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This story is part of our series, Wild Pennsylvania, which is funded by the Richard King Mellon Foundation. To check out the other stories in the series, click here

“We inspire conservation in unconventional ways.” That’s the tagline for First Waves, a program that combines stand up paddleboarding, river surfing and filmmaking to create the next wave of conservationists. The idea is that if kids have a little fun on the rivers, they’ll learn why it’s important to keep them clean and healthy. The nonprofit targets underserved youth across western Pennsylvania. It was started by Ian Smith, who also runs a paddleboard company called Surf’s Up Adventures.

When Smith started his company in 2015, he didn’t intend to take kids out on the water. He was picturing 20-somethings out for a good time. But then, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources hired him to come up with a curriculum for a paddleboard program for at-risk teens. At first, Smith was terrified. He had never worked with teenagers.  

“They ended up being the best clients I’d ever had,” he says. “They were really appreciative, and really loved the freedom. So I knew that my passion for stand up paddleboarding could be used as a pulpit to get kids out of their element, get them excited about the outdoors, and ultimately, conservation.”

LISTEN: “Inspiring Conservation in Unconventional Ways”

Three years later, Smith’s nonprofit has helped hundreds of kids get out on the rivers. He says, ideally, he wants to serve kids who are unable to have experiences like this on their own.

“Maybe they have financial issues, or parenthood issues,” Smith says. “I just want to help as many kids as possible who aren’t getting these experiences in their day-to-day regiment.”

Evan and Haleigh were first-timers in the First Waves program. Neither had ever done any sort of recreation on the river in their town. Photo: SurfSUP Adventures

On a recent warm Sunday in late July, Smith hosts a First Waves program for a group of teenagers from a foster home in Johnstown. The Stonycreek River cascades through Greenhouse Park, and in places, the water recirculates on itself so that you can surf it like an ocean swell. The paddle boards are unloaded, wetsuits and water shoes sit in rows on picnic tables, and the volunteers from a local canoe club are in place. While they wait for kids to arrive, Smith goes over plan for the day.

“So we’ll start them in this eddy right here, where the flow is obstructed by that wave, and we’ll work them down the left shore line,” he explains. “And there’s sort of a calmer pool down below. We’ll work on getting the kids comfortable standing up in that area.”

The kids who arrive are mostly teenagers, and it’s hard to read their expressions. Some are pretty nervous. But others, like 17-year-old Cameron, have done this before, and are excited to be back.

“I’m hoping to have a lot of fun, and get back on a paddleboard,” he says. “It’s been about a year. Last time we went down the river in Pittsburgh to the Point.”

There was a big rainstorm the night before, and the rain continued through the morning. It’s not raining by the time the kids arrive, but the water is rising, and looking a little intense.

“Don’t worry about this crazy looking water here,” Smith reassures the kids. “We’re going to go down below where it’s a little more calm. Pittsburgh Filmmakers is here. They’re going to teach you how to use the cameras today, and you guys will  tell the story of the day,” he says.

The story of the day was supposed to go like this: the kids divide up into two groups; half suit-up, and practice balancing on land before taking the paddleboards into the river; the other half gets a lesson on documentary filmmaking from Pittsburgh Filmmakers, and records the river adventures with GoPro cameras and boom mics. Then the groups would switch. But on this day, the river had a different idea.

The river has turned an alarming shade of charcoal. It’s almost black. Kirsten Wingler is a volunteer from the local canoe club. She was supposed to teach the kids paddling skills today.

“I’ve been on this river for 28 years, and I’ve never seen it that color,” she says.

Smith is equally alarmed. He says he’s surfed on water that looked questionable, but he has never seen anything like this.

“We’re watching the river turn a color we’ve never seen. It’s kind of scary,” he says. “But what better way to teach that these watersheds needs our protection?”

Ian Smith photographs the Stonycreek River in Johnstown. The river turned a dark shade of gray after a rainstorm caused piles of coal to slide into the water. Photo: Andy Kubis

One of the adults standing nearby thinks he has a pretty good idea of what’s going on. Chad Gontkovic runs a whitewater tubing company in town called Coal Tubin’.

“With the heavy rain we had, we’re assuming one of our boney piles (coal piles) had a landslide into the local creek,” he says. “All of that coal dust makes it look black. And if you look closely you’ll see big hunks of coal coming down.”

Gontkovic says it’s just part of the area’s heritage.

It turns out that just upstream, there’s a coal mine and a railroad yard with heaps of coal along the tracks. The details of what happened are still being investigated by Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection.

Smith quickly shifts gears. The day that was supposed to be about appreciating recreation on the rivers is now a conservation workshop. Smith encourages the kids to use the filmmaking equipment to document what’s happening.

“It’s education to action right away, all in the same day,” he says. “I know it’s disappointing that we won’t go in the water, but if I can leave you with anything today, it’s to remember this experience. You’re the people who will make a change for our watersheds, for the water that connects all of us together.”

The kids begin taking pictures and videos of the rushing black water. They pick up large chunks of coal that have collected on the banks, but they can’t hide their disappointment.

“It’s very polluted,” says 17-year-old Raquel. “We’re hoping it does clear out. We didn’t get to go surfing today because the water is this color.”

Luckily for everyone involved, the First Waves program runs over two consecutive weekends. The kids and volunteers come back the next week, and Tee Pittsburgh is there, too. The kids plant trees along the banks of the river, and learn how they’ll contribute to cleaner water. Then it’s finally time to hit the waves.

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The stretch of the river they’re going down has a rapid that’s about a Class II, which is strong enough to knock people off of a board. But these kids are fearless. For most of them, it’s their first time out on the river in any capacity, much less on a standup paddleboard. The kids love the adventure. One of them says it’s better than a ride at Kennywood, a popular amusement park. That’s pretty high praise coming from a bunch of kids from western Pennsylvania. 

Twelve-year-old Evan wasn’t even sure if he was going to try it when he first arrived. Now he’s a pro.

“That was awesome!” he exclaims. “The first time I fell off the board. It was cold, but it was fun! I swam my way back to shore.”

Volunteer Debbie Heider has lived in Johnstown her whole life, right on the river. She beams as she watches the kids having so much fun.

“When I was a kid, this river was fluorescent orange,” she says. “So to see the river supporting fish life, where we can safely bring these kids, it just warms the cockles of my heart.”

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