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New documentary chronicles Lake Superior surfers

"Freshwater," a new documentary focused on Lake Superior and its surfing community on the North Shore, as well as the larger environmental impacts on the lake, is set to premiere in Duluth on Feb. 19.

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Professional surfer Ben Gravy braves the barrel on Wednesday Jan., 5, 2022, while catching a large wave at the Stoney Point break on Lake Superior northeast of Duluth. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
CLINT AUSTIN
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DULUTH — Minneapolis-based sports documentary filmmaker Ian Planchon was looking for a new creative project a little over three years ago. Inspiration hit him on his way back from a camping trip to Grand Marais.

"We were getting back into Duluth here and we saw the waves coming in off the lake and there were people out surfing on it," Planchon said. "I was like, 'What is this?!" I didn't know that people surfed on the lake at that time. I just thought, I have to do something with this."

What started out as a documentary on the surfing community has since grown to a larger encompassing look at Lake Superior and the connection people have with the lake, entitled "Freshwater." The film is set to premiere at the NorShor Theater Feb. 19, but Planchon was still out getting footage of the waves and surfers on Jan. 5, at Stoney Point near Knife River.

"We were supposed to be done with production last week. But we kept getting too many phone calls telling us that the waves were going to be too huge to miss," Planchon said. "And it's true. When I got up here at 8 a.m., I had yet to see waves this size in person. So it was worth it to see this."

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A surfer and board are sent airborne on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, at Stoney Point on Lake Superior northeast of Duluth. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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For the past two years, that's mostly been Planchon's shooting routine. He got to know a few of the surfers who get out onto the lake as often as they can. Whenever there's a large weather event that results in waves, the surfers call Planchon and he races up to capture what he can. Surfers such as Vonnie and Erik Wilkie of Danbury use forecasts on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website and windy.com to track wind patterns and determine the best time to surf.

"There's a lot of science to it," Erik said. "You have to figure out how long it'll be until the waves that are miles away will arrive here at Stoney Point. But all of that work kind of makes it fun."

The Wilkies have been surfing on Lake Superior since 2008. Erik learned to surf when he was 14 and continues now in his early 60s. He taught Vonnie how to surf a little later in life, in her 40s. The couple have a YouTube channel where they share videos of themselves riding waves along the North Shore.

"It's a lot colder than other places I've surfed. And the cold restricts your body and slows down your blood, so you have to be careful," Erik said. "But when we can do it, that's when the thrill comes in."

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Pro surfer Ben Gravy carves a line on a wave at the Stoney Point break northeast of Duluth on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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While warming up in their truck on Wednesday, the couple greeted familiar surfers by their first names as they passed by on their way to and from the shore. Vonnie said the cold and safety factors involved in the endeavor make the surfing community up here tighter-knit.

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"Everyone knows each other by a first-name basis here. And with new people, we always try to go up and say hi and give them some of the ins and outs, let them know where they might go into rocks or that sort of thing," Vonnie said. "We look out for each other."

The Wilkies are two of about five surfers featured in the documentary. Originally Planchon planned to focus solely on the surfers, but COVID-19 changed his plans.

"Our first day of shooting was Nov. 27, 2019. We went into it with guns blazing, ready to make this amazing surfing documentary. Then COVID hit and we had to stay home," Planchon said. "But in some ways, it worked out because that's when we took a step back and started looking at what else is happening with Lake Superior. That's where it diverged into a wider look."

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Mist, fog and light snow are all environmental challenges that Minneapolis filmmaker Ian Planchon faced on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, while filming surfers on Lake Superior. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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In order to find out more about how Lake Superior winds work, Planchon reached out to the Large Lakes Observatory at the University of Minnesota Duluth. There he learned a lot more about the scientists' quest to learn as much as they can about this huge lake, which contains 10% of Earth's fresh water.

"That percentage is staggering. But the scary part is that it's also one of the fastest-warming bodies of water in the world as well," Planchon said. "To have that amount of freshwater in danger is really scary. So we wanted to focus on what can be done to preserve it."

The documentary also focuses on personal connections with the lake. One such story is that of photographer Christian Dalbec, who turned to photography as a way of helping pull himself out of alcoholism. Dalbec started getting into the water of Lake Superior to take and share photos in 2015 and said his experiences changed his life.

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"I like to get out into the lake and get footage from the water," Dalbec said. "And Ian followed me on social media and thought my story was interesting, so we sat down to talk for his documentary and I shared some stories from my life."

Dalbec has also contributed some shots from in the water to the documentary.

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Minneapolis filmmaker Ian Planchon, right, talks with cinematographer Christian Dalbec of Two Harbors on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, while documenting surfers on Lake Superior at Stoney Point northeast of Duluth. Planchon has been working on a documentary film called "Freshwater" about Lake Superior surfers and about the importance of protecting the lake from climate change. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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Planchon wrapped up his final day of shooting Wednesday with plans to add some of the footage into the documentary. He said he's excited to return to Duluth for the premiere in a little over a month.

"It'll be fun to share it with the people who welcomed us into their world and shared their stories with us," Planchon said.

All proceeds from the Feb. 19 premiere will benefit the Large Lakes Observatory. Tickets, $25 each, will go on sale on Jan. 12. For event details, and to watch the Emmy award-winning trailer, visit 515productions.com/freshwater .

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A surfer caked in ice surveys Lake Superior water conditions on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, at Stoney Point. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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A surfer and body boarder share a wave in Lake Superior on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, at Stoney Point northeast of Duluth. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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Ian Planchon of Minneapolis, films a surfer on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, on Lake Superior at Stoney Point northeast of Duluth. Planchon has been working on the documentary film since 2019 and it will premiere at the NorShor Theater in Duluth on Feb. 19. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
CLINT AUSTIN

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Pro surfer Ben Gravy watches as sets of waves come ashore northeast of Duluth on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, at Stoney Point on Lake Superior. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
CLINT AUSTIN

Teri Cadeau is a general assignment and neighborhood reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. Originally from the Iron Range, Cadeau has worked for several community newspapers in the Duluth area for eight years including: The Duluth Budgeteer News, Western Weekly, Weekly Observer, Lake County News-Chronicle and occasionally, the Cloquet Pine Journal. When not working, she's an avid reader and crafter.
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