Skrocki sisters share their love of the Great Lakes
By Mae Stier
On a recent warm summer evening, I met Ella (26) and Annabel (22) Skrocki at the public beach in Empire—their natural habitat. They rolled up in their mother’s vintage mint-green Chevrolet, each pulled a paddleboard from the bed of the truck, and together we set off for a sunset paddle on Lake Michigan.
The sky was hazy as the sun dipped lower, the effect of wildfires out West on display here in Northern Michigan. We made our way south across calm, rolling waves to sit at the base of the Empire Bluff while the sun completed its descent. While we sat, we talked, and these two sisters gave me a glimpse into their friendship, water stewardship, and the mindset that fuels it all.
The Skrocki sisters were both born in southern Michigan and moved to Empire during early childhood. Their parents, Frank and Beryl, were drawn to the region by their love of the Great Lakes and the haven that it offered their family. Beryl had spent her summers growing up at a family cottage just north of Empire, and many of Ella and Annabel’s childhood summer memories are set against the backdrop of that same place.
In 2004, when the family moved permanently to Empire, they also opened the first freshwater surf shop, Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak.
Frank and Beryl created the shop to address the limited access to surf craft they had encountered while recreating on the water—from its earliest days, the shop was about offering a connection to the Great Lakes. It was founded to be a fun outlet for their family and for those who used their services.
Now, 18 summers later, the shop is not only a means of enjoyment but offers full-time employment for the sisters every summer, as well as a platform for activism work that they engage in to protect the fresh water that surrounds us.
The sisters see their work of renting paddleboards and offering surf lessons as deeply important to the conservation work they both do, together through the Surf Shop and also individually.
Annabel has worked on marine conservation projects worldwide, and Ella advocates for policy change to protect the Great Lakes throughout the state.
They both see the shop—and the appreciation it instills in those who patronize it—as a key proponent in instilling greater respect for the water.
As Annabel said during our time together, “you respect what you love,” and the Skrocki sisters are helping more people to develop a love for the Great Lakes in the hope that those people will cultivate a sense of responsibility toward the water, as well.
Offering respect for what you love reflects the sisters’ mindset toward the Great Lakes and also toward each other.
These young sisters have a deep respect for each other, something that was clear as we chatted, and even in the way they teased each other. Their relationship has been strengthened over the last year and a half, offering them something to be grateful for during the pandemic.
In March 2020, as the gravity of the pandemic was beginning to reveal itself, Annabel was living in England, preparing to go on a volunteer trip that began March 16. The organization canceled the trip the day before she had planned to leave, and at her parents’ recommendation, she made arrangements to fly home later that month.
Ella, meanwhile, was living in Washington state at the time, traveling and living out of her van. Quickly, it was becoming evident that her lifestyle would no longer be viable as campgrounds and public restrooms continued to shut down. Learning that her younger sister was flying home, Ella drove across the country to pick her up from the airport, so that the sisters could quarantine together at the family cottage before moving home with their parents.
Staying at the family cottage those two weeks offered a silver lining to a difficult time.
The sisters admit that it gave them time to work through some “sister stuff,” which ultimately brought them closer and helped them to understand each other’s perspectives. Now, they have both returned home, living with their parents and their brother, Reiss (24), while he is home from college for the summer.
There is a lot of togetherness for the whole family, but especially for the sisters and Beryl as the three of them run the shop six days a week. They work hard to find a balance, find ways to work collaboratively, and set aside time to be a family. The sisters have learned the importance of setting business boundaries, taking the time to step away from work so that they can enjoy the beauty of the water that they work so hard to share with everyone else.
It is clear that, while they are working to create a better balance between work and play, their work is their play, and they find deep joy in sharing our freshwater lakes with visitors. The sisters attribute this love of the water to their mother, who has always been an inspiration to the sisters. Beryl, an executive board member of the Great Lakes Business Network, set a precedent for collaborating to create positive change. Seeing their mother’s passion and joy for the Great Lakes has instilled the same in them, and it is that inspiration that they are hoping to pass onto others through the shop.
And so, it is all connected.
The family’s cottage created the space to develop a love of water recreation, which led to a desire to share that love with others and a responsibility to care for the water. That care is nurtured and inspired by their family relationships, where mutual respect is the cornerstone.
As we paddled back to the Empire beach in the darkness, that sense of respect settled around us.
What a beautiful place we inhabit, and what an enormous task we all carry to protect it.
I asked the sisters where we start, how do we protect our waters? It can feel insurmountable—the damage already caused to our shorelines and waterways.
But their answer was simple: start with love.
Love the water, which will lead to respect. Share the love, and invite others into the waves. And then, together, step forward to create change.
Learn more about Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak at SBSurfandKayak.com online. Annabel Skrocki writes at LoveUrWtr.com. Get more involved in Great Lakes conservation efforts by connecting with the Great Lakes Business Network at GLBusinessNetwork.com.
A version of this article first published in the Glen Arbor Sun, a Leelanau County-based semi-sister publication to The Betsie Current.
Featured Photo Caption: Sisters Annabel and Ella Skrocki at Empire beach. Photo by Mae Stier.