Kings of The Yukon is a travel book that doubles as an environmental history book. I read it mainly for my interest in travel books covering remote, wilderness areas, but was surprised by the depth of writing on salmon fisheries, indigenous cultures, and how much even the most remote parts of the world are changing in the 21st Century.
Here’s the official, back of the book description.
The Yukon river is 2,000 miles long, the longest stretch of free-flowing river in the United States. In this riveting examination of one of the last wild places on earth, Adam Weymouth canoes along the river’s length, from Canada’s Yukon Territory, through Alaska, to the Bering Sea. The result is a book that shows how even the most remote wilderness is affected by the same forces reshaping the rest of the planet.
Every summer, hundreds of thousands of king salmon migrate the distance of the Yukon to their spawning grounds, where they breed and die, in what is the longest salmon run in the world. For the communities that live along the river, salmon was once the lifeblood of the economy and local culture. But climate change and a globalized economy have fundamentally altered the balance between man and nature; the health and numbers of king salmon are in question, as is the fate of the communities that depend on them.
Traveling along the Yukon as the salmon migrate, a four-month journey through untrammeled landscape, Adam Weymouth traces the fundamental interconnectedness of people and fish through searing and unforgettable portraits of the individuals he encounters. He offers a powerful, nuanced glimpse into indigenous cultures and into our ever-complicated relationship with the natural world. Weaving in the rich history of salmon across time as well as the science behind their mysterious life cycle, Kings of the Yukon is extraordinary adventure and nature writing at its most urgent and poetic.
What I Liked
I loved the setting of the book. It still amazes me that there are millions of acres of remote, undisturbed, undeveloped land within two of the wealthiest, most industrialized countries on Earth (US & Canada). The far reaches of the Yukon River are, in some ways, just as remote as they were back in the days of the Yukon Gold Rush.
I liked how the author, though, really explored the irony of the remote Yukon. That, even though it is very isolated and inaccessible, the land & watershed is being affected directly by people living thousands of miles away. The centerpiece of this change is the Chinook salmon (the Kings of The Yukon) that are slowly dying out due to overfishing, climate change, and globalization among the indigenous people of the Yukon.
I liked the writing. It was beautiful and descriptive without bogging down the narrative. The author clearly spent *a lot* of time in the Yukon, not just a single trip and had a keen eye to not only describe the landscape and people, but put them in an understanding context.
What I Did Not Like
I think the book didn’t make my “best books of all time” because it didn’t quite fit what I was expecting. The author spends a lot of the book with people and inhabited places, and chops his trip into several smaller adventures. I think the book cover / jacket overemphasizes this giant overland adventure, when it’s really more of a long-term journalist’s exploration of a forgotten and remote region. It turned out well – just not the book that I was expecting.
Climate Change is happening orders of magnitude faster in the Arctic than elsewhere in the World. The Yukon can absolutely provide early warning lessons for the rest of us. Proactive wildlife and ecosystem management is critical to prevent sudden collapse of food supplies (I’m looking at you, American Southwest). “Just moving to a better place” does not account for culture, personal roots, or politics – population shifts are going to be painful and hard. Government agencies absolutely must be staffed by professionals outside of industry. Changes in personal behavior do matter, but only if it spreads to the rest of the culture – and is matched with government oversight. For example, consumption of wild fish drives overfishing. That can stop, but only if it becomes “uncool” and the industry is forced to provide accurate information about their practices (ie, actually defining “wild caught” or “sustainable”).
The Yukon River is an incredible and one of a kind place on Earth that deserves protection in its own right, but also so that we can all learn and benefit from it long-term. As remote as it is, it’s directly connected to so many places on Earth.