‘Freshwater’ Film Captures Lake Superior’s Surf Culture

A Minneapolis-based film studio stresses the lake’s ecological significance in a documentary filmed during the pandemic
The filmmakers on the set of 'Freshwater'
The filmmakers on the set of ‘Freshwater’

515 Productions

What were you doing over the past two years of shelter-in-place orders, caps on gatherings, and constant cancellations? While these times were a recipe for lounging on the couch for some, not so for Ian Planchon and Lynn Melling. The co-owners of Minneapolis-based film studio 515 Productions were out on the North Shore of Lake Superior every time the winds kicked up and the snow fell, filming local surfers as they harnessed this freshwater ocean’s huge waves.

The film directors’ original aim was to capture the incredible surfing culture that thrives on Lake Superior, but their finished product goes well beyond. Freshwater is a film featuring not only the bold surfers of this inland sea, but also the scientists and physicists studying the ecology and ecosystem of Earth’s largest body of freshwater. Freshwater follows along as “crazy” surfers, underwater photographers, and impassioned scientists interact with the lake, each through their own lens.

As COVID-19 was disrupting in-person gatherings and organized events, Planchon and Melling, who are married, wanted to find something creative to make together. “For us, we just wanted to have a creative outlet,” Melling explains. “Some people like to garden, or some people like to cook, and we like to do documentaries.”

515 Productions

She continues: “Freshwater is a passion project for us. It’s a fun distraction from the day-to-day grind. I do think that especially over the course of COVID-19, it could have easily died out a number of times. It could have just been left on the back burner and never seen the light of day. But when you’re on that thread with the surfers, and there’s a big storm blowing in, you jump in your truck and drive up the shore. There’s addiction there. I think that really drove it—just wanting to be in the action. Who knows what’s going to happen?”

Challenging conditions are second nature to the surfers of the North Shore. But the surfing community has its own way of dealing with it: tribal support. For Greg Isaacson, who was featured surfing in the film and was one of the original surfers on Lake Superior in 1976, the documentary accurately reflects the lifestyle.

“The producers of Freshwater captured the raw energy of surfing, but they also captured how we’re tribal. We look out for each other,” Isaacson says. “You can go anywhere in the world with a surfboard, and no matter where you show up, your people are going to take care of you.”

Planchon and Melling, who originally set out to tell the surfers’ story, say the restrictions the pandemic placed on their filmmaking process were a blessing in disguise. “Our final edit of Freshwater in no way reflects what we set out to make,” Planchon says. “I think we are very fortunate that COVID-19 hit when it did. It caused us to stop and think, and it gave us the time to create something more meaningful than just a beautiful surfing film.”

Lake Superior surfers are featured in a scene from the movie 'Freshwater'
Lake Superior surfers are featured in a scene from the movie ‘Freshwater’

515 Productions

Beyond filming the surfers, Planchon and Melling turned to science to better understand Lake Superior itself, and to balance the film by exploring Lake Superior as a living ecosystem. They point out that despite the fact that Lake Superior contains 10% of Earth’s freshwater, this massive force of nature remains largely unexplored. They turned to the Large Lakes Observatory, a research organization of the University of Minnesota-Duluth, for more information about the lake’s ecology, but had to wait patiently: “Interviewing them wasn’t possible because they had very strict COVID-19 precautions,” Melling says. “It just so happened that everything came together in the last few months, and we were able to get on their research vessel, the Blue Heron, and get interviews with our scientists. Then, shortly thereafter, the biggest waves we’ve seen in the last three years happened to roll through.”

Melling adds: “It was like that [record producer] Quincy Jones saying, ‘You have to let God walk into the room.’ You get 70% of the way there, and then you just leave space for God
to walk into the room.”

A key point of the film is the lake’s rapidly changing water temperature. “Lake Superior is one of the fastest-warming lakes in the world,” Melling says. “We learned that water temperature, even the slightest change in it, can totally disrupt the entire ecosystem. It’s such a complex system, where everything is so interconnected, and one little degree doesn’t seem like a big deal to us, but to this ecosystem it’s devastating. And the fact is, there’s not a lot of funding available for research of this body of water that contains 10% of earth’s fresh water. What we’re hoping is that people will walk away from the film and understand that we need to collectively care for this body of water, and do something for it.”

Planchon and Melling are doing their part. Freshwater was first shown as a 23-minute version at the Catalyst Film Festival in Duluth in October. The directors premiered the full hour-long feature film, again in Duluth, on Feb. 19. All $5,000 in proceeds from the premiere were donated to the Large Lakes Observatory. The filmmakers’ next step is to take Freshwater on the festival tour circuit. Planchon and Melling were “blown away” by the positive response to the film.

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.