When Free Is Best
Here in the heart of California’s Wine Country, we locals have plenty of options to spend big bucks on a family-friendly day out and about. We can take the tour at the Safari West animal park in Santa Rosa. We can rent a cabine near the day-use pool at Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville. Heck, we even can hop over the Mayacamas Mountains and pay to see the inside of the castle at Castello di Amorosa winery in Calistoga.
Again, all of these activities kick ass for families. They also all require at least a few hours’ worth of cash.
Sometimes, however, the best options for those of us with young kids are the options that cost nothing at all. Case in point: Our family’s experience earlier today at the Milt Brandt Visitors’ Center and Fish Hatchery near Lake Sonoma in our hometown of Healdsburg.
We went for the trout; despite our drought-like conditions here, the Steelhead are running and I figured at the very least we might spot some of those buggers as they swam up the fish ladder toward the hatchery itself. What we encountered, however, was far more incredible—and something (at least) L will remember for the rest of her life.
If you who don’t know much about fisheries, hatcheries like this one breed fish and release a certain number back into the wild every year in an attempt to control (read: stabilize) population growth. As part of this process, scientists keep tabs of the fish that return to see how many are repeat customers.
This means every year researchers tap a small sample of returning fish to a) check and see if they’ve been tagged previously, and b) keep track of what percentage of them are females.
At Lake Sonoma, they open this process to the public. And we managed to luck into seeing it first-hand.
To a large part, our good fortune was attributable to being in the right place at the right time; when we arrived at the hatchery catwalks (most people look down from here), a group was witnessing the count down on the laboratory floor. When they left, I ignorantly yelled down and asked the biologists if we could be next.
Technically, the answer should have been a resounding no. But because we were just four, and because our littler two found the process fascinating, the researchers let us down.
There on the floor, face-to-face with trout the size of their torsos, the girls were terrified and enthralled at the same time. R kept pointing to the creatures, yelling, “Big fishy!” and “Why isn’t that fishy swimming in the ocean?” L observed intently with her mouth agape, occasionally requesting to move back when she thought a flailing fish might splash her (she does NOT like to get splashed).
We watched as the biologists did their jobs, using a standard-issue hole-puncher to punch holes in the tails of first-time visitors, measuring the specimens, then separating the fish by sex and launching each sex down a different chute (the chutes fed two different holding pens).
The four of us stayed inside the hatchery for the better part of an hour. The girls likely could have stayed longer. But the researchers had to go on lunch.
We spent the rest of our visit walking up and down the fish ladder, ogling fish as they swam upstream and listening to chirping birds in the unseasonably warm morning air. Later, we walked across the street to an often-deserted playground, where, after the girls ran around like maniacs, the four of us had a picnic lunch.
All told, the experience set us back $16—the price for two stuffed birds in the Visitor Center gift shop. Considering how much we all learned about trout, considering how much the girls have talked about the day all afternoon, I’d say it was a great way to spend a day in Wine Country.
What are some of your favorite free (or budget) family activities near your home?