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What Does It Take To Surf Lake Tahoe In The Sierra Nevada?


Skiing is one thing a visitor can do on the slopes surrounding Lake Tahoe here in California. Some locals are venturing into its frigid waters for another sport: Surfing.

Here's Will Stone of Reno Public Radio.


MARK NORRIS: OK, we're almost ready.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: All morning Mark Norris has been checking the weather several thousand feet above at Lake Tahoe -not for the snow, but for the wind.

NORRIS: It's got to be at least 70 miles per hour off the ridgeline.

STONE: Norris is wrestling into his black wetsuit on the roadside next to one of Tahoe's rocky north shore beaches.

NORRIS: Trying to get all the kinks out of it before I - before I really get moving here.

STONE: Its spring but the peaks surrounding the basin are still covered in snow. Norris trudges down to the beach to stretch.


STONE: Storm clouds gather at the south end of the lake. He laughs about one time he was driving up before a big storm and saw some golfers who were still outside.

NORRIS: And I was just like, why are these people golfing right now? You know, and my buddy, Deb, was like: Mark, you're calling the kettle black. You're going up to Tahoe to surf in the snow and the rain.

STONE: Surfing a lake like Tahoe is a different animal than coastal surfing. Not only is it freezing but, as Norris explains, the waves have their own attitude.

NORRIS: They're way harder to read, more inconsistent than the ocean because you've got a bunch of random energy; like you're working off these gusts.


CRAIG SMITH: There is a large contrast in temperature between the Great Basin and coastal California that drives a thermal breeze, which is locally known as the Washoe Zephyr.

STONE: Craig Smith studies wind at the Desert Research Institute. People generally think of the Great Lakes when they hear about lake surfing. But Smith says the Pacific storms that roll through from the southwest make surfing possible in Tahoe, as well.

SMITH: Given the fetch of Lake Tahoe in the north-south direction, you have these high winds which push up waves and make for good surfing, or decent surfing along the northern shore of the lake.


STONE: Waves can get about head high during big storms.


STONE: Back at Tahoe, surfer Ivy Miller is just coming out of the water after spending several hours out there with her friends. She grew up in Southern California where surfing means sun and sand. But now she's part of a growing surfing community here, many of them clad in wetsuits. And the difference takes some getting used to.

IVY MILLER: There's definitely a group that's dedicated. And they all look the seals. Like all black, everything, 'cause it's so cold. But I think it's awesome. It's really cool having, like, seeing people out there and being like, OK, we're all crazy out here.


STONE: The water is generally around 40 degrees during spring. From the shore, surfer Mark Norris is hard to make out in his wetsuit among the dark waves. After half an hour, he emerges out of breath.

How is it?

NORRIS: Oh, it's - yeah, it's been better.

STONE: Norris shakes his arms to warm up. Light snow is beginning to fall.

NORRIS: It's really cold. My core feels good. But my feet and my hands are pretty damn cold right now.

STONE: Much of the lake is obscured by the storm. It's getting bad enough that Norris worries he might not be able to get down the mountain if he waits any longer. But he says it's always worth it to come up here, even if only for a couple rides, because it's a sport he loves.

NORRIS: It's beautiful. The water is super clean. You know, there are no people yelling at you to get out of the way.

STONE: And unlike the ski lifts, there are no lines for the waves.

For NPR News, I'm Will Stone in Reno. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Will Stone is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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