Kings of the Yukon: One Summer Paddling Across the Far North
By Adam Weymouth. Little, Brown, 2018. 352 pages. $28 hardcover, $14.99 Ebook, $25.98 audiobook.
Here comes a very timely book, as Alaskans and those who visit Alaska to fish confront poor runs, fishing closures, and concerns about the future of our salmon. Adam Weymouth, a Brit, spent the summer of 2016 (and a portion of 2017) canoeing 2,000 miles of the Yukon River for the purpose of learning about the river's king salmon and the people and communities that depend upon them. What he learned along the way provides some very useful insights into history, biology, cultural matters and the ever-present conflicts surrounding fishery management, not just on the Yukon but throughout what remains of salmon country.
Although this is Weymouth's first book, he is not entirely new to Alaska. As a freelance journalist, he's visited Alaska multiple times and written for prominent publications about subjects including the legacy of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the prospect of Arctic drilling, whaling in Point Hope and the court case of the Alaska Native fishermen arrested for defying the king salmon fishing closure on the Lower Yukon in 2013.
For "Kings of the Yukon," the author sought the headwaters of the Yukon River in Canada, flying into McNeil Lake, the farthest point to which Yukon River kings are known to reach, an hour's flight east of Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. As he puts it, "The few kings that make it back to McNeil Lake have travelled further up a river than any other salmon on the planet. . . The ones that make it to the lake have climbed 1,054 metres into the mountains, and have swum against the river's current for 1,990 miles."
From his input point on the lake, Weymouth and a companion rafted some gnarly water for several days, then — where the tributary river meets a road — the companion and raft departed and Weymouth changed to an eighteen-foot canoe for the rest of the way. He paddled alone for hundreds of miles, until reaching the E. L. Patton Yukon River Bridge north of Fairbanks, where another companion joined him for the remainder of the journey.
For four months, then, May to September, Weymouth descended the river as king salmon—and then other salmon species — passed, going in the other direction. (Kings, he tells us, can travel 50 miles a day.) All along his route, Weymouth recounts the natural environment through which he passes — not only the life of salmon, but the boreal forest, the shrieks of falcons and hums of insects, the rain, the silty river and inevitable moose and bears.
The author's greater concern, though, is for the people along the river. He stopped, sometimes for several days at a time, at communities including Dawson, Eagle, Fort Yukon, Ruby, Koyukuk, Nulato, Pilot Station, and Emmonak. He also stopped at fish camps along the way, getting to know families continuing traditional subsistence activities as well as the occasional homestead types, some of whom, he tells us, star in Alaska reality TV shows.
What he finds — and laments — in his passage is the loneliness of the river. Where once fish camps were plentiful and teeming with activity, the combination of reduced runs, fishing closures, and economic changes that make it hard for today's Alaskans to spend weeks at their camps has meant a much reduced subsistence life along the river. The loss is not just — or primarily — of food, but of family connections, the sharing of cultural values and traditions, and young people learning from elders.
Throughout his narrative, the author adroitly weaves in background information about the history of salmon and salmon management, salmon biology, the effects of hatcheries and fish farms, climate change, Alaska Native claims, the history of boarding schools and efforts at assimilation, traditional knowledge, salmon processing operations and much more.
Of significant interest to Alaskans should be the situation on the Canadian side of the border, which brings home the challenges of managing fisheries along a 2,000-mile river that transects two nations. Early on, Weymouth stops in Teslin, in the Yukon, where the Teslin Tlingit watched the decline of king salmon until, 20 years ago, they voluntarily shut down their fishing — temporarily — until the runs improved. The runs never have, and fishing today consists of a symbolic, ceremonial fishery.
Later, he discusses the "fishery disasters" of most years since 1997: "and yet commercial fishing was not shut down on the American side of the border until 2011. . . In 2014 a complete ban was placed on all fishing for kings, subsistence included, on both sides of the border. Never before had a subsistence fishery been banned, and it left a lot of people hungry, and angry."
Elsewhere, he discusses how the size of gillnet web have selected for large females, reducing not just the numbers of large females returning to lay large numbers of eggs but influencing the genetics so that fewer large fish now return to the river. "Small fish, with their modest genes, beget small fish."
One dramatic highlight of the book is Weymouth's account, near Eagle, of the spring break-up flooding in 2009, as described to him by two who had survived it, Andy Bassich and Kate Rorke. They and 24 dogs had to be rescued by a helicopter. "Andy was assured that such a flood was a one-in-a-lifetime event. But the definition of once-in-a-lifetime is not what it used to be."
Weymouth's prose is often beautiful, bringing to life the river and its inhabitants. Describing salmon bones from the previous year, kicked up from where they'd been dragged into the brush by an animal, he writes, "Her backbone is frayed like worn wicker furniture, and with her paper skin pulled close about her she looks like some fairy-tale crone in cap and meager shawl, shrunken and chilled to the bone."
Other passages, describing village life, are less poetic. Weymouth doesn't hold back in retelling what he was told of generational trauma and what he saw of alcohol abuse and social problems.
In the end, what Weymouth wants us to appreciate is the interconnectedness of our world — here in Alaska, our salmon and our families and cultures, and globally, our foods, people with the natural world, and influences including climate change. He proves an excellent companion for traveling such a wide and winding river.