The Yukon is North America’s longest free-flowing river: a vast waterway that meanders through the wilderness of northwestern Canada and Alaska to the Bering Sea. It’s also the hunting ground for traditional communities who draw from the river’s king salmon, now in rapid decline due to climate change.
In summer 2016, London writer Adam Weymouth spent four months canoeing the length of the Yukon. Battling the elements in one of the planet’s most remote areas, he explored the relationship between the Yukon people and the eroding salmon population on which they depend. The 2,000-mile journey brought bear encounters, volatile crossings and weeks without seeing another soul. It also formed the basis of Adam’s book, Kings of the Yukon; an ode to the ties between people and nature, and a way of life facing seismic change. From a city dweller with zero canoeing experience to the heart of the river wild, here’s his story.
I stumbled upon the trial of 23 Yup’ik fishermen in Bethel
On my first morning on the Yukon, Hector MacKenzie and I took the float plane from Whitehorse, the only city in Canada’s mountainous Yukon province. I travelled some of the journey with Hector – a Whitehorse local – and some with Ulli Mattsson, my girlfriend. The rest of the time I was by myself. We touched down on a lake, unloaded the gear onto the shore and watched the plane leave. Perhaps a hundred miles from the closest person. I stood there, looking at the mountain stream that would lead me the next 2,000 miles to the sea.
I first travelled to Alaska in 2013, when I stumbled upon the trial of 23 Yup’ik fishermen in Bethel, who were defending themselves for going out and catching king salmon during a ban. Fishing for king salmon, they said, was as much a part of their traditional heritage as it was for nourishment. In 2014, a ban was placed on catching kings along the entire Yukon River, in an unprecedented move. I felt as though there was a bigger story to be told, and so the idea for my book – and the canoeing expedition that came with it – was born.
Just living on the Yukon took a huge amount of time
I’d spent roughly one afternoon in a canoe when I sold the idea for my book, and I suddenly realised what I’d signed myself up for. I paddled on the Wye, the Dart and the Medway before heading out to Canada, but they’re trickles compared to the Yukon. It’s hard to prepare for anything that vast until you’re on it; where the Yukon reaches the Bering Sea, it stretches seven miles from one bank to the other.
Just living on the Yukon took a huge amount of time. Every evening, I would unload the boat, raise and stake the tent and tie the canoe to something solid in case the wind picked up in the night. Then I also gathered wood, made a fire and cooked dinner. They are mundane chores, in one sense, but no more so than a bird finds it mundane to build its nest. There are things that your life dictates you must do on a journey like this, and so you get on with them.
I was frequently struck by the hospitality
Turning up in a canoe was a great way to make connections with people living along the river. They knew where we had come from, knew where we were going. Often someone would give us the name of an uncle or a cousin to look up further down the river. I was frequently struck by the hospitality we were welcomed with, and people sharing their food with us.
The impact of climate change on these communities is clear to see. As the permafrost thaws, foundations are slipping and houses are subsiding, falling away into the river. Migrations are arriving at different times, compromising the ability of local communities to access traditional foods. I heard about a hunter falling through the river ice. This man was an experienced hunter who had lived his whole life on the river, but the ice is much less thick and predictable than it used to be. A man had died and a family was left fatherless, without someone to provide food. People are often left out of the story of climate change, but it’s this apparent disconnect between us and nature that got us into this mess in the first place.
Having hot showers and a washing machine felt like luxuries
I had a couple of run-ins with bears. Although they set my heart pounding in a way that felt particularly primal, they lasted only seconds. In the end the most dangerous part of the journey was the river itself; in some places it was two or three miles from one bank to the other. When the wind picks up the waves can be huge, much bigger than what a canoe is built for. We had some very hairy crossings. The last few weeks were tough. The autumn comes early in Alaska, and by the middle of August we would wake to ice on the outside of the tent each morning. It didn’t stop raining for weeks.
Pulling on wet gear each morning and getting into the canoe could get dispiriting. We spent the last couple days of the trip in a bunkhouse in the fishing port of Emmonak. Having hot showers, a canteen and a washing machine felt like luxuries. But, having seen people in their eighties living self-sufficient lives out in the bush – still sharp, healthy and agile – I really came to feel that, often, it is comfort that kills.
I spent the evenings fishing, swimming and writing
The period of the journey that I was by myself was in the height of the Northern summer – endless daylight, endless sunshine. It would come as a surprise to remember just how alone I was. More than anything, the landscape felt benign. I spent the evenings fishing, swimming, writing and thoroughly enjoying myself. The longer that I spent on the Yukon, the more I found my awareness changing. I was able to focus in on a fleck of white from half a mile away, and spot a bald eagle sitting motionless, scarcely aware of how I had done it.
I found that I could tell a species of a tree by how it was moving in the wind, how the aspen leaves twinkle but the birch’s quiver. I had never noticed this before. It was the same with birdsong. I had always thought that learning birdsong was beyond my capabilities, but on the river the songs started to stick: the dark-eyed junco, which sounds like a telephone ringing; the white-crowned sparrow; the raucous kingfisher. It reassured me that, despite my many years of city living, I might not be a lost cause after all.
Read more in Adam’s book Kings of the Yukon: An Alaskan River Journey
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Images: Courtesy Adam Weymouth, Ulli Mattsson, Robert Neu