Making memories of value in places we may take for granted

Perhaps it is safe to assume that most of us, somewhere along the path of life, have visited a fish hatchery. They seem popular for field trips for elementary school classes and folks with a more than casual interest in ichthyology. Whatever the exposure, one will probably remember the various tanks holding thousands of fingerlings in various stages of development and the cold, stark concrete, glass and steel environment — not the type of place normally sought out as a hangout.

When Christine and I were invited to give a book presentation at a fish hatchery in Spearfish, South Dakota, memories of those cold, stark places returned, and we thought it might be one of those times when we would agree to suffer through time in a mass-production facility for the opportunity to share with others.

When Google Earth appeared, we thought it would enhance our outdoor experiences. We could explore places “virtually” and reject them if they didn’t show promise. We have discovered that a map, a “virtual” image, or even a photograph is not the territory. One must open oneself to the possibilities and let them happen rather than make them happen.

Beyond knowing that the D.C. Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery (formally the Spearfish National Fish Hatchery) was established in 1896 to introduce rainbow and brown trout to Black Hills streams and that we would be in the area for another presentation, we would let it surprise us.

Spearfish lies roughly 10 miles northwest of the more notorious town of Deadwood, as the crow flies. To be honest, the opportunity to see where James Butler (Wild Bill) Hickok had been gunned down was a bonus to presenting in Spearfish.

Deciding it might be a good idea to find the hatchery well before our scheduled time, we drove past it early in the morning and found ourselves enchanted by a place whose title is quietly deceptive.

The sign outside the wrought iron fence surrounding the place left no doubt we had found it. The fence suggested we could not enter it until later when it opened.


So we walked outside the fence and were greeted by Canada geese nesting on an island in a pond created with field stone and mortar over a hundred years ago. Soon, several drake mallards grunted as they swam across the pond, and beautiful drake wood ducks, whom neither of us had ever seen except in photos, paddled by. A fox squirrel chattered from a giant cottonwood tree, seeming to be conversing with the mourning doves cooing from their perches.

Our route took us to the entrance, where we expected a closed gate. Except it wasn’t closed. Programmed to be leery of inserting ourselves where we shouldn’t, we stood at the open entrance wondering if someone had forgotten to lock up. Shortly, a man with a dog on a leash appeared on the other side of the compound, walked across a bridged pond, and went out of another gate.

Well, we thought, “When in Rome,” and walked into a labyrinth of stone ponds and raceways, beautifully crafted at a time when the hardships of construction ruled the day. In the clear water of two large ponds, joined by a stone raceway, a plethora of enormous brown and rainbow trout cruised the peaceful water, seeming at times to tickle the feet of ducks, geese, and a band of goslings swimming on the surface.

As we explored, more folks with dogs came through, and still no sign of an official presence to stop our tour. While walking the trails that wind through the place and took us past a museum that was temporarily closed, a fish transport railcar that had been completely restored to replicate the method of transporting fish in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the original superintendent house, we noted the lack of signs that normally instruct how you must behave at every turn.

As the day advanced, our presentation time approached, and more people appeared, many with children and dogs. It seemed as if the place had a soul that quietly invoked a sense of reverence for it. The only misbehavior we observed came in the form of a mink snatching six-inch rainbow trout from one of the rearing ponds. The way he responded when seen reminded us of a Labrador retriever stealing a steak off the table; he knew it was wrong, but he just couldn’t help himself.

D.C. Booth is no longer a fish hatchery per se; the facility receives fingerlings from a nearby, more modern hatchery and raises them to catchable size to be distributed to stock waters on tribal and military land in the northern Great Plains. April Gregory, the curator of collections and exhibitions, provided a tour of the facility, including the National Fish & Aquatic Conservation Archives, also part of D.C. Booth. Besides seeing an array of artifacts from the history of fish stocking, we learned that the facility is staffed by two employees of U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and the bulk of the work required to keep this place open to the public, with no charge for admission includes an annual 14,000 hours of volunteer service through the D.C. Booth Society, a local non-profit dedicated to keeping it flourishing.

Thanks to these dedicated Spearfish community members, the place is open year-round, from dawn to dusk. The Booth Society and the City of Spearfish recently raised enormous funding to purchase 64 acres of surrounding land that would have otherwise been developed and would have impacted the facility.

Later that evening, our last night there, and close to dusk, Christine and I took another walk around the place. There were few people and a small herd of whitetail deer came down a nearby hillside and shared the evening with us. As we walked in the still dusk air, watching the deer tip-toe across the grounds and listening to ducks make contented noises as fat retired fish swirled beneath their feet, I realized that its soul came from a community hopelessly falling in love with a place they wanted to preserve because it was the right thing to do.

[From the cacophonous to the cordial, a trip to the East Coast reveals many good creatures]

It made me think of all the outdoor-related public facilities in Alaska and the crucial role volunteers play in keeping the state and national parks and refuges we enjoy open and operating with little cost to visitors.

Christine and I rarely use these types of facilities in Alaska because we are blessed with the freedom to roam the country and experience the land as it appears beneath our feet. We know they are there, but we have not appreciated what they might mean to Alaska’s visitors.

For visitors in unfamiliar places and often on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, visitor centers, refuge facilities, park facilities, historical places, and even entire towns (McCarthy comes to mind) are harbors in a storm, comforting the soul in the inevitable discomfort that unfamiliar places can produce.

Christine believes the mountain remembers its visitors. Our recent travels have illustrated it isn’t just a mountain that remembers; it’s all of these places, and what could be better than leaving a place knowing that those memories will be of value?

Steve Meyer | Alaska outdoors

Steve Meyer of Kenai is longtime Alaskan and an avid shooter who writes about guns and Alaska hunting. He's the co-author, with Christine Cunningham, of the book "The Land We Share: A love affair told in hunting stories."