First Waves Takes First Ride

Greenhouse Park – Johnstown, Pennsylvania

At the first project of First Waves, the students’ faces reflected two sentiments: Sheer intensity as they honed the focus of their digital cameras, and utter joy as they wallowed in the emerald water of the Stonycreek River at Greenhouse Park surfing river waves for the first time.

When Ian Smith, the owner of SurfSUP Adventures, sat down with David English, then of the Sprout Fund, months before, the program began to take shape. David’s experience at Sprout and keen eye for planning helped Ian fuse his passions for standup paddling, filmmaking and conservation into a program with a reach beyond that of just Pittsburgh’s youth. Taking the framework established with help from the Sprout Fund, Ian formed partnerships with the Pittsburgh Filmmakers, Paddle Without Pollution, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Body Glove, and SurfSUP Adventures to create a first-of-its-kind program. Its aim is to enhance awareness of waterway conservation by teaching local teens to catch their first waves and how to document and share the experience.


The inaugural phase of the program launched on August 9th, 2014 at Greenhouse Park near Johnstown, PA. First, 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. Immediately after, students collaborated on open-ended questions and shot their first interviews of their peers.

Once everyone had been interviewed, it was time to get in the water.   Ian Smith gave a discussion about whitewater safety and distributed helmets, life jackets, and kneepads. Now, the group was divided into two teams. One team would be in the water learning about standup paddleboarding and river surfing while the other shot footage of the experience and conducted interviews with the surfers as they came in off the water. Within minutes, any worry about being on camera in a new place was devoured by intensity, focus, and enjoyment of their tasks.

Within the next hour, every participant was able to stand up on a paddleboard and catch his or her first ride on a standing river wave. Some surfed prone on their board while others were standing, but everyone felt the invigorating experience of being propelled by the force of the river.

Simultaneously, the film crews were wading in the water, clamoring on the rocks and even swimming through whitewater to get unique angles and capture their 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, interviewing, 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, however, are the foundation for growth and create the story that craves to be told.

A special thanks to Body Glove for providing protective water shoes for participants. Additional thanks to Chelsea Walker, Mark and Lesa Smith for coordinating the food and baking amazing cookies for everyone. Also, thanks to Cheryl Jones who helped organize and shuttle students from Pittsburgh.   Huge thanks to Rene Rosensteel who was the photographer for the project and whose beautiful images are seen here.

This project supported in part by the Hive Fund for Connected Learning at The Sprout Fund.