Wily Trout and Trickster Raven in Nondalton, Alaska
by Jim Schutz
On my first day in Nondalton, Alaska, I saw a raven and thought it was a bird. Later, I found I had witnessed the supernatural.
The remote village of Nondalton is only reachable by bush plane or boat and fronts Six-Mile Lake, 190 miles southwest of Anchorage. It is home to about 200 residents, primarily Dena’ina Indian.
To the Dena’ina, the raven is the creator of their ancient world and is known as a mischief-loving deity. Their oral history is filled with raven stories meant to teach and entertain. I was to hear many tales of the trickster raven while in Nondalton.
Nondalton is also home to the Newhalen Lodge, owned and operated since 1968 by Bill Sims. Bill, his family, and staff host about a dozen anglers weekly from June to October each year. The lodge stands out like a Club Med in a tiny fishing village. But Newhalen’s world of guests paying thousands of dollars a week, and the Dena’ina world of subsistence fishing, have coexisted more or less peacefully for decades.
Fishing, particularly fly-fishing, topped our list when my friend Phil Serna and I visited the Newhalen Lodge in June. Though I’m a beginner, Phil is an expert angler who fly-fished 50 days last year. Arriving in Anchorage on a Sunday night, we met the other guests the next morning when we all climbed into a 10-seat Piper Navaho aircraft. It zigzagged its way through a narrow, icy mountain pass for an hour before landing on Nondalton’s gravel strip.
There we met Bill Sims who, now in his 60s, is something of an Alaskan legend. With silvery hair and a bear’s neck and back, he has an outdoorsman’s charisma earned through over 40 years of hunting and fishing and over 20,000 hours as a bush pilot.
Grizzly Bear Hunter
As a grizzly bear hunter, he has been charged more than 20 times with one bear crashing dead to the ground only six feet in front of him.
After settling in with Bill and his crew, I quickly fell into an easy rhythm of fishing by day and exploring Nondalton by night. With nearly 20 hours of sun each day, there was plenty of daylight. After an early breakfast, groups of two or three anglers would take off with a couple guides and a pilot usually in one of the Lodge’s three DeHavilland Beaver float planes.
One morning, Phil and I were flown about 40 minutes landing on aptly-named Fog Lake near the mouth of the Copper River. The Copper has lush grassy banks with wild geranium, cow parsnip, and lupine, giving way to alders and dense stands of spruce trees. We floated the river in an inflatable raft stopping frequently to fish pools for rainbow trout. The trout were all native and most were in the 17-24 inch range.
My casting resembled a lion tamer lashing his whip, which caused my fly to slap against the water surrounded by a pile of excess line. One of the guides showed me how to effortlessly coax my line back and forth so the fly would airily land on the water like an insect. A good cast would often attract a curious trout followed by a forceful splash near the fly and a shock wave moving instantly from fly to rod.
The trout would then fight like mad to throw the hook. My first instinct was to grab my reel to stop it from spinning wildly. This would invariably cause me to lose the fish and sometimes my line along with it. I learned through trial and error how to get my fly to swing through the current, set the hook, keep the fish on, and then release it back into the river.
We gathered in the lodge that evening as Janet Hickok, Newhalen’s head cook, served our nightly gourmet dinner. Janet is a distant relative of Wild Bill Hickok – though she does her gunslinging with pots and pans. Entrees this evening were delicious Alaskan Red King Crab legs and barbequed baby back pork ribs. The comfortable lodge created the perfect setting to linger at dinner and share fish stories of the day while sipping the complimentary wines and liquors.
After dinner, Phil and I strolled through the village with its unassuming, wooden homes. We discovered a small market connected to the post office, a tribal council office, and a simple, wooden Russian Orthodox church with three onion domes painted dark blue. We were inspecting the outside of a medical clinic when native Dena’ina Livan Hobson appeared and invited us to tour the center.
Livan showed us each of the small, but well-equipped rooms where her mother Claudine is the village’s health practitioner. She answered our many questions about the village and told us “Nondalton” means “lake after lake” which is fitting as Six Mile Lake sits between Lake Clark and Lake Iliamna.
We also visited Mike and Oxzania DelKittie, who live just up the dirt road from the lodge. Oxzania cheerfully accepted a gift of a bag of salmon heads that Janet Hickok prepared for her.
Mike talked about growing up poor in Nondalton in the 1930s, spending long winters in a tent, and missing school to keep the fire going. Mostly, though, he talked about being Dena’ina. He entertained me into the evening with Native stories he teaches at the school. All the stories featured the exploits of the raven.
In one story, the raven was getting tired flying across the sea and spots a whale. The whale agrees to carry the raven across the sea saying “When I dive underwater too long, hum loudly and I’ll come up.” Finally, land is in sight but instead of flying to safety, the raven tricks the whale into getting too close to the land and it beaches itself. The raven was elated as there was plenty of whale blubber for him and all other species to eat.
To Mike, the story teaches about respect and survival. The other stories were also about the crafty raven escaping dire situations with smarts and a little trickery. I walked back to the lodge replaying the stories and searching for their lessons.
The next few days were a fly fisherman’s dream – eat hearty breakfast, fly to scenic river, catch trout, eat gourmet dinner, relax in lodge or explore village, repeat. At the end of the week, Bill Sims offered to fly us to the coast for some sightseeing and halibut fishing at Hallo Bay in the Katmai National Park Wilderness.
Phil was too busy catching up to 30 trout a day to be pulled away, but a fellow guest Alex Miller and I eagerly agreed and were joined by Mac Houtz, a first-rate guide. Bill and Mac took turns flying the wheeled, four-seat Cessna 206.
Along the way, we spotted grizzly bears, moose, caribou, wolves, foxes, and bald eagles. Alaska has more bald eagles than all the other states combined. While flying along the coast, Bill spied five grizzlies eating a whale carcass on the beach. He put the Cessna down on the sand a couple of hundred yards away and we walked towards the bears.
I couldn’t take my eyes off them as my fear mixed with fascination. When the bears showed signs we were getting too close, we retreated to the Cessna. Neither Bill nor his guides carry a gun while fishing or sightseeing, preferring to be armed only with a healthy respect.
When we landed at Hallo Bay, Alex, Mac, and I climbed into a small aluminum boat and fished for halibut in the glassy water as puffins and seals fished nearby. Our technique was the opposite of fly-fishing.
Mac loaded a healthy chunk of salmon on a large hook only marginally concealed by a rubber octopus. We’d bounce the bait on the bottom of the bay until we felt the mighty strike. Our halibut were in the 40-70 pound range, though they get much bigger.
After we caught enough to feed the lodge, we headed back towards the beach. I was surprised to see Bill chatting with a stranger though no other planes or boats were visible in this extremely wild and remote area. Alex and I were introduced to Californian Timothy Treadwell, who had spent the last 13 summers in Alaska living outdoors with grizzlies and protecting them from illegal hunting.
Timothy and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were recently in the international news following their deaths by a grizzly attack. Timothy had told us he understood the danger, but that his role promoting grizzlies was more important than his safety.
Hunter and Protector
Through the years, Bill, the bear hunter, and Timothy, the bear protector, had formed an unlikely friendship like a logger befriending a tree-sitter. But there they were, old friends, sharing sandwiches and chatting about the latest exploits of the local foxes. I imagined their bond originally grew out of a mutual affinity or at least respect for grizzlies.
On our final morning as I stuffed soggy waders and mostly empty cans of insect repellent into my duffel bag, I frequently looked out the window to spot one final raven but there was none in sight. Many of the Dena’ina villagers were on their way to the annual fish camp at the south end of Six Mile Lake. There they’d spend the summer, catching fish, making large communal meals, and sharing stories. My fishing adventure for the year had ended, but theirs was just beginning.
Jim Schutz is a freelance writer from the San Francisco Bay Area. He is happiest when he has no idea where he is.