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Kings of the Yukon
One Summer Paddling Across the Far North
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The Yukon river is 2,000 miles long, the longest stretch of free-flowing river in the United States. In this riveting examination of one of the last wild places on earth, Adam Weymouth canoes along the river’s length, from Canada’s Yukon Territory, through Alaska, to the Bering Sea. The result is a book that shows how even the most remote wilderness is affected by the same forces reshaping the rest of the planet.
Every summer, hundreds of thousands of king salmon migrate the distance of the Yukon to their spawning grounds, where they breed and die, in what is the longest salmon run in the world. For the communities that live along the river, salmon was once the lifeblood of the economy and local culture. But climate change and a globalized economy have fundamentally altered the balance between man and nature; the health and numbers of king salmon are in question, as is the fate of the communities that depend on them.
Traveling along the Yukon as the salmon migrate, a four-month journey through untrammeled landscape, Adam Weymouth traces the fundamental interconnectedness of people and fish through searing and unforgettable portraits of the individuals he encounters. He offers a powerful, nuanced glimpse into indigenous cultures, and into our ever-complicated relationship with the natural world. Weaving in the rich history of salmon across time as well as the science behind their mysterious life cycle, Kings of the Yukon is extraordinary adventure and nature writing at its most urgent and poetic.
“Kings of the Yukon succeeds as an adventure tale, a natural history and a work of art.”-Wall Street Journal
There are five species of salmon found in Alaska and Western Canada. This book is concerned predominantly with one of them, Oncorhynchus tshawytscha, generally referred to as the king in Alaska and the Chinook in Canada. I have used both these names interchangeably throughout.
While the majority of the research for Kings of the Yukon was carried out during the summer of 2016, I returned to the Canadian side of the border for a shorter trip in 2017. One summer in the North is simply too short a season to cover the two thousand miles of river that the salmon span between break-up and freeze-up. I have, however, written about the trip as one continuous journey, in order to preserve the flow of the story. All data on escapement numbers, sex ratios, etc., relates to the 2016 season. Most interviews were recorded by hand, either at the time or afterward; several were recorded on audio. Some characters’ names have been changed to protect their privacy. Interviews in Canada were carried out according to the Traditional Knowledge policies of the First Nations involved, policies which strive to protect their cultural heritage from exploitation.
The terms “Eskimo” and “Indian” are often considered pejorative, yet are commonly in use in Alaska and Canada, among both indigenous and white people. “Alaskan Native” and “First Nation” are not able to differentiate between these two distinct groups, and they do not encompass the connection, on the Eskimo side, between other groups that inhabit the circumpolar region, and on the Indian side, with other native peoples of Canada and the Lower 48. As such I have occasionally used them in the book, alongside the proper names of specific tribes and clans. While the word “Indian” is commonly assumed to derive from Columbus believing that he had reached India, figures such as the activist Russell Means and the American Indian Movement offer an alternative etymology, described here by Cree lawyer Harold R. Johnson in his book Firewater: “Columbus was not lost, he knew where he was, and he called us In Dios, meaning ‘with God.’ The word is not as important as the story we tell about it. Indian is also a precise legal term found in our Treaties and the Canadian constitution.”
Finally, for reasons best known to themselves, Alaskans call a snowmobile a snowmachine. A snowmachine is not for making snow, as it is everywhere else, but for driving on it. It is the word I have used in this book.
The river is flowing backward, back up from the sea.
They swim through silt, eyes wide, unblinking. Thirty, forty, fifty pounds of flesh, many thousands of them. Their backs speckled like frogspawn, the blush of their bellies, where the silver of their flanks fades into a deep and meaty rose. Jaws gawping, lips beginning to curve in upon themselves like pliers, propping their mouths ajar so that the river flows right through them, and yet for the rest of their lives these salmon will not eat, they will not drink. The organs that sustain them, the kidneys and the stomach, are shrinking as they sense the sweet water they have not known since they were smolts, finger big, years back. Familiar scents long forgotten are triggering changes in their brains and in their bodies: their chemistry has new priorities now. The ovaries of the female hen will swell to a sixth of her bodyweight during her swim upriver, the cock’s testes will increase fivefold.
For several years the salmon have roamed in schools throughout the Bering Sea, the chain of the Aleutians, the Sea of Okhotsk, ranging as far as the coasts of Japan. Their many species mingle. They travel farther than science can reach, and much of what they eat and where they winter can only be surmised. The Yup’ik say that they live in human form beneath the waves, five houses, one for each tribe, and at the salmon king’s behest, each spring, they pull on their fins and silver skins and make for the human world. In the late Arctic spring, impelled before the others, the kings turn for North America’s west coast. California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, Alaska. They have iron in their brains, their compasses have led them here; now they scent their birthing pools. A chemical mix of vegetable and mineral unique to the waters of their birth that draws them on a thread up several thousand miles of river. They can distinguish a single drop from their home river among two million gallons of seawater.
The movement of one, changing direction, pulses through the rest, electric. At times they crest the surface, a dark sleek back, a dorsal fin, undulating like dolphins. These fish are many pounds of muscle, toned through years of swimming headlong into Pacific storms, and their flesh is red as blood. They force against the Yukon’s current, shouldering their way upriver, tacking crosswise through the flow, setting their fins like sails. Their shadows pass like clouds across the bottom. They rest in the eddies of boulders on the river’s bed, erratics left behind by glaciers. At the river’s mouth the water is still brackish, the current compounded with the flow of the tide. But it is diluting, and as they move farther up the delta the sea slackens off its hold, resigning, letting them go. On this great in-breath of the land the kings spread up through the waters and their tributaries, permeating the watershed. Eventually, they will push thousands of miles into the continent’s interior. They will reach mountain lakes, they will reach the clouds.
It is the end of May, and spring is late. Which is not to say that it is a late spring, because this far north there is no such thing as a yardstick to measure the seasons up against (“I’ve been here fifty years,” in the words of one old-timer, “and the only normal year we had was two years ago”), but people say it is not where it ought to be. Mountains ring the town, and the snow still comes far down their peaks. The dandelions only opened last week. Bears have awoken from hibernation and, finding nothing to eat, have roamed within the Whitehorse city limits, sniffing out trashcans and chicken coops. The government has shot six in the past month.
Whitehorse, in the Yukon Territory, northwest Canada, is so named for the white manes that once tossed in the rapids of Miles Canyon, but that was more than a hundred years ago, back in Gold Rush times, almost prehistory; the dam went up in ’58 and the horses are all since drowned. Above the dam is a lake called Schwatka, after the man who mapped and did his best to tame the Yukon River on behalf of the U.S. Army, and where Yukoners go to test drive their jet skis come the summertime. The floatplane base is little more than a jetty of planks buoyed up by oil drums, an old-fashioned balance to weigh in the bags, and a Cessna plane moored up on a thin rope, bright red against the blue. The pilot has only recently switched his skis over to floats. He cannot tell us whether McNeil Lake, where we are headed, will still be frozen over. I was in London three days ago and I am not used to uncertainty. But up here, out there, if someone hasn’t seen it then the information doesn’t exist.
Our bags come in at just below the permitted eight hundred pounds. The pilot asks our weights, so as best to arrange us in the plane. It is a perfect day, not a breath, and the mirrored clouds sit, precisely, upon the surface of the lake. Inside the cockpit it is sweltering. Take-off can be complicated when the surface is so glassy, no friction to catch against.
“Going to be a fun one,” grins the pilot, in cap and Ray-Bans and check shirt, tucked-in, hauling up the bags, but before this he was out in Afghanistan and I assume that he lives for the fun ones. We strap ourselves in and put on the headsets and chug up to the inlet of the lake to maximize the length for take-off. He cuts the engine. We bob around. The lap of water, lolling against the floats.
I am traveling with Hector MacKenzie, a Scot who moved to Canada back when it was easy to move to Canada, as a young man in the late ’60s. He came and liked what he saw and stayed. He spent many years out in the bush, before moving into Whitehorse when his kids hit an age where they required more by way of schooling than a homestead could provide. Hector has climbed and guided and paddled all over the world. Now retired and in his seventies, his life is little different, except that he stays closer to home and canoes and skis only when the fancy takes him, which is often. A trim beard, white hair, a face that has stared down much weather. He exudes calm, which I welcome: up until now, I have spent perhaps a week in a canoe, on British rivers that look, to Canadian eyes, like trickles—the Medway, the Dart, the Wye. I have learned my paddle strokes from books.
“We’re just getting a bit of a northwesterly now, giving you a south-north departure,” says the radio.
“That’s us,” the pilot says.
He starts the motor, and eases up the throttle. We begin to plane across the lake’s flat surface, spray flying from the floats. He fiddles dials and plugs something into the navigational display. We race past a couple of fishermen, out in a boat with rod and reel, their hands raised. The end of the lake, where the dam begins, is rapidly approaching.
“Some pilots try and take off right away,” he says over the intercom. “You can’t pretend you’re flying. You just treat her like a speedboat and she’ll come up.” He nods. “You feel the heels come up there?”
I look back through the windows and there is no longer spray. The pilot pulls back hard, and we rise up above the dam and up into the sky.
We climb. I look north, and already I cannot make out Hector’s house on the outskirts of the city. Whitehorse is a one-horse town, capital of the Yukon Territory, population twenty-five thousand. There are only thirty-five thousand people in the territory. People are fond of saying that there are more moose than people in the Yukon Territory, but in reality there are more of most things: more beaver, more salmon, more square miles. The red rust stain of a molybdenum mine grazes one slope, but for the rest it is valleys and forests of spruce, and the occasional trail cut through them.
Whitehorse’s first boom came in the last decade of the nineteenth century with the construction of the railroad, a link from coast to city, from where a sternwheeler to Dawson City made for a safe, if expensive, route to the Klondike goldfields. The second boom came with the construction of the Alaska Highway in 1942, two lanes that connected Alaska to Whitehorse, at the Canadian border, and from there to Vancouver and to the rest of the world. The population doubled, a third of the residents were squatters, the average age was about right to buy a beer. An old lady in town told me that when she first took her young kids south to Vancouver they cried because they had never seen anybody with wrinkles. There are many who came that never left.
We fly for an hour, heading east. Below, our shadow trails us. The lakes are as big as inland seas. Those in shade at the basins of summits are still frozen or still thawing, blue and white, like marbled paper. But up ahead Moss Lake is open, and that is a good sign, being as it is only a hundred meters lower than McNeil Lake, where we are headed. We cross rivers that run thin and white in sunlight. We pass Mount Hogg, Mount Placid, the mountains of the Big Salmon Range, and all the peaks that have never been named. We see no animals.
“Do you come up this way much?” I ask the pilot through the headset.
“Summertime I bring up hunters,” he replies.
He nods. “Moose, sheep, goat, bear. Anything that walks people will shoot it.” He asks me what I am doing up here. I tell him I am looking for king salmon.
There are five species of Pacific salmon in North America: the chum, the coho, the sockeye, the pink, and the Chinook. Each has its own diminutive: the chum is the dog, or the keta, the coho the silver, the sockeye the red, the pink the humpy, and the Chinook is the king. The original Chinook are people of the Pacific Northwest, and their language formed the core of Chinook Jargon, a pidgin trading language that stretched from Alaska to the Columbia River, along what now forms the border of Washington and Oregon, and incorporated the words of many tribes, as well as French and English. Any Canadian will still say Chinook for king, the best and biggest of the fish that the Chinook people traded.
The Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus, Greek for hook nose) and the Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) share a common ancestor. They diverged between twenty and fifteen million years ago, during the Miocene cooling of the Arctic Ocean, which put between them a barrier of water too cold to cross. Separated, they became two distinct genera, but unlike the Atlantic salmon, which did not split further, the Pacific salmon went on diverging, resulting in the several distinct species of today (via some other remarkable examples: Smilodonichthys rastrosus, the saber-toothed salmon, 10 feet long and 350 pounds). Each of these species has found its niche in the lakes, estuaries and mountain creeks of North America’s west coast. It is widely believed that Oncorhynchus was shaped by the dramatic geological changes along this coast, compared to the more stable east: huge uplifts along the Pacific Rim that produced the Sierras, the Rockies, the Alaska Range, all crushed into the sky, creating the varied habitats that allowed for the evolution of five species. And these species mutated further, each individual population adapting to the spawning ground it occupied, resulting in populations as genetically diverse as the number of spawning streams. Restless, migratory, wide-ranging across the oceans, they have returned in successive generations to the exact same streams where they were birthed, mother followed by daughter, father followed by son, for many tens of thousands of years. Pilgrimages are thought to have begun with nomads going back to the graves of their ancestors. Such is the salmon’s return.
The history of the salmon is the history of this land. Rock carvings in Alaska at the mouths of salmon streams are ten thousand years old. Big salmon etched into sandstone. Small salmon swimming upstream. A two-headed salmon, which suggests an awareness of their life cycle, of their departure and return. Carved by shamans, perhaps, to invoke the salmon’s annual pilgrimage; or insignia to mark the fishing rights to different salmon streams; or doodles, drawn on the slow days when the runs didn’t show or the river was in spate. Once people here would have had nets made from the sinews of rabbits and babiche, fish traps as funnels of woven willow. Dip nets made from willow bark, and spears tipped with bone. Chum salmon bones found in middens in the Tanana River Valley have been dated back eleven and a half thousand years.
The Yukon River is the longest salmon run in the world. Where exactly the Yukon has its source will never be resolved because there is no single answer, with countless tributaries rising across western Canada. There are 110 known rivers where the king spawns in the Yukon Territory alone, but the McNeil, where we are headed, is the farthest of those that the kings are known to reach. No species goes farther, which is to say, the few kings that make it back to McNeil Lake have traveled farther up a river than any other salmon on the planet.
These kings arrive at the Yukon’s mouth from somewhere deep in the Pacific, and they swim upriver, against the current, on a path that bisects Alaska, crossing the border into Canada’s Yukon Territory, taking a left up the Teslin River, crossing Teslin Lake, entering the Nisutlin River at the inlet to Nisutlin Bay, swimming through Moss Lake, and then up the McNeil River to its source. From the plane we can see some of that map, as far off as the Teslin, eighty miles away. The McNeil River is beneath us now, meandering across its floodplain, and as we crest the far end of its valley we see the lake and it is turquoise, sparkling, as though the several feet of ice that cover it for half the year were no more than a dream.
“Nice spot,” the pilot says. We fly up the lake’s eastern shore and bank and touch down on the water.
The ridge at the northern end of McNeil Lake, the St. Cyr Range, its broad summits piebald with snow, is the traditional dividing line between the Tlingit and the Dene people, between the coastal and the inland, between the watersheds of the Yukon and the MacKenzie, and it is where the kings come to a stop. They are capable of herculean feats, but are unable to haul themselves on their fins over the crest of the ridge and gush down the other side. The ones that make it to the lake have climbed 1,054 meters into the mountains, and have swum against the river’s current for 1,990 miles. Just this week, on the daily e-mail briefing from Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), I read that the first of the year’s kings have been seen at the Yukon’s mouth, coming up through the tides. One or two of them will be bound for here, by forces as undeniable as gravity. By the time they arrive, at the beginning of September, I am planning to be down at the mouth. Somewhere along the way, our paths will surely cross.
The pilot leaves Hector and me on a gravel shore. It is cold, and the clouds are rolling in. We watch as the plane rises back into the sky, our hands raised high, and turns back toward Whitehorse. Then there is silence. We have a mound of stuff with us. Fishing rods and pots and pans and chairs and dry suits and clothes and medicines and ropes and a deflated raft and ratchets and paddles and spare paddles and four weeks’ worth of food, or thereabouts, and an enormous canvas tent. We are beside an empty trapper’s cabin, ply-nailed across the windows to keep away the bears. Rusted traps hang on pegs outside. It is the only sign of human life for perhaps a hundred miles. A shallow creek, with a stony bed, meets the lake here. A couple of sandpipers on stubby wings skim the surface of the stream. Their trilling whistle, which I hear for the first time, will become the melody of the river.
We camp a few hundred meters down the shore, away from the cabin, beside the outlet of the lake where the current starts to gather. It is getting late, and colder, but it will not be dark until, well, August, and we are not in any rush. Hector sets the tent and I gather wood, a mix of drift from along the shore and resinous dead branches pulled from the bases of the spruce trees. We cook a supper of rice and vegetables, and make a start on the meat that will not keep long. We have some whiskey that we can eke out for a few weeks if we are careful. After we eat, I sit outside the tent beside the fire. The channel is narrow enough that you could throw a rock to the far bank. The water draws your eye, far more than any fire does; it would feel odd to have one’s back to it. Passing, passing, already urgent for the sea. It will be there long before I am. You stare for long enough, and when you raise your eyes it is the land that seems to move.
It is as though we have gone back in time, back in season, to just after winter broke. There is scarcely new growth here. The catkins of the willows are tightly furled, and besides the willow there are no trees but spruce this close to the tree line. Sheets of ice bob in the sloughs, the side channels that branch out from the river. Only one species of flower, speckling the beaches, a sort of anemone, five white petals and a blue tinge underneath, like fine weather seen through clouds.
Three days, I think, from the center of London. That’s all it takes.
I wake with a start; I must have overslept. Light streams in through the tent. I grab my watch. One a.m. I stare at it, uncomprehending. I fall back to sleep again.
I first came to the North in 2013. I came, ostensibly, to follow stories of climate change and oil, but really I came because I was lured in by the myth. I had grown up on Jack London and Farley Mowat; I had fleshed it out with Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and bluegrass and wildlife documentaries. I spent three months visiting every corner that I could: the site of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, twenty-five years on; a whaling festival in the Inuit village of Point Hope, the oldest settled site in North America; Newtok, slipping away into the sea as the permafrost beneath it thawed; Chicken, where gold miners from across the state came to celebrate the Fourth of July. I had read about a man called Mike Williams, chief of the Yupiit nation, who had spoken widely about the climatic changes that his people were experiencing. He invited me to his village, way out on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. All flights to the delta pass through Bethel, and it so happened that while I was in town Mike was coordinating the trial of twenty-three Yup’ik fishermen who were in court for catching king salmon during a fishing closure in the summer of 2012.
“Gandhi had his salt, we have our salmon,” Mike said.
The closure had been implemented by ADF&G as king salmon numbers plummeted, unexpectedly and inexplicably. The fishermen pleaded not guilty. They were justified in fishing, so they said, because the taking of king salmon was part of their spiritual practice, their cultural heritage.
It was not big news; it made the local radio. But on the delta it was significant. There were tears in the courtroom. I wrote an article, which ran in The Atlantic. Back at home, I kept an eye on events. In 2014 a ban on all fishing for king salmon, commercial and subsistence, was enacted along the entire Yukon River, Alaskan and Canadian, an unprecedented move. In 2015 it was kept in place, albeit with some minimal harvest on the Canadian side of the border. In Canada the self-governing First Nations determine their own fishing quotas, with the national government only permitted to step in if a situation becomes critical; in the United States regulations are determined by the state departments of Fish and Game. Since the blanket bans of 2014 and 2015, ADF&G have been attempting to let people get some fish for themselves, while remaining conservation minded. That approach is in marked contrast to the years before the crash in salmon numbers, when the department was accused, from many sides, of driving the run into the ground through a lack of regulation.
No one is pretending that managing salmon is simple. Fred Andersen, a former fisheries biologist, has called the Yukon probably the most complex salmon fishery in the world. There are three thousand acronyms in play. Fisheries managers are attempting to regulate for a subsistence fishery, a commercial fishery, and a healthy ecosystem. During the fishing season, ADF&G will speak every single morning to discuss the strategy for the day. Stephanie Quinn-Davidson, who managed the Chinook run until 2015, told me that 85 percent of her job was communication, with other managers, with media and, most crucially, with fishermen. The kings pass through a mosaic of state and federal land, and through the United States and Canada, each country with different divisions to its fisheries. Subsistence fishing is treated differently under state and federal law. Diplomacy between the United States and Canada is a further complication: the Yukon River Salmon Agreement, hammered out over thirty years, requires that fishing in Alaska be restricted to a point whereby between 42,500 and 55,000 kings be let across the border into Canada each year. This is a target that the U.S. has failed to deliver five times in the past ten years, most recently in 2013.
In Alaska the runs of certain salmon species—the pink, the sockeye, the chum—still hit the millions on some rivers. Those on the outside forced up onto the banks. The backs of the ones above burned by the sun, so they say, the bellies of the ones beneath scoured by the gravel, so thickly are they crowded. It is iconic, the ultimate symbol of the wild, the fishing trip to die for. Across the world, from the Far East to Europe, from North America’s east coast to its west, rivers that once knew a similar abundance see a fraction of their historic numbers; many have lost their salmon altogether. The River Salm, in Germany, after which the salmon is thought to be named, has no salmon anymore. At one time Alaska was nothing exceptional. Now it’s simply all that’s left.
Yet in everything I read no one seemed able to agree whether the declines had come from poor management, long-term climatic changes, bycatch in the oceans, disease, or natural fluctuations. What seemed certain was that not only did the future of the king hang in the balance on the Yukon, this was the last chance on earth to get it right. The king is Alaska’s state fish, and across a border that the salmon do not recognize, in Western Canada, the bond to the Chinook is the same. If I were to try and better understand the North, I thought, then perhaps I should go looking for one of its most iconic species, the royalty of the river, before it was gone for good.
The Chinook has threaded together the communities that live along the Yukon for millennia. It intimately connected the lives of a Tlingit Indian at the river’s source and a Yupik Eskimo on Alaska’s coast, two thousand miles away, long before these people were aware of each other’s existence. It is a link to peoples’ ancestors and their hope for their children’s children. Many of the Yukon River’s villages, once the sites of seasonal fish camps, remain hundreds of miles from the closest road, and unless going by plane there is no way in but for the river. Traveling by boat at the same time as the king run and covering the same path as the fish, albeit paddling in the opposite direction, I hoped to better understand what is changing, not just in the life of the river, but in the lives of the people that depend on it. And I wanted to see how one of the most remote regions on the planet is experiencing the climatic and economic forces that are shaping the rest of our world. I had made long, slow journeys across countries before, and had found this way of traveling revealing in the interactions that it opened up and the stories that people shared, the trust that people placed in me because I had come from a village that they knew, was heading somewhere they had been. Now I wondered whether such a journey could also shed light on what was happening to the Yukon’s kings.
At half past six I wake once more. I am still jet-lagged, yet to catch up with myself, and cannot fathom all this light
- On Sale
- May 15, 2018
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Little, Brown and Company