All The Fish

Growing up as she did in a small Wisconsin town, Riley always gravitated to the outdoors. With family who instilled a sense of independence and adventure, she learned to explore her surroundings on foot and skis, then took to rock climbing and rafting, developing an intense interest in wildlife and wildlands along the way.

woman fishing on a dock
Riley takes a cast into Anchorage’s Little Campbell Lake. 📷 USFWS/Katrina Liebich

My grandma played a critical role in my childhood and my curiosity about nature,” says Riley. “She had this inexplicable sense of the way the world worked. She spoke magically about plants and animals, all the way down to the stinkbugs in her house.

“She worked to restore native grasslands and maintained the gardens that dotted my hometown. She told stories of adventures in beautiful places. She took me sledding, on picnics, and to view sandhill cranes during their migrations. She’s my hero—she taught me how to pause and look at the world.

Riley attended high school in Salt Lake City, where she ski-raced and spent her free time in the mountains, then continued on St. Lawrence University in New York as an undergraduate geology major, but she eventually came to a core realization about her course of study.

I missed people,” she says. “Rocks don’t talk. I could write a thousand academic papers on rocks, and very few people would be able to engage with them.” After graduating, she enrolled at the University of New Hampshire’s graduate program in recreation management and policy.

I found that my real interest was in understanding human-nature relationships. I want to know how people find purpose and meaning in nature, and how cultural differences can impact perspectives around conservation,” Riley says of her studies.

She also found she had an aptitude for teaching and working with youth, serving as an outdoor mentor intern for elevateHER, a Colorado-based non-profit that utilizes outdoor adventure as a vessel for lifelong empowerment of young women and girls.

Those passions—outdoor recreation, conservation and pedagogy—eventually integrated Riley’s life path with the state of Alaska: in 2020, she landed an internship with the Urban Fishing Program, supported by a partnership between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Alaska Geographic, Boys and Girls Clubs, Alaska Boating Safety Program and others.

young woman in a snowy environment wearing a USFWS hat
Riley Whitney joined Anchorage’s Urban Fishing Program in spring of 2020 as the lead Fishing Intern. 📷 Gray Whitney

That initial two-month position subsequently expanded into an 87 week contract internship through the Service’s External Affairs and the Student Conservation Association. The program connects Anchorage area kids from diverse backgrounds with one of Alaska’s iconic activities: angling (read more).

“The outdoors can feel intimidating, inaccessible, or simply uninteresting to people who have never had someone say, ‘Hey, come try this,’ or, ‘Do you want to check this cool place out with me?’” Riley observes.

“Some of the participants haven’t had the opportunity to connect with Alaska via fish—to feel amazed by them, catch them, and consume them. This program offers that opportunity. I hope it encourages young people to connect with the world around them in a new way, fosters a sense of competence and confidence, and maybe even sparks an interest in future work in an outdoor or science-related field. Most importantly, I hope they have fun.”

The Anchorage Urban Fishing Program was started in 2011 by Katrina Liebich, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee based in Anchorage. It teaches Anchorage youth the rudiments of safe angling over the course of a summer, then guides them on fishing trips to local lakes and creeks; the program typically culminates with a pink salmon trip on the Kenai Peninsula in August.

But the COVID-19 pandemic had a drastic impact on the program’s 2020 season; it made it virtual. In previous years, Katrina, interns, and Directorate Fellows took kids fishing on local lakes and rivers three to four days a week, each day devoted to a certain cohort of youth, then dedicating two additional days to teaching and associated activities. But the coronavirus necessitated strictly online contact between Riley — who was located at the University of New Hampshire during the school year—and her young charges. Some participants then used the information they learned during the sessions to fish in local waters with family members; other participants used them as exciting learning opportunities that ignited hope of fishing with the program in future summers.

two people share a drawing of a fish over zoom
Virtual programming in 2020 included a session about drawing salmon with USFWS Visual Information Specialist Sara Wolman.

My favorite part of it was working with kids to see and understand the natural world, to watch them experience, and to experience myself, the world through their eyes.”

Further, Riley determined that online interaction actually served to augment other facets of the program.

screen shot of a zoom presentation with kids watching
One of the weekly topics covered virtually during the COVID pandemic in 2020/2021.

While face-to-face interaction remains preferable, virtual programming has some benefits for environmental education,” she says. “It’s an additional option for families with financial barriers to recreation, for people who are interested in the outdoors but are apprehensive about taking that first step, or for people with disabilities who are struggling with accessibility barriers. I want to continue to thoughtfully connect with people in this way.

Riley has established a deep bond with her kids—in part because she freely admits that angling is as new to her as it is to them.

young woman holding a fish by a lake
Riley and her first fish in Alaska after a year of virtual programming. 📷 USFWS/Katrina Liebich

I grew up on a lake in Wisconsin, but I never got into fishing,” she says. “Consumptive outdoor recreation such as fishing and hunting wasn’t a major interest. So when I took this position, I knew immediately that I would be honest with the kids about it; we could bond over that. Some of the kids who had prior knowledge would have the opportunity to teach me, and I think that’s important. As I grew to love fish, I asked my dad to teach me the basics. Then I spent a lot of time off our dock catching bass and sunfish. A lot of sunfish.”

Working with program participants and guests has given Riley a deep appreciation of the importance of fish and fishing to Alaskans.

Catching fish, preparing fish—thinking and caring about fish—Is integral to Alaska’s cultures, whether you’re coming at it from a commercial, sport or subsistence perspective,” she says.

girl holding a small fish
girl holding a small fish
A bobber fishing success on an Anchorage lake. 📷 USFWS/Katrina Liebich

The Urban Fishing Program Zoom sessions have provided numerous inspiring—and poignant—memories for Riley, but one stands out.

We start out each meeting with everyone simple introductions, which include an animal nickname—for example, I’m Raccoon Riley,” she says. “During one meeting, one participant kept interrupting during the introductions, saying ‘Riley, Riley, I’ve got something to tell you!’ They were ecstatic, so we pinky promised through the screen that they would get to tell their story when we finished introductions. When they finally got to talk, they told us that they had gone on a three-day fishing trip with their family. And they didn’t catch any fish on the first day, or the second, but then on the third, just before them and their family were getting ready to leave, they caught a big, beautiful silver salmon.”

The young participant told their Zoom classmates how beautiful the fish was, and how incredible it felt to catch it.

boy holding a small fish with a group of kids behind him
boy holding a small fish with a group of kids behind him
Fishing brings out a smile in Anchorage, Alaska. 📷 USFWS/Katrina Liebich

They were so happy, they were right on the verge of tears,” says Riley, her own voice charged with emotion. “They’ll always remember that salmon. And I’ll always remember them.”

young woman giving a thumbs up online
young woman giving a thumbs up online
Riley connects with Anchorage youth on Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic. 📷 USFWS/Katrina Liebich

How do Alaska’s wild places sustain you?

I did some undergraduate research here, and the landscapes just stunned me. I think we need to feel small sometimes — we need to feel small to be big enough to care and act. Alaska lets you feel that way.

What’s your foremost concern about Alaska’s wildlife resources?

I’m concerned that we might fail to understand the significance of land and water in Alaskan culture. I hope it never becomes a commodity and that we continue to make an effort to incorporate indigenous and traditional knowledge into our decision-making processes.

When I’m not at work, I’m…

I love to ski and rock-climb and hike and bike. I have a great group of friends — my gal pals. I can call them anytime, and they’re always up for climbing, skiing, hiking… you name it. It’s special to have people who you can be yourself with and explore the world with.

What’s the greatest misconception people have about Alaska?

Maybe that Alaskans just rip around on snow machines and four-wheel drive vehicles, tearing things up and shooting at everything. I’ve seen it portrayed that way in the media, but it’s not that way at all. Outdoor recreation and earning a living outside are serious pursuits in Alaska. They’re not fads, not a means for expressing aggression or disregard for nature. You have to know what you’re doing, and approach it with respect.

What’s a particularly treasured memory you have about Alaska or your job?

One time I was Zooming with the kids, and I had a couple of guest colleagues with me. After the scheduled session, two of the participants stayed online and wanted to talk. They asked if we were scientists, and we said yes, and they said how cool that was, and asked what we studied and how we got our jobs. One of them asked if you could study cats if you were a scientist, so we talked to them about lynx research. It felt like tangible evidence of this program’s impact. Maybe no one had ever talked to them about science or becoming a scientist, and this program struck the spark for them.

What advice would you give someone interested in a career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?

Be persistent. Seek out opportunities and connections. I applied for an internship with Fish and Wildlife in Alaska, and I didn’t get it. But I stayed in touch with Katrina Liebich in External Affairs, who founded and oversees the Urban Fishing Program. And one day I got a call from her while I was participating in a ski race, and she said another internship was coming up. So I applied for that and was hired. It can be hard to get a foot in the door, but it’s worth persevering.

What wildlife species particularly impresses you?

There’s this kind of running joke in the Service in Alaska about being on Team Bird or Team Fish, because a lot of the research here centers either on seabirds and waterfowl or fisheries. I appreciate Team Bird—I’m newly obsessed with the common redpoll because it has a pouch in its throat where it stores snacks. Even so, I’m solidly with Team Fish after working with the Urban Fishing Program. I especially admire sockeye salmon. They’re beautiful. In the ocean, they have bright blue backs, and when they come into the rivers to spawn they develop green heads and brilliant red flanks. They’re known to demonstrate incredible resilience, a trait I’ve always appreciated in nature and people. They’re a fish with a story, and I like that.

Story by Glen Martin, freelance writer/former San Francisco Chronicle environmental reporter. Compiled by Katrina Liebich, Alaska Digital Media Manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s External Affairs.

As the Service reflects on 150 years of fisheries conservation, we honor, thank, and celebrate the whole community — individuals, Tribes, the State of Alaska, sister agencies, fish enthusiasts, scientists, and others — who have elevated our understanding and love, as people and professionals, of all the fish.

In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.

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Stories from Alaska by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service