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On the trail of the “Kings of the Yukon”

Adam Weymouth's first book, Kings of the Yukon, sees him paddle the length of the Yukon River to trace the route of migrating chinook salmon

  • May 15, 2018
  • 1,854 words
  • 8 minutes
Left: Adam Weymouth author photo. Right: Book cover Kings of the Yukon Expand Image

At points in the journey he recounts in his new book, Kings of the Yukon: A River Journey in Search of the Chinook, Adam Weymouth must have felt awfully far from home, which happens to be a houseboat on the River Lea in London. Never mind the distance between that British waterway and the Yukon River, which Weymouth travelled the length of alongside migrating salmon — there are greater gulfs between the two that would created a sense of… well, dislocation.

Luckily for readers, Weymouth handles whatever sense of disconnect he may have experienced with verve and aplomb, transforming it into what all great nature and travel writing should provide: a sense of connection to the people and landscapes encountered.

Read the excerpt below — in which Weymouth describes what happened to Andy Bassich, Kate Rorke and their 24 dogs during the spring break-up of the ice on the Yukon River in Alaska in 2009 — then check out Canadian Geographic’s Facebook page for a chance to win a copy of the book, which is published today.


The break?up of the Yukon is always a dangerous time. Throughout winter the river is a solid highway, but in the spring it becomes precarious and fickle, and for several weeks travel becomes impossible. Then one day, without much warning, the ice will shift and part and make off for the sea. Along the river’s length people come outside to watch a million tonnes of ice moving along at ten miles an hour, as though the very land were walking. More tangibly than anything, it spells the end of winter’s grip. The ice shifts and piles floe upon floe, screaming and grinding as it goes. In the spring, a tripod is erected on the ice outside of Dawson, connected by a wire to a clock that is tripped and stops when the ice beneath goes out. Since 1896, when gold miners with money to waste and time to kill began gambling on the moment as a good way to see in spring, the time of each event has been recorded in a ledger kept in town. The first time break?up occurred before 1 May was 1940, and then again in 1941. There was not another April break?up until 1989; since then it has occurred eight times. In 2016 the Yukon smashed the record by more than five days, going out on 23 April at 11.15 a.m.

In 2009 the ice went out from Dawson at twenty-?two minutes past midday on 3 May. Kyla McArthur won $3,500. At seven o’clock on the evening of 4 May, Andy and Kate were a hundred miles downriver on the bank at Calico Bluff, watching the landscape awake from hibernation. Kate had never missed a break?up; it was a beautiful time of year. Everything was moving quickly. Four of the past five days had been hotter than ever before for the time of year. An almost instinctive sense, formed from many years of observation, suggested that this break?up could be out of the ordinary. They had taken the precaution of hauling the guest cabin, with its river views, seventy feet further up the bank.

The ice was going past like magma, the water ebbing and flowing like something breathing, and they saw that on its surges it was already breaking the Yukon’s banks. Downriver at Six-?Mile Bend a great wall of ice was forming – ‘like a Trump wall, I call it now,’ says Kate – and the river, released from its winter cage, was building up behind it. The water was rising steadily, coming up way too high. They watched their picnic table float off downriver, and dog bowls, garden tools, oil drums, logs and tarps and bits of lumber. Then the water came up six feet in five minutes.

Andy hurried about the property in his waders, the ice-?cold river already at his waist. It was rushing, seven or eight knots of current, plucking at his feet. Kate was in their cabin, trying to haul what she could upstairs. Andy lashed his two canoes onto one of the skiffs as outriggers, and pushed the raft in front to keep him steady. He moved across the yard to where their twenty-?four dogs were perched on the roofs of their kennels, observing their world turned upside down. He unclipped them from the chains that held them. Some leapt for the raft. Some leapt for the water and paddled for the porch, breathing hard through their noses, heads straining against the tide. Vixen was there, forgotten, dog-?paddling on her leash. Some made it to the decking; others were caught by the current and carried off into the woods. They hauled themselves onto timber piles and styrofoam and snowmachines and anything that still stood above the waterline. Delete was trapped in the puppy pen, fighting against the tide. Andy could see one of them, Jack, maybe, perched on the barbecue that had lodged between two trees, staring back at him, barking, and then the barbecue toppled over.

Ten o’clock, and the sun going down. As darkness came on the surge abated, and as the water calmed, dogs paddled out of the woods, heaved themselves onto the porch and shook the river off. Andy counted them. Twenty-?four, thank God. But he knew enough to know it wasn’t over. Moving about in a canoe, he and Kate made their preparations. From the cabin they gathered food and clothes and blankets and whatever else they’d need to make it through the night. He got both of the skiffs up to the porch, and lashed a canoe alongside each of them for more stability. The water was inching up again and had already reached the decking when all of a sudden it burst up from out of the house’s cellar. It rose inside the cabin, to their ankles, their shins, their thighs, as they rifled through their possessions, taking instant stock of what they needed and what they could lose forever. Upstairs, Kate got Eagle on the marine band radio; hell was breaking loose there too.

‘If you don’t hear from us by morning,’ she said, ‘then we need saving.’

They forced open the door and waded out into the darkness. Andy hefted the dogs into the bigger of the two skiffs and clipped each to a thwart. Kate climbed into the smaller skiff, tethered to a birch tree, and Andy climbed into the other, tied to one of the porch’s uprights.

Two humans and twenty-?four sled dogs, floating in the dark: all that was needed to repopulate Alaska when the floodwaters receded. It was well below freezing. The old-?timers used to gauge the cold by how many dogs were needed in the tent at night to keep warm. A four-?dog night. An eight-?dog night. Kate had Delete in with her, away from the other dogs. They kept an eye on the level of the water with their headlamps. It had reached the doorknob of the cabin. Andy tried to calculate what that meant: maybe a rise of thirty feet? Bergs drifted past in the torch’s beam and passed back out into the night. All the accumulation of their life, suspended in the darkness. They kept vigil and spoke little. There wasn’t much to say. By the time that the sun cracked the sky, they had done a lot of thinking.

In the dawn they could see that the waters were beginning to go out. But they were going out terribly quickly, rushing to fill some vacuum downriver where the ice jam must have burst. The whitewater surging, tossing the boats about, worrying at the lashings. Andy saw his Rotavator heading for the river; two hundred and fifty pounds of machinery, tumbling over and over like a piece of drift. The sauna nearly hit them before the currents shifted, and it rushed past beyond Kate’s bow. Trees cracked and snapped, metal howled. A shed slammed against the cabin, the building shaking to its foundations. As the water level fell, Kate’s rope held where it was tethered on the birch tree, and by the time she noticed they were already listing and the canoe was swamping with water. Kate stood in the bow, hammering with her fist against the rope to try and yank it down, but it was too slow, and the whole contraption was starting to invert. She needed to cut the canoe loose before it pulled the whole thing under, but there wasn’t enough leeway in the painter to get to the stern to cut it. She was stuck. Either the canoe would take her down or the stuck painter would flip her. She looked over at Andy.

‘And I just said goodbye,’ she says.

But somehow Andy got from where he was across to Kate’s boat, and cut the ropes that held the canoe to her boat. The canoe shot forth like from the barrel of a gun. ‘The only way I can describe it when it hit that tree,’ says Kate, ‘it looked like tissue paper on a rose bush. Just crushed and collapsed, with such force that it buckled it in two.’

Then Andy’s skiff tipped, flipped on its side, and went under. The water took hold of it and pulled, dragging the boat beneath the chop and all the dogs down with it. Some went under, some held by their teeth to the gunwales, eyes enormous, and Andy stood there, one foot up on the porch and the other on the submerged bow, reaching for one dog at a time and cutting its tethers and slinging it by the scruff onto the decking. They sat where they fell, their nails dug into the wood, shaking and wild-?eyed and mournful. Then Andy’s canoe came loose. The five dogs in it leapt for the decking. Three made it, two didn’t, and he watched as Iceberg and Ouzo swirled off into the river. The water kept on rushing out; finally, the boats grounded. It was only then that he found Skipper, still tied down in the stern, shrunken, bedraggled – and dead.

The yard was a slop of mud and debris. The dogs ran circles in the mire. They called them, rounding them up. Remington, Donner, Snickers, Amber, Control, Jack. When he called for Iceberg and Ouzo, they bounded from the forest. And Iceberg had only got over her fear of water that past spring. Skipper was the only one that Andy had lost. One moment of oversight, one stupid fucking mistake. Chunks of ice as big as trucks sat about the yard. They were starting to assess the damage when Kate looked upriver and saw the unthinkable: another surge was coming.


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