Making Waves with Ian Smith of SurfSUP Adventures

Sprout talks to Ian ..., the project manager of First Waves, a program that is teaching kids to surf the rivers and to clean them up as well.

by Weenta Girmay

The Hive-funded First Waves Project, a program from SurfSUP Adventures, takes youth out to surf the rivers of Pittsburgh while cleaning up their banks. With kayaks and paddleboards, teens take to the water for a mission that went beyond just hanging ten. Sprout got a chance to talk to Ian Smith, the founder of SurfSUP Adventures and project manager of First Waves.

How long have you been the director of SurfSUP? What’s the mission of the program?

SurfSUP Adventures is a company I started in 2011 and we are a standup paddleboarding outfitter. We teach on everything from really calm lakes and beginner stuff all the way up to whitewater paddling.

How do you surf a river wave?

There are features in whitewater scenarios where the water actually turns back on itself and it creates what looks like an ocean wave, but it stays in place and it’s called a static wave or a standing wave. You surf it exactly the way you would an ocean wave, but you’re facing upstream, so the river is passing beneath you. It’s a really cool phenomenon that allows inland paddlers to experience surfing. It’s one of the things that I wanted to share with people from Pittsburgh.

First Waves ProjectWhere did the idea for the First Waves program come from? Why did you want to work with youth specifically?

With SurfSUP adventures I had a lot of different types of clients and one project in my first year was particularly groundbreaking for me. The park service contracted me to do a program called “Adventure Camp.” It was children who had been removed from their homes or were in foster care or having something going on that they were at this place. I had never worked with kids before at this point, I was kind of nervous, but I ended up absolutely loving it. The kids were just outrageously amazing. It really moved me to shift my direction and do more of those kinds of things. I knew I wanted to adapt it into my own vision and run my own program, which led to me speaking with Sprout.

Why did you choose Paddle Without Pollution as a collaborator?

When you do these river clean ups that Paddle Without Pollution does, they’re these huge events and people from all over the communities come out and you just feel so good about it. There’s a ridiculous amount of trash you can’t even imagine around rivers. The first one I did was at the Point, so [the pollution] was extra bad. It’s very moving. I wanted the kids to experience one thing that would be really fun to do in a watershed and then also shed some light on how they can help the community to clean up the waterways and share that message, which is why I think making a film is so powerful with this program.

Why was it important for you to document the experience through film?

You can clean up 2,000 pounds of trash off the riverbed but if you don’t influence people to not throw that trash away in the beginning and to think about the choices they make as a consumer then there’s really no gain.

I think whenever you can show people something really fun and get them in the river doing things that they love, that’s the only way you can foster real stewardship that’ll last longer than just picking up a piece of garbage. I think that starting at the ground level with kids at that age, between 14 and 18, giving them urban exposure to both sides of that is what I think is a really strong approach to conversation.

What was it like taking the youth out on the river? How did they take to the paddleboards and the kayaks?

We split them up into two teams and the first team hit the water and it was ridiculous. They were already surfing/standing and just going for it immediately, loving it, ear-to-ear grins. Pure “surf stoked” is how they would say it on the coast. They were excited for sure, they took to it fantastic.

First Waves ProjectBefore we did anything we did a workshop to learn how to use cameras and how to properly conduct interviews. They came up with questions for each other and right off the bat they got to know their peers because they were interviewing them and saying things like, “What do you expect to learn from this experience?” “Have you done anything like this before?” It was all peer shot and they learned how to do it right on the spot. And then we did a follow up filmmaking lesson at the cleanup as well. A lot of it had to be shot from a kayak so they definitely had some cool challenges to overcome, like making sure we didn’t have any cameras go in the water. They learned to use POV (point-of-view) cameras and we had 10 Go Pro [cameras] at least, so those were ok to get wet and we got lots of action shots from the water and different views.

What was the weirdest thing they fished out?

I think if you ask the kids they were most excited about the shopping cart. We found actually a couple of those. I think that was the winner.

How much trash did the youth collect from the rivers?

If you go to, there’s a shot of the heaping pile. It was more than 1 ton.

Where do you plan to screen the finished film?

We’ll be doing a premiere for it and we’re definitely going to do some screenings. I’d love to submit it to some of the paddling festivals, things like the National Paddling Film Festival, there’s traveling film screening competitions that I would love to enter, do local film screenings, Big Brothers/Big Sisters have events and it would be fun to show other bigs and littles, and obviously online.

Comcast cable is another partner and they shot a film of us shooting the film. They’re going to be putting it on their On Demand service, so it’ll definitely be distributed nationally through them.

What plans do you have for next year’s program?

This year the goal was to engage 10 people and produce one film. Next year I might want to produce some articles or journalism or some photography and incorporate significantly more people and have the community more involved in the cleanup and in the event as a whole.

When I was little I would’ve loved to have something like that. I really wanted to pursue journalism as a career. Even now when I look for outdoor adventure writing or outdoor adventure photography or filmmaking in Pittsburgh it’s essentially non-existent despite Pittsburgh being a great town for something like that. I think it’s a way that we can enhance the conservation ethos for Pittsburgh and also give the younger people a way to find their niche in that environment and understand how they can use it for free or fun or to inspire others.

Published October 13, 2014