North of Long Tail

A documentary photo series celebrating Lake Erie
For the month of June, see the exhibit live at Wychwood Barns Artscape.

Robin – Oshawa

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Robin’s parents immigrated to Canada in the early 1970s. In the Philippines, where they are from, being outside and connecting with the land was their usual way of life. In Canada, they wanted their Toronto-born children to have this link with the earth and waterways too.

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Robin, age three, on a camping trip with her parents.

“My parents taught me that connecting with nature is important, no matter where you are. The ‘Canadian thing’ to do is to go canoeing and camping, and they made the most of it.”

Robin’s early camping experiences on the Great Lakes with her parents and brothers built the foundation for her ongoing love story with the lakes. The Philippines is a collection of 7,100 islands in the Pacific Ocean, so Robin also figures that a love for the water is in her blood.

Robin holds a photo of herself at Hawla Beach in Bataan (the province her family is from in the Philippines) on her first visit to the Philippines.
Robin holding a rock she collected on the beach in Bataan.

(left) Robin holds a photo of herself at Hawla Beach in Bataan on her first visit to the Philippines. (right) Robin holding a rock she collected on the beach in Bataan.

In 2001, Robin tried surfing for the first time on a family trip to Hawaii. Robin remembers looking at surfer magazines as a teen. She was unable to connect with the people represented on the pages — white, super fit, blonde people.

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A few years after this first experience surfing, while planning a trip to BC, Robin started discovering more and more information about people surfing in Canada, including the Great Lakes.

Robin first tried surfing Lake Erie in 2007 at Pleasant Beach — a spot she continues to visit. Robin explains how Lake Erie's northeastern corner is particularly suitable for surfing because of the westerly winds and shallow water.

Robin first tried surfing Lake Erie in 2007 at Pleasant Beach — a spot she continues to visit. Robin explains how Lake Erie's northeastern corner is particularly suitable for surfing because of the westerly winds and shallow water.

As her love for the sport grew, Robin started working at a Toronto surf shop as a sales associate. She was encouraged to see an increased interest from women in the sport and its growth on the Great Lakes. In 2014, Robin helped form The Lake Surfistas — a small but growing community of women connected through their love of surfing the Great Lakes.

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“We celebrate women and water. Lake Surfistas is a diverse group of women. We are not all young; some of us have careers; some of us are moms, and some of us have gained weight, but we all have the lake inside of our hearts. It became this movement of women.”

Surfing is also the sport that introduced Robin to many of her closest friends.

The first significant event that the Lake Surfistas hosted was the now annual “Lady of the Lakes” event at Pleasant Beach. That first year, 2014, 30 women showed up for a day of surfing, campfires, and connecting.

“The event filled all of our hearts with so much love, so we didn’t want to stop doing it.” 

The next year the number of attendees doubled, and they started planning for 2016 to be the biggest one yet. Robin spent the year planning the event with her team, but five days before the event, her father suffered a severe stroke. It was like while her world had stopped, but this meaningful event she had spent so much time planning was just around the corner.

[from Left to Right] her brother, her father, Robin and Lolo (grandpa) Imon.

Robin (second from right) with her brother, father, and Lolo (grandpa) Imon.

Robin remembers herself being an emotional mess. She even considered skipping the event, but she knew that her father wouldn’t have wanted her to miss it.

“If I hadn't gone, my dad would have been very disappointed. I went to the event and the love and support from so many women that day brought me to my knees.” 

Robin would encourage anyone to try surfing, but she also wants them to be aware of its risks. Robin knows firsthand how dangerous surfing can be. In 2012, while surfing in Costa Rica, she had a bad accident, which has left her face permanently scarred.

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After her traumatic event in Costa Rica, Robin decided to try SUP surfing (paddleboard surfing), a calmer, more relaxing form of surfing, and the one she does most today.

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Robin wants to encourage people new to the sport to surf safely. She has seen people going out on days where the conditions are not suited to their skill level.

“You need to have a sense of respect for the sport and the water. The lake is powerful.”

Scars on Robin’s feet from zebra mussels on a shallow shelf of rocks at Pleasant Beach.

Scars on Robin’s feet from zebra mussels on a shallow shelf of rocks at Pleasant Beach.

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Robin has made it part of her mission to show that all peoples — backgrounds and body types — can surf. 

“As long as there is a drive and a willingness to learn, then absolutely, the sport of surfing is for you!”

[from Left to Right] her brother, her father, Robin and Lolo (grandpa) Imon.

Luckily, Robin sees a lot of positive changes happening in the sport. Many surfing companies are sponsoring women of colour. Also, there are groups like Black Girls Surf that advocate for communities that aren’t traditionally associated with the sport. After growing up feeling like surfing wasn’t a sport for her, Robin knows firsthand how vital this representation is.

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"Surfing makes me feel calm. It's a release. It's like I'm unloading emotionally out on the water."

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It is still a regular occurrence in Robin's life to encounter someone whose "mind is entirely blown" when they discover that people surf the Great Lakes. As the sport continues to grow, Robin figures that fewer people will be surprised to find out that Lake Erie has excellent surfing.

Over the years, Robin believes that more and more people are coming to understand how beautiful Lake Erie is. She also believes that the desire to take care of it is increasing.

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"I hope the people in power don't just consider money, but they also consider the health of the lake."

Robin can't imagine her life without the Great Lakes and hopes future generations of surfers, like her, can feel a sense of pride in their conservation.

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STORIES FROM THE LAKE

Patricia – Pelee Island

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Heidi – Pigeon Bay

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Take Action

Lake Erie and the millions of people who rely on it for their drinking water, local jobs, and so much more need your help.

The health of Lake Erie continues to decline. Action is needed more than ever to restore its health for current and future generations.

You can make a difference. Here’s how you can help protect the lake and support the people who are closely connected to it.

EXHIBITION BY: documentary photographer COLIN BOYD SHAFER in collaboration with ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENCE

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