Ileave Teslin after three days. It is early June. Out on Teslin Lake it is hot, too hot to paddle, too hot to think. I float and drift and loaf. A loon is out there somewhere, warbling through its crazy cries. I sing dumb songs. I scare the ducks for something to do, like a small boy. Trucks rumble far off, out along the highway. All along the shore are the remains of families’ fishing camps, old bits of metal glinting in the sun. Through binoculars, I watch two kids on a quad-bike scrounging one for firewood. I watch my paddle, the line and vortex of each stroke drifting away behind me like footprints across the water. I stop and swim and carry on, I stop and swim and camp. One evening I catch a grayling, and fry it up beside potatoes in my skillet on the fire. The sun turns circles in the sky overhead. I have already forgotten darkness.
There are always those first few days, I find, until I shed the city where I live, before I feel at ease again. Before muscles feel good, before cracked burnt skin stops hurting and feels like it’s at home. Before my eyes open as wide as they ought. I dip a cup from the side of the boat and drink. Not even from a spring, straight from the lake. It feels astonishing that once all rivers would have run with drinking water, that once I could have dipped my cup into the Thames. And I remember the words of Bill Mason, the Canadian who did more to popularise modern canoeing than anyone else, who made it a rule not to paddle on water that he wouldn’t also drink.
The Yukon River and its tributaries comprise the longest salmon run in the world. The king salmon that travel furthest swim 2,000 miles against the current to reach the spawning grounds of their birth, navigating, it is now believed, by their sense of smell. I was on a four-month journey, paddling downriver at the same time as the salmon were swimming up it, to explore the reasons for the king salmon’s sudden, massive decline, and to see how that decline was impacting on the many people, and on the ecosystems, that depend on it.