Interview with Adam Weymouth of ‘Kings of the Yukon’

Adam Weymouth is the author of Kings of the Yukon: An Alaskan River Journey. In December 2018 he was named The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year. In this article, Adam talks to Stuart Forster about his experiences while undertaking research for his book in the USA and Canada.

Disclosure: Some of the links below — marked with (£) — are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

Cover of 'Kings of the Yukon: An Alaskan River Journey' by Adam Weymouth.
Cover of ‘Kings of the Yukon: An Alaskan River Journey’ by Adam Weymouth.

What came first, the idea for the book or desire for adventure?

I went to Alaska in 2013 for the first time. I was there mostly as an environmental journalist on a travel grant on a Winston Churchill Fellowship and there to look for stories of climate change and resource extraction. I fell on a kind of microcosm of the story really; I went out to place called Bethel and, while I was there, there were these 20 fishermen on trial for going out and fishing the king salmon when there was a ban placed on them. The guy that invited me there used a line that stuck with me. He said ‘Gandhi had his salt, we have our salmon,’ and I could see in the courtroom that it was very much two different worlds being forced up against each other.

On the one hand you had the Alaska Department of Fish and Game trying to enforce this ban in order to preserve the salmon for future generations and, on the other hand, you had people who said it is so important to our culture that can’t just accept that like this. So I wrote a piece about that for The Atlantic.

Then, as I came back to England and followed the story, I realised that this was playing out along the whole of the Yukon River. I did a bit of canoeing when I was in Alaska the first time, just a half day here and there, and two ideas started to suggest themselves; researching what was happening along the whole Yukon River and doing it as a canoe trip.

How long was the river adventure?

The main journey was four months and then I went back for a few weeks the following year.

You can paddle the whole river in one summer but it’s about 2,000 miles. For some sort of the context, the distance from London to Athens is 2,000 miles. You can do it all in one summer but because I was spending a lot of time stopping off and talking to people, the window when it was melted was just too short.

I’d never really done much canoeing before I went. I’d done a couple of half days in Alaska and then I sold this idea for the book. My editor asked me, ‘so, just how much experience have you got?’ and I was ‘none at all, actually!’

Me and my partner, Ulli, we did a few days down the Wye and on the Dart, down in Devon, but they’re sort of trickles in Canadian eyes. The Yukon is 2,000 miles long and, at certain points, a mile or even two miles wide. When it reaches the sea it’s seven miles from bank to bank, so it’s an altogether different river!

I was very lucky to get a guy called Hector, who travelled the first section of the journey with me. He’s in his 70s and really knows the rivers of Canada. He’s guided out there as whole life. He really showed me the ropes.

What are the main risks of paddling a remote river?

There not a lot of white water on the Yukon River. There is white water in the first week and I write about it. After that, it gets so wide that there’s not really any white water.

The main risk is just its size. When wind picks up and the other bank is two miles away, it doesn’t take much to generate pretty big waves on the near side and canoes are not really designed for waves. Capsizing would have been a disaster if you’re a mile from the bank and the water’s very cold. The water is incredibly silty. The main way that people that don’t wear life jackets drown is just their pockets and boots fill up with silt and they get dragged to the bottom.

A level of self-reliance was really important. We’d probably see someone every day, though it might be a week between villages. It is kind of a highway on the Yukon, so we’d quite often see a little motorboat or something coming past. We had a sat phone, emergency locator beacons and a massive first aid kit but we never needed more than a plaster in the end.

On the Yukon River under an overcast sky. Photo © Ulli Mattsson.
On the Yukon River under an overcast sky. Photo © Ulli Mattsson.

Were there any hairy moments?

We had a couple of run-ins with grizzly bears, which were totally fine in the end but, in that moment, it definitely sets your heart racing.

The most challenging moments were when the wind picked up. Late one night we were crossing to a village called Koyukuk. We had to make a crossing of about a mile to get to the village. We were on the other bank. It was chucking down with rain and about two o’clock in the morning. The options were to sit in the canoe all night — there was no way we could really get out of the canoe, the bank was too high — or try and make this crossing. We made it but it was pretty thrilling! Rising up the waves and smashing back down into the troughs. Ulli was sitting in the back of bailing out the canoe as we were paddling. So, yeah, we did have the occasional hairy moment.

What highlights of the trip will stay with you?

I think the people more than anything.

I was probably drawn to Alaska, like my so many people, because they read Jack London or Farley Mowat, and they get attracted to these vast, empty spaces, which are pretty hard to find in England.

A lot of those vast, empty spaces are places with people as well…it’s a huge place but it’s not a wilderness in the sense that there’s no one there. The people, the characters we came across, indigenous and incomers once were really the story to me.

It can be quite a hostile environment. Strangers are pretty far and few between. There’s a lot of racism, both ways, between indigenous people and white people. A lot of the white people that come into the villages are government officials or cops. I learned on my first trip to Alaska that turning up without any sort of introduction, it can be quite a challenging place to work. I’d always try and have at least the name of the chief and go introduce myself to the chief when I arrived.

One good thing about travelling by river was that in each village you sort of meet someone that says you should check out my cousin when you get to wherever, a hundred miles downstream. So we picked up a series of names and we were kind of the gossip grapevine as well. People wanted to know who we’d seen up river and how the fishing was going. Doing it overland in a canoe really opened doors in a way that probably wouldn’t have happened if we’d just been flying into places.

The people, to me, is the untold bit of Alaska. It’s on everyone’s bucket list but I don’t think anyone really thinks about the people and why it’s such an empty land. It’s an empty land because of the colonisation that happened in the last hundred years and all those indigenous people being forced into settlements and forced off the land. That felt a really important part of the book to explore…it’s important to bring in that people’s history.

Would you do anything different if you were to do the trip again?

I would have liked more time. Four months is a long time, still, we never really got to spend more than two or three days with someone. You get an insight into a culture but you could always spend more time and get to know people better — it’s such a complicated place.

How was your packing?

We could have done with a better fishing rod! But Ulli, my girlfriend, still managed to catch quite a lot.

I’m so used to backpacking, long journeys that are walking; you have to be so scrupulous about weight and what ou can fit in your rucksack.

The great thing about canoeing is you can take so much. We probably had just loads of unnecessary crap. We had chairs, loads of kitchen utensils and a spice rack. It’s actually quite a luxurious way to travel, in a sense.

There were necessities as well. We had to carry six weeks’ worth of food with us at a time, because there’s not many places you can re-supply. We had to have a lot of space, so we had an 18-foot canoe, so we could carry quite a lot of gear with us. We had an amazing tent that weighed about 50 pounds; an old canvas-style tent that was fantastic as a home away from home. We could spend days in it, in the rain.

How long did writing the book take?

We got home in September 2016 and then I wrote until the following June. Then I went back to Canada for a month-and-a-half and then wrote until Christmas.  I finished writing about week before my daughter was born, which was better luck than judgment really, so that’s a year-and-a-half of writing.

Adam Weymouth paddling a canoe. Photo © Ulli Mattsson.
Adam Weymouth paddling a canoe. Photo © Ulli Mattsson.

Which authors provided inspiration?

I think Cormac McCarthy writes about landscape better than anyone. It’s fiction, but the landscape has such a sense of character.

John McPhee’s book Coming into the Country (£), that he wrote in the 1970s. He’s a writer for The New Yorker and written about 40 books by now. It’s the best book I’ve ever read about Alaska. It’s fantastic (£):

Barry Lopez who wrote Arctic Dreams (£) and has been an American nature writer for the best part of 50 years (£):

Those three people were very much in my mind as I was travelling.

There’s a book by William Fiennes, The Snow Geese (£), where he follows the migration of snow geese from Texas to the north of Canada (£):

I think that was one of the books that kind of sparked the idea of following an animal’s migration; that book to is very much connected with the people that watched the geese depart. It kind of sparked the idea that you can write about an animal but that animal is a way into telling the stories of people’s lives.

How has Kings of the Yukon been received?

I’ve been delighted with how well it’s done for a first book. I won The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year in December, which William Fiennes’ book The Snow Geese won a few years before me. I was gobsmacked to be honest. It was up against fiction and against poetry as well, so it felt really validating to me that something that felt like such a personal project would have such wide resonance, not just in the travel community but the literary community as well.

I also won the Lonely Planet Adventure Travel Book of the Year. As I said an acceptance speech, I’d never thought of myself as an adventurer. I was up against the likes of Ben Fogle and Levison Wood, people who are living as adventurers. Like I said, I’ve never really been in a canoe until I got there. It’s nice that Kings of the Yukon has been perceived that way. The idea of the book, framing it in this sort of ‘journey’ way, was that it might appeal to a different crowd — people that might not want to sit down and read a book about climate change and salmon.

Kings of the Yukon

Kings of the Yukon: An Alaskan River Journey (£), written by Adam Weymouth, is published by Particular Books.The hardback version of the book has recommended retail price of £16.99 and is available from Amazon and other book sellers (£):

Photos illustrating this article are by Ulli Mattsson.

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