Paddling 2,000 Miles to Meet the ‘Kings of the Yukon’

Adam Weymouth lives on a century-old boat bobbing on the Lea river in London. He clearly has an affinity for rivers and the fascinating lives and animals they contain. Weymouth spent months paddling down the 2,000-mile Yukon River, which flows from Canada to Alaska’s Bering Sea shores. He was in search of the mighty Chinook salmon, also called king salmon, the largest of the wild Pacific salmonids. He wanted to trace the history of humanity’s relationship with the Chinook, and how the fish have impacted the culture of the Yukon, and how they’re being affected not only by fishing and habitat destruction, but by climate change. He has a reverence for the big fish and the indigenous life they’ve sustained for centuries. Weymouth is also blown away by the rugged beauty and raw wilderness of the Yukon. 

Weymouth wrote about his experience in his first ever book, Kings of the Yukon, for which he was awarded the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award. An excerpt of the book is below.

We are exhausted when we find somewhere to stop. It is an island, but a big one, with the willows reaching almost to the shoreline; it is better to be on open ground to give big mammals time to see us before they stumble on the camp. But we have been paddling since breakfast and we are tired and tetchy with each other, and the next flat spot could be hours away. There is a brief break in the rain. Ulli builds a fire with some dry wood we have carried with us, pieces of birch bark for tinder sealed inside a Ziploc. I walk out from camp, looking for Labrador Tea. A small plant with elliptic, slightly succulent leaves, and burnished, rusty underside, like certain caterpillars, or nails left out in the rain. It gives hot water a soothing, antiseptic taste. It is never far away, which is good, because I get uneasy straying far from camp. I find a few plants, and I take a few leaves from each, and I walk on, looking for more. I am developing some very active superstitions out here, and one of them is that if I pay due attention to the things within my power — if I leave no trace, if I take only a little of what I need from each plant so as not to impede its growth, if I dig a decent hole when I shit — then I am less likely to be eaten by a bear.

There is no reason to this, of course, but then, there is no reason to bears. We have with us an air horn and two cans of Yukon Magnum bear spray — industrial-size cans of pepper spray — and I hold a belief that mostly things work out, but that feels precariously little when coming from a life based squarely upon certainties. I have my senses, and I use them more consciously than normal: I pace the ground, scouting for bear sign when we stop, I sniff around; once, when eating lunch, we both get a feeling at the exact same moment that we should not be where we are, and, feeling foolish, we hastily pack up and paddle off. Who can say? Perhaps the wind changed, or the pressure dropped, or a branch fell in the woods. It seems overly romantic to believe that my sloppy instincts, much dulled from underuse, should straight- away start firing when immersed in the correct conditions. But it didn’t take long after the wolves returned to Yellowstone for the deer to remember old behaviors. Percy Henry, in Dawson City, had called the wolf the doctor of all animals. Maybe, for us, it is the bear.

To be seeking new forms of understanding and protection, shorn of my rational ways of predicting the world, should come as no surprise. The settlers who first arrived here found what to them appeared a pre-Enlightenment world, the native knowledge unscientific. No one would talk directly about a bear; it was always “that big animal.” Certainly no one would speak of a bear in the presence of a woman. Women and children were forbidden to look at them; it could bring terrible luck to a village. In one village I met a newly arrived man from the Lower 48 who spoke of bears incessantly, such was his fear of them: “One day a bear is going to come knocking at his door,” an elder told me, “saying here I am if you want me so bad.”

The Karuk of California made their fish spears only from the trees of the tallest mountains, for otherwise the salmon would see them. If salmon eyes are kept in a house overnight then the entire run will disappear. Same-sex twins are said to have a special affinity with the fish. The missionaries wrote off such animist ways of approaching the world as primitive and pre-rational, but the settlers were equally capable of thinking of the salmon as having an interior life that extended beyond the biological. Each culture seems to find in the salmon its own approach to life’s Sisyphean struggle: for west coast tribes, it embodies the selfless sacrifice for future generations; for Europeans, it is about a rugged individualism. To the gentleman angler, the salmon has forever reminded him of his own stiff-upper-lip approach, a Charge of the Light Brigade mentality. Izaak Walton, author of The Compleat Angler, spoke of the salmon carrying out its “natural duty,” Dickens of how “he will rush at a cataract like a thoroughbred steeplechase horse, returning to the charge over and over again, like a true British fish as he is.” It is noble, doomed, regal, wild. An animal with an intimate connection to its homeland, and with the resilience and determination for great journeys; an animal that goes to embrace its death with the open arms of a Zen master. More recently, a symbol for the west coast activist, a crusader against clear cuts and dams, an individual that triumphs against all odds, conquering the currents of progress.

Each Pacific tribe has rites depicting how the first king of the season should be eaten. The Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island serve its roasted eyes to their chief; the shamans of the Tsimshian people, dressed as fishermen, parade the first salmon through the village on a platter of fresh cedar bark. The Ainu in Japan used a ceremonial club of willow to kill their salmon, and the first of the season was passed into the fisherman’s house via a special window reserved for the purpose; rice and malt were wrapped in a bamboo leaf and placed beside the fish’s head. In Siberia, the Nyvkh people placed two sticks of willow in the river, at the time of the spring and autumn runs, and launched between them a small boat made of birch bark, filled with offerings of food that included salmon. Each year, in the middle of May, Alaska Airlines fly the first catch of Copper River king from the port town of Cordova to Seattle. The plane is painted like a salmon, tail up, fins out. There is a live blog of their progress. On the runway in Seattle, a red carpet is rolled up to the cockpit, and the pilots carry the salmon down it. Out on the tarmac, assembled chefs compete before the gathered press to cook the winning dish for an assembled panel of fishermen and retired quarterbacks.

I gather enough leaves of Labrador Tea and return to camp and set a pot on the fire to boil. We are walking back to the canoe to unload, and I am looking down at the trail of a moose in the sand, when Ulli says “There’s a bear,” and I think what an inappropriate joke, and I look up, and there is one.

I had so long imagined the moment that it feels like a kept promise. It is a grizzly, or a brown, the first that we have seen. Ursus arctos horribilis. The day hones in upon it. It is on its hind legs, as tall as the willows, perhaps six feet high, or eight, and with furrowed features, it peers myopically toward us. It is maybe twenty feet away. Both brown and black bears can be black or brown: you can distinguish the grizzly by its hump, and unlike the black’s muzzle, which is rounded, the grizzly’s lengthens to a snout, more collie than Labrador. I am not sure if it is an adult or a cub: on the south coast of Alaska, where they grow huge on salmon, the adults can reach upward of twelve feet, but here, with a diet of mostly berries and roots, they may not make half that. It is so very there. The medium of the wilderness serves to level our experiences: we are both on journeys through it, and we have both surprised each other. My body understands the gravity of the situation in a deeply instinctive way.

I had thought, on seeing a bear, that I might be torn, conflicted between fear and the privilege of the moment. It goes right to the heart of my ancestors’ experience, but for modern Western man it is an unusual situation. The promise of violence is familiar, but there is none of the malignancy that would usually accompany it. Because of that, not everyone reacts predictably. Tourists have been seen feeding bears from out of their car windows; in 2012, a photographer in Alaska’s Denali National Park was killed after getting too close to a grizzly, on his camera a series of intimate photographs taken from just fifty yards away. But I discover I have not strayed too far from my instincts. As one, Ulli and I raise our hands and make some unplanned, primal noise. It is unconscious, and indeed we have been told never to react like this, that with the grizzlies we should appear deferential. On reflection I suppose that we are puffing ourselves up. The bear is startled. It drops to all fours, and then it turns, cocks its head back at us, and canters off into the scrub, disappearing through the willows with a delicacy that his several hundred pounds belies.

My heart is thumping in my chest. My hands begin to shake. The beach is glaringly empty. We stand there, looking after it, and if it wasn’t for its prints left behind in the mud I could think we had made it up. It must have lasted all of ten seconds. A goose honks, and then another. We reek of fear. We pack up in minutes, a task that normally takes hours, our flight mechanism still in overdrive, and we push off, looking for another island. There might be a bear on that one, too, but at least we won’t know about it.

Kings of the Yukon is published by Penguin Books and can be purchased here.



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