I used to read a lot of travel writing before it was taken over by authors carting kitchen appliances round with them as a gimmick. I blame Bill Bryson: enjoyable as his books were they seemed to foster a demand for comedy in the genre, not an accusation to be made of Adam Weymouth, I’m glad to say. Kings of the Yukon follows Weymouth as he traces the king salmon’s route from the Yukon’s mouth back to their spawning grounds in reverse.
Weymouth begins his journey in May 2016 at the beginning of the Arctic spring. On the first leg, he’s accompanied by Hector, a man in his seventies who could give many in their twenties a run for their money. They’re in Canada where the salmon in Weymouth’s sights are known as Chinooks; once over the border in Alaska they’re called kings. Weymouth picks up his canoe in Whitehorse and continues alone, eyes open for salmon with bears a constant concern. As he travels downriver towards the sea, he meets many as concerned as he is about the diminishing numbers and size of this fish central to the indigenous culture. Some are blow-ins, attracted to the Alaskan wilderness celebrated by the likes of Jack London just as Weymouth was; others are indigenous people who feel that strict fishing bans represent an assault on an ancient way of life. No one, it seems, entirely understands why these majestic creatures who swim upriver for almost 2,000 miles to reproduce after spending years in the sea are in decline. What all can agree is that human intervention, one way or another, is responsible.
Weymouth guides us through dramatically beautiful landscape in this epic journey along the world’s longest salmon run. As with all good travel writing, there are personal anecdotes to enjoy but Weymouth is at his best when he lets the people he meets speak for themselves. There’s a clear message here about the dwindling salmon numbers and our part in their depletion, communicated most effectively through their voices. This is a land with a rich indigenous culture, suffering desperate unemployment and poverty with all its attendant problems: its people deserve to be heard. Weymouth’s eloquent book does just that.
This is my last review for the Young Writer of the Year Award. We shadow judges will be announcing our winner on November 29th. The judges announce theirs a week later on December 6th at the London Library. If you’d like a reminder of the other three books on the list, they’re The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, The Reading Cure and Elmet. Just click a title to read my review.
You can find out more about the award by visiting www.youngwriteraward which includes a Q &A with Adam Weymouth, following @youngwriteryear or keep up with us shadow judges at #youngwriterawardshadow.