Highland Profiles is a series highlighting West Virginia’s exemplary outdoor adventurers, business owners, and community innovators. If you’ve got someone in mind worthy of a profile, drop us a line: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I first met Melanie Seiler in 2015 at the beginning of the magical summer I spent as a guide in the New River Gorge. Melanie, a world-class paddleboarder and certified instructor, was taking a few of us greenhorns out for a standup paddleboard (SUP) guiding course on Summersville Lake. As we prepped our SUP boards at the boat ramp, we realized that we forgot all the fins, which help the boards track straight in the water. Even without a fin, Melanie looked effortless as she cruised in a straight line with a calm stance. We greenhorns, however, squatted awkwardly on our boards, switching the paddle from side to side as we paddled in what, from the air, must have looked like the flight path of a drunken bumblebee.
From her days as a raft guide and raft racer to her prowess as a river surfer and whitewater paddleboarder, it’s safe to say that Melanie is one of the Mountain State’s foremost aquatic experts. Nowadays, I regularly see Melanie when she ski-patrols at Timberline Mountain in Canaan Valley during the winter. Although we now meet up on frozen water, not much else has changed—her ski lines are smooth and straight, and my snowboard lines are, well, you can guess.
But Melanie’s talents don’t end on dry land: she’s the executive director of Active Southern West Virginia (Active SWV), a nonprofit that improves the health of West Virginians by breaking down barriers and getting people into the outdoors. I caught up with Melanie to discuss her upbringing in the rafting industry, her love of paddleboarding, and her success with Active SWV.
The interview was edited for length and clarity.
What’s your coming to West Virginia story?
I was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, in 1979. My mother, Susie Hofstetter, grew up in Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania, and my dad, Robert “Fish” Seiler, grew up in Maryland. They met in Ohiopyle while she was working at Laurel Highlands and he was river managing with Mountain Streams and Trails. In the early 80s, they purchased Songer Whitewater, a rafting company in the New River Gorge, and we moved to Fayette County in 1983.
What was it like growing up in the rafting industry?
The company office was in our house when I was a kid. The mail, phone calls, reservations—everything was going in and out of our home. We leased a separate site for meeting our guests and housing all the rafting gear. My dad, and later my stepdad, worked mostly on logistics with the drivers, guides, and equipment, while my mom ran the office. In 1991, we moved the business to Milroy Grose Road; that was the first time there was a base camp with an office, campsite, boathouse, and everything set up.
Do you remember your first river trip as a child?
We did a float on the Upper New River with my brother, mom, dad, and Grandma and Grandpa Seiler. I was five and my brother was three. I have vague memories of being that obnoxious kid jumping in and out of the boat over and over, splashing around on a beautiful, sunny day. I still have the same life jacket that I wore on that trip; it’s on display in my gear room.
When did you start guiding?
I trained at age 18, and 1997 was my first year, so this year will be my 27th year of guiding. I started out with Upper and then Lower New River trips, then guided Lower and Upper Gauley trips. I also river-managed for several years and really enjoyed pulling the logistics together and working closely with my stepdad, Len Hanger. I coordinated how the rafts were loaded and how the guides were scheduled. The river community has the greatest personalities; it’s like this huge extended family. I’m still in touch with lots of old guides who are like aunts and uncles to me. We still get together most summers for Songer reunions.
What’s your favorite part of river guiding?
My favorite thing is bringing people into that experience and taking them on an adventure where they can forget about their daily lives and become immersed in a beautiful landscape. I love coaching and teaching people, getting them to move the raft dynamically and develop the teamwork it takes to bust through big waves.
How did those early experiences mold you?
There were frustrating times in the first couple years. There were days where I’d come off the river and throw my paddle down, like “I’m not doing this anymore.” But you learn how to work through it, you learn how to give yourself grace, you learn how to say “yes” to the challenge.
Tell me about your transition into SUP boarding and river surfing.
When Songer was bought by Adventures On The Gorge, I came into a work environment that was very management-heavy and found it kind of difficult to find an upper level position. But I also saw the opportunity to explore more niche activities. In 2011, I pushed to develop a SUP program right when the sport was taking off in the U.S. It was a way for me to evolve from raft guiding, which was becoming a little mundane, to a fresh way of taking people into the outdoors. Around the same time, river surfing was becoming more popular, and we knew of a few waves where we could try it out. We started by taking these huge paddleboards to remote places on the Gauley River to see if we could stand on these big waves. Now we’re using five-foot ocean boards to ride river waves.
You’re one of the first to run West Virginia whitewater on a SUP board. What was that process like?
Taking a SUP board downriver was super thrilling because it added a new challenge to the rivers I’d navigated for quite a while. Paddleboarding down the river is the most hilarious thing you can do; you’re falling all over the place and it really tests your balance. You have to be conscientious of how your leash is attached to you and your lifejacket so you’re not getting tangled up in an entrapment situation. When moving from class V rapids in a huge raft to class II rapids on a much smaller craft, you’re looking at every nuance of how the water is moving in those eddy lines and around rocks. It allowed me to immerse myself even more into what I was doing, and to be really in the moment. That’s what I think we all seek in outdoor recreation.
What’s it like to SUP the big rapids on the New River?
It’s very challenging; Fayette Station rapid is super hard. I’ve only gone through it clean five or six times out of probably a hundred attempts. The best run I’ve had SUPing the Lower New had just seven swims. On average, I usually have 12 to 15 swims because there are so many big rapids. It’s where I’ve had the most significant injuries from things like falling and hitting my ankle against a rock. It’s quite intense and I wouldn’t recommend it for people who are just learning to SUP. In 2011, I started the first downriver SUP race in West Virginia on the New River, and that continued for eight years. It was a super fun event that helped pull together the SUP community.
What was the genesis of Active SWV?
Active SWV was formed in 2014 by the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority as an initiative to improve the health of the workforce. I called everybody I knew who was associated with the development office and said, “I want this role, I want to give it 110 percent. I see the need.” I was hired as executive director in February of 2015 and tasked with launching programs to provide activity opportunities and help local residents get into recreation and fitness and take ownership of their backyard in the New River Gorge.
What programs do you offer for kids and communities?
Our programming is intended to reach all ages. The Community Captains program recruits and trains individuals to lead physical activity programs like aerobics, yoga, Tai Chi, pickleball, and disc golf, as well as outdoor sports like paddleboarding, mountain biking, and rock climbing, all at a beginner level. Community Captains are the heart and soul of the organization. We also have a Kids’ Run Clubs, where we help elementary schools across West Virginia implement an afterschool running program. We’ve seen an increase in physical activity and a decrease in screen-time among participants. About 70 percent of the kids who participate get somebody at home to be more active with them as well. We had 31 elementary schools participate in 2022; we hope to reach 50 elementary schools this year.
How do you help workplaces support physical activity?
We provide a free, six-week training for businesses through our Workplace Wellness programs. We help them set up a multi-year wellness program by encouraging them to implement policies that allow 15-minute breaks for physical activity throughout the workday, challenges, and earning time off through physical activity or improved nutrition. We also help bring health screenings into the workplace. The West Virginia DMV is participating and we’re seeing great results, which is really rewarding.
Why is it important for people to get outside?
There are so many benefits to being active outdoors. It improves people’s health and wellness and develops their appreciation for our environment and outdoor spaces. The outdoors is often a free resource that’s accessible throughout West Virginia, especially compared to cities where it’s a lot more difficult and costly to access green space.
What are some barriers to participating in outdoor recreation that you’re working to remove?
The most common barrier is not knowing, from not knowing a skill or where you’re supposed to go to what you’re supposed to wear or bring when you do go to not knowing if you can physically do something. We remove that barrier by setting up scheduled dates for beginner-lever activities with detailed descriptions. There’s also the high cost of equipment to get into certain activities; we provide that equipment. But you don’t need the latest high-tech gear; you don’t need to have the perfect outfit. You can ride a bike in jean shorts or go for a walk in your work boots. One of my favorite photos is from a Qigong class with a dude in his camo overalls.
What do you see for the future of Active SWV?
We want to make sure that we’re always meeting the needs of community members. We want all residents to have access to recreation. As trailheads and parking areas are getting busier, we want to advocate for increased access while making people aware of other access points that maybe aren’t getting utilized. I think it’s important to support city and county parks; a lot of parks in West Virginia are underfunded and backdated on maintenance issues. It’s a great resource and an opportunity for utilizing tax dollars to support parks and rec. We want to grow the amount of people engaging and participating in outdoor programs and we want to grow geographically as well. We’re currently in six counties with a few statewide programs, but there’s opportunity to expand more throughout the state.
Do you see Active SWV becoming a hub for outdoor recreation in West Virginia?
We have so much opportunity with New River Gorge National Park and in the Coalfields region. What we’re experiencing in southern West Virginia that’s different than central and northern West Virginia is the depletion of the coal industry. What’s left behind are massive tracts of land, along with people who are now seeking other employment options, and we have that opportunity to turn those areas around by focusing on health, wellness, recreation, and physical activity.
What do you want to see for the future in West Virginia?
I really want to see that vibrance in our people continue to create a destination where people care about the land and each other.