On a cool fall day in 2007, Robin Pacquing donned a wetsuit, grabbed a surfboard and headed out to Lake Ontario.
As a teenager, Pacquing had been a huge Baywatch fan and learned to love surfing on a family trip to Hawaii. As an adult, she continued to ride the waves off Tofino, British Columbia, never dreaming she could do the same right outside her door.
So when Pacquing – who grew up on Lake Ontario just west of Toronto – discovered a small but enthusiastic community of Great Lakes surfers, his reaction was typical: “I thought, ‘What? Do people do that here?
On the shore of Mississauga that fall day, she was determined to try it. As she stood up, a lonely man walking his dog on the beach encouraged her.
“It was a small wave, but it felt huge,” she recalls. “I was completely overwhelmed. I thought here that I was surfing the Great Lakes. I will never forget that. And God bless the man – it was nice to have a witness.
Today, she describes herself as obsessed with surfing the Great Lakes, where waves can reach 8 feet (2.5 meters) and the best surfing occurs in the fall and winter. This is when the cool air temperatures, combined with the warm air rising from the water, create the best conditions for the wind. Pacquing has since become a keen observer of the lake’s winds and how their strength and direction affects the 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.
Trying various shores, Pacquing began to make friends among the women she met, many of whom were equally fascinated by the sport.
In 2014, she helped organize a surf weekend 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 start a group to bring women of all skill levels together to surf and stand-up paddleboard on the Great Lakes.
They called it Lake Surfistas.
Today, the group has over 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 informal and formal gatherings, including an annual “Ladies of the Lakes” event on Lake Erie — suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many members believe in being stewards of their environment, which is why Lake Surfistas also organizes stand-up paddleboard cleanups of local rivers leading to the Great Lakes. This summer, as COVID-19 numbers dwindled, they were able to organize a little cleanup on Toronto’s Humber River at the mouth of Lake Ontario, removing everything from plastic bags to tires from the water.
Toronto resident Jordan-na Belle-Isle, a surf instructor who helped organize the Humber River event, says it’s important to have a women-only group like Lake Surfistas. She is embarrassed by how often the media highlights a surfer’s gender: “A surfer by definition is not a male surfer. It’s just someone who takes a surfboard and goes out.
“I find that as a woman who surfs, there is not always a good entry point. It can be very intimidating. Sometimes there is a lot of ego,” she says. “With Lake Surfistas, if you’re new and have questions, people are more likely to give you a good answer and be more welcoming.”
Lake Surfistas member Jen Zuccato agrees. She says that without the support and guidance of the 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 to a buddy.
“Even though I grew up in Canada, I hate the cold,” she says. “I rowed up 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 as the water is much less salty, and it can be harder to predict when the winds will be perfect for good surfing.
“But when it works, it’s magic,” she says. “I am addicted.”
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Featured Image: Robin Pacquing of Lake Surfistas rides the waves of Lake Ontario. (Photo credit: GLN)