When I lost my paddle in the surf I knew I had only seconds to retrieve it or face a menacingly cold drudge back into shore. It was December 23rd. The wind was pushing somewhere around 30km/h from the northwest, building up some pretty decent 4 foot waves. I dove after my soon to be unreachable paddle just as another roller submerged me. I tumbled and resurfaced – wide eyed and gasping – feeling like my entire being just hit reset.
I guess when I look back on it I knew it was inevitable that I would find my way into the late autumn and early winter surf here. I am an import to Ontario and, admittedly, I was a reluctant one. I hail from British Columbia. Born in Powell River, on the coast and raised in Kelowna, in the interior. In Neil Young terms, BC continues to provide me with my dream comfort memory to spare. So when I learned the winds of fate would blow me here I immediately started mourning the loss of my steep sloped identity. I hated it. I now know that I just lacked perspective. Ontario had something BC didn’t – surfable, fresh water waves.
It all started when I first arrived. It was October and there was a local newspaper sitting on a coffee table. And what was that on the front cover? – two surfers exiting the water at Wasaga beach. How cool was that? I didn’t know it then but that picture foreshadowed my journey into paddle surfing here and helped me recognize that I could blend a part of where I came from onto the shores of Georgian Bay.
I would like to think that every BC boy, at some point, has wanted to go surfing on Vancouver Island. I have been lucky enough to make the trip out to Tofino a few times. For me, that place possesses an aesthetic that is as unique as it is beautiful. I don’t think there are many places on this planet where you can sit out on the water, awaiting your next wave, with snow-capped mountains in the distance, a tangle of windswept evergreens mid-framing the shoreline and bald eagles surveying you from above. It is a dreamscape like no other. More or less, my experience there lit the fire for my desire to paddle surf here. So, with a bloom where you’re planted attitude, I started preparing for some winter paddle surf sessions on Georgian Bay. The first and most vital thing I needed to understand, however, was that surfing the Tiny beaches of Georgian Bay is all about wind.
The wind here is something that requires constant learning and respect. It’s totally unknowable and infinitely variable but lucky for us, technology has gotten pretty good at helping us track and anticipate it. I now religiously follow a few internet sites and phone apps that forecast wind speed and wave generation. But before I knew better, I just went when the Weather Network said that the wind was blowing towards shore. I didn’t even have the right equipment (I remember actually wearing a toque during my first few attempts and having to wring it out when I fell off my board – true story). I think I survived those early days in the cool water on pure stoke and a strong desire to take advantage of where I lived.
Now the essentials for paddle surfing in cold water are easy enough to find with a simple internet search. I definitely don’t recommend my hillbilly learning curve. Early on I only wore a 4/3 wetsuit, gloves and booties and eventually a hood (the toque thing didn’t last very long). I also put on an old shortie as it got colder. The other guys joining in the madness had similar set ups (we now have much better gear) but back then, we just wanted to get out and try to surf. Even our boards were all wrong. If fact, some were straight up dangerous as they were just old, heavy windsurf boards (no leash option). We finally came to our senses when it became all too clear that windsurf boards, although the economical choice, would always end with you having to trudge back to shore or the indignity of getting knocked unconscious in a soaking wet toque.
So, after some pretty fun early sessions, we traded up our toques and upgraded our boards. It has been a blast experimenting with different styles of paddle boards. I currently keep going back to my 10’2” Focus Torpedo, having started on an 11’6’ Riveira. I also caught a few on the now legendary 10’3” Mahalo (not sure we should have sold this one). If you’re just starting though – don’t overthink it. Most entry level all-rounders can get anyone started catching waves. But if you want to progress, getting on a surf specific paddleboard will make a huge difference. Just remember, you can always tweak how well you are doing anything. For now, paddle surfing definitely provides that opportunity. It’s always a blessing to have something to grow into.
Paddle surfing on Georgian Bay has helped me feel like I belong living in Ontario. It has allowed me to reimagine and reconnect parts of my past to my current place. I am a better person for it. Maybe it’s better to see ourselves, constantly synthesizing into something else; using our past self to define the present one. It makes us more self-aware. Even more accountable. Paddle surfing reminds me to focus on the present and reset my stance on who I am. I am truly grateful to be learning and evolving on some pretty fantastic fresh water waves.
With my paddle saved, I jump back up on my board. I’m loving the fact that I just went underwater in December on Georgian Bay! On a day when most have decided to stay indoors. I brace myself and take a wide paddle stroke to turn the nose back out into the wind. I belong here – the water surrounding me. I’m where I’m supposed to be – catching waves and remastering the parts of who I want to become.