Autumn waves draw surfers to Whiting beach

As summer gives way to autumn, the Northwest Indiana’s beaches will gradually empty of swimmers and sunbathers. But for surfers, the changing of the seasons marks the arrival of ideal conditions.

Autumn brings stronger winds and with them, the waves that surfers seek. Thursday was one of the season’s first days with desirable conditions. With waves between four and seven feet tall and temperatures in the high 60s around midday, the water off Whiting Lakefront Park was dotted with around a dozen wet-suited bodies. In view of the nearby BP refinery, they paddled out and rode the choppy surf. Less than a mile from BP’s sprawling refinery, the rocky beach regularly draws crowds around that size during the surfing season.

Chicago native Rex Flodstrom, a children’s book author and illustrator who also works as a kayak guide, has been surfing since the 1980s. His interest in the sport, he said, grew out of a childhood interest in skateboarding.

“Some of the skills transfer and complement each other,” he explained. “I started traveling out to Southern California around then as well. That’s where I kind of caught the bug. I caught my first wave and then I was hooked.”

Back in the Chicago area, he found a surf scene with smaller waves, but smaller crowds as well.

“It’s a good community out here,” he said. “You know, people are pretty friendly because, you know, the crowds aren’t as much of an issue.”

Bruce Donaldson, a semi-retired photographer and Highland resident, doesn’t surf — “I don’t have the physical stamina or strength,” he told the Post-Tribune — but he has become a fixture at the beach and a part of the local surfing community nonetheless.

“I just love coming out,” he said. “It’s like being at an aquarium and watching the fish. It’s meditative.”

Donaldson turned out with his camera on Thursday after seeing forecasts predicting high surf. He takes photos of the surfers riding the waves and shares the images with them afterwards.

Some surfers will stop coming once the winter cold arrives, but others will brave the icy conditions, clad in extra-thick winter wetsuits, hoods and mittens.

Mike Calabro, a professional adventure and action sports photographer, said he will keep surfing “until the ice chunks become too large and become an obstacle.”

“Some years it doesn’t happen,” he explained. “Some years we get frozen out for weeks or longer at a time.”

Calabro is a Whiting native who now lives in Chicago. Like Flodstrom, he has been surfing for over two decades. He offered a more mixed assessment of region’s surf scene, telling the Post-Tribune that the area is “definitely not as good as the ocean” and lamenting its high pollution levels.

Calabro said that the era of COVID-19 has spurred increased interest in surfing alongside other outdoor pastimes, which has led to crowds sometimes as large as 30 people at the small Whiting beach. A lack of space and the inexperience of novice surfers, he said, has occasionally led to conflict.

“I actually, crazily, have seen fights break out right here because it’s been too many people,” Calabro said. “You only get a limited amount of waves, only get a limited amount of days a year that we’re allowed to surf here.”

Still, Calabro keeps showing up when the conditions are right.

“It’s something to do,” he said. “Once in a while, you can get some decent waves.”