Getting Their Feet Wet

Tali MacArthur, Watersheds Program Manager

If someone tells you they host a program for underserved and under-represented youth in Pittsburgh and Johnstown, PA that includes three days of river surfing, conservation, and filmmaking… you might have questions. For starters: what’s river surfing?

This concept is probably better explained by the photos here, but basically river surfing is catching a standing wave created by an engineered dam-like structure in a fast-moving stream or river on a paddle board. You and your paddle board are facing upstream while you try to stay balanced on the board either on your stomach, or if you’re really brave and talented, standing up! (I am neither and so I stayed prone, see image…!)

Photo by Renee Rosensteel courtesy of First Waves.

Wait, what? This can be done in PA? By youth? Yes, to both! First Waves, a non-profit organization led by Ian Smith, collaborates with many partners and supporters, including the Pennsylvania Organization for Watersheds and Rivers’ (POWR) Sojourn Mini-grant program, to host a very unique Sojourn experience for youth that includes the opportunity to river surf and stand-up paddle right here in Pennsylvania.

So, where do conservation and film-making fit into the story? First Waves provides the chance for program participants to learn about local water quality, clean up trash from a nearby water body, or plant trees along a stream bank. Engaging in a hands-on conservation education program is also part of the experience. Finally, participants are provided cameras, video equipment, and iPads so that they can learn how to record, document, and then edit the raw footage into short films that showcase their three-day odyssey.

Photo by Renee Rosensteel courtesy of First Waves.

Three days? Yes, this experience provides three days of learning, doing, documenting, and sharing. Day one is spent in the water, gaining confidence, surfing, falling, laughing, encouraging friends, and filming all the fun and foibles of learning how to river surf and stand-up paddle. I was lucky enough to join Ian, and his First Waves group this year, on Stony Creek River at Greenhouse Park in Johnstown — yep that’s me, all smiles as I navigated the wave for the first time! By the end of the day, we all felt more comfortable paddling and were excited to get out there again for day two.

Day two includes hands-on environmental education and conservation activities such as paddle boarding while cleaning up trash in and along a creek, planting trees to help protect water quality, or collecting macroinvertebrates and learning about the plants and animals that live in the stream. Finally, day three is spent learning how to use video editing software to take all the footage recorded by the students on days one and two to create short films that showcase the whole sojourn.

Photo by Renee Rosensteel courtesy of First Waves.

Through this fun recreation experience, First Waves gives program participants an opportunity to meaningfully engage with nature and share through video the importance of restoring and conserving our water resources for future adventures. 

First Waves has been a POWR Sojourn Mini-grant recipient for five years. POWR is proud to support this unique and creative approach to using river recreation as a catalyst for water resource conservation and stewardship. Check out some of the films to see the impact this program is having and to be inspired to stand up paddle, join a river clean up effort, or learn how you can help plant trees that protect our rivers and streams in PA. Visit to learn more about all of POWR’s programs and initiatives and to find more organizations empowering people to get involved!