In this edition of Surfer’s Voice, we spoke to Geoff Ortiz, a long-time Great Lakes Surfer and local legend. If you’ve ever surfed around Toronto, you’re bound to have bumped into a smiling Geoff— either holding a paddle or camera. We chatted about how he got into surfing and lake surfing in particular. Having surfed the lakes for nearly two decades, and having photographed countless other surfers on Lake Ontario, Geoff holds a unique place in the Great Lakes Surf community—thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Geoff!
I grew up north of Toronto in a place called Oak Ridges. It used to be a ‘small town’ but over time the GTA swallowed it up. My city life began with University in '96. I’ve been living in East York for the last 15 years--a short 10 minute drive from Bluffers Park.
It’s hard not to choose the Cove as my favourite. But if it’s too big for Cove then Mike Myers (Mini Mavs) is my favourite. And if it’s a Lighthouse (Rocks) day, then Lighthouse is my favourite. Really, it’s Bluffers I love. The anticipation of driving down the hill and getting your first glimpse of the water never gets old. The way the city disappears and all you see is water and cliffs and trees. Some snowy days wondering if you’ll make it back out again.
Home is my favorite. I remember one trip to Puerto Rico. We had just had a solid swell and I was surfed out. That same storm tracked North to the lakes, and the Cove must have been firing. Friends of mine trekked north of the city for an elusive Ontario powder day. And me, I was sitting in paradise with a pit in my stomach because I missed a day surfing in a snowstorm. If I had to choose a break, I’d say Cerro Azul in Peru. I had such a memorable surf there. We arrived on a Sunday afternoon and the walling left was packed. I was able to jockey for a few but due to a setting sun I got out wanting more. The next day the swell picked up and the walls were well overhead. All morning just me and one other guy joyously laughing out loud.
I’ve always loved playing in the waves. I have so many memories growing up body surfing with my sisters on an RV trip somewhere. Florida, California, Mexico, I remember body surfing at Sandbanks Provincial Park as a kid.
The board part of it never started until after I graduated from University in 2000. I went tree planting as soon as I finished my last exam and started saving. In January 2001 I started my first trip. We started in Costa Rica where I purchased my first board for $75. Best $75 I ever spent. A board hand shaped somewhere for ‘Big Bryan’ in 1983 and left in Manuel Antonio for me to find 18 years later. A friend from tree planting gave me a few pointers and I paddled out. How hard could it be? I mostly got tossed around by the ocean for the few days before travels brought us South to Patagonia where we spent the next couple of months in the mountains. We returned to Costa Rica in March with a plan to improve our surfing. Someone had told us about a place called Mal Pais where we could camp on the beach and surf all day. We found a place to stay and my love affair with surfing really began.
I didn’t start lake surfing until early 2004. I had just returned home from a three-month surf trip with three of my best friends. We all bought boards in Jaco and started our journey. We made a couple stops along the way but we were able to find a place to settle for five or six weeks in Santa Teresa. We stopped at a few other places along the way, including Bocas del Toro in Panama (Maybe Bocas is my favorite?). After that trip I didn’t want to live a life without surfing any longer. I had heard about lake surfing from some tree planting friends. So when I got home I bought a wetsuit, boots, gloves, a hood, a new board, and the ‘Surfing the Great Lakes’ guide book. I figured if I make such a big investment then it has to be real.
The surf scene on Lake Ontario is ever-changing. For a while I found it a little lonely. There was a forum called ‘Origin surf’ that helped with communication but due to the nature of great lakes surf I was still out on weekdays alone wondering if I should paddle out by myself, which over time I started to do. The reason I started taking photos was to show my friends who were holding out that it’s the real deal. If you’re prepared for the weather you can find some amazing waves. There are still a few secrets here and there but overall the Lake Ontario surf scene is a very welcoming environment.
I never had surfing heroes growing up. I was an adult before surfing came into my life. Maybe Terje Haakonsen? Dude can surf!
How I identify as Indigenous is something I’m still trying to figure out. I had blonde hair and blue eyes as a kid and was raised in the Roman Catholic system. I had no idea what being Indigenous meant. Only that it was something I shouldn’t try to be. It wasn’t until my mother went back to school and she learned of the trauma suffered by indigenous people that we started to connect with the first nations community. When my mother passed I lost my connection for a time. Connections I’ve been able to slowly find since. One connection I have found is Lake Ontario, and specifically Bluffers park. There is no doubt in my mind that it is a sacred place. The area is one of the earliest known sites of occupation in Toronto, dating back some 10,000 years. A place of gathering and trade. A place where the water upwells all winter and you find open water when all other lakes are frozen.
Making surfing accessible in our community isn’t a simple task. Providing equipment and access is only part of it. Someone really has to want to make it part of their life.
It’s more than just appeal. I feel connected to something bigger than myself. I’m so grateful every time I get out. Time on the water is fresh air, exercise, and living in the moment.
So many fun memorable waves. The few that stand out are here at home. One was a ride in Cobourg a bunch of years ago. I caught a right off the rock jetty past the lighthouse. It was just overhead on the takeoff and walled up for a couple pumps down the wall. I faded back and it reformed into another wall. The wave continued, sometimes waist high, sometimes chest high. When I thought it was over it would reform again. It continued until I stepped off my board in knee deep water almost 400 meters away from where I started. I definitely have a few Cove favorites I like to think back on. And Mini Mavs when it is working on the outside point also stands out. Some of the biggest waves I’ve ever caught were there. 6-8 foot overhead freshwater pillows.
Outside of surfing I’m someone who likes to stay busy. I spend a lot of time in my garden. Both landscaping and growing vegetables. I enjoy things that take time. I make hot sauce with the peppers I grow. Jam with raspberries from our backyard. I bake my own bread and make my own pasta. When I BBQ, I use charcoal or hardwood. I work with stone and wood. Whenever possible, I do my own renovations. We enjoy road trips and camping as a family.
Any other thoughts, or anything you would like to say to aspiring Great Lakes Surfers?
Thoughts for others who are interested in lake surfing is to put in the time. Don’t be picky. Every session is an opportunity to learn more and get better. One of the things I love most about surfing is that I still have so much to learn. I’m in my mid forties and still improving.
Words by Tobias Rene. Photographs by Geoff Ortiz.
Tobi is a German-born, Toronto-local aquatic legend. A surf and skate instructor for Surf the Greats, Tobi also teaches swim, triathlon-training, and water rescue, and when he's not in the water catching every last peeler until the sun goes down, he will almost always be found cheering everyone on from the beach. If you know Tobi, you know he brings the stoke! Find him on Instagram.