The Kings of the Yukon River

Posted July 19, 2020 at 5:33 am by

FREEZER BURNED: Tales of Inte­ri­or Alas­ka is a reg­u­lar col­umn on the San Juan Update writ­ten by Steve Ulvi…

The days of sub­arc­tic sum­mer blend togeth­er and can unset­tle inter­nal rhythms. This is both a bless­ing and a curse, in hav­ing so many out­door activ­i­ties and a great­ly expand­ed oppor­tu­ni­ty to over­do it. The real­i­ty of it all is hard to con­vey to those who haven’t lived it.

Sum­mer in the high­er lat­i­tudes is a time of sweet decep­tion. In the sea­son­al sub­sis­tence cycles of the upper Yukon Riv­er region there are many upticks in activ­i­ty. The annu­al July har­vest of king salmon, per­haps our most indis­pens­able food resource for over 20 years, flames bright­ly in my memories. 

Inte­ri­or Alas­ka sum­mers are brief, but charged with a sur­re­al ener­gy. On the heels of sum­mer sol­stice, days begin again in the wee hours after a short inter­lude of night­fall. The mid­night sun radi­ates an excess of light and heat (you have seen the mon­strous cab­bages), and for a cou­ple months any­way, lulls a per­son to dis­re­mem­ber the dra­mat­ic long win­ter night that will arrive soon enough.

In the conif­er­ous for­est, the shady ease of ear­ly morn­ing is laced by the ethe­re­al calls of thrush­es and dis­tant gut­tur­al raven talk. Our home cab­in, was set back from the tem­pes­tu­ous riv­er, and hun­kered under a pro­tec­tive canopy of tall white spruce. With water ladled from the cor­ner bar­rel, reas­sur­ing­ly heat­ing on a two-burn­er stove for strong cof­fee, I had a moment to scrape some enam­el din­ner plates to toss out some fish skin and scraps for our clown­ish ‘camp rob­ber’ jay fam­i­ly. Twit­ter­ing, bustling, always for­ag­ing, but qui­et and approach­able, unlike all oth­er jays. A hearty cut of light­ly brined salmon bel­ly siz­zled in bear grease and sopped up with a sour­dough muf­fin was a per­fect start for the day at hand.

By habit I not­ed the high baro­met­ric pres­sure and jot­ted the tem­per­a­ture on the wall cal­en­dar, while our banged-up ther­mos filled. Qui­et­ly I gath­ered up my musty sec­ond lay­er of clothes hop­ing to slip out with­out wak­ing the fam­i­ly. Bub, the cab­in watch dog, let out a cou­ple throaty whim­pers with full-on hip gyra­tions as I stepped out onto the porch, but didn’t bark. Well trained. Breath­ing in deeply, the morn­ing sparkled with the deep sat­is­fac­tion of har­vest and putting food by.

It was a short walk down the wind­ing trail cut through deep moss to our raised gar­den beds and lad­dered fish cache on the ele­vat­ed riv­er bank. With my ever-present rifle and buck­ets in our wheel­bar­row, the grassy low roof of our shop cab­in was just vis­i­ble beyond the gar­den area. A perched sen­tinel raven alert­ed her group on the beach of my arrival.  After ear-scruff­ing the chained dogs that greet­ed me, I filled a cou­ple over-turned water con­tain­ers and set them at the radius of chain reach. Exca­vat­ed depres­sions in the sandy soil indi­cat­ed bore­dom and seek­ing some mid-day heat relief. Shed win­ter fur still clung in the weeds. Our leafy gar­den need­ed water­ing, and the smoke­house fire would need rekin­dling soon, before flies emerged at 53F. But those tasks would have to wait.

The path dropped down through the wil­low belt onto the slop­ing beach of silt and embed­ded rocks. The view opened to a sweep­ing riv­er bend we called Windy Cor­ner. A dead calm cool­ness blan­ket­ed the riv­er while the lin­ger­ing odor of fish met me at the cut­ting table. Our stained and duct-taped raingear aired out, held down by rocks. Even with a spring bear in the larder, habit made me pause long enough to scan the riv­er and the two miles of oppo­site shore­line for wildlife, riv­er trip­pers or use­ful high­wa­ter flot­sam before step­ping toward our teth­ered boat. Bright­ly col­ored tents and a log raft with long sweeps at rest stood out in the low, bur­nished light a mile up at Bound­ary Creek.

After load­ing gal­va­nized tubs and gear I pushed off, bulbed the fuel line and yanked the mul­ti-col­ored 18 horse to life. The riv­er was ris­ing after days of heat push­ing 90F and intense after­noon thun­der­storms that were so pre­dictable that we referred to them as the “2 O’clock Express”. Woody drift had notice­ably increased, even along the smooth flow of our inside bend. I real­ized that I would have to move our table far­ther up, once again. My elat­ed antic­i­pa­tion of a good net check fiz­zled a bit, know­ing there would be plen­ty of drift in the net to deal with.

The kings finning by-one of the longest run stocks in the world- were mak­ing 25–40 miles a day, invis­i­ble in the roil­ing, silty water of the Yukon Riv­er slid­ing by at 8 or 9 mph. We had antic­i­pat­ed the van­guard of “jacks” and small­er males, lis­ten­ing to faint AM radio reports, town gos­sip and rumors buzzing up the riv­er for weeks. Our six­ty-foot, 8 ¼ inch mesh net in a small eddy caused by Hole in the Rock, was the last Alaskan obsta­cle for fish fol­low­ing the mol­e­c­u­lar odors along our north bank. Every one of these mag­nif­i­cent fish were hom­ing to waters of ori­gin well upriv­er in the Yukon Ter­ri­to­ry. Thank you very much Cana­da, eh!

The den­drit­ic basin of the Yukon Riv­er is immense (321,500 square miles) and sup­ports sev­er­al sep­a­rate salmon runs, but we lived 1,225 miles from the mouth, where only sum­mer king and fall chum surged by our nets. Even the longest run Coho and Sum­mer Chums veered into large trib­u­taries hun­dreds of miles short of our region. Kings cours­ing by our net had a long way to go to side stream pro­cre­ation and an exhaust­ed death.

The cru­cible of deep time and genet­ic vari­a­tion has honed these upriv­er stocks of salmon to be robust in body and remark­ably rich in stored fat. I sup­pose that the lat­ter Pleis­tocene glacial cycles left much of the Yukon Riv­er basin unbound by ice and eco­log­i­cal­ly func­tion­al, where sum­mer salmon runs could flour­ish. Amer­i­can Lions, Short-faced Bears, and Wooly Mam­moths as well as oth­er fan­tas­ti­cal species roamed the arc­tic steppe expans­es while oth­er drainages and ranges were locked in ice. Ear­ly Asi­at­ic ‘pro­to-Indi­an’ groups advanc­ing across the immense Bering Land Bridge used the same tree­less cor­ri­dor lat­er in our Holocene Epoch. I can only imag­ine that fish were a wel­come change of diet, and low risk, in that cold, dry, bil­low­ing loess-cloud­ed envi­ron­ment inhab­it­ed by dan­ger­ous beasts.

Cohorts of those ear­li­est immi­grants set­tled along the big riv­er some 11,000 years back rather than con­tin­ue south into the Amer­i­c­as.   Atha­paskan Indi­an groups even­tu­al­ly expand­ed across North Amer­i­ca, but the Han Hwech’in sub­group stayed in the region that we so recent­ly came to call home. They suc­cess­ful­ly adapt­ed to thou­sands of years of post-glacial warm­ing and the incur­sion of taiga forests and new fau­na. To my mind, the Han were unfor­tu­nate to live along the great riv­er exact­ly where the US-Cana­da bor­der would be drawn, and lat­er where the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush explod­ed in a sum­mer. An over­whelm­ing and indif­fer­ent cul­tur­al swamp­ing ensued in a few short years.

As one would expect, the Han were expert in their slen­der, pointy birch bark canoes that allowed for pol­ing (think mod­ern hik­ing poles, but longer, one in each hand) upstream along shal­lows and back sloughs as well as pad­dling. Lack­ing spawn­ing streams in which to trap kings with weirs, the west­ern Han groups had devised an ele­gant, almost mys­ti­cal method of har­vest­ing this rich food source. Elders advised sharp-eyed look-outs on high banks who scanned the sur­face of the near shore water for hours on end, seek­ing the sub­tle wakes and sur­face clues of swim­ming kings. The look­outs then direct­ed wait­ing canoe men by voice direc­tions to inter­cept them with woven dip nets or spears. A riot of cross-sliced filets and split heads smoked on pole racks.

After cruis­ing on lan­guid water for a few hun­dred yards, I slowed the out­board to swing into the foot of the back eddy in order to ease up to the danc­ing anchor float. Cut­ting the motor, I instant­ly heard the kaaaak-kaaak-kaak­ing of the breed­ing pere­grines streak­ing, chased by a mim­ic­k­ing shad­ow, along the steep rock face across the riv­er. Sev­er­al net floats were sub­merged while a stretch of three were vig­or­ous­ly tug­ging down and splash­ing near the deep end. Big fish alive yet! But a daunt­ing stew of sticks and debris many feet across, hugged the bel­lied arc of floats.

The riv­er was still ris­ing and the net curved near­ly to the ‘eddy fence’, I grabbed the jug and worked toward the shore attach­ment while push­ing the float line under a few inch­es with a flat pad­dle tip, paus­ing to allow some debris to flow over the net into the riv­er cur­rent and away down­stream. Start­ing at the shore had the advan­tage of untan­gling and toss­ing larg­er sticks and branch­es high on shore, until far enough off to be forced to pile them into the boat while pulling fish.

The sub­merged floats sec­tion pro­duced a cou­ple ‘jacks’, some dead 20’s and a fine 30 pounder bad­ly tan­gled, while the thrash­ing sec­tion held a wild-eyed 50-pound male and female of about 40 pounds very much alive. Bent over, fin­gers curled in the mesh, wrestling 90 pounds of thrash­ing salmon up on the gun­wale is dicey, but a lot safer than from a canoe as we did in the first years. Quick­ly whap­ping the big male into sub­mis­sion in order to more eas­i­ly try to release the already blush­ing egg laden female, was a small ges­ture of respect for the anadro­mous journey.

Small pop­corn clouds built quick­ly over the arc of Ogilvie Moun­tains just upriv­er, as the ris­ing morn­ing heat bub­bled up-slope and into an unsta­ble pale blue sky. At the cut­ting table gut­ting and slic­ing revealed the beau­ti­ful firm orange flesh of a dozen kings. Trimmed filets from the six largest fish, some near­ly three feet long, would be care­ful­ly sliced thin to fill out the recent­ly start­ed cold smok­er. Heads and guts filled plas­tic buck­ets, wait­ing to be dug into gar­den beds with the large dog cook­er still full. Skeins of bright egg sacs were dried for dog snacks as we had nev­er seen fit to eat salmon egg soup. The meaty filets went into clean buck­ets to be heft­ed up the bank and wheel­bar­rowed up to the cabin.

As I sloshed water and scrubbed the table I noticed a bright yel­low kayak surge around the dark knob of Hole in the Rock, head­ing my way at a steady clip, pad­dle flash­ing alter­nate­ly. I guessed an unex­pect­ed vis­i­tor from Fair­banks, or maybe an intre­pid long-dis­tance trip­per ply­ing the Yukon uphill. The hard way. I wait­ed with inter­est while a cou­ple of grace­ful Mew gulls bick­ered and swam in cir­cles just off-shore, gulp­ing fish scraps washed their way. A dozen bright swal­low-tail but­ter­flies danced on recent pee spots in the dry sand above the table.

Bump­ing ashore, ‘Mar­co’ deft­ly sprang out of his craft, smil­ing broad­ly with per­fect teeth, and reached out to shake my hand. After notic­ing the large din­ner plate head of the biggest fish with wide eyes, in halt­ing Eng­lish he con­veyed that he was try­ing to make the head­wa­ters before the snow. He planned to hike over the famed Chilkoot Trail to meet up with his girl­friend in Skag­way to sea kayak south to over­win­ter on the B.C. coast some­where. He looked upstream to the 40-foot wide bor­der swath, straight as a zip­per up and over the south­ern ridge­line, ask­ing about the bor­der cross­ing require­ments. Laugh­ing, I explained that we were the only peo­ple at the bor­der and it was wide open to trav­el. As a Euro­pean he couldn’t quite grasp that.

We looked over his worn topo maps and I pen­ciled in the best shores to hug, fresh water seeps, fish camps and cab­ins of friends below Daw­son City, 93 miles upriv­er. He wel­comed a prime chunk of salmon col­lar laugh­ing with his whole being. A young man hav­ing the time of his life. With dark brown eyes danc­ing he said Gra­zie Stephano! Tuck­ing the fish away, then adjust­ing long bow and stern lines around his waist with deter­mined strides he lined his kayak up to dis­tant cliffs and dis­ap­peared into Cana­da, tiny pad­dle flash­es as he crossed the river.

While our two grub­by kids played in the dirt, Lynette fur­ther cleaned and expert­ly cut the sides to stuff care­ful­ly cleaned quart jars and lock the lid down on our pres­sure cook­er, steam­ing six quarts at a time. Vine­gar water was the indis­pens­able san­i­tiz­er and de-slimer of choice. Then again, and again, she processed fish over sev­er­al days. We cut long, skin-on strips to soak in salt water, before string­ing in pairs to hang for a week or more in the cold smok­er. This delec­table treat was called ‘squaw can­dy’. There would be anoth­er net check in the evening in the ozone after-glow of a thun­der­storm that would soon unleash tarp-flap­ping winds, pea hail and a down­pour to dri­ve us indoors for a cou­ple hours of cozy respite. With any luck in a few days, we would reach our annu­al goal of 40 to 50 kings and tie the net up, to drop some web for a fresh king once in a while as the run petered out.

We fished under State of Alas­ka rur­al sub­sis­tence reg­u­la­tions, that became increas­ing­ly politi­cized and com­plex as a result of the ‘Great Par­ti­tion­ing’ of old Alas­ka. We felt that kings were peo­ple food, not to be wast­ed or har­vest­ed to feed ani­mals, but treat­ed like the extra­or­di­nary gift they were. Not every­one felt that way. Gone were the days of large fish-wheels turn­ing with eerie groans in the relent­less riv­er cur­rent, each har­vest­ing scores of kings every day, more than a thou­sand miles from the Bering Sea.

Boat loads of research papers and stud­ies dry­ly describe the slow decline of the Yukon king run so far from the madding crowd, yet under inten­si­fy­ing pres­sure from salt water by-catch, warm­ing in the North Pacif­ic, fun­gal dis­eases, lack of in-riv­er run strength data for man­age­ment, low­er riv­er com­mer­cial use dom­i­nance, mar­ket expan­sion, increas­ing har­vest of salmon to feed large dog yards for long dis­tance rac­ing and testy inter­na­tion­al treaty nego­ti­a­tions with Cana­da. The same old sad sto­ry of dimin­ish­ing salmon (even where exten­sive habi­tat remains intact) exac­er­bat­ed by the lim­it­ed time­frames of experts all seek­ing career “suc­cess” in short term increas­es of some sort, while ignor­ing the sub­stan­tial decline from orig­i­nal pop­u­la­tion levels.

(Next: The Riv­er Floaters of Summer)

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