Great Lakes are extremely gear intensive. The air temperatures range from -30 all the way up to 30 degrees in the summer and the water can go from 0 to 26 degrees Celsius. If you want to surf all seasons on the lakes you need everything from boardshorts and sunscreen to a 6/5mm winter suit.
In terms of boards, the lakes require extra volume because the water does not have the same float as the ocean. Fishes, shortboard hybrids, and longboards are really common.
I mostly ride my 5’7 hybrid that has a lot of volume that lets me wiggle in tiny waves. On the rare days when the waves have some push, I might crack out a 6’0.
How do you feel about wave pools, do they have a place in central Canada?
When I found out about Kelly’s pool and BSR I initially thought it was very epic and that we should get one here in Ontario. However, after watching a few surf events in the pools I realized that these “perfect waves” are not what I am searching for. What differentiates surfing from any other sport for me is the fact that each wave is unique and the next one could always be the wave of your life.
Any travel plans this winter?
Yeah, I haven’t committed to anything yet but I am planning on either driving to Nova Scotia for the winter break or flying to Puerto Rico if there is a solid swell. Further down the line in spring I am planning on going on a month-long trip to Indo or Central America.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years? Any big goals?
Well, hopefully, I will be done my undergrad degree and have a decent job on the ocean so that I can surf more. I’d love to move out east so and surf some of the points during the winter.
Follow Alex on Instagram