The fabled Yukon River is almost 2,000 miles long, flowing through Canada and Alaska to the Bering Sea. Its waters progress through one of the most ruggedly beautiful and remote regions of North America. An area known for its wildlife, grizzly bears, caribous and not least salmon.
The Yukon’s inhabitants have long depended on the king salmon who each year migrate the entire river to reach their spawning grounds. But salmon numbers are on the decline and indigenous residents have been banned from fishing the species, having a huge impact on their way of life.
Writer Adam Weymouth decided to tell his own version of this story by journeying the length of the river by canoe on a four-month odyssey where he encountered the people who have lived in that region for generations, learning about these Kings and their huge importance.
Ahead of his upcoming appearance at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, we caught up with Adam to talk about the journey that led to his fantastic book Kings of the Yukon. How he found the people he met in this harshest of environments and what the future might hold for them and their beloved King salmon.
The MALESTROM: Take us through how this adventure first came about…
Adam Weymouth: I guess there were a few different strands to it. One was I always wanted to go to Alaska ever since I was pretty small. I remember watching Call of the Wild when I was about six and Alaska has always had a lure to it. I really got into, Into the Wild, like a lot of people did in their early twenties. So I went to Alaska the first time as an environmental journalist. It was like this slightly mythical place to me.
That time I ended up travelling all over the state going as wide as I could and I stumbled upon one story from this village that I write about in the book about this group of fishermen that decided to deliberately fish when there was a fishing ban on in 2012. They were defending their livelihood and spiritual right to catch their own food.
Then I followed that story back in the UK and realised there was this much bigger story that was happening along the whole of the Yukon River and all across Canada and Alaska. That was the first time I realised it was a microcosm of a much bigger problem.
So I started thinking about the Yukon and how to tell the story of the Yukon. Then I had a look at a map and the most obvious way to do that was by canoeing. I’d done a long walk, in 2010 I walked from England to Istanbul, so I already had an interest in this idea of doing long slow journies. I kind of knew that was the way I wanted to do it.
TM: Had you done much canoeing before?
AW: I’d hardly done any canoeing. I’d had this idea for the book and I was sitting in a meeting with my editor. She was like, “how much canoeing experience have you got then?” And I’d spent about an afternoon in a canoe at that point.
So we prepared the best we could. We did a trip down the Wye as a lot of people do then spent a couple of days on the River Dart and the Medway. But they’re just trickles compared to the Yukon. There are points where the Yukon is seven miles across when it reaches the coast. An altogether different scale.
TM: Salmon and the history of the fish is synonymous with that area…
AW: It’s absolutely integral. Which was one of the things I started to realise. With the salmon in that area, rather than have to expend huge amounts of energy chasing after a moose in the bush, salmon would just come reliably to the same point every year, this huge influx of protein.
It is hard work to catch and process them, but really you just need to stick a net in the river and pull them out, and that’s allowed all these communities to grow up on the river and thrive from this food source. The place is synonymous with salmon as they’re some of the only great runs left. We used to get runs like that in California, all along the East Coast of North America, Scotland, everywhere, in a lot of cultures.
TM: And the King salmon themselves, they’re quite unique in many ways…
AW: So unlike in Europe where we only have one type of salmon, they have five different types and the Kings travel furthest and the Yukon is the river they travel furthest up. So we were following the salmon that travel further than any other salmon in the world, almost 2000 miles. The point I start the book is the very furthest King salmon get to, which is just under 2000 miles from the sea.
To enable them to do that they become these vast fish. Salmon are very much in decline now, but in the past, you’d get 80 to 90lb monster fish. The biggest salmon ever caught was 149lbs, that’s the upper limit of a featherweight boxer. You can see some incredible black and white footage of these salmon that are bigger than people.
Part of this is because the salmon won’t eat or drink once they start their migration. They just live on the oil they’ve accumulated from their lives at sea. So a huge percentage of their bodyweight is oil once they enter. They’re dripping with oil when they get pulled out of the river, which is not only delicious but really good for you.
TM: When you went did you see a lot of anger from the people you met about the ban that had been imposed?
AW: It’s tricky. It’s a very complicated river in that it’s 200 miles, the same distance as London to Athens. In some ways, these people are living very far apart, but in many ways, they are totally interconnected. Trying to find a common policy that fits all these different indigenous tribes, that cross two countries, who manage their fisheries in different ways is pretty difficult.
So there’s a conflict between what Western science is saying which is very much based on empirical data, fish sonar, all the trappings of Western science against the more indigenous form of knowledge which is based on multiple generations coming and fishing in the same spot.
Both these sides have got something to offer to the debate but up until more recently, both sides haven’t been good at listening to each other. Western society has had a very patronising view of the way the indigenous society do things. And indigenous people who are quite used to white people turning up in their country and telling them how to run things are not especially keen to listen.
TM: Tell us about the indigenous people you met. You must have gleaned some real wisdom from sitting down with them?
AW: A big part of the trip was having the time to stop off at these villages and really spend time with people. Part of the reason for canoeing was to be able to take that time and just drop in and give people a couple of hours and really get a sense of the way people live over the space of a couple of months.
They really have a foot in two different worlds. In one sense they’re 21st century Canadian and American, but they’re also part of a long tradition of tribes living on the same land for thousands of years. A lot of their pride in their culture and also difficulty comes from working out what it means to straddle these two worlds. The rate of change has been so rapid.
In Alaska, no one had really seen a white man till 1896 in the goldrush. So you meet people, like one woman Mary, who was in her 80s and grew up in a totally traditional way, living in a skin tent, moving with the animals in the season, who is now keeping up with her great, great-grandchildren on an iPhone. Trying to navigate all of that within one life, to preserve culture yet embrace change isn’t easy.
No one wants to be living in that romanticised way anymore, but they want to be able to preserve aspects of their culture they want to keep. With the loss of salmon there, they’re losing an integral part of their culture that they really want to keep.
TM: Did you find the people welcoming towards you, or did some meet you with trepidation?
AW: Yes and no. It’s not an easy place to travel definitely. Doing it this way and being quite careful you’d tend to meet someone in one village and they’d say my cousin lives two villages down you should look them up when you get there, and you do start to feel a bit of a connection. If you turn up with a name it sort of legitimises you being there. Most white people that come to these villages are journalists or cops, or some sort of government official.
People don’t take that kindly to any of them. But when you tell people you want to talk about salmon, people would really open up. They’d start to talk about what they hoped for with their kids and the hope for their own futures. What it means to be self-sufficient in a capitalist society, all these things. So people are really aware of what’s going on so they wanted to talk and share their knowledge.
TM: What did you see in terms of evidence of climate change and effects on the population of other animals.
AW: A lot of it is quite subtle. Much of it comes across in these small human tragedies. The Yukon is very much the highway between these villages in summer, then it freezes over in winter and people will either go on foot or by snowmobile. So you have these experienced hunters who’ve known this ice all their lives who are now just disappearing through cracks in the ice because the ice is too thin to travel reliably on.
I heard several stories like that along the river. Whole families are torn apart because their main hunter never comes back from hunting one day. The winds are changing, the migration patterns for different animals are changing. There are ways where life has become that little bit more difficult in a place where life was pretty difficult anyway.
The Arctic as a whole is warming almost twice as fast as the rest of the planet. A lot of places where the ground was permanently frozen, the permafrost, these places are now melting. And coastal communities with these rock-solid foundations are starting to erode away into the sea. That’s just one of the really major changes we’re seeing to these coastal areas in Alaska. Everyone is aware of it.
TM: Is the decline of the salmon having an effect on other wildlife?
AW: Very much so. Salmon is really embedded in the whole ecosystem. Everyone’s seen those David Attenborough documentaries with the grizzly bear grabbing the salmon out of the river as they swim up. So the grizzlies and a lot of the other big carnivores are reliant on the salmon.
The amount of salmon a grizzly has will totally affect the number of cubs she has next spring. Also, the bears will only eat the bits with the most calories, they’ll leave the rest of the carcass to decay. That’s where a lot of the smaller predators will start to eat it as well. And what remains will fully break down into the soil itself. So some of the areas of beds near animal feeding places have got higher levels of certain nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen than commercial-grade fertiliser.
So these salmon are bringing all these nutrients that they’ve gathered in the ocean over the course of their lives back up 2000 miles inland and so the phosphorous that they’re finding in the very tips of the fruit trees running along the salmon streams can be traced back to the bottom of the ocean. So in ways we’re only just beginning to understand, salmon are a total keystone species.
TM: You mentioned grizzlies there. Did you have any encounters?
AW: I did. There is the obligatory grizzly encounter in the book. Any Alaskan book has to have a grizzly bear in it. They were very much at the back of my mind for the whole trip. They’re very hard to forget. The advice I got was don’t let the fear of grizzly bears ruin your trip, you’d be incredibly unlucky to come close to one.
But that doesn’t stop you being fairly preoccupied about them. There were two times when they got way too close for comfort and we ended up having to pack up camp pretty sharpish.
TM: With the wolves as well, the Yukon’s a fairly dangerous place really isn’t it?
AW: It is. Wolves actually kill more people than bears. But the main danger is that the river itself is such a big river, there are a lot of rapids near the start, then after that, there are no rapids, but it’s such a big river that when there’s even a little bit of wind on one side you can get really big waves.
The open canoe we were in isn’t designed for waves at all. Most of the time you’d be able to foresee a change in the weather, but if you’re right in the middle of the river it can take quite a while to get to the bank. So it was really about being aware of the weather in those situations.
And it’s a really silty river as well, so you can’t really see beyond your knuckle when you put your fingers in. You hear horror stories about people capsizing and their pockets and boots just filling up with silt and getting dragged to the bottom like that. And the local attitude is quite cavalier when it comes to lifejackets.
TM: How did you sustain yourself on the trip? Was it all freeze-dried rations or was there some fishing involved?
AW: We did a bit of fishing, not for salmon, but for Arctic char and grayling. But we had a lot of food with us in our 18-foot canoe. We started off with about six weeks of food and we re-supplied at a couple of points en route. Each of the villages tended to have a local store, but they were very basic and very expensive because things are flown in and it’s very hard to get fresh stuff.
People would also share so much with us, they’d be catching other types of salmon and sharing food is what hospitality is all about there. So people would offer us salmon and moose and all the things they had to hand. We did pretty well.
TM: How can a place seemingly so untouched still be so affected?
AW: It’s tough to see. In some ways, it’s still such an untouched river. The things that have really affected salmon in other places are dams, industrial pollution and none of that is present yet on the Yukon. There was a plan to put a massive dam on there in the 60s, but that plan was blocked, fortunately.
Which makes the decline of the salmon in the Yukon much more mysterious, there is no smoking gun here. So yes, to see even in these apparently untouched places still such severe environmental issues isn’t good.
TM: How do you see the fate of these communities?
AW: As an environmental journalist I’m used to covering stories that seem pretty hopeless. This doesn’t seem like that in some ways. I felt like I was writing about something on the cusp of a really serious change. People have put huge amounts of work in over the last few years in trying to get the salmon numbers back up.
It’s going to take a long time especially in order to start getting the size of the salmon back up, that’s a long time of really conservative fishing. What’s really hard is then preserving the cultures that rely on these fish.
Some of them have been told not to fish for 20 years in order to protect the salmon, so some of those communities have members older than teenagers who’ve never caught a fish. And in a lot of these places, it doesn’t really make sense to live there if you’re not relying on fish.
Why would you live in the middle of nowhere if it’s not about these food sources? And they are starting to see their kids drift away to the city because the life just isn’t there anymore. But how you preserve the fish and the culture is the question for me and I don’t think you can value one over the other. That I don’t really have any answers for.
TM: We always like to finish by asking for some wisdom. Is there anything from your trip that comes to mind?
AW: I’ve got a little one-year-old kid. I did part of the trip with my girlfriend and we were umming and ahhing a bit about having kids and then we met Mary who was now a great, great grandmother and had had this amazing life dedicated to her family. So much of the indigenous thinking is this idea of thinking seven generations into the past and seven generations into the future.
The salmon became very metaphorical for that, all of the salmon’s life is about sacrificing themselves for that next generation. Mary said to us, “don’t be selfish, go and have kids.” It’s all about thinking of the next generation. Environmentally, culturally, it’s not about that individual mindset that we’re so obsessed with in the West. That really stuck with us.
Adam will be appearing at the Cheltenham Literature Festival taking place between 4th – 13th October
Kings of the Yukon: An Alaskan River Journey by Adam Weymouth is out now
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