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Book Excerpt: Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth

Posted by Alex Messenger

Book Excerpt: Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth

In May of 2016, author Adam Weymouth reached out to us at Frost River about using a Campfire Tent on his upcoming epic paddle of the Yukon River. Over the course of four months, he’d be paddling 2,000 miles in search of King Salmon, and exploring the effects of their recent drop in number on the people of the region who depend upon them.

“A captivating, lyrical account of an epic voyage by canoe down the Yukon River.

The Yukon River is over 2,000 miles long, flowing northwest from Canada through the Yukon Territory and Alaska to the Bering Sea. Every summer, hundreds of thousands of King salmon migrate the distance of this river 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 Yukon, the fish have long been the lifeblood of the economy and local culture. But with the effects of climate change and a globalized economy, the health and numbers of the King salmon are in question, as is the fate of the communities that depend on them.”

In anticipation of the journey, Weymouth dutifully prepared for months, researching routes, and gear. “I've come across your Campfire tent,” he said, “after having read a couple of the Bill Mason books, and how much he praises it as the perfect tent for a long distance canoe trip. As a home for three months, and something that I'll be living and writing in, I'd love to have the kind of comfort and protection that the Campfire would provide.”

We couldn’t think of a better mission for our tent, and we’re proud to have been a small part of such a voyage.

The resulting book, Kings of the Yukon, is now complete, and will be released on May 15th, 2018. It’s an enthralling journey down one of the mighty waterways of the north-country, and masterfully ties together the region, the people, the river, and the King Salmon. Read on for an excerpt from the upcoming book and to get a glimpse of life in the rugged northern wilds.

Cheers, Adam, job well done-- Now let's get to the good stuff!

***

The Tanana, the Yukon’s second biggest tributary, drains a watershed the size of Ireland. Where the two rivers meet the silt load becomes yet heavier, the water saws at the canoe. The day is hot, too hot for itself. It has been like this for close to a week now, and a wind is coming, and out over Fairbanks, way off east, the clouds are piling up. The skies are so huge that you can read the coming weather many hours before it arrives. It is the tail end of July, and people are already talking about the end of summer coming.

photo Adam Weymouth

photo Adam Weymouth

We are more and more careful, as times goes on, to camp out on the islands. The salmon are in full spate, and as those that are spawned out begin to wash up in the tributaries, bears are making their way down to the Yukon from the hills where they have spent the early summer. We still see them only rarely, but they are forever in our minds. One sat in the shallows, the water up to its chin, cooling off as we paddled past.

It is now the tail end of the king run and only the stragglers remain. But now the summer chum are here, flowing east beneath our boat in their spawning colors of green and red, and next will come the pinks, and then the silvers, and then the sockeye, and then last the autumn chum. Most of the kings that have not been caught, or turned off the Yukon up the tributaries to breed, will be in Canada by now. Kings travel fifty miles a day; for us, going downriver, fifty miles is exceptional, and we’re still eating three meals a day.

Although that could be what slows us down. Half the boat is full of food. We bake bread and cook tagines, bulked up with wilted dandelions. In the mornings there are pancakes with wild raspberries, in the evenings there are fish chowders and elaborate stews of donated moose meat and of cabbage, cooked over the fire, rounded off with rhubarb crumbles. And then there is the salmon, which everyone wants to share, despite their smoke- houses being half empty this summer. When we stay with people they press it on us, and when we leave they fill our bags: with whole fish and filets, heads and bellies, smoked and half smoked, canned and dried. One afternoon a man pulls up alongside us in his skiff, hands us two Ziplocs stuffed with dried strips, to welcome us, he says, and races off down the river. We snack on it as we paddle, until we are so oily it becomes part of our odor, and in the evenings we roast it, grill it, fry it, or slice it thin for sushi. I do occasionally consider the ethics of investigating a fish’s decline while stuffing my face with it. It is in these moments, by the fire in the evening, the day over with, the dishes done, when I feel the journey most acutely: the simplicity of it, of days that feel full, and fully used by the day’s end.

It is in these moments, by the fire in the evening, the day over with, the dishes done, when I feel the journey most acutely: the simplicity of it, of days that feel full, and fully used by the day’s end.

photo Erik B. Jørgensen

Two days out from Tanana we make camp far out in the middle of the river, on an island of sand that rises only slightly above the level of the water. We hadn’t seen it until we were almost on top of it, obscured by the gentle swell. No bear in its right mind, we figure, would be making its way out here. There is nothing on the island but for a single dead tree. Ulli sets the tent and I make a fire and we are finishing up dinner when the wind starts to pick up. We see it first in the movements of the swallows, buffeted through the air. Down the valley, the way we have come, the sky is so gray it is blue. The trees on the banks are stirring, shivering in their canopies, soughing in their branches, and the sounds come to us undiluted across the water’s vast expanse. It is hard to make the guy ropes fast on ground as soft as this. We hurry about, piling whatever we can find down on the pegs: dead limbs, the float barrel, the canoe. I wonder if the water is rising. It looks as though it might be rising.

The sky turns, if anything, darker. We watch it, sipping tea. Our shadows stand out stark against the sand. Ancient spruce flex turquoise in the light, bending forward, deferential, snap- ping back and flapping like those inflatable men outside of garages. The light is as sharp as a knife, carving out each individual color. The wind keys up a pitch, whipping the sand about, so that it flows about our feet like the ghost of some other river. The thin alder that climb the bluffs flare white. The atmosphere thrills me; I feel electric, animal. Lightning cracks. And then we hear the rain. The sound of it swells as it sweeps down the valley as though a herd of horses were approaching, charging at us across the water. We hurry inside the tent and get the canvas zipped down, and then it hits.

The tent bends and quivers, straining at its tethers. We lie inside the sleeping bags staring up at the thrumming canvas. I’ve not used this tent in a storm before, and I have a sudden jerk of realization quite how far we are from anything. What an illusion it suddenly seems, this membrane between home and the vast and storming world. Outside the flaps the sky is as black as it has been in weeks. The puddles on the beach reflect it. Thunder barrels across the sky. I try to read, but the storm is too absorbing, there is nothing to do but be in it. We make poor, nervous jokes to each other. A lone goose, barking, is hurled out of the clouds.

What an illusion it suddenly seems, this membrane between home and the vast and storming world.

It rains all night, and when we wake it is still raining. The wind has died, at least. I push farther down inside the sleeping bag, and think I might just sleep the day away. A little later Ulli stirs and takes a look outside. The island is half the size it was. The canoe is partly floating, and the river is meters from the tent. Ulli shakes me awake. The rain hammers on the canvas.  We pull our waterproofs on and push out into the weather.

photo Ulli Mattsson

– Adam Weymouth is a freelance writer who has worked for a wide variety of newspapers and magazines, including The GuardianThe BBC, The Atlantic and Lacuna. His book, Kings of the Yukon, published by Little, Brown in the US, will be available on May 15th, 2018. More of his work can be found at www.adamweymouth.com@adamweymouth