New Buffalo, MI

Ryan Gerard, owner of Third Coast Surf Shop in New Buffalo, Mich., teaches a stand-up paddle-boarding class on the banks of the Galien River in Michigan’s Harbor Country.


At Warren Dunes State Park in Berrien County, Mich., deeply wooded hiking trails give way to sugary sand dunes that tower hundreds of feet above Lake Michigan

The Round Barn Winery in southwest Michigan is one of many on the Lake Michigan Wine Trail which take advantage of climate and soil conditions similar to regions in France and Germany.

Lake Michigan is chilly in October, but the surfing is great!

Ready and Willing to Surf Icy Lake Michigan

“Are you ready?” asked surf instructor Ryan Gerard as he pointed me toward the beach ahead of an approaching wave.

“No, but I’m willing!” I called back over the sound of rushing wind and whitewater.

It was mid-October, and as I approached a landmark birthday I found myself surfing for the first time. But from atop my long board, I wasn’t gazing at palm trees and tropical beaches; I was swooshing toward western Michigan’s shores, ablaze in the reds and golds that were a harbinger of the soon-approaching snow.

Despite losing feeling in three cold toes, the rest of my body was toasty warm in a wet suit provided by Gerard’s Third Coast Surf Shop in New Buffalo, Mich., where I’d come for a much-appreciated break from my usual routine. In an attempt to step out of my box, I’d signed up for a surfing class with this small shop that had been named after the Great Lakes’ shores.

“There are more than 10,000 miles of shoreline on the Great Lakes,” Gerard told me. “That’s more than the East and West coasts combined.”

He went on to explain that the windy days of autumn are perfect for surfing because of the wind movement down Lake Michigan. But autumn isn’t the only surfing season. In New Buffalo, they surf every month of the year — sometimes even dodging ice sheets in hooded and bootied wet suits to catch a wave.

“We can’t use dry suits,” Gerard said when asked how surfers stay warm in the frigid water. “They don’t allow as much flexibility as wet suits and could be dangerous in cold water if compromised.”

Lake water is a bit less buoyant than salty ocean water, but it’s also a little easier to swallow in the occasional unanticipated gulp. And if the waves are less predictable, they are also more forgiving and an excellent place for a beginner to learn how to ride. People in my class ranged in age from 20s to 70s, and no matter what their skill level, they left the beach with beaming faces and well-earned bragging rights.

Third Coast also provides wet suits to their stand-up paddling students. Sometimes called “SUP,” as in “whassup,” the activity is becoming popular across the country because it can be done by almost anyone on almost any kind of water. Lakes, rivers, oceans and bays are all excellent places to paddle.

“Paddle-boarding is more approachable for more people,” said Gerard. “If you can kayak, then you can probably paddle-board.”

How could I resist? I whipped on another wet suit and spent an afternoon tackling this new outdoor water sport. After learning how to maneuver the paddle and use core muscles to balance on the 32-inch-wide board, I headed out to SUP the Galien River with my fellow adventurers. My upper body was still sore from powering a surfboard through beating waves, so the gentle motion of quiet paddling was a welcome change. Instructors Jack Nordgren and Chris Peterson joined Gerard to guide us down the lazy stream toward Lake Michigan. Each dip of my paddle swirled orange and brown leaves that had drifted from the vibrant trees along the shoreline. It was an unusually magical way to be immersed in Michigan’s autumn glory that would soon be hidden beneath a thick blanket of snow.

A hike through Warren Dunes State Park offered another way to soak up the natural beauty of Michigan’s southwest coast. More than a million people annually take advantage of the 1,952-acre park for camping, hiking, sledding, astronomy, snowshoeing, sand-boarding and swimming, and I got to explore its six miles of hiking trails with new water-loving friends who were ready to have a day on terra firma. The canopy of color above our heads was a natural cathedral from which we emerged atop a 260-foot dune of sugary sand to find a breathtaking view of Lake Michigan and the faint outline of Chicago’s skyline hovering on the horizon.

The dunes along this and other Great Lakes are the result of complex wind and erosion patterns and differ from desert dunes in that they are often covered with vegetation that stabilizes them and adds to their beauty.

Our guide, Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment Park Ranger Matt Porter, said that the park’s diversity draws year-round day trippers and campers.

“This is a fun park,” he said of Warren Dunes. “It’s an extremely mayhem kind of park.”

The part of my psyche that was re-energized by a connection with nature was ready to get in balance with the parts of my body that were a touch sore from physical exertion. At Revive Spa, Lithuanian native Alma Zastarskiene relaxed and warmed my aching muscles with an all-organic massage in a dimly lit and lightly fragranced room.

After being relaxed by Zastarskiene, it seemed the perfect time to explore a few of southwest Michigan’s wineries which have taken advantage of soil and climate that mimic some French and German regions. Not surprisingly, their common theme seemed to echo the easy-going creativity that I found in the Third Coast Surf Shop.

“California wineries don’t have the same pressures that we do here in Michigan,” explained Tabor Hill’s vice president and general manager, Paul Landek, of the state’s varied climate and shorter growing season.

I got the same message from Hickory Creek’s winemaker and manager, Michael de Schaaf, who has embraced those challenges, too. Instead of trying to manipulate his grapes to produce equivalent wines every year, he lets the rain and sun determine the best outcome for every vintage.

“Big guys have schedules to meet. I don’t have to worry about that, so I wait for the grapes,” he told me.

De Schaaf’s easy manner was typical of everyone I met in Harbor Country, and it was that attitude that has motivated me to plan a quick return to southwest Michigan.


Getting there: New Buffalo, Mich., a 90-minute drive from Chicago, is easily accessible from South Bend, Ind., and Grand Rapids, Mich., airports. New Buffalo’s Amtrak station is located in the center of town and is an easy walk to nearby hotels.

Where to stay: Both the Marina Grand, and Harbor Grand,, resorts boast indoor pools and harbor views and are walking distance to downtown New Buffalo.

Outdoor adventuring: Third Coast Surf Shop: 269-932-4575 or; begin_of_the_skype_highlightingWarren Dunes State Park:

Time for you: Revive Spa: 269-469-9111 or

Wine touring:;

Dining: Cozy up by the fire at The Stray Dog,, or savor luscious plum or blueberry preserves after lunch at the Retro Cafe, 269-469-1800. For a gourmet dinner with a local flair, visit the Bentwood Tavern at the Marina Grand Resort or enjoy the cosmopolitan quality of Copper Rock Steakhouse at the Four Winds Casino Resort,

Night life: Find live entertainment, drama, comedy and music at the Acorn Theater,, in Three Oaks, or try your luck at the Four Winds Casino Resort,, where kids and adults can find enticing activities.