SUP: First waves

Photos by Renee Rosensteel, courtesy of the Sprout Fund.

“Most people are on the world, not in it — have no conscious sympathy or relationship to anything about them — undiffused, separate, and rigidly alone like marbles of polished stone, touching but separate.”
John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir

The magic of surfing a wave or riding the current of rivers is that in a single moment our perspective changes and we become one with our planet. We quickly realize the futility of fighting the unwavering power of nature and lose ourselves in the grace and fluidity of letting it flow through us as we flow through it. As whitewater paddlers and river surfers, we are offered the chance to share these experiences, thereby inspiring a care for an environment that we then see unites us. We forge relationships with others, confidence in ourselves, and compassion and respect for the natural world. This realization was the motivation behind First Waves, a program that introduces teens facing adversity to the conservation, enjoyment, and sharing of our waterways.

First waves by Ian Smith

When I first sat down with David English, then of the Sprout Fund, the program began to take shape. The Sprout Fund’s mission is to “enrich the Pittsburgh region’s vitality by engaging citizens, amplifying voices, supporting creativity and innovation, and cultivating connected communities.” David’s experience at Sprout and keen eye for planning helped fuse my passions for standup paddling, filmmaking, and conservation into an initiative with a reach beyond that of just Pittsburgh’s youth. Taking the framework established with help from the Sprout Fund, we formed partnerships with the Pittsburgh Filmmakers, Paddle Without Pollution, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Body Glove, ULI Boards, and SurfSUP Adventures to create a first-of-its-kind program with a goal to enhance awareness of waterway conservation by teaching teens to catch their first waves and how to document and share the experience through filmmaking. Participants would be selected from Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh, none of which had any experience in whitewater or on standup paddleboards.

Youth Media Group
The inaugural phase of the program launched on August 9th, 2014 at Greenhouse Park near Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The park is situated on the shores of the Stonycreek River where a standing surf wave and class-II rapids provide a perfect venue for introducing river surfing, whitewater skills, and river safety. To kick off the program, Susan Howard and Louis Cappa of Pittsburgh Filmmakers Youth Media Group instructed the students on how to properly use a digital video camera, the elements of a quality shot, and how to conduct interviews.


The students collaborated on open-ended questions and once everyone had been interviewed, it was time to get in the water.

I gave a discussion about whitewater safety and divided the group into two teams. One team would be in the water learning about standup paddleboarding, whitewater, and river surfing while the others shot footage of the experience and conducted further interviews with the surfers. Within minutes, any worry about being on camera in a new place was devoured by intensity, focus, and enjoyment. The captivating power of river surfing and whitewater took hold faster than we could have imagined. The wild hooting echoed through the valley and ear-to-ear grins adorned us all, uniting our tribe in the experience. Within the next hour, each participant was able to stand up on a board and catch his or her first ride on a standing river wave. Some surfed prone while others were standing, but everyone felt the invigorating experience of being propelled by the force of the river.


Surfing and paddling, however, was not the sole source of the group’s excitement. Simultaneously, the film crews were wading in the water, clamouring on the rocks, and even swimming through whitewater to get unique angles and capture the experience. They used a variety of technologies including waterproof POV (point of view) and digital cameras. Once everyone was off the water, the students did a final interview to bring an end to the day’s activities. With the footage in the can, the experience was an incredible success. Not only did the program offer an immersive education on filmmaking, paddleboarding, and whitewater, but also engaged teamwork, critical thinking, and an extensive workout and balance exercise. Residual benefits included overcoming the obstacles of being interviewed and on-camera while also dealing with the environment of swift-water. These challenges are the foundation for growth and part of what makes whitewater such an effective environment for inspiration.

First waves by Ian Smith

Two weeks after the river surfing and filmmaking workshop, First Waves began the second portion of the program. This time, instead of surfing river waves and running rapids, participants utilized their paddling skills to access difficult to reach sections of the Monongahela River in order to remove litter and pollutants. The bustling streets of Pittsburgh’s South Side and garbage-strewn banks of this industrial section of river proved a stark contrast from the river surfing event.

David and Melissa Rohm of Paddle Without Pollution facilitated the conservation workshop and cleanup initiative. Paddle Without Pollution has found a way to not only rehabilitate local waterways and shorelines, but to make the process fun. Teen participants and adult volunteers alike competed to see who could find the most interesting, shocking, and potentially disturbing items. Additionally, prizes were given out to the person that hauled the most garbage on their board or kayak. Utilizing their balance and paddling techniques learned at the whitewater workshop, the First Waves armada could be seen with piles of garbage bags, several tires, and a fully intact shopping cart atop their paddleboards and kayaks.

First waves by Ian Smith

In addition to removing trash, participants continued to document their experiences under the guidance of the Pittsburgh Filmmakers. Shore-breaking barge waves, messy conditions, and wading in waist deep water forced First Waves to adapt their filmmaking plans. Despite challenging conditions, the team was able to use dry-bags, waterproof POV cameras, and their paddling skills to ensure they were in position to get quality shots of the conservation efforts. Through the tenacity and hard work of First Waves and Paddle Without Pollution, their goal to remove at least 500 pounds of pollutants from the waterway was far exceeded. In total, the event amassed a heaping pile of trash in excess of one ton at the 18th Street Boat Launch at South Side Riverfront Park.

To conclude
the First Waves program and further extend the influence and reach of the program, participants took part in an editing workshop at the Pittsburgh Filmmaker’s Youth Media headquarters. Their ambition was to communicate what they learned in a film that shows the exhilaration of paddling, surfing, and whitewater while also expressing the importance and need to protect the waterways that connect us all. Through the power of their experiences, this was an outcome the participants derived organically. It was not something that had to be explained or preached, but rather felt intrinsically as a vitally important message. During her interview after the cleanup, one participant remarked, “We saw a guy drop his trash and just leave it there. We said something but he just lit a cigarette and walked away… That’s what made me angry.”

First waves by Ian Smith

While Muir may have been right about the disconnected society we have become, First Waves has shown this is not a fate we are condemned to. We are capable of understanding and sharing how special our world is and facing head-on the challenges presented to make it a cleaner and better place. The camaraderie, exhilaration, and satisfaction we attain from paddling and filmmaking is one way to inspire these aspirations. Catching that first wave can propel us towards a future where our polished stones lie together as the foundation of the rivers that connect us, provide us life, and make it one worth living.

This project supported in part by the Hive Fund for Connected Learning at The Sprout Fund. To learn more about First Waves and how to get involved, please visit, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @firstwavesorg.

We would like to thank our partners; Paddle Without Pollution, Pittsburgh Filmmakers Youth Media, Body Glove, ULI Boards, and SurfSUP Adventures for their efforts in the First Waves project.

Huge thanks to our advertisers

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