The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Alaska Office of Boating Safety have been teaming up this summer with local Boys and Girls Clubs to get more Anchorage kids fishing. The goal is to teach them to do it safely, while having a good time, and it all starts with some instruction and fun at the pool.
On one recent summer day, kids are at stations with instructors in every corner of the West High School pool. At one, they put on life jackets and waders, to see what happens when they fill with water, and then there’s a friendly race.
“Without these life jackets, that would’ve been almost impossible for you guys to do, OK?” said their instructor, Kris Pacheco, an undergrad from Western New Mexico State interning with the Fish and Wildlife Service and developing the wader-safety lessons.
“OK, I want to try,” a girl said, starting to take off her personal flotation device.
“Now hold on now, we gotta keep ’em on,” Pacheco said. “The point is even if you’re wading in shallow water, you want to keep you life jackets on, OK?”
Pacheco says he didn’t learn to swim until he was in his late 20s, and he says activities around water can be intimidating and sometimes dangerous for people who haven’t had opportunities to do things like fishing.
“Today was more of, kind of like getting their feet wet, pun intended,” Pacheco said, laughing, “and getting ’em used to feeling the way it actually feels with your waders full of water, and getting that muscle memory down, like, ‘What do you do if you fall in?’ Lay on your back and don’t panic.”
The kids also practice throwing flotation devices to their friends to pull them back to the edge of the pool.
For the most part, they’re laughing and smiling. But the heart of this program is teaching kids how to deal with scary situations that could kill them: More than half of the 25,000 drownings in the United States over the past decade were in a natural setting like a river or ocean. That statistic goes up with age, and for kids 1-14 years old, fatal drowning is the second-leading cause of unintentional, injury-related death behind motor vehicle crashes.
That’s why Kosette Isakson with the Office of Boating Safety says their time at the pool is not just fun and games.
“Usually after they’ve practiced a few times, I try to tell ’em, OK, this time, really like imagine in your mind, it’s windy, it’s wavy, somebody you love is in the water, it’s scary, you know?” Isakson said. “So remember what to do, take a minute, try to get ’em in that mindset, because I think they’ll remember better, you know, otherwise yeah it’s just a fun day at the pool, but really we’re trying to learn life-saving skills.”
A couple weeks later, and with a lot more eye protection, the group is at Ship Creek. This is one of the busiest fishing spots in Alaska, right in the heart of Anchorage. It’s a sunny day, and the creek is lined with fishermen as Pacheco, the intern from New Mexico, helps several kids cross the creek. It’s a lesson — they’re facing upstream, moving slowly, some linked together — but he’s also trying to just get them to a better fishing spot.
An apprehensive girl named Naomi doesn’t want to go at first, but Kate Martin, another adult with the Fish and Wildlife Service, takes her hand.
“Yep, I gotcha, just push into the water,” Martin said.
“I’m pushin’! I’m pushin!” Naomi said.
She and the other kids make it across just fine, and pretty soon they’re casting into the creek.
Aside from teaching safe fishing practices, the Fish and Wildlife Service wants to connect new people, who are excited about wildlife, to national wildlife refuges. And for some kids, that starts at Ship Creek in the middle of Alaska’s largest city, next to a port, a railroad terminal and a military base.
At the top of a hill watching over the group is David Barney with the Mountain View Boys and Girls Club.
“I think just, it’s important to the development of anybody, experiencing things that you might not be used to, having new doors, new opportunities opened to you,” Barney said. “And, just, it’s Alaska. Some of us, Mom and Dad take you fishing, and that’s just what they do. A lot of our kids, they might not have that opportunity, so, here it is.”
Barney says he also likes to see the look on the kids’ faces when they reel in their first fish. None of them gets one on this day, but they do see a few, shouting, “Fish! Fish!”