Valhalla, I am Coming!

We come from the land of ice and snow,
From the midnight sun where the hot springs blow.
Hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new land,
To fight the horde, sing and cry: Valhalla, I am coming!
                                                   --Led Zepplin

I TUCKED MY CHIN INTO THE CORNERS OF MY JACKET-TOP, attempting to avoid the artificially accelerated sting of these first drops of rain. There was no threshing oar to sweep—the little outboard was kicking along quite nicely, thank you—but otherwise Robert Plant had it about right: our goal was indeed the western shore. 

Through a dim film of sea smoke and chronic drizzle, I could just make out the far beach as we clattered along, cresting short swells and slamming down again. Throughout the day, the loudest sound I’d heard was wind sweeping in off the tundra to rustle willows and spoil the cast. Now, skidding across the chop in an aluminum boat, the air was filled with barbarous dissonance. I retreated deeper into the last cranny of Gore-Tex, and, tasting zipper, I thought of trout.

The flowing waters that vein these western Alaska lowlands represent one of the last great strongholds for Oncorhynchus mykiss irideus, the coastal subspecies of rainbow trout. The rivers pour from runoff, from groundwater springs, from cold headwater lakes, and the fish raid rich and stable sources for nutrition—sticklebacks, sculpins and leeches; voles, mice and shrews; flesh and eggs, alevin, fry and out-migrating salmon smolt. The water is clear, clean; the trout wild, pure. They color up in copper and gold, with coal-black spots and deeply magenta stripes, or they betray a fondness for the big lakes by turning out in silver, spotted faintly, a light emerald across their backs. The shingly streams invite the wading angler. These fish—eager eaters—invite the well-swung fly.

The urge to go in for the heavenly metaphor is strong here, particularly since I know that across the lake, growing nearer with each wave eclipsed, the shapes emerging from the fog make up the cabins and other constructions of a lodge named Valhalla, final refuge for Viking warriors who’ve died in battle. Piety is not my strong suit, however; nor at the moment is there much interest in Norse mythology. I’ve spent the day locking wits with a creature that has a brain the size of a pea, and I’ve frequently found myself to be half as clever. 

Ironically, it’s my successes that have made me dumb.

I remember the golden-sided trout that ate on only my second drift, and the four smaller fish that followed one after another until I moved downstream to a second riffle. I remember the two grayling—nice fish in their own right—that were so enthusiastic they kept darting in front of the rainbow I was casting to. The trout finally flushed; the grayling ended up posing for pictures. I remember some of my best throws, and a remarkably decent stack-mend that facilitated a handy drift beneath the willows. What I remember most clearly, though, is seeing the largest rainbow of the day holding in the current just below an elongated run of steady disposition. The sun had come out from hiding and lit him up like a marquee in that clear water. I tossed a short upstream cast, snapped a few feet of slack line above the indicator and watched the egg pattern tumble towards his lie. When the fish darted the half-foot to find the fly, my heart tightened and everything else froze. It felt like hours later but I remembered to strip.

History gets thicker as you approach the present, and since to some degree we each star in our own little drama, I suppose it’s only natural that all I ever knew or wondered about would be forgotten in this five-second clotting of events.

Now I’m sure of just two things. I’m on a boat bound for Valhalla, and there are no angelic ambitions—the trout grabbed the bead, the hook stuck. This is the reason I’m here.  

THE THIRD DAY AT VALHALLA BEGINS LIKE THE REST, with the humming buzzing roaring soaring sequence that leads one to understand another group is about to be first to the fish. Sitting upright in bed, no less awake than if a lion had ripped blanket and sheets to the floor, it takes several moments to get a handle on the throbbing in my chest. Relief comes long after the floatplane has been swallowed by distance and the still-dark sky, and only then with the realization that this is September in southwest Alaska, not a Madison River boat launch on Mother’s Day. There is water, I remind myself, and fish for all.

At the breakfast table we learn that the wind has changed directions during the night, shifting from the north to blow southwesterly. In fly-out country, everything is predicated on the wind. You can’t fish where the pilot can’t land, and the new tack means we’re going to Moraine.

Chris Gay, honcho guide, is today a big fan of the bulk movement of air. He’s been sermonizing on the finer points of fishing Moraine for days now, and the way he motors through his oatmeal suggests a certain eagerness for our flight. Fish Alaska publisher Marcus Weiner, who talks of Moraine Creek like residents of Barrow talk about the year’s first sighting of the sun, is equally pleased. He might not have eaten at all, so quickly was his plate cleared. I’m halfway between bacon and egg and filling fast on a diet of expectations, all the while wondering what I ever did to deserve this. 

There were times as a kid when things whirled into giddiness, such as the sleepless nights I’d suffer whenever my grandfather would let slip word of a fishing trip planned for more than five minutes out. Under these circumstances I could also, at the drop of a hat, become paralyzed by fear. Surely some great tragedy was right around the corner, ready to rise up and delay a trip into Yellowstone until the next week or next month, an unthinkably long stretch for both myself and anyone who had to spend much time around me. As far as I was concerned, angling opportunity gone missing was exactly the kind of catastrophe that had done in the dinosaurs. Why my grandpa continued to put up with me and even promote this behavior I’m not so sure, unless he was under some vaguely legal obligation to do so, but once or twice a week during the summers he’d also take me to visit a friend’s ranch near Red Lodge. While they offered me all manner of diversion, I flat refused to tag along unless the fishing rod went too. This was because of a small creek that eased through the alfalfa meadows, where I could have been making money by stacking bales. Not for the last time in my life, I scoffed at the idea of industry and instead dapped caddisflies for trout. The brookies were even more naïve than I and rose for my crude imitations with a regularity that pretty much ruined me for polite society. I don’t know what my grandpa and his friend got up to while I was out there on the water—presumably there was a house on the property—but the only thing I learned from all this was that given two choices, the one that promised trout was always the better option. 

And so it didn’t bother me to find myself wadered up and glancing out the window of a DeHavilland Beaver piloted by Kirk Gay, watching the patchwork of autumn color pass below rather than following one of the myriad suggestions offered by friends, family, college professors, the high-school guidance counselor and anyone with more than a passing interest in Federal tax revenue. I simply gave in to the facts of compulsion, liberated from the day-to-day business of making excuses for my fishing. There are people who’d wait, maybe chat a bit, be polite. I don’t roll like that, and thankfully, neither does Marcus. No sooner had the floats touched water than we were stringing up seven-weights, prepped for the short jaunt to the creek.

Barely more than a tundra pothole, Crosswind Lake is one of a couple potential drop-points for those fishing Moraine, and by some distance the busiest. It sits on a bluff on the south side of the stream, about eight miles above Kukaklek Lake and opposite the mouth of Funnel Creek, another of Bristol Bay’s premier trout streams. Anglers disembarking here have the option of either fishing Moraine—especially the three easily wadable downstream miles—or crossing over to Funnel. Together this pair of interconnected creeks rushes through a rolling landscape molded by frost and wind and in times long past, glacial scouring. Low shrubs, sedges and tussock grasses predominate in the high-alpine tundra, a word, since we’re on a Scandinavian kick, that comes from the Finnish tunturi, meaning “treeless plane.” At any rate, there are no trees. Massive returns of sockeye salmon prevail in the water, which, as it is everywhere else in southwest Alaska, means two things: big trout, and lots of bears.

It didn’t take long for us to get a look at both. As we hiked the short distance from the drop-off, we skirted the side of a ridge, where, just before descending to the creek, we noticed a young, blonde-backed boar with similar ideas. Both our group of three (Marcus, Chris and I – Kirk had stayed back at the floatplane) and the bear were set on an intersecting course, but coming upon one another at a distance of less than forty feet, we each just veered slightly in the other direction. Navigating the slope on our way to water, I soon forgot about the bruin, which says a lot about the frequency of encounters on Moraine. My boots weren’t wet for two minutes before we spotted five nice rainbows. They held midstream, in a chute alongside a slice of gravel bar. I shouldn’t have to say what five fish in the first ten steps means about the number of trout that can clog this creek.

The only trick, a debatable notion when considering this quality of trout stream, is deciding on the fly. Alaska usually doesn’t offer many chances to stretch the legs of one’s aptitude for pattern selection, but we had arrived during one of the few seasonal transition points—according to Chris, eggs had been hot just days before, but were they still? All evidence, meaning a lack of sockeye left in the creek, suggested not. Bizarrely, I chose an apricot-colored bead anyway.

Marcus, whose go-big-or-go-home inclinations are well documented, went with an articulated flesh fly and headed for the upstream bend. By the time I’d spooked all five of the rainbows from their chute, he’d landed a set of leopard-backed twins and lost another. Fall was here. The egg-drop was over. I remained without a fish.

Determined not to become a pawn of the gods, I rummaged through my boxes for the largest streamer I could still lift and finally found one in some colors that could possibly turn up in the bins at Baskin Robbins. Soon, swinging my new bubblegum and orange-sherbet leech, I too had splashing trout. 

Deserve, it seems, really does have nothing to do with it.

I’LL CONFESS TO HAVING LITTLE TIME FOR IZAAK WALTON or many of the minor deities who inspire genuflection within the fly-fishing world. Such are my tastes towards sacrilege in these things that I’ll routinely stomp through angling faux pas like so many cow patties back home, and then march straight onto the carpet. In this case, the carpet is all that puffed-up buffoonery that passes for heritage—personified by Walton’s impossibly turgid book, heralded as genius by thousands who’ve not read a word of it. But then, I’m also a child of the West, where we’ve seamlessly transitioned from shootouts to shooting heads and where ten-dollar whiskey is pretty much de rigueur for any serious assault on the water.

Yet, there’s no escaping a sense of history when visiting Valhalla Lodge. There’s just something, well, essential about it.

Located on the shore of Six Mile Lake just between Katmai and Lake Clark national parks, Valhalla sits on five acres originally deeded to an Anchorage doctor who’d been assigned to provide medical services to the nearby Native village of Nondalton. The doctor was of Norwegian ancestry and used his small wooden boat, named “Valhalla,” to access the area’s abundant fishing. In 1955, this parcel was offered for sale through the estate department of an Anchorage bank, and Ward Gay was the buyer.

One of Alaska’s pioneer aviators, guides and all-around sportsmen, Ward had arrived in Alaska via steamship, steerage class, in 1935. He quickly earned a pilot certificate and Alaska Guide License and over the next forty years built an extensive aviation business and guide service, flying, hunting and fishing from the Alaska Peninsula to north of the Arctic Circle. By the time he was 15, Ward’s son, Kirk, was guiding clients for his father and learning to fly, already dreaming of building his own sporting lodge. In 1980 he made his dream a reality on the five acres banking Six Mile Lake. Partly of Norwegian descent as well, he kept the name Valhalla, and today the doctor’s old boat plaque graces the entryway to the main lodge. 

Walking through this door, the sense of history becomes more tangible, chewy even, with the lodge’s walls cluttered by old photos, fish and wildlife mounts from seasons past and a variety of other bric-a-brac, including one of Gen. George S. Patton’s Model 1913 swords. It turns out that Kirk’s great uncle, General Hap Gay, was chief of staff, Third Army, under Patton and was accompanying the general on a pheasant hunt when PFC Horace Woodring ran their staff car into a deuce-and-a-half, the accident that cost Patton his life. 

Keeping the link alive, Kirk Gay continues to man the operation at Valhalla today, and each evening as we settle around a roaring fire to enjoy hors ‘d oeuvres and the occasional cocktail, he entertains with stories from more than five decades spent on the waters of southwest Alaska. These tales necessarily lend one a picture of the angling-centric history of Alaska, for the fisheries that lie within reach of Valhalla—the waters of Iliamna and Katmai—virtually define trout fishing in the Last Frontier. Whatever new stories are to be made, it seems Valhalla Lodge and the Gay family will continue to play their part, as now the third generation is helping run things. However, in pioneering Alaskan fashion, Kirk’s son, Chris, has no plans to let the past linger beyond its welcome.

“My first order of business when I take over,” he says, “is to drag that room out of the 1980s.” The furniture seems to bother him a good bit, but I understand—this family and their guests have been daily witness to some of the planet’s best trout fishing since before Alaska became a state. There’s not much else anyone would ever want to change.

THE SUN WAS UP AND OUT OF HAND ALREADY, making fun of the many layers I was wearing. There are no complaints, however. First of all, it’s sunshine in September, and second, this weather system had also seen fit to grant us a northerly wind. Thanks to that friendly breeze, we’re starting our second day with Valhalla Lodge by standing on a tall grassy berm and casting to some of the state’s most famous trout. 

Lower Talarik Creek is a quiet, modest stream, easing through a scrub willow and muskeg plain as it wends towards the monstrous Lake Iliamna, home to freshwater seals, Alaska’s richest supply of juvenile sockeye and a mythical cryptid that bites holes in the bidarkas of bad Natives. Without the aid of a fly rod, the creek is hardly different from any other trickle across the tundra. For those with a fever for rainbows, though, it can cause the internal radiator to boil over. Fishing the last quarter-mile of moving water—and with the lake’s proximity slowing the outflow of the creek, it’s barely moving at that—Marcus, Chris and I pound out reverse casts and swim streamers across its width. There is an occasional fish in the 16- to 18-inch range, but most go bigger than that. When things heat up later in the morning, the parade of 24-inchers begins. If an angler is to catch a 30-inch trophy in the Iliamna system, Talarik is one of the better bets, and so each unfolding loop brings new hope along with it. The fishing, it’s safe to say, is never dull.

There are only two other groups on the stream this morning, one camping near the lakeshore and another that arrived in an Otter and has staked out the water near the creek’s outlet. The lack of pressure is not typical of Talarik, but we have shown up just to the wrong side of the peak, with the reds mostly spawned out though yet to start dumping flesh. Still the two parties are at war. One of the campers, tired of being buzzed multiple times each morning, is at the end of the beach photographing the floatplane’s tail number. Even with few anglers on the stream, there isn’t a great deal of prime real estate on Lower Talarik—the outlet, the Ditch, the Rock, the Islands, and at certain times, the Bluff. The Rock, especially, engenders huge competition, and though the camping party was happy to cede the territory to us later that day, their ability to be on station first each morning had apparently riled. Combined with the witching-hour wake-up calls I’d been getting from some eager neighbors, including rumors of pilots in night-vision goggles, I’m wondering what it might take to get the lodge crowd to ratchet back the insanity a little. One solid setup on a beastly, eight-pound Iliamna rainbow tells me that’s long past as an option.

While it’s trout like this that help bring our state such renown among the globe’s angling cognoscenti, it’s worth remembering that a look into the long mirror of Alaska’s fish and fishing history doesn’t always return the fairest reflection. There’s the ill-conceived Dolly Varden bounty from only a few decades ago and rainbow havens scarred by pressure and barbed hooks and our slow transformation towards the catch-and-release ethic. We’ve all seen the pictures: Lefty Kreh and hundreds of others in black-and-white with a 35-inch river rainbow slung over a shoulder. And we’ve all heard the stories: old-time commercial practices of shutting off a river to the passage of salmon as close to completely as possible. Ward Gay had just such a story in his book, Hunting & Fishing in the Territory of Alaska, 1935 to Statehood, marveling at the trout fishing he found on the Kenai when it was still fly-in-only water, but also mentioning that hardly any kings ascended the river at the time, due to the fish wheels near the mouth. The vast majority of traveling anglers today are aware of such things, and our bush-hopping battle for hearts and minds seems to be having an impact. For the most part, the great waters remain great, and those that may have fallen on hard times are now on their way back.

This point is hammered home during our first day at Valhalla, just minutes after being picked up by Kirk Gay in the village of Nondalton. We’re fishing the winding, sparkling clear stream they call their home water, a formerly outstanding trout fishery that took a bit of a beating in the 1990s but appears to be on the rebound. In fact, a 2004 ADF&G study found evidence to suggest there were more rainbows in the river that year than in either 1987 or 1988. Cast after cast, fishing eggs, streamers and for a while, a beadhead nymph, neither Marcus nor I noticed any reason to think the trend hadn’t continued. On Moraine Creek, which receives oodles of pressure these days, we fished from the islands above the Funnel confluence to the canyon falls and a rock formation known as the Dragon’s Tooth, and we were steadily into the fish. Hook scars were rare, the average size was hefty and this was post-peak, when almost all of the other fly-out lodges had left the area for new hotspots. At Lower Talarik, again trailing the crowds but also having enjoyed an extra hour or two of sleep, the angling we found could only be described as outstanding. Still I found myself hustling along the banks like a Black Friday shopper after the last of the Wii consoles, glancing north to where the proposed Pebble site would sprawl and attempting to fish through every single molecule of water. There’s certainly some hysteria in feeling this way, as if my next visit will involve Mad Maxing it across a post-apocalyptic landscape, and maybe a throw-down with some random mining enthusiast in the Thunderdome. But rational or not, in the places you encounter during a visit to Valhalla, fishing every day like it might be your last seems an inspired idea.

It’s for that reason I soak up the seconds spent on Moraine and store every color, each sound, every fish in a subconscious cellar already brimming with the stuff. It’s also why we’re two hours late in getting back to the plane at Lower Talarik. And it’s why, when the rain forces me to duck inside my jacket on the first day’s return to the lodge, I think about trout and not Viking gods or mines and fragile ecosystems or even what might come next. It’s something I learned long ago while crouched over a hay-field stream in southern Montana, and it doesn’t trouble me in the least that these days it feels like I’m traveling in reverse.

Troy Letherman is editor of Fish Alaska magazine. For more information on Valhalla Lodge, please visit www.valhallalodge.com.

Valhalla, I am Coming! originally appeared in the January 2010 issue of Fish Alaska.

Read these other Fishing Lodge Flashback stories:
Chasing Kvichak Rainbows by Marcus Weiner, August/September 2005
'Bows on the Shoulder: Summer Trout at Rainbow River Lodge by Troy Letherman, March 2013