When it comes to reporting on environmental topics in Western Pennsylvania, the Allegheny Front radio show is the frontrunner. Naturally, we were ecstatic when digital editor, Andy Kubis, came to cover a First Waves river surfing and filmmaking workshop last July. What she witnessed, however, was a foreboding account of why watershed protection is so vital. As the river turned black before our eyes, there was only one thing for us to do – document the event to instill the urgency of action needed.
Attention Pittsburgh surfers, paddlers, water enthusiasts and adventurers - First Waves and SurfSUP Adventures will be partnering with Patagonia Pittsburgh as they host a Never Town Film Screening with professional surfer, Dan Ross, on Tuesday, October 23! There will be refreshments, food, raffles and more that will all benefit the First Waves program to engage underserved youth in river surfing, watershed conservation and filmmaking! We hope to see you all there!
Nestled in the urban sprawl of Pittsburgh’s East End, The Mount Ararat Community Activity Center provides innovative programs and experiential learning to the area’s families and youth. Earlier this summer, the Center debuted a new program for a select group of students, part of which involved teaching them to surf in whitewater rivers. While surfing might be the last thing many think of in this landlocked region of Pittsburgh, that is exactly what Mentorship Director, Dr. Charles Howell, has brought to the Center through partnership with a local organization called, First Waves.
The river wave at Greenhouse Park is little more than a pile of foam during the hot month of July in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The Stonycreek River is the tamest version of itself and instead of whitewater enthusiasts, the park attracts sunbathers, tubers, and swimmers to its shores. What most have overlooked, however, is this wave’s potential as a training ground for the area’s youth to become river enthusiasts. When presented in the right way, the wave can capture the attention of teenagers better than the latest X-box and carve a path for outdoor recreation and education that is widely available but pervasively ignored. This is exactly what the First Waves Johnstown Program is able to provide to underserved youth in the area.
In 2015, The First Waves Johnstown Program was conceived thanks to support from the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies in partnership with the Benscreek Canoe Club, Goodwill of Conemaugh Valley, the YMCA of Greater Johnstown, Pittsburgh Filmmakers/Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, and SurfSUP Adventures. In the first year, the program accomplished the recruitment and certification (through Goodwill Goodguides) of 7 new mentors, completed 4-intensive workshops, removed hundreds of pounds litter from the Stonycreek River outside Johnstown, and produced a high-definition film documenting the experience through the eyes of youth participants as well as mentors, instructors, and community leaders.
A heavy rain engulfed the Stonycreek River Valley on the night before Day-1 of First Waves Johnstown. The next morning, instructors and volunteers of the crew arrived early to observe the day’s conditions: a swollen river with strong currents. If it weren’t for the team of expert instructors and volunteers from the Benscreek Canoe Club and SurfSUP Adventures, this amazing adventure would have been cancelled. One volunteer exemplified this commitment by relentlessly retrieving gear from the flow and helping participants find comfort in the grip of the river’s flow. Were it not for Andy May’s efforts, First Waves equipment would likely still be on a journey toward the Gulf of Mexico.
“IT’S SAFE, THE KIDS WILL BE FINE!” I yelled into my cell phone, trying to overcome a howling wind off the Gulf of Mexico. In spite of the ambient roar, I could hear doubt on the other end spinning like a turbine. Intuition, however, has a way of prevailing under duress, when communication is done on an instinctual level rather than through the confusion of words and reason.
Camp Kon-O-Kwee Spencer lies on the shores of what is arguably the finest venue for whitewater paddleboard instruction in Pennsylvania. Connoquenessing Creek, known locally as “the Connie,” boasts miles of class I to III rapids, and a river wave as smooth as glass after a good rain. The camp itself is a stunning sprawl of wooded acreage and beautiful log cabins. While the whitewater and facilities are ideal, the Connie does have a darker side. Not long ago, it was considered one of the most polluted waterways in the Country, and still faces many environmental challenges. To illustrate the opportunities presented by the stream, along with solutions for conservation and education for youth, First Waves’ partnered with the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh and Camp Kon-O-Kwee Spencer for an inaugural residency expedition to the creek.