Walter T. “Wally” Vait, a conservationist and accomplished fly fisherman who was also a Reiki practitioner, died June 7 of intestinal cancer at a daughter’s Roland Park home. The former Delta, Pennsylvania, Towson, Parkton, and Catonsville resident was 68.
“I’ve known Wally since I was 15, and that’s 40 years ago,” said Scott McGill. “He was president of Trout Unlimited, and we worked on conservation projects over the years. I also knew him as a fishing guide, and he was one of the best.”
Walter Thomas Vait, son of dairy farmers Hugh Vait and Frances Schmid Vait, was born the sixth of 10 children in Perham, Minnesota, and moved with his family to Ashland, Oregon, during his teenage years.
He was a graduate of Ashland High School and attended Southern Oregon State College, now Southern Oregon State University, also in Ashland.
During summers, Mr. Vait worked for Orange Torpedo Trips as a river guide, leading kayak trips down Oregon’s Rouge River. In 1982, he moved to Baltimore, where he worked as a groundskeeper and educator for what’s now known as The Arc Baltimore and, later, Baltimore County Public Schools.
A lifelong fly fisherman, Mr. Vait taught and guided fly fishing trips in his spare time and became an active member of Trout Unlimited, an organization dedicated to keeping Maryland’s streams and rivers safe for wildlife.
In 1989, Mr. Vait was part of the effort to preserve the Jabez Branch, a tributary that feeds into the Severn River in Anne Arundel County; it’s the only stream in Maryland’s Coastal Plain that supports a self-sustaining and a naturally reproducing population of brook trout.
The Jabez Branch was facing extinction “not only from the hands of overzealous anglers, but through highway construction and residential sprawl,” which resulted in unhealthy storm water runoff and warmer water temperatures, which the fish do not like, reported The Evening Sun at the time.
“Trout are like a canary in a mine,” Mr. Vait explained to the newspaper, adding that if they thrive, it means water conditions are acceptable, but if they die, it’s proof that they are changing. “If it’s gone,” he said, “that’s it. That’s the last of that particular race we’ll see in the area.”
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources has since recognized the Jabez Branch as a Non-tidal Wetland of Special Concern, while the Severn River Commission described it on its website as a “unique resource that has already reached its stress limit. By all indications, the stresses are man induced and the historical data highlights just how fragile this small stream system is.”
Mr. Vait, Jim Gracie and Richard Schad were not only friends but active members of Trout Unlimited and worked together to protect the Gunpowder River.
“The Gunpowder, through the close-knit efforts of people like them, has become the best trout stream in Maryland and one of the best on the East Coast,” reported The Baltimore Sun in a 1993 article.
In 1992, Mr. Vait established On the Fly, a retail fly shop in Monkton, where he provided guide services for anglers in pursuit of brown trout and conducted fly-tying workshops until 2001.
“Wally was an excellent fly-tyer, and he led sessions and never charged for them. He also promoted the Gunpowder River, which he knew as his home waters,” Mr. McGill said. “He was very gentle and was very deeply committed to the earth.”
In 2008, Mr. Vait joined the staff of the Irvine Nature Center in Owings Mills as land manager, where he worked in their reforestation projects, planting indigenous grasses and wildflowers while removing invasive exotic plants from surrounding meadows. He also built the outdoor playground for the preschool and many other structures, while maintaining the center’s honeybee hives.
He left Irvine in 2020 and, the next year, became nursery manager at Ecotone Inc., a Forest Hill ecological restoration organization that specializes in stream restoration, wetland creation and storm water and beaver management. He had not retired at his death.
“Mr. Vait was deeply spiritual man, and for over 20 years, he was a Reiki Practitioner and Ira ‘Ku Master, and connected very deeply with Native American wisdom and spiritual practices,” reads a biographical profile submitted by his family. “In his words, ‘This path, the Red Road, has taught me compassion, humility, gratitude, and a strong belief in the Divine.' He was a well known healer in his spiritual communities.”
“Wally did a great deal of work with Indigenous tribes and groups,” Mr. McGill said.
“He did many things and was quite knowledgeable, and I always enjoyed his company,” said Paula Niese, who, along with Mr. Vait, is a member of the Eagle Voice Center, a Native American group, in Glenelg, that is an “educational center, following cultural and traditional Native American teachings,” according to its website.
The Morning Sun
“For me, he was a wonderful friend, and we always had deep meaningful talks and reached out to each other,” Ms. Niese said. “And we trusted one another, and you must have trust in order to have a friendship.”
“He was known for his gentle demeanor, kindness and compassion for all living things, wealth of knowledge in nature, creativity in woodworking, whimsical sense of humor, and curiosity for learning new things,” the biographical profile says.
In 2015, Mr. Vait married Irma Alicia Villarreal in a traditional Native American ceremony, and they enjoyed traveling together and spending time with their family.
Plans for a private ceremony celebrating his life are incomplete. “Anyone wishing to attend can submit their contact information here; tinyurl.com/wallyvait,” according to the family profile.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Vait is survived by two daughters, Lindsey Marie Dantzler of Elkridge and Amy Frances Vait of Roland Park; six brothers, James “Jim” Vait of Bethel, Alaska, Bruce and Roger Vait, both of Klamath Falls, Oregon, Leo Vait of Homer, Alaska, John Vait of Eagle Point, Oregon, Bernard “Ben” Vait of Ashland, Oregon; three sisters, Rita Vait of Eugene, Oregon, Marylu Hubbe of Spokane, Washington, and Jane Vait of Inverness, California; and four grandchildren. An earlier marriage to Carol Hess ended in divorce.
This article has been updated to include where Walter Vait lived and correct the spelling of Marylu Hubbe, a sister.