By Jordan-na Belle-Isle
I’ve been sporty my whole life. I was inspired by my father, who was a runner, skier and cyclist. I biked and swam my way through childhood, joined all the school sports teams as a teenager, and continued this trend into adulthood through rec leagues and pickup games. I loved being active and often found myself the sole female on teams and in clubs. I was vastly outnumbered and fine with it, figuring my athletic ability and hardiness made me, regrettably, “different than other girls.” My perception of sports was that you played to win, always striving to be better than your opponent. Understanding this was my ticket to play.
In my late twenties, I moved to Toronto and discovered the burgeoning sport of stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) in the waters of Lake Ontario. What began as a first-time lesson quickly became a serious pastime. Soon after, I learned that SUP surfing was a variation of the sport, and there were people who surfed and SUP surfed the Great Lakes year-round. I wanted to be one of them. I had a modest budget, no car and had surfed once before. I had no idea where to go, when to go or what to do.
"My first time on a SUP" - author’s personal collection
Luckily, there was a small group of women in the lake surfing community who welcomed me into the fold. These women were passionate, friendly and encouraging to newcomers, not common in a pursuit known for its localism and solitude. The more experienced surfers were generous with their knowledge and shared their skills eagerly. I made fast friends with other newcomers as we absorbed nuggets of information and applied them to our own learning process. We’d plan to meet up, I’d drag my second-hand inflatable board on transit and one of my surf sisters would pick me up from the subway station. Together, we’d seek out breaking waves in inclement weather, change in parking lots and dive into the icy waters, covered head to toe in thick neoprene. Other female surfers would see us and say hello. We’d call out waves as sets rolled in, encouraging one another to paddle hard, and cheer when our sister stood up, victorious. Afterwards, shivering with the heater on full blast, we’d rehash sweet rides and laugh at our wipeouts.
This was so different from my previous sports experiences. I was used to earning my place on the field and court with my abilities and mental toughness, in a setting where pride, competition and smack talk were the norm. As a woman, I was typically assumed to be the weakest link and constantly had to prove myself, even when I was more skilled than my male counterparts. SUP surfing with my female friends showed me another way, one that was more inclusive and nurturing. They didn’t care if I was good or not; instead, we care about good vibes, friendship and sharing waves.
This thriving community of female lake surfers eventually organized under the banner of Ladies of the Lakes, now called Lake Surfistas, founded by Lisa Parkes and Robin Pacquing. Their first event was six years ago on Lake Erie; around forty women attended. Lake Surfistas quickly evolved as interest grew, social media becoming the key platform where women from all the Lakes could find each other. There were other lake surf message boards, but many were riddled with localism, trolling and bravado. The Lake Surfistas’ women-only platform offered a refuge and a safe space where women could ask questions without being mocked or mansplained, freely share tips and tricks, and find other like-minded women to surf with.
I am now in my fifth year as a lake SUP surfer, and have become a SUP instructor, a surf shop employee and a co-organizer for Lake Surfistas. Through these communities, I’ve been able to pay forward the kinship and guidance offered to me years ago that continues to this day. Lake Surfistas’ mission is to gather, empower and educate women from all backgrounds who surf and SUP the Great Lakes. Our membership is diverse and includes everyone, from stoked "groms" to rad grandmothers, curious beginners to passionate enthusiasts, non-sporty types to lifelong athletes. Collectively, we elevate and empower one another. I'm not saying that men can’t or don’t do this. But in my experience, women are much more patient and generous when it comes to supporting their peers and are more willing to applaud someone else's success. And when you flip the script from competition to community, everyone is welcome to play.