‘Freshwater’ Debut Brings Enthusiastic Crowd to Duluth’s NorShor Theatre

Film about Lake Superior’s culture and conservation features a host of Duluth residents
Film poster for "Freshwater"


If you’ve never hung out with surfers before, you may be surprised to discover they’re very vocal people—especially when it comes to supporting their own. That’s exactly what was happening Sat., Feb. 19, at the historic NorShore Theatre in Duluth as 450 people from around the state came together to watch the awe-inspiring documentary film Freshwater. The film examines surfer culture and climate science and was recorded along Lake Superior. This was no typical evening at the movies—most of the cast was in the crowd, and their fans were hooting and hollering for them every time they rode a beautiful wave or said a funny line.

Freshwater, a film by Ian Planchon and Lynn Melling, premiered in Duluth for many reasons. The hour-long production, which focuses on the science, culture, and conservation of Lake Superior, has a cast largely made up of Duluth residents, including surfers, researchers, brewers, and a former city tourism director. They all share their own interactions with the lake.

The directors also have a clear love affair with Duluth. Melling’s connection to the lake goes way back: “I was born in Duluth, and my mom always talks about how I was born in September, and it had been a hot summer, and she used to go down to Park Point when she was pregnant with me and sit with her legs dangling in the water. I like to think that I was already connected to Lake Superior in utero.” Finally, Duluth knows how to party, and there was a real thirst for a trendy film premiere here.

The energy at the premiere reflected the energy in the film. Planchon, who has a background in “gravity-based action sports,” said he can relate to the adrenaline the Duluth-area surfers feel on the lake’s towering waves. He enjoys capturing that feeling and sharing it for the broader good. The co-directors, who are married to each other, shared their subjects’ adrenaline during filming: “We were on that thread with the surfers, and if we saw a big storm blowing in, we’d jump in our truck at 3 in the morning and head up the shore. We wanted to be part of the action, because who knows what’s going to happen,” Melling said.

Planchon recalled driving through a foot of snow in blizzard conditions to film the best surfing scenes. According to both directors, “you never have good waves without snow falling down.”

The crowd’s noisy appreciation wasn’t directed at only the surfers, either. There was a lot of love for the scientists from the Large Lakes Observatory. This research organization had been elusive to Planchon and Melling over the first couple years of filming due to COVID-19 precautions, but finally, in their third year, they were cordially invited on board the Blue Heron research vessel. The surfers make up the first chapter of Freshwater, while the science of Lake Superior makes up the second chapter (with five chapters in all). Here, the film takes an eye-opening direction: Scientists have concluded that Lake Superior is the fastest-warming lake in the world. The film emphasizes how little is known about a resource as vast as the world’s biggest lake.

There was also big applause for Bryon Tonnis, director of brewery operations at Bent Paddle, who shares in the film how Lake Superior’s extremely soft water is a key ingredient to Bent Paddle’s success. Tonnis is one of many in the film to focus on water conservation and the importance of preserving the immense resources that Lake Superior provides.

The audience also cheered for Anna Tanski, who is well known in Duluth for her previous role with the Visit Duluth tourism agency. Today, Tanski is the new head of festivals and events for the Catalyst Story Institute. The crowd went wild when she was shown on film casually talking to some loons on the lake.

Overall, Freshwater brought a thirst-quenching gulp of energy and high spirits after what feels like a long drought in socializing, camaraderie, and party-going for the last 23 months. Planchon and Melling not only know how to make a great film; they also know how to host a great party.

Christopher Pascone is a Minnesota outdoorsperson who lives in Duluth with his wife and three daughters. He went to Macalester College in St. Paul, and now teaches in the School District of Superior (WI) and Northwood Technical College. His passions are exploring the outdoors with his family and urban farming. He prioritizes low-tech adventures with a paddle, skis, or fishing equipment.