By Molly Barber
Photos by Tyler Lapkin
There is a certain feeling you get while doing something you truly love. A feeling that encompasses so many emotions it’s hard to describe but impossible to forget. For the wild souls out there, this feeling comes with a blend of fun, excitement, a little bit of fear and it’s addicting. So much so that you are willing to push your body to its limits, withstand the elements, and go against most people’s better judgement.
I can’t remember the first time I felt that feeling but I can tell you about a time it hit so hard I knew something in me was changing. It was the first time I had ever felt the true power of a wave. We were in Hawaii for our senior trip and the chaperones had gotten us boogie boards. A couple of friends and I grabbed some boards and quickly hit the water. It took a try or two to get my timing right but when I did, I felt an energy I had never felt before. There was this massive power rolling through this wave that was propelling me towards the beach at speeds that surprised me. The whole day was spent in the water- learning, being pummeled, finding a rhythm, and gaining respect for the water. That’s how I caught the surf bug. It would be years later before I had the opportunity to catch my first wave but I was fully able to understand the love for the sport.
It’s because of that experience that I can fully understand the reason Tyler Lapkin bundles up in his 5.3 wetsuit, booties, gloves, and hood to brave the elements of Tahoe for no other reason than to catch a wave. “My dad got me into surfing when I was about 12 or so. He grew up on the peninsula in south San Francisco and started taking me surfing to Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz and I established a love for surfing.” The Tahoe native explained. “I remember my dad taking me driving around and it would be windy and he told me, ‘I surfed at this place (Tahoe Vista) back in the 70’s. We used to go out and surf there.’ So when I was little
guy especially after he taught me how to surf I just always thought that would be the coolest thing you know? To be able to surf Tahoe.”
Tyler first tried surfing the lake in his teenage years but never really got into it. Only recently, the last 4 or 5 years, has he and friends really started to pursue it. And pursuing this kind of hobby, in an area like this, can be a little daunting. That water is cold. Especially the time of year when the winds are blowing like they need to be to get the swells big enough to ride. “Here because the winds so acute, it’s such a small lake, the wind is constantly blowing. The waves-there are really no sets. So you are constantly being bombarded by waves.” Tyler said. While surfing in the ocean you get sets of waves that come in but not in Tahoe. “There’s no break really, you’re constantly duck diving underneath the waves. You really have to choose wisely when to paddle because it’s not like there’s three nice waves coming in and any three of those waves you can catch. It doesn’t work that way, you really have to be in the right place, with your timing and placement. So it’s hard to predict when a wave’s going to come and how to catch it.” On top of that Tyler spoke about the lack of salt in the water that also effects the surfers. “In the ocean you have salt water, you sit up higher, you’re more buoyant. In the lake there’s no salt so you’re actually sitting deeper in the water which on cold winter days is not helpful.”
Surfing Tahoe isn’t something you can do year-round. In fact, for Tyler and his friends, they do most of their surfing during the fall and winter seasons. “So if there’s a storm up towards the north we might still get super strong winds but we might not get precipitation from it, that happens a lot in the fall. The fall is my favorite time to surf just because the temperature can still be warm, the water temperature isn’t super freezing yet. I went one time this past October, it was one of the biggest days I’ve been out in and I was wearing a 5.3 wetsuit with a hood and booties and it’s still cold you know? Air temperature was probably in the 60s and in the winter time it’s not like that.” He told me the waves that day they had 4-6 foot faces. For Lake Tahoe, 6-foot is pretty good size wave.
If you happen to have some good wind in the fall when the water’s still kind of warm, you might luck out and get a good session in but Tyler told me in the winter sessions only last about half-an-hour to 45 minutes. “I remember a session we had a couple of years ago, it was probably the best session I ever had. We were probably out for close to two hours. Early October. So it wasn’t really that cold, it was more that I think we were exhausted you know? I find it to be way more exhausting than surfing like in Santa Cruz just because you’re constantly paddling, constantly duck diving.”
I really feel like surfing is one of those things that you either love or have no desire to try. I mean, you surf because you love it or you don’t surf. It’s one of those things that at the end of a session, you don’t really have anything to show for it except this feeling that it gives you and the experience itself. “It’s almost cliche but the feeling that you get with surfing… There’s nothing really like it. It’s so spontaneous. You’re on this moving thing and then you have to respond to it in the moment. There’s really no other sport that I can think of that’s like that. The feeling that you get is addictive. I think it’s just like, you’re out of your mind, you’re in this totally spontaneous zone where you’re not thinking and you just have to respond to what’s going on in the moment. It’s a feeling like nothing else.”
The challenges to surfing Tahoe is a testament to wildness of the area and the sport itself. While I find myself trying to explain why these surfers put themselves through these kinds of sacrifices for a couple of waves, I keep coming back to what Chris Burkard once said. “In life there are no shortcuts to joy. Anything that is worth pursuing is going to require us to suffer just a little bit.” See Chris Burkard is a surf photographer that put cold water surfing on the map. Chris gets it. Tyler and his friends get it. The cold water, the wind, being bombarded by waves, finding the perfect spot, it all takes a back seat to catching those waves. “Even though it’s difficult and you suffer a little bit, once you’re out there doing it, it’s very special. Number 1- you’re surfing. And then number 2- YOU’RE SURFING ON TAHOE! When you catch a wave on Tahoe, it’s pretty special. You look around and you see you’re surrounded by mountains and in the wintertime you’re surrounded by snow. It’s kinda surreal, it’s a novelty but it’s pretty special.”