Kings of the Yukon

Yukon River, Alaska
May 2018 | Words and images by Adam Weymouth

A couple of years ago we sponsored writer Adam Weymouth before he left on a trip down the Yukon River in Alaska, 2000 miles to research the decline of the king salmon and how it was impacting those who still depend on it. The result of this trip was his amazing book, Kings of the Yukon. Read a little about his trip below. 

Over the course of two summers, 2016 and 2017, I paddled from the source of the Yukon River, high in the Pelly Mountains, Yukon Territory, Canada, to where it meets the Bering Sea in Western Alaska, and stretches seven miles from bank to bank. A journey of two thousand miles, its purpose was to investigate the sudden, recent crash in king salmon numbers, and to explore how their disappearance was impacting on the many people that depend on them.

Morning on the Yukon
Map of the Yukon River in Alaska
Wild country of the Yukon river in Alaska.

There are always those first few days, I find, until I shed the city, before I feel at ease again. Before muscles feel good, before cracked burnt skin stops hurting and feels like it’s at home. Before my eyes open as wide as they ought. I dip a cup from the side of the canoe and drink. Not even from a spring, straight from the lake. It feels astonishing that once all rivers would have run with drinking water, that once I could have dipped my cup into the Thames. And I remember the words of Bill Mason, the Canadian who did more to popularize modern canoeing than anyone else, who made it a rule not to paddle on water that he wouldn’t also drink.

The Yukon River is the longest salmon run in the world. The king salmon that travel furthest make their way upriver for two thousand miles to return to the pools where they were born, to spawn and then to die. They navigate, it is now known, by their sense of smell: they can detect a single drop from their home stream amongst two million gallons of water. It is one of the planet's great migrations, and one made all the more remarkable in that for the several months that they battle against the current, they will not eat nor drink. They are fuelled by the vast reserves of oil in their bodies, and it is this oil which makes the Yukon king so highly prized.

For millennia the cultures which live along the Yukon's banks - Tlingit, Athabascan, Yup'ik - have relied upon this annual surge of protein from the ocean as a way of gathering food for the coming winter. Dried and smoked and cached, it was vital sustenance through the dark and brutal winters when much other food was scarce. Every summer, for several weeks, they would make fish camp on the river's banks. It was an easy, abundant time, important not just for the fishing, but for swapping stories, for coming together as families, for teaching their children how to fish and how to respect the water. The king salmon came to be seen as important culturally as it was for the filling of larders.

Salmon family on the Yukon.

But now things are changing. Before 1997, the average king run on the Yukon was 300,000 fish. In 2013 just 30,000 came back. And it is not just the numbers, but also the size of fish which is rapidly in decline. Once the king was known as the June hog; eighty-pounders were not uncommon. (The largest king ever caught was 126 pounds, the upper limit for a featherweight boxer). Today twenty pounds is thought to be a good fish. Smaller fish lay fewer eggs, and there are less and less salmon returning. In some villages they chose to stop fishing decades ago, aware of the looming crisis. There are teenagers who have never caught a king, who have been taught how to prepare fish with a salmon from the freezer. Those who live along the river's banks are facing a very real choice between the preservation of the fish and the preservation of their culture.

It is wild country. Many of the villages are many hundreds of miles from the nearest road. I paddled for weeks at a time between them, camping on islands in a river miles wide, always on the look out for the grizzlies. ‘Yukon’ is a contraction of the Gwich’in phrase chųų gąįį han, which translates as ‘river of white water’. The river is a milky, soupy brown. The silt, rubbed from distant mountains, whispers at the hull, and if you dip your paddle and hold your ear to the shaft you can hear it clearer still, as though the river is deflating. It runs so murky that you cannot see deeper than a single knuckle beneath the surface. I fill my bottles from the clear creeks that feed it, little scraps of paradise, their banks lush with grasses and with fireweed in full bloom. I cast a line to try and catch a grayling, and paddle on again.

Over the course of those summers I spent time with gold miners, Athabascan grandmothers, village chiefs, salmon biologists, missionaries, dog mushers and reality TV stars. I heard how each of their lives is bound up with the salmon – for food, for money, for work. I came to see that on the Yukon, the people,the fish and the place are intimately connected. In the North it may be more apparent that nothing exists in isolation, that to alter one element is to impact on the whole. But it is no less true for us that live in cities, it is only that the webs are more entangled. We are part of the landscape, and the salmon’s story is our story.

The decisions made about the fish in the coming years will determine the fate of one of the last great salmon runs in the world. And in a place where the salmon is the lifeblood of the land, it will determine much more than that.

About the Author

Check out the book "Kings of the Yukon" by Adam Weymouth. One man's thrilling and transporting journey by canoe across Alaska in search of king salmon.