Blog: Kings of the Yukon - an Alaskan river journey
Published: 15 May 2018
In 2013 I received a Churchill Fellowship to travel through Alaska, exploring stories around climate change and resource use. I travelled widely in those eight weeks and my journey led me to Bethel, where I sat in on the trial of 23 Yup'ik fishermen, defending their choice to fish for king salmon during a ban on their fishery. The ban had been enacted by the state, following a sudden and unexplained collapse in salmon numbers, yet the fishermen believed that they were justified in catching them because it was part of their cultural heritage.
When I returned to the UK I wrote an article about the court case for The Atlantic magazine. As I watched from afar, the situation worsened: in 2014, and then again in 2015, a ban was put in place on the fishing of king salmon for the entire Yukon River, an unprecedented move. I could feel that there was a bigger story to be told.
Below: a teenager cuts fish on the Yukon river. Credit: Ulli Mattsson
I have since returned to the north and have spent the past two summers canoeing the length of the Yukon River: 2,000 miles from its source in Canada, across Alaska, to the Bering Sea, covering the same distance that the migrating salmon travel. Along the way I stayed at indigenous villages, often hundreds of miles from the nearest road, and I spoke to them about how they are weathering the decline of the salmon and the impact this is having on their lives. I spoke with people choosing to live by themselves in log cabins in the endless woods, and to commercial fishermen being forced to re-evaluate the livelihoods they have known forever.
The Kings of the Yukon is published today by Particular Books. In it, I tell the story of that journey from the river's source to its mouth, travelling at the same time that the king salmon were swimming upriver. It is a series of portraits of the people who I met, all of them bound together by the river that they lived on and the salmon that flowed past them every summer.
I came to realise that to talk to people about the fish was to ask them deeper questions: why do they choose to live where they do; what do they hope for their children's futures; what does it mean to be indigenous in twenty-first century America? I saw that it is impossible to separate the salmon from the people, the people from the land, and that to alter one is to affect the entire web. Such remote places are being changed by the same forces that are shaping the rest of our planet: climate change, globalisation, the extraction of resources. The future of the king salmon hangs in the balance, and so do the lives of those who depend upon them.
Top photo credit: Ulli Mattsson
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