June 12, 2021

“The Kings of the Yukon”, the odyssey of Chinook salmon followed by paddle

The book. Chinook. Royal. Two words to designate the emblematic Alaskan salmon, which each summer travels up the Yukon, 3,200 kilometers long, to reproduce and die in the spawning ground where it was born. English journalist Adam Weymouth, an expert on environmental issues, paddled from the source of the river at 1,200 meters above sea level to the mouth of the Bering Sea to study the world of these fish and humans living from their fishing or their breeding.

Speeding down the rapids in his canoe, camping on the banks with the constant fear of crossing a bear, sometimes capsizing and often shivering, the author offers the captivating tale of a months-long expedition to understand the origin of the decline. some salmon. From the first lines, the style reminds one of the great traveling writers. Scientific and historical reminders arrive very timely so that the reader can soak up the bush, the tundra, the atmosphere of the fishing camps set up by the descendants of Russian trappers, gold miners, or by the Tlingits, the Yupiks, the Athabascans … The royal has “For thousands of years, a link has been woven between the communities that live along the Yukon”, specifies the explorer.

The course of life

Observation of the “run” of salmon, survey of populations dependent on the river and study of environmental transformations are juxtaposed. The reader is invited to follow the development of this fish “Scheduled for the trip” – fry, parr, smolt, adult, parent – and to understand its exceptionality – it is part of the 0.5% of the 30,000 species of fish able to survive in both fresh and salt water, and its chances of regaining its place of birth are in the order of 0.1%. From this extraordinary destiny, which once marked the existence of the natives, depends the ecosystem of the river. Already, at the beginning of the XXe century, says Weymouth, as the market value of the chinook exploded, many voices were raised against the establishment of canneries on the banks, then relayed by opponents of overfishing and the construction of dams.

Tirelessly, the author questions the men and women encountered at each stage. From former fisherman confident catching salmon should be banned ” forever “ to those in charge of the packing and importation plant managed by the natives, to the manager of a hatchery or the Yupiks convinced that “Animals give of themselves” to the hunter who respects them, the story reflects a world which in turn seems inviolate and threatened with extinction. In this barely populated region, where only 39% of the inhabitants are native, life paths are multiplying, revealing great disparities. By collecting these testimonies, Weymouth paints the sociological portrait of Alaska – 1.8 million km2 – bought from the Russians by the Americans in 1867, who discovered oil there a century later – more than 16 billion barrels extracted -, upsetting the economy and the ecology of the State.

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