by Adam Weymouth
To keep in line with our Earth Day focus this week, we have an excerpt from Adam Weymouth’s book Kings of the Yukon. This is from the very beginning and is essentially a short essay on why Adam wrote the book, distilling what it is about the salmon and the issues facing their environment that originally drew him to the story. Info on pre-ordering the book from Amazon at the end of this post.
A note from Adam Weymouth, author of Kings of the Yukon: One Summer Paddling Across the Far North
I first came to the North, to Alaska, in 2013. I was there, ostensibly, to follow stories of climate change and oil, but really I was there because I was lured by the myth. I had grown up on Jack London and Farley Mowat; I had fleshed it out with Into the Wild and bluegrass and wildlife documentaries. I spent three months reaching every corner that I could: the site of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, twenty-five years on; a whaling festival in the Inuit village of Point Hope, the oldest settled site in North America; Newtok, slipping away into the sea as the permafrost beneath it thawed; Chicken, where gold miners from across the state came to celebrate 4th of July.
I had read about a man called Mike Williams, chief of the Yupiit nation, who had traveled the world speaking of the climatic changes that his people were experiencing. After some correspondence, he invited me to his village of Akiak, way out on the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta. All flights to the delta pass through Bethel, and it so happened that while I was in town, 23 Yup’ik fishermen were on trial for catching king salmon during a state closure in the summer of 2012. “Gandhi had his salt, we have our salmon,” Mike told me on the phone. The closure had been implemented by Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) as king salmon numbers plummeted unexpectedly, inexplicably. The fishermen were pleading not guilty. They were justified in fishing, so they said, because the taking of king salmon was part of their spiritual practice, their cultural heritage. First Amendment.
It was not big news; it made the local radio. But on the delta, it was significant. There were tears in the courtroom. I sat in there for three days, and then I wrote an article, which ran in the Atlantic. Back home, I kept an eye on the story. In 2014, a ban on king salmon was put in place along the entire Yukon River, an unprecedented move. In 2015 it was kept in place. Someone had told me on my first visit that in a recent survey salmon had come out top, beating religion, as what gave Alaskans a purpose in life. I have searched and never found this survey. But even as apocrypha, it goes some way to showing how much this fish has threaded the state together.
In Alaska, the runs of some salmon species—the pink, the sockeye, the chum—still hit the millions on some rivers. Those on the outside are forced up onto the banks. The backs of the ones above are burned by the sun, they say; the bellies of the ones beneath are scoured by the gravel, so crowded are they. It is the ultimate symbol of the wild, the fishing trip to die for. Across the world, from the Far East to Europe, from North America’s East Coast to its West, rivers that once knew a similar abundance see a fraction of their historic numbers; many have lost their salmon altogether. The River Salm, in Germany, for which the salmon is thought to be named, has no salmon anymore. At one time Alaska was nothing exceptional. Now it’s simply all that’s left.
Yet in everything I read, no one seemed able to agree whether the declines had come from poor management, long-term climatic changes, bycatch in the oceans, or natural fluctuations. In fact, no one seemed able to agree whether or not the king was really in decline at all. What seemed certain was that not only did the future of the king hang in the balance on the Yukon, it was the last chance on earth to get it right. The king is Alaska’s state fish. If I was to try and better understand the North, I thought, then perhaps I should go looking for the royalty of the river before it was gone for good. If I was to try and better understand the North, I thought, then there were worse ways to do it.
Learn more about the author on his website.
You can also use this link to pre-order the book on Amazon. If you have ad blocker on you may not see the link:
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