Kings of the Yukon: a travel story as deep and wide as the great river

Also published at Resilience.org.

It’s a simple truth: the slower you travel the more you see.

Kings of the Yukon, by Adam Weymouth, published by Penguin in the UK, Little, Brown in the US and Random House in Canada

This was impressed on me in the summer of 1988, as I traveled through the Yukon Territory at the frenetic pace of a bicycle tourist. Where the highway occasionally crossed the Yukon River, I sometimes shared campsites with a more patient breed of traveler, the drifters.

Arriving at the riverbank with little more than a sleeping roll and an axe, they had fashioned crude rafts and set themselves afloat in the current for weeks at a time. The stories they told – of rounding a bend and surprising a moose cow and calf swimming through an eddy, or waking up in the strange light of the subarctic midnight and not knowing where they were or what century they might be in – have held my imagination ever since.

British writer Adam Weymouth is a even better story teller than anyone I met that summer. His new book Kings of the Yukon recounts a 2000-mile canoe trip, from the upstream end of the river’s tributaries to its sprawling delta on Alaska’s Bering Sea coast.

As a travel tale the book is first-rate. But Weymouth’s keen interest in the Chinook – aka King – Salmon, and his listening skills when he meets dozens of river-dwellers whose cultures have been shaped by the migrations of this fish, combine to fascinating, awe-inspiring, and often heart-breaking effect.

When he begins his river journey at McNeil Lake he is just three days removed from his home in London. After a few weeks paddling downstream, however, his senses have changed to suit the new setting:

 

“I am able to focus in on a fleck of white from half a mile away, and spot a bald eagle sitting motionless, scarcely aware how I have done it. I find that I can tell a species of a tree by how it is moving in the wind, how the aspen leaves twinkle but the birch’s quiver. … I had always thought that learning birdsong was beyond my capabilities, but out here the songs are starting to stick: the dark-eyed junco, which sounds like a telephone ringing; the white-crowned sparrow; the raucous kingfisher. Despite my many years of city living, I think perhaps I might not be a lost cause after all.”

It’s not as easy to get to know the fish, which mostly slip by his canoe cloaked in impenetrably silty river water. Fortunately he can learn from people who have spent generations understanding the comings and goings of salmon.

There was a time when many great rivers in Europe and North America teemed with salmon. Gifted with the rare ability to live in both fresh water and salt water, many salmonids are born in shallow stream beds, travel far downstream and into the open oceans, and then return against the currents several years later to spawn in the same spots where they were born. But today deforestation, over-fishing, and the construction of dams have decimated salmon populations.

In the untamed rivers where salmon remain strong they are a prized food source. Their dependable migrations, plus the nutritious oils between their skins and flesh, make them a superb source of energy for people who must make it through long cold winters.

 

A steep decline

The Yukon River system is one of the richest remaining salmon habitats – but there too populations of some species have seen a steep decline. The Chinook Salmon, the largest and most prized salmon species in North America, has dropped both in numbers and in average size.

When I camped at an informal squatter’s village outside Dawson City in 1988, river rafters tipped me off to a great bargain – fresh whole Chinook salmon, sold for $2 a pound from coolers on the back streets of town. The resulting campfire feast was so memorable I wanted to share the experience with my son on our bike trip through the Yukon twenty years later. Alas, I was told the fish had become scarce, quotas were severely restricted, and sales were now banned.

A disappointment for a tourist – but a tragedy for the many native communities along the river. The most moving passages in Kings of the Yukon come when people share their feelings about the deep changes being forced on their cultures. For generations people have marked the seasons by the passage of the salmon, and the rituals of setting nets, stocking smoke-houses, cutting and slicing and drying the red-orange fillets into stores of dried fish which will last through the winter. Now they struggle to decide if they can catch just enough fish each year to pass on their culture to the next generation – or if even that minimal harvest will prevent salmon populations from rebuilding.

There are many viewpoints on why Chinook Salmon numbers have dwindled, and Weymouth is clear-eyed and even-handed in his treatment. He makes clear, too, why the salmon are important not just to people, but to the earth’s largest ecosystem, the boreal forest. The vast river systems ceaselessly carry silt and minerals – soil fertility – out to the oceans. But uncounted millions of salmon carry this nutrition back upstream to their spawning grounds where they reproduce and then die.

Besides humans, bears are the famously photogenic beneficiaries of the salmon runs. But the bears typically eat just the choicest parts of the salmon they toss from the rivers; most of the fish will decompose on the forest floor, and the very trees are dependent on a cycle of nutrition that spans many years and many thousands of miles.

Weymouth braids many strands into his story – the distinctive native cultures that spread out from coastal delta to arctic tundra, from rain forests to distant mountain lakes; the devastating epidemics introduced by whalers, traders and missionaries; the ongoing social catastrophe set in motion by a residential school system consciously designed to put an end to native ways of life; the rhythms of seasonal subsistence fishing camps and massive industrial processing plants; even the distribution centre that eventually sends plastic-wrapped slices of salmon to supermarkets throughout Britain.

By the time he paddles out the seven-mile wide mouth of the Yukon into salt water waves, four months have passed, darkness has begun its takeover of the subarctic nights – and his readers have absorbed as good an introduction to northern life as they could hope to find in a single volume.

Illustration at top: “Chinook Salmon, Adult Male”, from plates in Evermann, Barton Warren; Goldsborough, Edmund Lee (1907) The Fishes of Alaska, via Wikimedia.

Canada Day on the Klondike

Canada Day on the Klondike

A father-&-son bike ride in the Yukon, 2008

Our campsite beside the Yukon River, at Carcross.

Our campsite beside the Yukon River, at Carmacks.

The sound of soft rain on our tent woke us on the morning of July 1st, and the showers continued long enough to make us consider staying right there beside the Yukon River. But by mid-afternoon the rain slowed to a drizzle, and we loaded our bikes and pedalled out of Carcross, heading north on the Klondike Highway towards Dawson City.

Little did we guess that the day’s ride would last until midnight, and that we would be treated to an unconventional display of Canada Day fireworks.

The ride began, as usual, with a long ascent. (Most of the territorial campgrounds are located beside rivers, which in these parts always seem to be located at the bottom of valleys.) Our Canada Day climb soon had us comfortably warm in spite of the intermittent mists, and after an hour our muscles were limber and we were making good time. But the scenery proved too spectacular to allow us quick passage.

About 4 pm we reached the viewpoint for the Five Finger Rapids, justly billed as one of Yukon Territory’s most popular recreational attractions. The sun was beginning to emerge, and the strands of turbulent water glistened far below us. A rugged trail, which includes 230 steps in the Territory’s longest staircase, winds down to the shoreline for a close-up view of the massive outcrops of rock, dividing the river into five swift-flowing streams. Gulls and ravens appeared to have these islands to themselves, though interpretive signs explained that in years past, settlers had built a cable system from the shoreline to the rocks, so that paddlewheel steamboats could be winched safely through the rapids.

Five-Finger Rapids, Yukon River

Five-Finger Rapids, Yukon River

When we got back to our bikes at 5 pm, we had only ridden 25 kilometers, and Pelly Crossing, the next village, was still 80 km up the road. Knowing we had many hours of daylight left, we set out confidently for Pelly Crossing.

As the evening wore on, the wind picked up from the direction of the setting sun: north. We worked harder, and moved slower. When the sun dipped behind the mountains, the temperature dropped, bottoming out at 5°C. Every half hour we stopped to put on more clothes – wool tights over our shorts, then long-sleeve shirts, then wind-pants, then jackets, finally even our wool caps. After each stop we were warm for a few minutes, and after the next downhill cruise we were shivering again. At two of the stops we found wild strawberries growing beside the highway. The tiny and succulent specimens of rubus arcticus warmed our spirits, but did little to warm our aching joints.

Just after sunset, about 11:30 p.m., we came swooping down a curve right beside a large pond dotted with waterfowl. The birds were alarmed by something – perhaps our loaded bikes rattling down the bumpy road, perhaps the chattering of our teeth. The birds exploded up from the water, setting off a kind of reverse fireworks, with hundreds of fluttering black dots rising against the purple and pink light of the sky.

We reached Pelly Crossing after midnight, rolling into a large, well-equipped, and totally deserted campground. In the few minutes it took to crawl into our sleeping bags and fall asleep, we reflected that it had been a tough day, and one we would not have missed for the world.