Lake Tahoe, surf destination?

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Courtesy photo

SNU professor Brennan Lagasse braves a cold plunge to score Tahoe waves.

Brayden Stephenson, Managing Editor

SNU professor Brennan Lagasse treks through snow to paddle out in storm waves at Lake Tahoe’s North Shore. (Courtesy photo)

A 5-millimeter wetsuit complete with a hood, booties, and mitts…howling 50-mph southwest winds, and a snow-covered beach, all make up the likely factors to this novel surf break. This is not the typical surf scene of western coastal towns, these waves are breaking at 6,000 feet above sea level at Lake Tahoe.
Longtime local surfers to the scene, like international ski guide and Sierra Nevada University professor of sustainability Brennan Lagasse, find these conditions worth it to score quality surf in Lake Tahoe.
A love affair with catching waves pulled at Lagasse for decades. Now he has incorporated surfing into an otherwise ski-centric lifestyle in the wintery High Sierra.
“I was 20 years old living in Australia when I surfed for the first time. Over there it’s this huge cultural experience. I thought it was a rad way to go to the beach and a great way to immerse myself in nature. I remember sitting out on a day that I would still freak out over today, and all of the sudden I looked out and there was a whole crew of dolphins in the deep wave surfing it together. I was like ‘That’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in my life,’” Lagasse said. “Surfing is a magical way to remember that humans are part of the environment, and immerse ourselves in it. I also caught the bug, in a deep way. It doesn’t just feel good, but it’s this spiritual, transformational, and transcendental experience. I wasn’t sure how surfing would ever creep its way into my life some more.”
When Lagasse found himself Settled in Tahoe, stoked with the legendary ski scene but longing for the experience of surfing, Lagasse would soon be surprised with a solution to his surf-deprived lifestyle.
“Surfing the lake came up in a conversation with someone I was working with at the time. It was a super windy day and he goes, ‘You know people surf Tahoe sometimes?’ and I was like ‘Really? That would be incredible!’” he said. “That’s all he had to say to me, and I just waited every single windy day after that until finally one day in 2004 in King’s Beach would be my first time paddling out and catching a wave in Tahoe.”
The surfing in Tahoe can be fickle, freezing, and novel, yet incredibly rippablew on a good day. Usually in conjunction with snowfall, wind events on Tahoe can bring in sustained wind of up to 50 mph with gusts over 100 mph. On days that favor the interests of local surfers, the ideal southwest winds gift the East Shore with quality surf. Lake Tahoe is home to firing beach breaks and the occasional pumping point break left. With wide-open faces to surf and piers to shoot, Tahoe has developed a strong reputation for novel, yet froth-worthy surf. It’s no surprise that the population of high-altitude surfers is expanding with each wind event.
“For a long time, I was mainly surfing the lake by myself,” Lagasse said. “I’d run into a few other surfers here and there but it was really only in the last few years that I would start to see 10-20 people out on a good day. I never used to see that 10-15 years ago, but the community has grown over time. Tahoe has world-class skiing, snowboarding, and climbing. There’s a bunch of surfers here but the joke has always been if there was like, actual surf in Tahoe from that adventure perspective, it’d be the most perfect place ever. It’s really cool to have that a part of our backyard scene.”
When a Tahoe wind event is around the corner Lagasse coordinates with longtime surf partner and Tahoe skiing legend Scott Gaffney, checking forecasts and projections.
“A lot of people consider it a novelty but for some of us it’s not exactly that. It’s not just for the fun of going out and surfing on a lake, its going surf and that’s what it’s about,” Gaffney said. “We’re watching the weather all the time and waiting for the wind to come around for those days where we get decent surf. Aside from sliding on the snow, surfing is my favorite thing to do.”
After his introduction to surfing over 20 years ago, Gaffney has been surfing the lake to get his fix of waves, paddling out on both messy and pumping days in hopes of scoring quality waves.
“Back in December of 2014, it was one of the biggest days I’ve ever seen on the lake. We ended up getting shut down because the lake was so out of control. We ended up finding the cleanest walls coming in, like Lower Trestles-style waves. So glassy and shoulder- to head-high,” Gaffney said. “I’ve been dreaming of that day ever since and I’m hoping for it to come back.”
The experience of surfing Tahoe is unique in ways other than finding waves in the company of the High Sierra. For as long as surfing has existed, a ruthless and brutal mindset of localism has come along with it, turning away surfers for riding the wrong boards, not following specific etiquette, or simply because of being new or a visitor. This stigma within surfing is seemingly nonexistent within the Tahoe surf community.
“There aren’t certain peaks that constantly work perfect. It’s always funny when you’re out in the water and someone paddles right up to you and sits to wait for a wave. The spot could be 50 feet in either direction, so really there’s no peak to protect. There’s nothing to localize. It would be kind of ridiculous for localism to exist here,” Gaffney said.
Some people who have never had easy access to the ocean, let alone surfable waves, have suddenly found themselves with an opportunity to paddle out. Maggie Galloway, SNU student and lake surfer, fell in love with surfing because of her experiences at local Incline Village beaches.
“I love surfing the lake because I feel way less intimated by the whole scene. Being new to surfing, I’ve been able to feel more comfortable on my board and in the waves since there’s really no pressure to ‘Do things right’ from the other people in the water,” Galloway said.
While localism in Lake Tahoe surfing may be hard to enforce, it’s also something surfers are actively trying to deconstruct.
“The localism scene within surfing doesn’t exist in Tahoe and it never should. It’s a freshwater lake with a bunch of wind swell and people just want to paddle out and experience surfing the lake. Everyone should be included. We should always have this inclusive and celebratory vibe in Tahoe for people who want to be stoked to jump in our incredible lake. The people that know how to surf should just keep smiling and helping people out who are new to the scene,” Lagasse said. “To me it’s about developing a community that’s welcome to anyone. The more that someone surfs the lake might be their way to be more connected to the lake, which teaches them to want to protect the lake and the community that surrounds itself around the lake. It brings it all full circle.”
While there’s been a growing population of surfers, there’s also been an abundance of waves compared to years in the past. The threat of climate change in Tahoe is most noticeably seen in the lack of snowfall the basin has seen over the last few winters. According to a study done by UC Davis at Tahoe, the lake’s level dropped six feet this year, with an estimated loss of 1.5 inches a week. While the fluctuating lake levels contribute to potentially more opportunities for surfing, the effects of climate change in the Tahoe Basin are detrimental to surrounding environments and call for a greater awareness of locals relationships to the lake.
“The water levels started to be a big concern to me about 15 years ago. The environment around the lake has been changing due to both development, climate change, and along with it the invasion of the bark beetles in the pine trees. We haven’t had a really good long hard winter to kill the beetles off, it’s all connected. We end up with dead trees, logging, which in turn harms the soil and leads to debris ending up in the lake,” Marty Meeden, retired elementary teacher of Washoe Dissent (Loyalton) and Paiute Dissent (Mono Lake) said. “These extremes are seen in the lake level but it’s not the only problem at hand. Fish are dying and lake clarity levels are becoming more poor. Lake Tahoe signifies the heart and core of the Washoe People, the blood of the culture. It’s a revered area, it supplied pretty much everything the people needed in the summer months and it was a gathering spot for dances and ceremonies. It’s a home and spot of celebration for many”.
Engaging in recreation such as surfing and skiing in the Lake Tahoe basin promotes a deeper relationship to the lake. Raising awareness to stewarding to the area and caring for it the way many others did years before colonization and the persistent threats of changing climate.
“I’ve surfed all around the lake and chased different breaks, over the years I’ve noticed that sometimes there’s a lot of water in the lake and the surf will be really different. Just like waves change with the higher tides in the ocean. More recently I’ve noticed the lake level is so low, there’s actually waves breaking that wouldn’t normally break but because the lake is emaciated and the shoreline Is sticking out so much surf exists where it didn’t before,” Lagasse said. “It’s kind of cool from a surfing perspective, but a true sign of the effects of climate change.”
“It’s beautiful and such a special thing to catch waves in our home. Especially on those days where you’re able to surf early in the day and you’ve got enough juice for a tour you can ski some pow. Those are always my favorite days, my two favorite activities: skiing and surfing,” Lagasse said.