Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth

36262373Nonfiction – print. Little, Brown and Company, 2018. 288 pgs. Library copy.

Subtitled “One Summer Paddling Across the Far North”, Weymouth’s memoir covers the fourth months he spent canoeing the Yukon River from Canada’s Yukon Territory through Alaska to the Bering Sea. The Yukon is 2,000 miles long, the longest free-flowing river in the United States and the longest salmon run in the world.

Each summer, king salmon (known as Chinook in Canada) migrate the distance of the Yukon to their spawning grounds. For the Canadian First Nations and the Native Alaskan communities along the river, salmon are the center of the local culture and the primary food source. But, as Weymouth’s memoir documents, the health of king salmon in the Yukon has been devastated in recent years with fishing banned or suspended by the Canadian and US governments, putting the fate of these communities is in peril.

As a travelogue, Weymouth’s memoir left me with a longing to follow in his footsteps and kayak the Yukon. His descriptions of the scenery as well as his encounters with wild animals, including the elusive wolverine, were vivid and reverent, emphasizing how transformative the experience of being alone in a vast, largely untouched landscape can be.

As a nonfiction book focused on natural history and sociology, Weymoth breaks the timeline of his travelogue to explain the biology and history of king salmon or to follow a story told by an interviewee for whom salmon plays an integral part in their identity and the economic, spiritual, and physical health of their communities.

It can feel a bit jarring to suddenly back upstream with Weymouth in a boat once the chapter concludes. But I really appreciated how Weymouth respectfully steps back from being the focus of the narrative, emphasizing the voices and the viewpoints of those who will continue to live along the Yukon long after he leaves for London.

As should be expected, the viewpoint of those living up river or in Canada or identify as Eskimo do not always dovetail with those living down river or in the United States or identify as Indian. (Weymouth explains why he utilizes these terms, which are viewed as pejorative in some parts of Canada and the United States, in his introductory chapter.)

This lack of cohesion makes government regulation difficult to construct or implement, and Weymouth’s memoir shows how the existing regulations is failing to save the king salmon or to take into account the viewpoint of indigenous communities.

As bleak as this information is, Weymouth avoids bogging his story or his readers down (pun not intended) by maintaining a sense of adventure and awe. Overall, I found this to be a fascinating, informative book – one I’m sure I’ll be recommending several times over in the months ahead.

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