Surf's up in Chicago, but where?

How a compromise between surfers and a wary park district made riding waves fair game in four spots.

August 15, 2014

(Surfrider Foundation/Mike Killion)

Editor's note: We published a version of this story at the the close of summer 2012, but as curiosity about surfing in Chicago never ends (right?), we recently double-checked whether park district policies described below are up to date. They are. 

A couple summers ago, Cherelyn Riesmeyer took her kids to a Chicago beach. They had brought their new boogie boards along, which they’d purchased on a family vacation a few weeks earlier.

But when they leapt into Lake Michigan with their new beach toys, Cherelyn says, a lifeguard promptly told her kids that boogie boards weren’t allowed on Chicago beaches.

“[My kids] starting referring to the lifeguards as fun guards,” Cherelyn says.

Then, in January 2012, a local surfer was arrested for illegally surfing at Oak Street Beach. When Cherelyn heard the news, she says, she was in disbelief. But she also wanted answers, so she asked Curious City:

Why is surfing not allowed in Lake Michigan?

Turns out, surfing is allowed in Lake Michigan, but it wasn’t always, and even now it’s not allowed everywhere. In 2009, the Chicago Park District lifted its blanket ban on surfing and all “self-propelled, wave-riding board sports.” These include: body surfing, stand-up paddling, skim boarding and — of particular interest to our question-asker — boogie boarding. The district made the decision after local surfers and activists took a stand against the restrictions.

One of those activists was Mitch McNeil, chair of Chicago’s Surfrider Foundation. He recalls the park district had banned surfing and all flotation devices after a 10-year-old girl drowned off Montrose Harbor in 1988. The girl and an 11-year-old boy were on an inflatable raft when the wind blew them far offshore, according to a report in the Chicago Tribune. The two apparently jumped off the raft and tried to swim back to the beach. A nearby windsurfer rescued the boy but couldn’t find the girl.

“The city reacted drastically [after the incident] and put an across-the-board ban on flotation devices,” McNeil says. “And a surfboard is nothing else if not a flotation device.”

About two decades later, Chicago-area surfers banded together to reverse the ban, McNeil says. An agreement they worked out with the city lifted the ban on a handful of beaches, but there was an important condition: surfers would be responsible for their own safety.

So today, surfing is allowed year-round at Montrose and 57th Street beaches. During the off-season (Labor Day to Memorial Day), surfing’s allowed at Osterman and Rainbow beaches, too.

It may seem like a short list (consider that the district operates 27 public beaches), but Mcneil says he and other Chicago surfers are satisfied with the compromise — at least for now. Turns out, those four beaches get some of the best waves in the city (which can get up to 30 feet high!).

“Each beach has its own kind of wave,” McNeil says. “Each wave is created by the way the bottom is shaped and how the shoreline is lined up according to the wind. So, we had our hit list.”

Also, it’s no bummer there are more beaches to choose from in the winter.

“That’s actually when the best waves happen,” McNeil says. “You get your best waves in the fall and definitely in the winter.”

But there’s good news for Cherelyn, our question-asker, too. Since the park district includes boogie boarding in its definition of surfing, the same rules apply. So those “fun guards” her kids encountered? Well, the story could have been different at a different beach.

For specifics on Chicago’s surfing and flotation device regulations, you can also read this 2009 memo from the Chicago Park District.