If you’ve looked out onto Pittsburgh’s three rivers lately, you might’ve noticed something a little different. In addition to the barges, tailgating boaters and jet skis, a new community of paddleboarders has emerged on the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers.
Pittsburgh native Matthew Rumbaugh, 48, is one of them. He got his start with the adventure sport in 1997, in Hawaii.
“I spent some time working over there for a few months and was able to learn how to catch some waves and surf a little bit,” says Rumbaugh, co-owner of SUP 3 Rivers, one of Pittsburgh’s paddleboarding tour and equipment-rental companies. “Then when I came back to the states, there were some people who were starting to stand up on long boards. And it started to take off.”
His father built him a 14-foot kalua paddleboard, and he started going out on Pittsburgh’s waterways. From there, Rumbaugh bought a few more boards, and he and his SUP 3 Rivers partner Connie Bradley began taking people out for tours.
“I always believed the three rivers were a great place for urban adventure,” Rumbaugh says. “Paddleboarding gives you an opportunity to stand up, take a look at our city, and take it in.”
Standup paddleboarding is essentially a mix of surfing and kayaking. A certain level of balance is required, but Rumbaugh says it’s one of the more relaxing sports.
“It can be a chill sport or a big sport for somebody who wants to really go at it,” Rumbaugh says. “I can take a novice and give them that exhilaration of being on the river in an urban setting. Or there are people who want to paddle super hard and keep their head down.”
City Paper went out on the Allegheny River with Rumbaugh on a day when the waters were particularly rough. But he never let on. He exudes confidence and never lets newcomers believe they’re facing something they can’t handle.
“Attack it. Own it,” he says after directing you to angle your board into the wake created by a passing boat. “Paddle through it.”
Rumbaugh says paddleboarding really took off in Pittsburgh after the city hosted that giant yellow rubber duck, in 2013. People who came into town to see the duck also saw Rumbaugh and his fellow paddlers out on the river, and they talked to spectators about the emerging watersport.
“You can always throw a board on top of your car and find a body of water somewhere and just go out and chill,” Rumbaugh says. “You can be on an ocean one day and a river the next.”
Since then, both the local paddleboarding community and SUP 3 Rivers has grown. A few years ago, they reached an agreement with Citiparks to provide paddleboarding from Allegheny Landing, on the North Side, and South Side’s Riverfront Park.
The rivers provide a unique experience for paddlers who have done excursions in different bodies of water around the city. While perhaps not as intense as paddleboarding on the ocean, Pittsburgh’s rivers make for a challenging experience.
“I get a lot of people who say, ‘Oh, I’ve paddleboarded before,’ but not here, not on these rivers,” Rumbaugh says. “We’ve got wind, we’ve got current, we’ve got recreational boaters, we have kayakers, we have commercial boaters going by, and it changes your perspective.”
And the rivers can be unkind. In July, SUP 3 Rivers took a hit when its boat was damaged. The boat ferries boards and passengers onto the rivers, but it also provides a relaxing atmosphere for nervous newbies, complete with swinging hammocks.
“Our boat took a dink this summer in these storms at the marina, but we dealt with it and it should be back in the water in September,” Rumbaugh says. “We didn’t stop doing what we do. We took a beating but we’re recovering.”
And next month, SUP 3 Rivers will host its third annual South Side OutSide Paddle and Music Fest. As part of the event, on Sept. 2, paddlers will do a 10K from South Side’s Riverfront Park to the Roberto Clemente Bridge. This year’s 10k is dedicated to Rumbaugh’s friend Ronald “R.C.” Carik, who passed away three months ago.
“We always keep his life jacket on our boat,” Rumbaugh says. “We’re going to do a Hawaiian tribute to him out on the water for his family and his friends.”
For first-timers looking to try out the experience, SUP 3 Rivers offers a “friendly first-timer” tour for $35 that includes a life jacket, board, leash and paddle. Rumbaugh or another instructor will help you learn the ropes, before pulling back a little to let you experience it on your own.
“We’ll break off from that mini-tour with about a half-hour left so people can take it in themselves,” Rumbaugh says. “From there, it’s about their adventure.”