Q&A

Author paddles one of the last great chinook salmon rivers — the Yukon

'The history of the salmon is the history of this land,' author Adam Weymouth writes in his new book exploring the connections between the king salmon and the communities that depended on the fish.

'Everywhere I went ... I saw how wrapped up the salmon was with the culture and the daily life,' Weymouth says

Author Adam Weymouth, nearing his journey's end on the Yukon River. 'It's important to take that long time ... to really get to meet a total cross-section of people that live along the Yukon River,' he said. (Ulli Mattsson)

"The history of the salmon is the history of this land," Adam Weymouth writes in the opening of his new book, Kings of the Yukon: A River Journey in Search of the Chinook.

The British writer spent several months paddling the Yukon River through Alaska and Yukon, exploring the connections between chinook, or king salmon, and the communities that have long depended on the fish — and their efforts to preserve the stocks.

The cover of Weymouth's new book, 'Kings of the Yukon'. (Penguin Random House)

He spoke to CBC Yukon's Dave White about his journey, and what he learned along the way.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What is it about the story of the chinook that captured your imagination?

Everywhere I went in Alaska on that trip, I saw how wrapped up the salmon was with the culture and the daily life — whether that was families getting into the car on the Fourth of July weekend  to go and catch a few salmon for the deep-freeze, or whether that was Indigenous cultures which had evolved to co-exist with the salmon harvest for millennia. 

It seems everyone I spoke to, when I talked about salmon, people talked to me about food, and what they hope for their kids, and much deeper relationships. And so in some ways, following the story of the salmon and what was happening to the salmon, it seemed to be an interesting way to ask other questions about the North.

Salmon used to be in Europe — there's lots of lore in the British Isles about salmon, and laws and rules exist allowing people access to salmon streams. So even though they're not there anymore, it is part of your heritage, too?

Absolutely. And I think the reasons that Alaska and Canada are now iconic for these amazing salmon runs, and where it's on every fisherman's bucket list, is because really, that's what's left.  

So to me, coming to realize that was a wake-up call that if something's not done about the chinook on the Yukon — really, that's almost the last chance we have to get it right.

An Alaskan salmon fisherman on the Yukon River in 2001. (Sam Harrell/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner/File/Associated Press)

And you didn't just talk to researchers and pop into a couple of communities — you actually canoed the thing.

I'd done long overland journeys before, but never in a canoe. I walked from England to Istanbul a few years ago, and that made me realize the different sort of relationships you build up with people when you turn up in that sort of way.

It's important to take that long time — it was about four months of canoeing — to really get to meet a total cross-section of people that live along the Yukon River.

What parts of your trip do you remember most, now that you're back home?

I think it was the people more than anything.

I was probably drawn to go to Alaska and the Yukon in the first place for the same reason that so many people are drawn in — with the stories of Jack London and Farley Mowat, and these sort of myths of the North.

An underwater camera at the Whitehorse fish ladder and hatchery captures Chinook salmon travelling by. (Yukon Energy)

And there are the vast unpopulated landscapes, but to me, really, the story became about the people in the end, and the encounters I had with the people.

That idea that hospitality is still alive and well, that people are fundamentally good, really does seems to shine through.

I love the bit towards the end [of the book], where you go to the supermarket and buy some fish and take it home to cook and you're like, 'man, I have a completely different relationship with my food now.'

To see these little fillets under the bright lights of the supermarket and shrink-wrapped, and having followed its journey across the world — yeah, it's hard to see it as the same fish.

Salmon drying at a fish camp in Yukon. (Selkirk First Nation)

How optimistic are you about the future of the chinook salmon in the Yukon River?

I'm used to covering environmental stories that seem like a done deal, so it was refreshing to cover something where it seems almost just in the nick of time people realize something needs to be done, and there is a possibility to turn it around.

There's been much more conservative management of fishing the salmon over the past few years and that has done something to hike the numbers back up. But that has in many ways been at the expense of the culture, in places like Dawson City and Teslin, and a little bit further upriver from Dawson where the Indigenous communities are choosing not to fish now.

So, really what I saw from the journey is that you can preserve one thing in isolation, you can maybe preserve the fish, but to preserve the fish and the culture is a much bigger challenge.

A view of the Yukon River near Carmacks, Yukon. (CBC)

With files from Dave White