The MSU wave is known colloquially as the “Big Brown Monster”. The Red Cedar river is fed by a number of lakes and smaller streams. The river’s source is Cedar Lake in Livingston County. Lake Lansing is another one of the lakes. The Red Cedar runs right through Michigan State University’s campus and in front of Spartan Stadium. On campus there is the remains of an old dam. Fortunately for white water enthusiasts, the remnants of the dam are slanted at an almost perfect angle to form a standing wave in high water. Many dams are low head dams that are essentially a straight drop off that would not form a “safe” playspot.
Rain and snowmelt early in the season bring the river level up quickly.
The USGS provides river and stream data that gives an idea of what the flow will look like on any given day. You can tell from this chart data that the river normally runs at 200 Cubic Feet Per Second (small triangles show the median over 90 yrs.) The days in the videos below show the river at around 1100-2000 CFS. The wave starts forming around 900 CFS, but is really fun in the early teens 13-1500. At higher levels the water flows over the dam remnants but doesn’t really drop enough to make a wave.
There are immediate hazards whenever this wave is surfable. The high water causes the water to flow up the bank into the trees that line the Red Cedar. Those trees are quite dangerous if you are swept into them whether in a kayak, or while swimming. Being able to roll and attain your way into the eddy is essential. The consequences for being pinned on a tree or any obstacle in this sort of flow can be quite dire. It may not be apparent from the video, but all of the paddlers are ensuring the safety of their comrades while surfing. Boats have flotation ahead of the paddlers feet, and behind their seat in addition to neoprene spray skirts. Everyone knows how to roll and relies on that skill because it is not a question of IF you will capsize, it is when you will capsize. The other hazard is the cold water. Normally rain and snow melt brings the river up in March/April time frame. This means that everyone is wearing drysuits, hoods, and pogies.
Paddlers use plastic white water boats on the wave due to the rocks. I have seen surfers on boards attempt the wave, but never successfully. I would love to see a stand up paddler make it on. But it would take some exceptional fortitude as every single attempt will result in a swim.
If you are interested in getting into white water paddling, and learning how to take advantage of this amazing local playspot (among others) you should check out the Power of Water in Lansing.
Here are a series of videos I’ve made of the wave. Clearly in 2020 the wave was surfable for almost an entire week. Rare, exhausting, and fun.