Known as spring, king, or Tyee (which means chief), Chinook salmon have started arriving in Whitehorse after leaving the Bering Sea earlier this summer. Swimming upstream in the Yukon River, these salmon ultimately travel 3200 kilometres, returning to within 100 metres of the location they were born, years earlier. Of the five species of salmon (can you name them?) whose lifecycle includes the Pacific coast, the Chinook is the largest, growing to as much as four feet and weighing up to 100 pounds. However, the long journey for those arriving this week to the Whitehorse Fish Ladder has taken a toll; they average six to eight pounds — thinner and lighter than when they began. Those who have paddled the 700 kilometres of Yukon River from Whitehorse to Dawson feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. They battle wind, the Five Finger Rapids, insects, and camp food. Floating at nine kilometres an hour downstream, with or without a paddle in the water, canoeists often arrive in Dawson feeling they have surmounted many great challenges. Under those paddlers, travelling against the flow of the current, swim Chinook. Their journey is more challenging, more perilous. Their last meal was in salt water, leaving them the energy from stored fat to navigate the Yukon River. Starvation, disease, predation by other animals such as bears, and humans fishing — be it subsistence, recreational, or commercial — ensure that only a fraction of those that enter the “race” complete it. And they complete it by spawning.Chinook, having repeated the rhythm of this journey annually since the end of the Pleistocene (about 12,000 years ago), are highly prized not just for their size, their fight on the end of one’s line, their nutrient-rich omega 3 fatty acids, or their flavour — they are also prized for what they mean to aboriginal cultures.They mean survival. They mean life. They mean everything.This salmon has permitted the development of the wealthiest cultures north of Mexico, including those that have lived in this territory for millennia. Therefore, when I hear the unprecedented news that Native Americans in Alaska, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, and others have closed the 2014 Chinook fishery to their people, I know problems exist deep below the surface of the Yukon River.Chinook travel extreme distances, up the largest rivers, and far inland; so they cross paths with many river users. Fishers are but one hazard. Other rivers, besides the Yukon, have fertilizer runoff; logging erosion clogs gravel spawning beds with silt; climate change causes warmer water temperatures and changing dates for peak flow; and mine tailing pond issues, such as the recent burst of the earthen dam near Quesnel, B.C, plague the Chinook. The loss of spawning habitat due to dams is among the greatest issues for Chinook. However, the Whitehorse Fish Ladder and hatchery aims to help the Chinook by aiding in their journey past the Schwatka Lake dam, and by breeding fish to allow for the release of their young.Though 136,767 entered the Yukon River mouth this year, only 164 wild salmon have passed through the ladder as of Tuesday, August 12.
Did you know? Michelle Genest in her book the Boreal Gourmet has unique recipes for salmon, including crushed juniper berries and spruce tip syrup, and cedar-planked salmon with whisky, birch and maple syrup sauce.