Veteran returns to Cordova to fish on 100th birthday

What better way for a passionate fisherman to celebrate his 100th birthday than to catch 100 pounds of fish, and that’s just what centenarian Grant Valentine did, on his June 14 birthday in Cordova.

Valentine and his family cast off as the sun beamed down on Cordova as he caught 100 pounds of halibut, keeping just two.

“His eyes don’t leave the end of that pole the whole time,” his daughter, Annette Wilson said. “I think it takes years off of him … he’s like a kid waiting for Christmas.”

Valentine sat on a cooler, watching the water for the slightest of movements, donning a child-like expression, said Wilson.

He spent three days fishing out of Orca Adventure Lodge, where he has celebrated his last four birthdays, after spending nearly 40 summers fishing and vacationing in Alaska.

“He already said he wants to come back next year,” said lodge owner Steve Ranney.

Later that evening, friends and family gathered in the lodge’s Nefco building for dinner, cake, and stories.

The words “Grant’s 100th” dotted the room. Bundles of American flags served as table pieces and, in the center of it all, Valentine sat grinning from ear-to-ear.

After dinner came the dessert trays, each marking his special birthday.

One tray featured a cake in the shape of the number 100, while on the other, a miniature fishing rod and reels were placed side by side, also creating the number 100.

Asked how he made it to 100, he said, “You have to have a very supportive family. If it weren’t for my daughter, son, and son-in-law, I wouldn’t be here.”

Wilson spoke before the dinner, tearing up as she talked about her dad. Valentine gave a nod of encouragement as she paused and fanned away the tears.

“To Grant,” the crowd cheered, raising glasses of champagne in unison; Wilson and Valentine touching glasses before each taking a sip.

His passion for fishing aside, Valentine’s career was in geology.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in science in 1941 from Washington State College, now Washington State University, where he majored in geology, and a few years later a Master of Science in geology from WSU.

“He’d call it rock knockin’,” Wilson said, recalling the times Valentine would take her and her brother Brent to look for fossils.

Geology is what brought Valentine to Alaska.

He began a career with Shell Oil Company in 1949 and was eventually promoted to district geologist for Washington and Oregon. By 1971, Valentine was promoted to manager of geology for the Alaska Division.

During retirement, Valentine ran marathons in numerous states and countries, wrote four published books and is currently working on his fifth, and paints.

Cordova holds a special place for the Washington native and World War II veteran, who was drafted in 1943 and served in the 10th Mountain Division, serving in Italy.

“I think Cordova has given him a sense of place,” Wilson said. “This is the place that he loved the best.”

Valentine began visiting Cordova in 1981. Shortly after his first trip to Cordova, he met Gayle and Steve Ranney who operated Fishing and Flying, an air service once owned by the Ranneys.

“It’s people like him that are the inspiration for what we do,” Steve Ranney said.

It was during these annual trips that Gayle Ranney would take Valentine fishing along the Tsiu River, Alaganik River, Eyak River and Ibeck Creek, to name a few, in search for coho salmon.

“I remember a day on Ibeck a few years ago,” Valentine said. “We had to cross the river. We were wearing waders and it was up to my waist. If it hadn’t have been for Lynn (Wilson, his son-in-law), I might have floated down the river.”

He weighed so little and the current was so strong that Lynn Wilson had to hold his arm and help him across. Still, on the way out he was carrying 30 pounds of salmon which weighed him down enough to cross on his own.

“He’s dear to my heart,” Gayle Ranney said. “He’s just an amazing person and I cherish him so much. He’s had the courage to face loss,” she said. “But he always … rises above the tragedy and he just has that courage and honor and the gift to give to other people.”

As Gayle Ranney prepared to leave for the evening, her final stop was a hug from Valentine. The two embraced tightly as friends watched, their smiles becoming contagious.

“Anybody that’s been around him just kind of wants to adopt him right away,” she said.

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Emily Mesner is a staff reporter and photographer for The Cordova Times. Reach her at emesner@thecordovatimes.com. Emily graduated from Central Michigan University, earning a degree in photojournalism with a cultural competency certificate. She first visited Alaska in 2016, working as a media intern for the National Park Service in Kotzebue and Denali National Park and Preserve, and has been coming back ever since. To see more photos, follow @thecordovatimes and @emilymesnerphoto on Instagram.