Fish and Aquatic Conservation

Not all those who Wander are Lost

RVers volunteer for conservation
By Craig Springer

RV'ers focus in on sites off the beaten path. They provide invaluable volunteer services for
conservation. Craig Springer/USFWS

Those steeped in the RV lifestyle have a perspective all their own. Some make a life in an RV, while others go at it part-time. According to Lazydays RV accessories, an estimated 1 million Americans are full­-time RVers today. Many of them are getting away from suburbs, taking to the road and traveling the country. For a select few, they are making their mark in conservation, volunteering at one of 70 facilities in the National Fish Hatchery System.

The RVer-volunteer workers spend anywhere from a few days to several months out of the year volunteering their time and skills to help run the hatcheries. In return, they are provided with a space to park their RV, as well as septic, water and electricity hook­-ups.

While many of the hatcheries use volunteer labor—and in fact, rely on it—here’s a look at four fisheries facilities and some of the people that make fisheries work a second vocation, and fish hatcheries a second home.

Uvalde National Fish Hatchery

British writer J.R.R. Tolkien captured the muse: “Not all those who wander are lost,” he wrote. His Hobbit protagonist Bilbo Baggins wandered wide to reclaim a treasure. Some RVers wander with the seasons, claiming a treasure all their own, the experience of doing good for conservation.

Thomas Jetzer and Patricia Schenk live the RV life. In winter, they snowbird at Uvalde National Fish Hatchery where they volunteer full-time.  Grant Webber/USFWS

When not managing their KOA campground in the cold winters of South Bend, Indiana, RVers Patricia Schenk and Thomas Jetzer spend three warm months of their time volunteering at the Uvalde National Fish Hatchery in Uvalde, Texas. They help in constructing items for aquaculture and outreach programs. Patricia and Thomas also get hands­ on the same things biologists handle: fish. They assist staff with fish harvests, tagging certain breeds of fish like the razorback sucker, a fish endangered with extinction.  The two volunteers feed fish, and clean ponds populated with other federally listed species on station.

In their third year of volunteering, Patricia and Thomas have completed numerous projects to extend the the hatchery’s ability to educate people of all ages about fish conservation. The couple are also “ambassadors” of Uvalde National Fish Hatchery; they distribute brochures and information at their KOA campground, as well as at RV shows throughout the nation.

“They are both very skilled, creative and hard working, and we are extremely fortunate to have them helping us” says Grant Webber, manager of the Uvalde National Fish Hatchery.

This past winter, Patricia and Thomas built tank and pipe systems to house endangered species such as the San Marcos salamander; fountain darter; and Devils River minnow, all organism found only in south central Texas. They also helped care for the endangered Texas wild­rice that is on station, an endangered aquatic plant.

“We are basically open to any kind of work, whatever they want us to do. Wherever help is needed and they can use our work the most, that is where we help out” says Thomas. “If you honestly like to work, this is a perfect program for you.”

Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery

Dennis Lynch leans on a rail while talking to young hatchery
visitors. His seasonal home on wheels is to the right. USFWS

Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery in central Washington is all about salmon and steelhead. Biologists there produce high-quality spring Chinook salmon and summer steelhead. Since starting in the late 1930s, the Leavenworth facility has grown into a large hatchery prioritized on Chinook salmon. The successful program has provided many fish for sport, tribal and commercial fisheries in the Pacific Ocean, Columbia River and Icicle Creek.

RVer-volunteers Dennis and Marcella Lynch help make that happen. They have been at it for more than four years. The Lynches provide a lot of help with the various events around the hatchery including Kids Fishing Day and the renowned Salmon Fest. They will set up events, maintain grounds, and help kids learn about fish. At Salmon Fest, they are in the thick of it, staffing some of the various stations at the festival that celebrates all things salmon.

Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery is located on 170 spacious acres along Icicle Creek that the RV volunteers enjoy when not spawning salmon and steelhead or guiding visitors.

D.C. Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery and Archives

Situated in the scenic valley of Spearfish Creek in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the D.C. Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery was created in late 1890s to raise trout from the cold springs that fed the facility. After a very successful run in raising trout, the station moved toward diet research and training. Today, one of the oldest hatcheries in the country—it’s actually on the National Register of Historic Places—exists to preserve the heritage of conservation. That heritage is embodied in the actual buildings, but also in the 175,000 museum items held in the archives.

The D.C. Booth facility is known for something else, too: “The Volunteer Village.”

In partnership with the City of Spearfish, adjacent to the hatchery, RVers set up house in the city campground where they will stay from April to October. Typically, it’s 10 couples who make the commitment to work there. All told, the assemblage of volunteers log in 14,000 hours of labor. And the labors are varied: they mow grass; paint and stain wood; run a gift shop; they catalog museum items coming into the facility; they clean the museum. They also guide 150,000 visitors through the array of historic buildings that include a railroad car once used to deliver fish before the advent of the modern roads that now so easily carry fish trucks—and RVs—overland long distances.

Wolf Creek National Fish Hatchery

RVers who volunteer at the Wolf Creek National Fish Hatchery in southeast Kentucky engage in a wide variety of work such grounds maintenance and construction. This hatchery is steeped in trout production and has the rare relict darter on station. This fish is found in nature only a small portion of the Appalachian Mountains. They are held here as a refuge of sorts.

With five RV sites available, they usually have between 8 to 12 volunteers at any given time. Volunteers run the front desk, answer questions from visitors, operate the gift shop, provide guided tours, spawn trout and clean relict darter tanks, and assist with education programs.

“Many volunteers are retired professionals, so we try to use their skills” says James Gray, hatchery manager.

The hatchery provides all volunteers a site with water, sewer, electric, and propane in the colder months. They also have a laundry site and Wi-Fi connection.

“Couples are required to work at least 20 hours each per week. Singles are required to work 24 hours per week. Most are willing to do a little extra if we have special events, need to cover for someone else, or just help with regular duties around the hatchery on their off days” says Gray.

Wolf Creek volunteers are working for a three month minimum and some stay up to a year. All told, the hatchery gets over 10,000 hours a year from RVers—help that is greatly appreciated.

Most anyone who has volunteered their labor for another has probably come away with a self of achievement. Wandering and working out of an RV must come with its own sense of fulfillment. Volunteers get to care for fishes rarely seen by most anyone else. Moreover, they get to travel and come in contact with things of beauty that catch us unaware.

“Nothing so liberalizes a man and expands the kindly instincts that nature put in him,” wrote Mark Twain, “as travel and contact with many kinds of people.”   Maybe you could add many kinds of fish to that, too.



Last updated: November 9, 2016