All About Milwaukee’s Surfing Scene

The semi-secret is out: Lake Michigan’s waves are actually pretty good – if you know where to look. For Wisconsin’s growing community of surfers, that hunt is as much a part of their passion as the thrill of the ride. 

On a cool, cloudy spring Saturday morning, Jake Bresette wakes up early. The weekend of stormy weather would fill some people with gloom, but the wind is music to his ears. It means there are waves to surf on Lake Michigan. 

But where? 

Bresette cruises by Shorewood’s Atwater Beach – along with Bradford Beach, the most popular surfing spot in Milwaukee – but the water there is “flat.” So he drives up toward Capitol Drive to open Lake Effect Surf Shop, his store that acts as a hub for the local surfing scene. 

After a string of text messages that afternoon, bouncing back and forth over the county line, Bresette learns the waves are good at Port Washington’s South Beach. He closes up shop, grabs his wetsuit and surfboard and heads north. 

South Beach is a mix of Midwest industrial and natural beauty, tucked away behind a power plant that looms on the bluff above. Port Washington’s lighthouse is visible off in the distance to the north. It’s become a popular surf destination just in the past five years or so, and the parking lot is full today, with about a dozen surfers out in the lake. 

From a distance, they look like a colony of seals in their black wetsuits, bobbing in the water, waiting for the next set of swelling, 4-to-6-foot waves to come in. When they do, it’s an exhilarating sight: The surfers mount their boards – bright flashes of white, red, teal and shark grey – and ride the wave, zigzagging on it until it peters out. As the surfers shoot forward, one falls backward and wipes out, disappearing for a moment before he pops back out of the water. 

One of the surfers is Eric Gietzen, who coasts on a wave on his 11-foot white longboard, then lays on his belly and lets nature push him to shore. Frigid water drips off him as he steps over driftwood and beach pebbles. It’s just under 40 degrees, and the water about the same, but his full-body wetsuit keeps him warm. Just his weathered face, red from the cold water, and some gray hairs stick out of the wetsuit’s hood. Despite the cold, he looks refreshed and energized.

Desmond DiBurgo; Photo by Andrew Feller

“On a scale of 10 for this spot, this is a 7, maybe an 8,” he says as the waves roar and crash behind him. “The size is good, and the bigger sets are pulsing through, but usually you don’t want as much texture on the face of the wave as we do today. You want what we call a clean wave.” 

Compared with California, Hawaii and other ocean coasts known for surfing, the Great Lakes produce waves that are smaller and much less consistent. Waikiki Beach is surfable almost any day; South Beach is not. Being one of the hundreds of freshwater surfers in Wisconsin means chasing the waves, wherever they may be, and in all sorts of conditions – wind, rain, sleet and snow. It’s passion and dedication that brings them out to hit the waves year-round. “It takes a certain type of person to go out in those conditions,” says Keliana Licup, a former surfing pro who grew up in Hawaii and now lives in Racine.

Although the surf scene here is much smaller than what you would find in sunnier locales, it is filled with innovation – and mettle. Local surfers are using the sport to educate. They are working on eco-friendly board designs. They are spreading the gospel of our Great Lake. And, of course, they are having a blast while doing it. “There’s an old saying,” says Gietzen, “The best surfer is the one having the most fun.” 

Shooting the Surf

SINCE 2017, commercial photographer Andrew Feller has documented Wisconsin’s surf scene. Rather than just observing from land with a telephoto lens, he invested in a wetsuit and a special Aquatech waterproof casing for his camera that allow him to get out in the water with his subjects. “The feel of the water, the crash of the waves and the connection to the lake – it’s a thrill I haven’t experienced any other way,” Feller says.

LAKE EFFECT SURF SHOP looks like something you’d expect to see in Malibu or Maui. A row of colorful surfboards in many sizes lines one wall. Cases hold sunglasses and surf wax, and there are racks of beachwear. Closer examination, though, brings you back to the Midwest. One t-shirt sports a surfing cow, another touts one of the benefits of freshwater surfing: no sharks. 

Bresette, 35, is smiling and animated as he talks about the sport he loves, radiating a happy energy that’s quite common among surfers. He grew up in Wausau and Madison and developed an interest in skateboarding and snowboarding. One day he was visiting a friend whose dad had come home from a convention with a box full of swag. Bresette grabbed a promotional copy of a surfing DVD. “I remember watching it and just going, ‘Wow, that looks awesome,’” Bresette says. After high school, he moved to Colorado for a job at ski resort. Being closer to the West Coast, he bought some used gear and took weekend trips to California to surf. After a couple of years, he moved back to Madison in 2009. A feeling of disappointment followed him home. 

Eric Gietzen with students from Shorewood High School; Photo by Andrew Feller

“I was really bummed, thinking ‘I’m never going to get to surf except maybe once a year on vacation,’” Bresette says. A friend who saw his surfing gear sitting in a corner told Bresette that he had heard that people surfed on Lake Michigan. “I was like, ‘What?! No way!’ I immediately grabbed my laptop.” He did some Googling. It was true. Intrigued, Bresette and his wife, Alaina,  took a day trip to check out Sheboygan, one of Wisconsin’s surfing hotspots. He ordered a wetsuit that same day. 

Bresette began to learn the ins and outs of freshwater surfing, a slightly different sport than riding ocean waves. Freshwater is about 20% less buoyant, so surfers here use thicker boards with more volume. The cold air and water require heavier wetsuits to stay warm, too. Because air temps and wind vary, finding good waves requires closely monitoring lake conditions; Bresette swears by an app from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to keep an eye out. Depending on which way the wind blows, surfing might be great in one spot but not another, so surfers chase waves from Door County to Racine. 

Although warm summer weather is more comfortable for being in the water, the peak season for good surf on Lake Michigan is fall through spring. “Our favorite recipe here on the Great Lakes is cold air over warm water, which is why fall is such a great season for us after summer heats up the lake,” Bresette says. 

After starting his new hobby, Bresette found he was spending way too much time in an office in a city 80 miles from Lake Michigan and not enough on a surfboard. “I was working as an insurance claims adjuster in a sea of cubicles, working my way up the corporate ladder,” Bresette says. “I was actually doing pretty well there, but I would look at it and say, ‘Do you really want to do this your entire life?’”

Photo by Andrew Feller

To feel a little bit alive, some days Bresette would wake up at 4 a.m., drive to Milwaukee, get in a little surfing, then drive back, take a shower and clock in at work by 11 a.m. It wasn’t enough to satisfy him. While voices would drone on into his earpiece about deductibles and liabilities, he’d pop open a window on his computer. “There are webcams on the beaches in Sheboygan, Port Washington, all over the lake. I’d be on calls assisting people, looking at the waves. I called it cubicle torture,” Bresette says. Sometimes he’d see people surfing. “I wished I was there.”

Bresette spent years working on a business plan for Lake Effect before it opened in 2016. He thought Milwaukee, and specifically Shorewood, was a good location because of its proximity to Atwater and its placement on the route of surfers chasing waves up and down the lakeshore. Then came a hard question to answer: How many lake surfers are out there who could be his customers? 

“When we first opened the shop, we thought there was probably somewhere around a thousand surfers on all the Great Lakes combined,” Bresette says. “It’s hard to get an accurate number because there’s a lot of people who come out in the summertime when it’s really nice and comfortable in July and August, but then you don’t see them in the cool months. Then again, there’s diehards who go every time they can, warm or cold.” Gietzen, who has been surfing in Milwaukee since the mid-1980s and has watched the scene steadily grow, believes there are at least a few hundred surfers in Southeastern Wisconsin and Northern Illinois. 

Lake Effect stays afloat on three tiers: surf gear sales and rental, skateboards, and clothing. The shop also offers group lessons in the summer to teach people how to get their wetsuit on, navigate a board and forecast good waves.

“It’s not easy, but at the same time, we make it happen every month,” Bresette says. “We don’t live big, but being able to represent the Milwaukee surf scene and have the opportunity to work with all the awesome people that we do, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

MANY SURFERS HAVE NICKNAMES, and Gietzen’s came quickly after he began surfing Lake Michigan: “The Teacher” or “Teach.” Born and raised in Shorewood, Gietzen, 57, has taught English at Shorewood High School for almost 30 years. 

He “caught his first wave” – in a way – when he was just 2 years old during a visit to Doctors Park in Fox Point with his mom. “I don’t remember any of this, but a wave knocked me out and dragged me,” Gietzen says. A lifeguard jumped into the lake and saved him. 

Around 1985 or ’86, a friend came home from Madison with a surfboard he found on a garbage pile left by college students. Gietzen happened to have a wetsuit, so they decided to try the board out. It was November, so they went down to the beach, built a fire and took turns in the wetsuit and riding the board. Gietzen was hooked. 

In the ’80s, Gietzen figures, there were about 10 surfers around Milwaukee. They found each other in those pre-internet days through random encounters on the beach, where they’d compare notes, exchange phone numbers and tip each other off on weather reports. “Today there is much more of a community, more age range and different backgrounds,” Gietzen says, adding that better connections have come from technology and accessibility.   

The Teacher has introduced many young people to freshwater surfing. He’s used the activity as a learning experience for his Shorewood High students in multiple classes, like Environmental Literature in Science, a class paired with a biology teacher. The students rock-climb and hit the surf in an area Gietzen calls “Rookie’s Reef” by the Shorewood Nature Preserve as a lesson about glaciation, rocks and waterways. Then there’s Watershed Wisdom, a 10-day expedition that includes bicycling, canoeing and surfing to give students “an adventure to write about.”

Roger Huffman; Photo by Andrew Feller

Gietzen calls Atwater his favorite beach in the world. He’s also taught his sons, 23 and 26 years old, who both surf on the East Coast and join dad surfing Atwater when they visit. Gietzen and other local surfers created an annual Surf @water event, a gathering for surfers ranging from first-timers to old-schoolers that began in 2013. The pandemic squashed the event, but the word in the surf scene is that Surf @water might return soon with new organizers. 

In 2016, Gietzen was concerned to see that the county was struggling to fill lifeguard positions at his beloved beach. The concern was legit – in the summer of 2017, a 14-year-old-boy drowned near Atwater. Gietzen formed a private lifeguard business, recruited and trained students from his school’s swim team and approached the village of Shorewood with a proposal the following year. 

It turned out to be a lifesaving move. Gietzen was on duty in 2020 when he noticed that a woman had jumped into the lake from a boat after her 7- and 11-year-old children. The boat, unanchored, quickly drifted away. Gietzen dove in with his rescue board and brought the family to safety. 

After four years, Gietzen handed off the business to one of his employees, but he has preserved his full circle in lifeguard experience by framing two documents side-by-side – a July 20, 1968, incident report from his childhood rescue and a letter from North Shore Fire/Rescue thanking him for his rescue of three people as a lifeguard on July 6, 2020. 

“I think they’re fitting bookends,” Gietzen says. 

Photo courtesy of Surf Exotics

The Kings of Milwaukee Surf Guitar

SURFING’S EXPLOSION in popularity in California in the late 1950s and ’60s gave rise to its own musical style: surf rock, or simply “surf.” Many of the musicians were surfers themselves and wanted to capture the energy of riding the waves in musical form. The genre’s best-known acts were Dick Dale, The Surfaris and The Ventures. 

Milwaukee drummer Don Nelson came up with an idea of forming a Milwaukee-based surf band, The Exotics, in 1994. Nelson was a surfer himself, hitting Lake Michigan in the early ’80s, but he says the bigger inspiration was his love for The Ventures, introduced to him through his dad’s record collection. 

The band went through a hiatus in the early 2000s, but the current lineup – Jon Ziegler on bass and Paul Wall and Brandt Zacher on guitar – frequently play at Foundation tiki bar in Riverwest. “It holds up well over the test of time,” Nelson says of the surf genre.

Nelson’s surfing, though, didn’t have as much staying power; he hasn’t been out on the lake in about 10 years. His 9-foot, red surfboard now decorates the ceiling of Foundation, which he manages. “I started going to Hawaii and I got spoiled,” Nelson says. “I didn’t want to go in the cold lake again.” 

Listen at

KEN COLE picked up his love for surfing in a fitting place: Hawaii. 

Native Hawaiians and other Polynesian cultures originated surfing on planks of wood and rode the waves for hundreds of years. Modern surfers around the world still try to emulate Hawaii’s “aloha spirit” – a kind of Zen goodwill and balance with nature. Cole, an Ohio native who’s now a psychologist, had moved to Hawaii for an internship, and it was where he wrote his dissertation on racial identity. 

Looking out the window at one of its glorious beaches one day, Cole decided he would break up his workload with Hawaii’s famous pastime. He found a used board and rode his bicycle back and forth to a surf spot on Waikiki “almost every day and slowly figured it out.” When he moved from Hawaii to Chicago, surfing was still on his mind. It was in The Surfer’s Journal magazine where he made a life-changing discovery. “They made reference to surfers on the Great Lakes,” Cole says. “I did some legwork and reached out to a guy locally and got a surfboard.”

Cole, now 58, moved to Milwaukee around 2000 and stumbled across a few fellow surfers, Gietzen being one of them. He moved to Los Angeles for almost 10 years but returned to Wisconsin as he and his wife were starting a family. A key factor was Lake Michigan, a place where Cole and his family could enjoy surfing and other recreation.

Photo by Andrew Feller

A longtime creative, Cole worked with clay, illustration and writing before discovering and settling into woodworking, starting with creating skateboards. In 2018, he developed a side gig as a “shaper,” as people who create surfboards are known. He founded his own brand, Greenhouse Surfboards, crafting boards and selling some of them at Lake Effect. He’s made 10 so far, which ply the waters around the Great Lakes and as far away as Los Angeles, bought by surfers who have stumbled across press about his sustainable boards or his Instagram page. “I just went headfirst,” Cole says. “I wanted to make boards as beautiful as surfing feels to people.” 

A goal for his brand since the beginning is to create green, sustainable boards that are a contrast to the ones made of foam, polyurethane, fiberglass and other materials that dominate the market. “The thing about surfing that I don’t like is that it disconnects us from nature by having something toxic,” Cole explains. “I wanted to have a departure from that.”  

He started by using repurposed wood and putting down a layer of used brown coffee bags from Colectivo Coffee with a clear coating  for a smooth finish over the organic burlap texture. But Cole hopes his big breakthrough will be using natural fibers to make a bio-resin. It’s a slow process, but he’s been able to enlist help with the project from scientists from Milwaukee School of Engineering and the University of Illinois Chicago. He hopes his polystyrene-free surfboard model will launch later this summer. 

“We’re looking at fabricating and making what might be the world’s first surfboard made of leaves,” Cole says. “This, for me, is more about proof of concept and challenging people to think. This guy in his basement, with the help of universities, can create something as intricate and involved as this. I want it to spark dialogue.” 

“THERE ARE WAY MORE MEN in the sport. It’s one woman per every 10 guys, if that,” says Jennifer Vice-Reshel, a surfer who lives in Fox Point. Vice-Reshel grew up in Ohio and did undergrad in San Diego, where she became an almost daily surfer. 

“When I met my wife, she told me, ‘I’m going to move back to Wisconsin.’ I said, ‘No way. I love surfing, and I need to be here to do that,’” Vice-Reshel says. “She said, ‘Oh no, people surf in Wisconsin, let me show you.’” Convinced by the evidence, Vice-Reshel moved here in 2015 and began to explore the scene. 

While still rare in Wisconsin, the ranks of women surfers are growing in other parts of the Great Lakes. A group called the Lake Surfistas, based in Canada, is a “grassroots movement that brings together women of all abilities who surf.” 

Despite the predominantly male culture, Vice-Reshel says she’s felt welcome when she paddles out. “By far the best thing about Wisconsin surfers is their inclusion, kindness and openness to welcome and share the surf scene with you. I immediately noticed that,” Vice-Reshel says. “In all the times I’ve surfed here, I’ve only had one person be kinda rude, whereas in California, it happened on the regular.” Being a full-time graduate student cuts into her surfing time, but Vice-Reshel is already teaching her 4-year-old twins how to ride a paddleboard.

Photo by Andrew Feller

Licup, meanwhile, grew up around some of the best surfing in the world. Her family in Hawaii, including her father and grandmother, all enjoyed surfing. “There’s pictures of me, my sister and brother all on dad’s longboard when I was 5 years old,” Licup laughs.

After going to college in Washington state, she entered a surfing competition in Costa Rica and drew the attention of sponsors who financed travel to competitions around the world. Although it was fun and she enjoyed the travel and making new friends, she decided to quit in her mid-20s. 

“I felt I was sponsored not just on my surfing ability but also the way I looked,” Licup explains. “Sponsorship would be like, ‘You need to be skinnier for the next photo shoot.’ I was like ‘I have a degree, who are these people to tell me what to do?’ I didn’t want to deal with that part anymore.” She decided to move on to other things. 

Licup met her husband, from the Chicago area, while stationed in South Korea with the Air Force. After their service, the couple moved to Racine, where they had two kids and Licup worked as a nurse. Like Bresette and Vice-Reshel, Licup found the prospect of not being able to hang ten on a board dismaying. But on a drive past the beach in Racine, she saw some guys surfing. 

“I just waited for them to come in and I was just like, ‘Hey, can you tell me about this?’” Licup says. They directed her to Lake Effect, and she made some connections to the local scene. Though she sometimes visits Sheboygan, she’s content with a good surf break spot close to home in Racine. Like many other surfers, she wants to keep its specific location secret so it doesn’t get overrun. Here, hidden away, Licup can enjoy the sport her way, without any notes from sponsors asking her to lose five pounds.

The Malibu of the Midwest

WISCONSIN SURFERS hit the waves of Lake Michigan from Racine to Port Washington to Door County, but the city with the longest legacy is Sheboygan, aka “The Malibu of the Midwest.”

Larry “Longboard” Williams and his twin brother, Lee “Waterflea” Williams, got their start in the 1960s, emulating an older group of surfing teens. The brothers later formed the Blatz Surf Team, so named for the group’s post-surfing beer of choice. From 1988 to 2013, they ran the Dairyland Surf Classic on Labor Day weekend. “We’re very proud of what we have here, not only the wide variety of places to surf but also that aloha spirit of sharing everything we have,” Larry Williams says. 

There’s talk of a similar event resurfacing in Sheboygan, according to Andrew Jakus, owner of EOS Surf Shop. Three units above the store function as an Airbnb geared toward visiting surfers from around the country who want to check out Sheboygan’s famous waves.

It’s the city’s geography and harbor that make it such a great surf spot. “We’re on the center of the lake, so we do good on either a heavy north or south wind, whereas other locations will do good on one wind direction,” Jakus explains. “Also, the way we jut out and the structure of our piers, waves line up better and get protected from the wind.” 

Deland Park is surf central, particularly “The Elbow,” named for the angled pier that connects to the lighthouse. Other spots include the Jetties, Blue Harbor and North Point, though the latter is not for amateurs. 

“North Point is the most gnarly surf break in Sheboygan,” Jakus says. “I tell people not to go there unless they’re with someone who knows what they’re doing. If you make a wrong move, you can get smashed against rock slabs.”

Williams, a practicing Buddhist who turns 70 this year, hasn’t been on a surfboard for a few years since a leg injury, but he still visits the beaches of Sheboygan every day. He lives close enough to the lake that he can hear if there’s a good surf up when he opens his door, and he often beachcombs – “a perfect walking meditation” – with his two dogs, collecting flotsam like fishing lures and lost beach toys. “Sometimes I’ll just sit and contemplate peace on earth and good will to all sentient beings” he says. “A life should be lived like you’re at the beach.”

Ken Cole; Photo by Andrew Feller

IN BETWEEN THE LITTLE THRILL that each wave delivers, many of Wisconsin’s surfers see a higher calling – to Mother Nature, to community. 

Gietzen visualizes surfing as part of nothing short of a collective awakening of people engaging in recreation on Lake Michigan with open-water swimming, boating and other activities. “I don’t think people have ever been involved in the lake in all these ways,” he says. “We’re rediscovering this amazing resource. And we have the means through communication and technology to immerse ourselves in ways that are new, exciting and fulfilling to get out and enjoy the water.” Cole refers to surfers as “lake ambassadors,” encouraging others to explore and utilize the waterfront. 

Beyond the community of lake people, many surfers feel the sport takes them on a personal journey – a connection to nature, a challenge to be met, an eternal quest for the perfect wave, Midwest-style

Surfing is “the total package of you being immersed in nature and disconnected from everything else. It’s exhilarating, fun, refreshing.” Cole says. He relishes the transition, when a surfer goes from paddling to catching a wave to standing, “which is probably 2 seconds, but the transition is a big payoff because you know what’s to come after that is even better.”

“I love that it connects me to nature,” says Vice-Reshel. “Your phone is away, you’re in the water, and there’s something powerful, bigger than me. Something I have no control over determines the waves. No matter how many times, how many years I surf, I feel like I’m always learning how to navigate a new wave. It challenges you to up your skill level.”

For Bresette, the thrill of the hunt – like trying to find waves at Atwater and then discovering a good surf at Port Washington – makes you as free as the breeze you’re chasing.

“You might have a couple days off, the weekend off, and the wind is blowing. There aren’t waves in your hometown, but there are somewhere further away,” Bresette says. “You find yourself driving to these little towns, camping, surfing. You might find yourself in a restaurant talking to locals. It forces you to adventure. If you want to surf well, you’re going to have to drive and check out new spots, meet new people and see new places.” 

Tea Krulos set out on Ken Koyen’s Lake Michigan fishing boat in last year’s Summer Guide issue.


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine’s June issue.

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