Surfing on Lake Tahoe? These die-hards don neoprene and dive when freezing waves roll

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In the midst of a massive storm that dumped several feet of snow across the Sierra this week, most of the inhabitants of Lake Tahoe likely had their eyes on the mountains and ski slopes.

Scott Gaffney, however, kept a close watch on the lake.

About a dozen times a year, when conditions are ideal, strong winds raise surface swells on the northern edges of the lake which, if you squint your eyes, look like surfable waves on parts of the shore.

Monday was such a day. At 9 a.m., Gaffney, a 53-year-old ski filmmaker who lives in Tahoe City, knew he wasn’t skiing. Instead, he donned a wetsuit, donned slippers, gloves and a balaclava, grabbed his 6ft 8in long board, and paddled through the turbulent waters of Carnelian Bay. .

Scott Gaffney is surfing in Carnelian Bay during a snowstorm on December 13.

Chris segal

The snowflakes swirling around the mountain peaks dissolved into thick ice pellets at lake level, and the howling winds shot them at Gaffney’s face like icy bullets.

“It just ends up in your eyeballs. You are barely able to see there, ”he said.

Gaffney was one of the few surfers in the water, and he chased the waves for five freezing hours late in the day. In the end, he was alone in the water in a near blizzard, his eyes on fire from the gunfire. He went home with his wetsuit and went straight to the shower.

“A pretty decent day,” he said later.

Tahoe offers all kinds of outdoor adventures, but surfing is scarce. The conditions that produce surfable waves are unstable and infrequent and usually accompany the winter storms that make people enthusiastic about skiing. Plus, anywhere else the combination of freezing water temperatures, high wind, and pungent sleet would turn a person away from the water. But in Tahoe, it’s only an average day of surfing.

“On days when it’s surfable, it rains sideways, the intervals (of waves) are 6 seconds. It’s chaos, ”said Jeremy Jones, 44, a professional Truckee snowboarder who first surfed the lake 25 years ago.

“I’ve surfed in Alaska and Iceland and hands down the coldest I’ve ever been out of the lake with the wind hitting me,” Jones added. “I learned from Scott that the key is to dress at home and not take off your wetsuit in the parking lot. Just get in your car and drive home.

Scott Gaffney is surfing in Carnelian Bay during a snowstorm on December 13.

Scott Gaffney is surfing in Carnelian Bay during a snowstorm on December 13.

Chris segal

Surfing on the lake only happens a dozen times a year between October and March, say surfers. Occasional swelling occurs on pleasant days. But more often than not, they materialize when cold southwest winds spread across the lake, ultimately causing inclement weather. These are promising times, and surfers should be on high alert when conditions improve, knowing that they can be short-lived: when the wind drops, the waves disappear.

“I’ve had a lot of days where it turns off within 15 to 20 minutes,” Gaffney said.

Because weather fronts can bring both surf and snow, there are days when a person can surf in the morning and take laps at the ski resort that afternoon. “It’s surreal and really special,” Jones said.

One of the fun qualities of Monday’s session was that it took place during a snowstorm and lasted all day, Gaffney said. “This season broke all the rules.

It would be a mistake to compare a wave from Tahoe to that from, say, Santa Monica. On the lake, the waves don’t necessarily peak and form so many beautiful curved barrels as they roll toward the shore in slabs that crumble like the wake of a boat. Positioning for optimal driving can be difficult.

During his two decades of studying wave activity on Tahoe, Gaffney says he watches for seemingly peaking waves – the kind that would attract the attention of an ocean surfer – and then aims to ride the waves. waves that form. behind them. There is a mysterious transfer of energy over the choppy lake that blurs the senses of the uninitiated, he said.

“It’s a weird experience that people take a while to get used to,” he said.

But nothing like the feeling of sending a wave to Tahoe, say surfers.

“It almost looks like a bank heist, where you stole a wave from these random places,” Jones said. “Then every once in a while you catch a wave that would have been a fun wave at Ocean Beach (in San Francisco) and it’s like winning the lottery.”

Surfers paddling the North Coast of Tahoe last year.

Surfers paddling the North Coast of Tahoe last year.

Grant Kaye

Many see surfing on the lake as something new. Gaffney is not one of them. “It’s my second favorite thing to do,” he said.

Even though no one lives in Tahoe for the waves, more and more surfers seem to show up on the North Coast when the surf is on the rise. On those days, the parking lot at Sand Harbor State Park could be filled with Subarus with surf racks.

“In the early 2000s, I was alone most of the time,” Gaffney said. “But now there can be enough people. “

So he keeps his favorite places to himself and operates according to a few simple rules. First, don’t believe the forecast.

Second: “When you see waves, go get them because they might not last. “

Gregory Thomas is the editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of lifestyle & outdoor. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @GregRThomas

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