#786 From Wiltshire to Teslin Lake

Kings of the Yukon: A River Journey in Search of the Chinook
by Adam Weymouth, with a foreword by Harold R. Johnson

Toronto: Penguin Random House (Knopf Canada), 2019
$21.00 / 9780345811806

Reviewed by Ken Madsen

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Why would a young Brit set off on a 3,100 kilometre river trip through the Yukon Territory and Alaska? What would drive someone to load an eighteen-foot-long canoe with a 26 pound tent, a sleeping bag, bug dope, cooking pots, and assorted survival gear for a season in the northern wilderness? The title of Adam Weymouth’s remarkable book hints at the answer to these questions: Kings of the Yukon: A River Journey in Search of the Chinook.

The kings of the Yukon are not the kind of royalty that live in places like Buckingham Palace. They are the largest species of Pacific Salmon, called Kings in Alaska and Chinook in Canada. The Yukon in the title does not refer to the Canadian territory, but to the river that has its headwaters in northern British Columbia and southern Yukon and flows westward to the Bering Sea in Alaska.

I know something about northern river trips. I lived in the north for more than three decades and wrote the guidebook Paddling in the Yukon (Whitehorse, 1990). I know what it is like to live with mosquitoes for months and to wonder when the next Grizzly will appear out of the boreal forest. I know what it is like to have a sudden windstorm pick up your canoe and cartwheel it over your tent. I know what it is like to wonder if the icy rain will ever stop.

Map of journey
Chinook salmon range

After his trip on the Yukon River, Adam Weymouth must also know these things. If any of them bothered him, however, he is surprisingly phlegmatic about it. Maybe that is just a manifestation of a stereotypical British stiff-upper-lip calmness. Or perhaps it is because his quixotic journey wasn’t focussed on his own struggles, but instead on the story of the Chinook, and the lives of the people who depend on them.

Weymouth decided to begin his trip at the Yukon Territory’s McNeil Lake, which is at the extreme end of the Chinook migration. On the first morning of his trip he stooped to wash his breakfast dishes in an eddy. As he scrubbed the oatmeal out of the pot and swirled the remains into the river, tiny fish darted out of the shadows and nibbled at the oats. These minnows were Chinook salmon fry almost ready to start their perilous trip to the Bering Sea. Meanwhile, at the other end of the river, adult salmon were beginning the journey back to where they were born.

Adam Weymouth. Photo by Suki Dhanda

Like many species around the globe, Yukon River Chinook are in trouble. Before the coming of Europeans, the salmon runs were in a steady although delicate balance. The fish faced many dangers — let’s face it — because nearly everything and everyone loves to eat salmon. Kingfishers, Osprey, Mergansers, mink, and otters feed on young salmon heading to the ocean. Orcas, seals, sea lions, and bigger salmon eat the fish in the ocean. Bears, Eagles, and Indigenous people caught the adult salmon as they struggled upstream towards their spawning grounds. In recent years commercial fishing in the Bering Sea and along the river has sent numbers crashing. Climate change is now also a factor and the north is being affected at a much faster pace than points south. The tree line is galloping north at a rate of 100 metres per year and the increased C02 in the atmosphere is acidifying the ocean where the salmon spend most of their lives. As Chinook numbers crash, the lives of people all along the river are feeling the crunch.

At Teslin Lake, Yukon. Photo by Ulli Mattsson
Ulli Mattsson and Adam Weymouth soon after their start

The magic in the book happens when Weymouth meets Indigenous people in both the Yukon and Alaska. He digs deeply into the lives of locals such as Percy Henry, a member of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation. His parents were the world’s longest married couple (82 years) according to the Guinness Book of World Records, and now he too is an elder. Henry has “hit the age where he can get away with anything.” When he is not pulling Weymouth’s leg, he explains his connection to the Chinook and why his First Nation decided to suspend fishing for them for 7 years. In this they are in league with the Teslin Tlingit people, who Weymouth met in the early stages of his trip and who stopped salmon fishing for two decades. People downstream in Alaska have not made the same decision.

Many Indigenous people don’t like the word “wilderness.” What people from the “settler culture” would consider a vast stretch of wilderness is something simpler for Aboriginal people. It is their home. As Weymouth paddles westward across the Yukon-Alaska border, he meets many of them at home. Many are First Nations (or Native Americans in Alaska), with a smattering of others who have washed up on the banks of the Yukon and stayed to scratch out a living. He paddles past Eagle, Circle, and Fort Yukon and eventually reaches a bridge across the river. The last one was in Carmacks, 750 miles upstream. The bridge is part of the haul road from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay, and here Weymouth meets up with his partner Ulli Mattsson, who plans to paddle with him the rest of the way to the ocean.

Mary Demientieff at her fish camp near Holy Cross, Alaska. Photo by Ulli Mattsson
Mary Demientieff. Photo by Ulli Mattsson

Like most big rivers, the current in the Yukon River slackens as it approaches the ocean. The pace of the book also slows, but that doesn’t make it less interesting. It just means that Weymouth spends more time with the people he meets. He and Ulli stop when they hear the unfamiliar throb of music and wander into a bible camp established by Americans from the lower 48 states. Not something you’d expect stuck out in the middle of the boreal forest. Then there is the baseball tournament in Koyukuk, a village near the confluence of the Yukon and Koyukuk Rivers.

The wind was blowing strongly and it was late as they approached Koyukuk. A Great Horned Owl flew over their canoe with “wingbeats as slow and steady as a heartbeat.” Not sure whether the owl was a good omen or bad, they decided to paddle through the large waves kicked up by the wind. They made it, barely. When they stepped onto shore, giddy with relief, they met a gang of teenagers passing around a joint. The next few days passed in a haze of alcohol, swagger, and an undercurrent of violence.

Salmon drying in a smokehouse, Yukon River, Alaska. Ulli Mattsson photo

Weymouth’s interactions as he paddles westward shine a spotlight on many of the issues facing Indigenous communities: recovering from disease pandemics in the past, from the abuses of Missionary and Residential Schools, from drug and alcohol abuse, and from family violence. Of course, things that happened in the past don’t stay in the past. They spiral onward for generations. Through it all runs the undercurrent of the plight of Chinook salmon and the seemingly insurmountable challenges they face.

Why would a young Brit set off on a 3,100 kilometre river trip through the Yukon Territory and Alaska? After reading Kings of the Yukon, I still don’t know why. But I’m glad he did. This is a refreshing, well-written look at the intersection of the natural world and humanity’s seemingly insatiable desire to pillage it for its short-term benefit. Perhaps if we can learn to live in harmony with the salmon, there is still hope.

Camp on the Yukon River. Photo by Ulli Mattsson

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Ken Madsen

Ken Madsen is a former writer, photographer, and conservation activist. He lived in the Yukon Territory for more than three decades. He was instrumental in the successful campaign to protect the Tatshenshini-Alsek watershed, now part of a provincial park and a World Heritage Site. He worked for years on the ongoing battle to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and many other conservation issues in the north. He has written four books including Paddling in the Yukon, Wild Rivers-Wild Lands, and Under the Arctic Sun. He has also written numerous articles for magazines such as Canadian Geographic and BC Magazine. He currently lives happily on Denman Island with his partner Wendy Boothroyd.

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UK edition. Particular Books (Penguin)
US edition (Little, Brown)
Adam Weymouth at home on the River Lea, London
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