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Leggett: 'Kings of the Yukon' an eye-opening read about Canada's salmon plight

Mike Leggett
American-Statesman Correspondent
Rainbow trout such as this are among the fish dependent on migrating salmon for a large part of their late summer diet. Salmon eggs are one reason they grow to such large sizes.

I guess I’ve always been kind of a climate denier.

Yes, something was wrong; things have gotten hotter and more unstable, but I couldn’t be sure that it was anything that people have done.

Nature has gone through massive changes in the past but we always came out of it. When I was a kid in the 1950s, scientists were predicting that we were inching closer and closer to another ice age.

Now we’ve plainly laid our lives on the line with heat — blistering, suffocating heat — and ocean storms and unstoppable wildfires and collapsing ecosystems. Our governor even had the gall to blame the failure of our power grid during the massive blizzard in February — the likes of which we’ve never seen in Texas — on a reliance on wind turbines.

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That power failure had been predicted years before, but nobody did anything about it until it was too late. So we will appoint another committee to study it and then do nothing again until we have another crisis on our hands and then try to hand the problem off to someone else.

What I’m trying to say is that fish populations, wild fish populations like salmon, are in trouble while we’re trying to get permission to dig and displace millions of tons of Alaskan river delta in Bristol Bay in order to get a few ounces of gold that nobody needs except the big-money interests who have put up the cash to fund the “Pebble Mine.”

That’s been on the table, then off the table and then back on and now off again, as we’ve changed presidents and governments that have differing views on whether it’s more important to save and preserve salmon stocks and fragile ecosystems or to let some people make a bunch of money while ignoring the impact on those same fish.

OK, that’s the sermon. Now here’s what has gotten me so torqued up I’m practically vibrating. It’s a book, “Kings of the Yukon,” by Adam Weymouth. He’s a young British author who lives on a boat in London and doesn’t answer email, at least for the past few months.

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Weymouth was never too much of an angler, but he wanted to write something about salmon and what’s happening to them all over the world. He chose king salmon, or Chinooks if you prefer, and their decline in the waters of Canada and Alaska.

My wife bought the book for me, and I read it in about 24 hours of a marathon intake of the information about the famed salmon of the Yukon River, which runs a nearly 2,000-mile course out of Canada into the Pacific Ocean. Weymouth decided he’d like to paddle down the river and talk to the various native people he encountered, as well as the European descendants of the white settlers in the region.

It was an amazing and brave epic adventure on a wild and beautiful river that has been the lifeblood of Alaska and Yukon for longer than there’s been anybody around to write it down and keep track. Weymouth did it with a brave heart and a stout back, coupled with a keen eye toward the social and historical aspects of life built around a single fish.

Kings are, or were, giant salmon that kept native peoples alive through winters of bone-chilling cold and long Arctic nights. The fish sustained entire populations of natives, almost all of whom had their own particular “fish camp” to which they returned every spring when the salmon began their grueling return to the vary waters where they were born.

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But, instead of clear, fast-running water, they encounter dams and modern-day nets and fishing techniques that threaten their very existence, and with it the existence of the humans who have settled the rivers and depend on the salmon for their lives.

Their traditions and myths and legends about the fish have been trampled and despoiled along with the salmon. Many of the fish camps are empty and rotting now because it seems each year for decades, fewer and fewer salmon were returning to the Yukon and other rivers of the north.

The huge Alaskan canneries which grew up after people in North America and around the world discovered that salmon were good food, easy to buy and cheap to put on the table have mostly closed, which means that the people of the river are now out of a job, as well as a source of food.

Weymouth pulled his canoe out on shore at small town after small town, talking with the people and learning all he could about the kings. He learned there were other salmon, too — sockeyes, reds, chum and more — all a part of lore and lunch, inseparable from the lives of the people but critical to their very survival.

Some years virtually no salmon returned to the river to spawn, and slowly the younger people left the river and went on their own journeys to the cities, where they could find work and maybe a spouse and raise kids without the stories and adventures of fish camp.

It’s all a very sad and predictable story of what happens when some people mistakenly believe that animals and fish are a bottomless resource that exists only for their profit and use.

We have an almost endless list of examples here in North America. Beavers were trapped almost out of existence just to make fancy hats for dudes. Whooping cranes still teeter on the edge of extinction, where they were driven for feathers to make ladies' hats. Old-growth forests have been leveled to make newsprint for papers and to provide lumber for houses, taking with them birds such as the red-cockaded woodpecker and others.

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Grizzly bears are nearly gone in the Lower 48, but in Alaska they hang on, thanks to the salmon that still make it back every summer to spawn and keep their species going.

We could go on and on with this, but the truth is there for us to see, if we’re brave enough to see it and react to it. I don’t have the answers. I only know that we need to act now or suffer the collapse of species and after species that we can’t replace and that we need to keep us alive.

Weymouth doesn’t spare his own country in the writing, covering the decline of Atlantic salmon populations in England and Scotland, and I can attest to that. My family and I spent two weeks a few years back renting a house on Loch Ness in Scotland.

Anglers there are meticulous about record-keeping and can tell you at any given moment how many salmon have been landed on their river during any given month. They put it on the internet. I saw numbers that were in the neighborhood of 30-50 fish a month in all of Scotland. I tried to find a guide to take me to one of the rivers for a day of fishing but couldn’t find one who’d even take my money. “No fish, no fishing,” I was told over and over.

It was brutal and disappointing, and I’ve never forgotten riding past those amazingly clear and beautiful rivers and seeing virtually no one fishing there.

I knew then that we have to do something, but what? I don’t know. I’m just hoping I can catch a few bass this summer.

If you can read “Kings of the Yukon” without reacting to the plight of the fish and the people of that mighty river, you are welcome to the experience. Weymouth has given us something to think about, something I’m thinking about as I get ready to head back to Alaska again this summer to fish for rainbow trout and salmon.

You can find it on your Kindle reader, and it’s worth buying. “Kings of the Yukon.” Buy it. Read it. And worry with me.