Book Review: Kings of the Yukon: “The fish did not change, we changed”

There were just too many reasons for reading British writer Adam Weymouth’s Kings of the Yukon (US Edition by Little, Brown 2018). It is a book about the King Salmon: a fish which travels nearly 3,200 kilometers upstream the Yukon River from the Pacific Ocean to spawn and die in the same river pools where it was born. But it is also a book about free flowing Yukon River which supports the largest run of King Salmon.

An iconic river and an iconic fish. Parallels are inevitable. In South Asia, Hilsa fish, an anadromous migrant like the salmon, is sometimes called as the Queen of the River and one of its largest population finds its way up the Ganges delta each year to spawn. Years ago, when its way was not clogged by barrages and dams, Hilsa too swam upriver for thousands of kilometers. Both Salmon and Hilsa cross two countries in their strange and self-destructive quest for finding the perfect spawning ground. In Bangladesh alone, more than 2.5 Million people depend on Hilsa fisheries directly or indirectly. But Im not aware of a travelogue on Hilsa, so a travelogue on Salmon was not be missed.

In its initial pages, Weymouth sets the tone of the book: “The History of the Salmon is the history of this land.” This again strikes close to home. Pakistan’s Sindh, Bangladesh and India’s West Bengal abound in stories, songs and traditions about the Hilsa.  The indigenous Yupiks of Alaska call themselves, “People of the Big River” just like people living in Sindhu delta are Sindhis or the Indus or Gangaputra or Saraswats: people of the Ganga and Saraswati Rivers.

But I must be objective and read Weymouth’s book for what it is. And then he talks about Chief Mike Williams, who stood with the 23 indigenous Yupik fishermen, arrested for catching King Salmon during fishing closure in summer of 2012 as an act of “civil disobedience”. Mike says “Gandhi had his salt, we have our salmon.” A Chief of an indigenous tribes, far off in a snowy corner of the world drew strength from Gandhi in his community’s struggle.

I was completely sold from page 12.

The book is made of lyrical, evocative descriptions of the changing landscape as he descends in his tiny canoe from Whitehorse, one of the farthest points of Yukon basin, and sails into the Yukon delta where the river meets the Bering Sea. He completed this trip in 4 months of summer. On his downstream journey, he crossed the King swimming upstream to their spawning grounds.

Yukon River Basin in Canada and Alaska, United States From: http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/

There are five species of Salmon found in Alaska and Western Canada and Kings of the Yukon is about the most charismatic species: the King or Chinook Salmon. Opening pages of the book provide a glimpse so full of magic, that it reads like a myth. It tells of thousands of Kings swimming up the Yukon like “a river flowing backward, back up from the sea.” It tells of the physiological transformation Kings undergo, which is no less miraculous than a pupa turning into a butterfly. It tells of a very organic pull of the fish living in the sea, towards their river. “Now they sense their birthing pools. They can distinguish a single drop from their home river among two million gallons of sea water… Eventually they will push thousands of miles into the continent’s interior. They will reach mountain lakes, they will reach the clouds.”

He calls the river murmuring at times, chattering at others. Drifting downriver, he wonders about the changing colors of the leaves, his own sharpening senses and growing unison with the land, his peculiar superstitions, mixed with random ethical musings. “If I pay due attention to the things within my power, if I leave no trace, only take little from each plant as to not impede its growth, if I dig a decent hole when I shit, then I’m less likely to be eaten by a bear.” Solitude interspersed with “Bears, Gulls, Bald Eagles, Blowflies and Angelica” seems to be a bustling laboratory for his keen, engaged mind.  All this is beautiful and would have made into a worthy travelogue on its own.

But the book is much more than a canoeing trip. It seeks to understand the river as a whole, and this includes the people: present and bygone, their loves and losses, their cities and homesickness, their quirks and generosities. It includes the history of several tribes in the Yukon Territory of Canada and Alaska of United States for whom the river and its returning Salmon were rhythms of nature: true as the summers and winters. It is about how white settlers came into the “last frontier” looking for gold, solitude, oil, tax rebates and how, in a matter of a few hundred years, a way of life was changed. It is a grim tale, lovingly told. Of how Yupits and First Nation communities were alienated from their river, their customs, their language, how their children were put in compulsory residential schools for years at end, effectively severing any link with an age old way of life, how traditional knowledge was intentionally smothered and snuffed out. And how one fish and its magical life cycle of birth, reproduction, death and rebirth held it all together.

He meets so many people. People who have nothing in common with each other but the river and its fish. In Dawson City, he meets Percy Henry, a Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in ‘elder’, one of two surviving speakers of the Hän language who says, “They’ve poisoned the big river. The sea is dying…The dollar comes before anything. The fish didn’t change. We change.”

He meets settlers who came from Maryland and made Alaska their home with 24 Huskies and how they were trapped in a flooded Yukon. He meets people who relish the fish, live for it, but will not net anymore. In Mary Jackson, who has come to Fort Yukon, 900 miles from her end of the river he bears witness to what loss of a place can do to humans, “When she speaks of homesickness it makes you believe that it really could make people sick. “The Kings at this end of the river, they aren’t good” she says. There is a wild sadness in her eyes.”

He meets people who still set up fishing camp on the banks of the Yukon even though there are hardly any fish to catch “Fish camp is like healing. Its healing for people who don’t even realise it.”

He meets 88 year young Mary Demientieff who talks about fish and the old ways and sings a song of the a “Salmon colored girl”. He talks about George S Endal who came in Alaska in 1936 as a Missionary and sexually assaulted hundreds of Alaskan native children. He talks about the “Indian Problem” as described by Governments of US and Canada in 1860s and the resolution that “(Indigenous) Children should be removed from their homes and kept constantly within confines.” A generation lost contact with parents, with their languages, culture, learnings.

He talks about how this alienation and downright cruelty was one of the reasons behind “Alcoholism suicide, shame, community breakdown, cycles of abuse” made stark by the Yupik “Nallunguarluku” “Pretending it didn’t happen”. It also severed the most organic link with the river, fish, fishing wheels, traps, preservation techniques.

He meets an indigenous teacher who sing Yupik songs about Salmon to the school kids.

He talks about the distrust between scientists and elders and how “hard it is for traditional knowledge to stomach that twenty-five-year-old Californians with PhDs turn up to tell them how their land works”, Or worse still, enforce fishing bans.

He sees a son fishing with his father, as much a link in the chain as the salmon “who have come back. Just as they should, to sow the seeds of the next generation.”

He has an unarming modesty about him when he talks about the several people who shared their stories, lives and food with him in the journey. At one place, he is offered first king of the season by a man he met for the first time.

He talks about the scrapping of the planned Rampart Dam in 1950’s, which was supposed to be the “greatest dam in the free world.” As for the salmon, “For several years they would have arrived, breaking their brain against the concrete. And then they would stop. There is nothing that will so effectively decimate a salmon stock as blocking off a river”.

But this was a story with a happy ending, for the first time in the US then, a successful case was made by the Environmental groups for the protection of the river on the grounds of fish and wildlife and the dam was scrapped. There is a much smaller dam in the headwaters of Yukon called Whitehorse and it is fitted with a hatchery in the 80s. One of the most poignant, yet delightful section of the book is when Weymouth tries his hands at “making some salmon”, taking eggs from a female and fertilizing them from milt from a male King. The in-charge at the hatchery tells him, “You’re gonna be the Dad of five thousand Salmon. Better get another job. Writing won’t support you now.”

But stocking does not help the natural numbers in the long run. Even in 1896, Livingstone Stone who headed a project to restock England’s rivers admitted defeat. “These millions of young salmon were never seen again. What became of them? Where did they go?”

Reminds me of the Tata Mahseer Hatcheries in Lonavla (in Maharashtra, Western India) which have been sending thousands of Mahseer seed and fry annually to places like Madhya Pradesh, which was once a breeding ground of Mahseer. I once asked a Hatchery official about why they need to send fry each year to the same places? What’s happening to the fish in the fry sent out each year? He had no answers.

Weymouth talks about the dangers of salmon farming and hatchery fish replacing wild fish populations, of Climate change and its impacts on Alaska, its dependence on oil and “the absurdity of a state more affected by climate change than any other, attempting to generate majority of funds using the very resources that are fueling it.”

Just as the river widens and meets in the sea in complex channels, the book touches several aspects as it flows from upstream to downstream: Collapsing salmon runs, crumbling commercial fisheries, fishing camps which are now history, many reasons for the collapse of salmon runs, responses by fishing groups and government departments in the upstream and downstream, etc. Just like his journey, the book too completes a circle of its own.

A few photographs and maps would have helped the reader tremendously. Its puzzling why they are entirely absent.

Also, while Weymouth is no longer a staunch activist that he once was, the book would have gained from a more clear-sighted analysis into the accountability behind falling King runs. Some more interactions with officials from Alaska Fish and Game Department (AF&GD), Environment Yukon of Canada would have helped. But maybe that’s too much to ask for. The book was a journey, and it showed much more than a reader could hope or expect.

The bottom line is the unison of the people, river, the fish and the time, down the ages, flowing from the past into the future. Its not for nothing that, “Everyone on the river will tell me the same thing: their fish, in their patch of the river, the fish that they grew up with, is the king salmon at its prime.” A universal fact.

Just recently Weymouth has been awarded the Sunday Times/Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award. Congratulations to the worthy young Author.


It may seem that the land Weymouth has chosen to understand provides a comparatively uncomplicated milieu for understanding issues around a fish. The starkness of this region and its sparse population means that the narrative that can be traced back deftly if you have your nose in the right direction. As Weymouth puts it, population of Alaska is about 0.75 Million. Compare this with the Ganga Brahmaputra delta, whose size is slightly larger than Yukon-Kuskokwim delta, but whose population is pushing 300 million. This land has seen erosion, colonization, wars, partition, dams and diversions, malnutrition, climate change, chaotic politics and a constant cycle of floods and drought.

Tracing the journey of Hilsa in such a land is a different ball game. There are just too many stories buried in this region, with their limbs entangled in each other: stories of communities vanishing in thin air after Farakka Barrage came up, communities who lost their way of life when upstream water diversions meant less sediment flow but more erosion downstream, tragic apathy of the government to even record the losses.

In the past, prodigal writers from Bengal and Bangladesh tried to tell this story in their own way: like Titash Ekti Nadir Naam by Adwaita Mallabarman, made into a film by Ritwik Ghatak or Ganga by Samaresh Basu, delving into the lives and loves of fishermen and rivers.

But today we do not hear these stories which need to be told and need to be heard. They are the stories of the river, as much as that of the land and the people.  Just like Kings of the Yukon, perhaps we need Queens of the Padma. I suspect Adam Weymouth might be happy with this takeaway.

Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP (parineeta.dandekar@gmail.com) 

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