Still, I had been told that South Haven might be of great interest to me. I knew it might be possible to do something there that I'd always dreamed of doing during my 19 years of chasing the Endless Summer.
Surf the Great Lakes.
Tucked away in the southwestern corner of Michigan, South Haven is part of the state's ``fruit belt.'' Westerly winds blow across Lake Michigan, keeping the air moist, and the temperatures moderate enough for grapes, apples, cherries, peaches, and blueberries to thrive. As a result, South Haven calls itself the ``Blueberry Capital of the World.''
But these westerly winds do more than just make fruit growers happy. They push surfable waves onto the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, including the beaches of South Haven.
Or so I'd been told by surfer Lester Priday. Originally from Manly Beach, Australia, Lester now directs the Eastern Surfing Association's Great Lakes District. He thought driving from the East Coast to surf Lake Michigan was a crazy idea, but he still offered his expertise.
``Definitely check out South Haven,'' he said. ``It has several good places to catch waves.'' Of course, as a fellow surfer, I trusted Lester more than any guidebook. My Midwest surfari was on.
My wife and I arrived in South Haven just after 9 p.m. Blueberries aside, the town has been a popular summertime beach destination for Chicago residents since the late 1800's. A Chamber of Commerce guide even described South Haven as ``a shining jewel on the Gold Coast of Lake Michigan,'' so we rolled into town looking for neon and high-rise condominiums. Instead, we found Phoenix Street, a sleepy tree-lined main street with two barber shops, a bakery, a general store, a hardware store, and a drugstore with a soda fountain.
A typical surf town it wasn't.
Phoenix Street turned into Water Street, which paralleled the Black River and fed into the public beach parking area near the lighted South Haven Pier. A warm wind howled out of the southwest, pushing roaring waves up onto the beach. Some of these swells smacked loudly into the pier, sending spray up against the squat red lighthouse that sat on the end of the long concrete structure. By sight and sound, Lake Michigan's imitation of an ocean was very convincing.
While I was excited by the obviously surfable South Haven swells, I was worried too. Waves on the Great Lakes can appear and die in a matter of hours, so there was no guarantee I would be able to surf in the morning. All I could do was hope the surf gods were looking out for me.
At the pier the next morning, the surf gods were smiling - and so was I. The wind had died to a light breeze, allowing well-defined surging green peaks to become glowing whitewater just off from the lighthouse. Another surfer was already out enjoying the swells.
With this picturesque scene in front of me, I made a decision - to go have breakfast at the Golden Brown Bakery and Cafeteria. The overflowing plates of eggs and bacon were done just right at this 60-year-old South Haven landmark. Unfortunately, by the time we got back to the beach, it seemed this detour had been a mistake.
The ominous steel-gray clouds of a rapidly moving Canadian cold front covered up the sun, and the wind now blew out of the north at 25 m.p.h., replacing the comfortable T-shirt temperature of earlier with a goose-bump-raising chill. Sand blew across the beach, and Lake Michigan's surface had turned an eerie green as it was strafed by wind gusts that guillotined the top of any wave that dared to stretch for the sky. The other surfer was gone too. What did he know that I didn't?
I found myself standing at the water's edge - fighting with the wind as it tried to make my board obey the laws of aerodynamics - reassuring myself with my knowledge of lake surfing. There were no sharks, jellyfish, or pinching crustaceans to worry about. There were no tides, and the bottom at South Haven was sandy and relatively safe. The local morning news reported the lake temperature at 70 degrees, so my springsuit (a long-sleeved, short-leg wet suit) would be adequate. But one of the things that seemed benign, a lack of salt in the water, was going to cause a problem - a lack of buoyancy.
Freshwater is about 20 percent less buoyant than salt water, so Great Lakes surfers use boards that are longer and wider than those used by ocean surfers. Although my board was considered a ``mid-length'' ocean board, I wasn't sure it was optimal ``lake'' length.
And after trying for 15 minutes to catch a wave, I wondered even more. Then I made a small adjustment with my takeoff position on the next wave, and - cowabunga! - I was ``shootin' the curl'' in South Haven, Michigan. The wave was small and slow, but took me all the way to the beach. It wasn't like conquering Pipeline, but it was a surf dream come true. And I was stoked.
I got some nice rides after that, and the waves even got a little bigger. Then a local surfer showed up, and to add to the surreal quality of day, he came over to introduce himself. His name was Craig Olsen. In all my years of surfing, only one other time have I received such a friendly welcome. Visiting surfers are often viewed as a threat by locals, so you often get the ``stink-eye'' when you paddle out at better-known spots around the world. Craig had only known me for two minutes and was treating me like a long-lost friend.
It turned out that the fun waves and the warm reception were not the only surprises of the morning. A little later, a television reporter from Kalamazoo made his way across the beach, and after he found out I was from the East Coast, I was his story. I never dreamed my surfing would be featured on television - especially in Kalamazoo - but western Michigan evening news viewers got to see the man ``who traveled to surf Lake Michigan.''
It was about noon when the waves died, so I said good-bye to Craig and headed off to explore.
My wife and I warmed up on cappuccino at the La Rive Cafe, then strolled Phoenix Street as it bustled with lunchtime activity. A Green Giant-sized pair of eyeglasses hung over the sidewalk in front of Bud's Optical, while friendly salespeople of the Blueberry Store (owned by the Michigan Blueberry Association) sold all things blueberry - preserves, juices, pies, vinegars, as well as their gourmet specialty, chocolate-covered blueberries.
We ate lunch in the MacDonald Drug Store, which happened to be celebrating its 100th anniversary. Sitting on stools at a Formica-covered lunch counter, we washed down $2.50 grilled ham-and-cheese specials with syrupy, fountain-made cherry Cokes. The rest of the afternoon was spent at the Michigan Maritime Museum.
We said good-bye to South Haven in a late afternoon rainstorm, and spent the next several days in Grand Haven and Muskegon, where we saw beautiful dunes, beaches, and sunsets - but no more waves.
I didn't mind, though. It's hard to complain after you find a jewel - and fulfill a dream.
IF YOU GO Getting there. South Haven, Mich., is about 130 miles east of Chicago (take Interstate 94 east to I-196 north).
Where to stay. Budget accommodations are available in South Haven at the Econolodge (phone 616-637-5141) in the $60-$100 range in season (May to September). Try the Old Harbor Inn for luxury accommodations (800-433-9210); rates start at $100.
What to do. In addition to the public beach at South Beach, nearby Van Buren State Park you will find a stunning mix of forest and sand dunes; charge is $3. There are no real surf shops in the area, so you need to bring your own surfboard (body boards can be purchased locally). Strolling along the South Haven Riverfront - from downtown out to the lighthouse at the end of the pier - is a must, as is a visit to the Michigan Maritime Museum (200 Dyckman Ave., (616-637-8078).
Information. Call the Greater South Haven Chamber of Commerce, 616-637-5171.