Yes! You CAN surf on Lake Michigan

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By Lindsay Simmons
Sun contributor

When Frank and Beryl Skrocki packed up their three tiny kids to start an unknown life up north, they never imagined their family would own and operate one of the only surf shops in Michigan just a few years later.

The addition of their youngest daughter Annabel was the perfect excuse for the couple to sell their too-small-for-five home in Chelsea, Mich., and Frank had just sold his environmental laboratory in Ann Arbor. “We thought, why don’t we just go north?” Beryl recalls. “We had no idea what we were going to do; all our friends thought we were absolutely crazy.”

Contrary to popular belief, “we were not surfers,” Beryl says. “We just had a love for Lake Michigan and for the area. But I always wanted to learn how to surf!” She (unsuccessfully) tried to rent a board in Traverse City during the summer of 2003, and — after a few crash courses and a visit to a surf expo in Orlando, Fla. — they opened their shop in Empire in ‘04.

Now it’s impossible to imagine Empire without Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak — and without the active Skrockis. This summer marks their eighth year of business — eight years since the family first insisted that, “Yes! You CAN surf on a lake!”

Rod Robertson started surfing Lake Michigan a few years after the Skrockis opened their doors, and since then he has transitioned from customer to surf instructor at SBX.

“I’ve see an exponential growth in surfing on the lakes,” Rod says. “The understanding of it is more than ever. People have gone from disbelief to acceptance.” He largely attributes the revamped attitudes to the Skrockis. “They were in this before anyone else. They have such an impact because of their selfless giving, happiness, joy and passion for where they live.”

Rod, an Empire native, says “it almost doesn’t make sense how a small store in a town with virtually no retail can be successful, but it thrives off of positivity, good attitudes and stoke.” He and other knowledgeable surfers recognize Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak as one of two authentic surf shops in Michigan — the other being Third Coast Surf Shop in St. Joseph in the southwestern part of the state — where “you can walk in, buy a wetsuit, wax, surf clothing and have a selection of boards. They have all the info, equipment and they’re totally accommodating.”

As the oldest Skrocki daughter, Ella, puts it, Beryl is “Head Honcho” and Beryl laughs that Frank is her delivery and errand boy (to be fair, Frank still works as an environmental specialist designing and selling environmental treatment systems). Every summer day you’ll find Ella-16, Reiss-14 and Annabel-12 working or just lending a hand at the shop. Clearly a majority of their lives has been spent learning about surfing, stand-up paddle boarding and long boarding, and they have plenty of toys to experiment with. Sibling rivalry and adolescent growing pains surely exist, but their professionalism and commitment to the family business is endearing. Frank and Beryl never planned on raising children and a business all at once, however the process seems to be going swimmingly.

SBX Waterman Camp July 25-29

For the first summer ever, Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak is offering a five-day long camp “designed and taught by water enthusiasts to create water enthusiasts.” Ella was inspired to develop the program in northern Michigan after she attended an Orca camp in Santa Barbara, Calif., where she learned about whales, the ocean and the history of the area while exploring the water through fun activities. With Rod’s help, the two have outlined a week of experiential learning on the limitless shores of Lake Michigan. Sea kayaker Andy Rieck will be the third camp instructor.

As all surf sports, each day’s activities will depend on the weather and conditions. Count on learning how to read and interpret surf forecasts, and start every morning with a session of stretching. From there, the days will be packed with surfing, stand-up paddle boarding, snorkeling the shipwreck at Pyramid Point with a hike and dune tag, kayaking to North Bar from Empire Beach for skimboarding, and a last “free-for-all” day with all equipment and a barbeque at Empire Beach. “We’re also hoping for the campers to organize a beach clean-up that we can host on the Friday of the camp,” Rod says. “Being mindful of the impact we have on our beaches is another important lesson we’re trying to teach.”

“Our instructors are over-the-top cool,” Beryl says. The camp is for all ages, and she urges those with an adventurous spirit to sign up. “Try something new and maybe even get out of your comfort zone.”

With Frankfort, Leland and Empire emerging as known surf spots on Lake Michigan, the camp is truly the perfect way to begin the emersion into fresh-water surf life. Beryl explains it best: “We have miles and miles of amazing shoreline and so many fun ways to use our natural resources. Let’s expose people to these different super-fun activities and teach them how to understand the water and weather so they can become stewards of the earth.”

Contact Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak to register and learn more about the camp at (231) 326-WAVE. You can also check out wave conditions on Empire beach by viewing Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak online “Wave Cam” at