On the first leg of my bicycle trip – The Wild Salmon Cycle – I rode the Dempster Highway from Inuvik, Northwest Territories to Dawson City, Yukon. I’m not sure if it was the smartest idea to select one of the most challenging roads to ride on my planned route of the time – however, I had to start somewhere.
I remember initially finding out that there were Pacific salmon in the Mackenzie River – it was sometime in the late 1990s. When I decided to do the Wild Salmon Cycle I got several surprised comments from people such as: “why the hell are you starting in Inuvik… isn’t that in the Arctic?”
Or something along the lines of: “there’s salmon in the Arctic?”
I did a bit of research and didn’t really find much other than stats that tracked the few salmon that migrated up the Mackenzie River – specifically some chum in the Peel River, a large western tributary of the Mackenzie that runs through the eastern Yukon.
The map that really set my mind running and eventually culminated in the Wild Salmon Cycle was this map showing the range of Pacific salmon in North America produced in the late 1990s by the enviro-based organization Ecotrust in their book “Salmon Nation“:
One of the stories circulating as I set out on the ride was that due to climate change/warming trends, some Pacific salmon were colonizing streams east of the Mackenzie and were moving east across the Arctic. When I heard this story I had a couple of questions:
1. Had anyone really looked before? There’s a difference between “we were always looking and never saw any salmon'”and “we had a long time assumption that no salmon were there and then when we actually went and looked we found some salmon – gee this is amazing they must be moving east…”
2. Had anyone asked the people that have been there for eons?
It was late July when I arrived in Inuvik and on my first night in town, the sun set to just a small sliver along the horizon at midnight before coming back up again. I distinctly remember finally falling asleep in my tent that first night in Inuvik around 2 a.m. and hearing kids out playing – why not, the sun was up? As I set out riding down the Dempster – read the stories in forthcoming book (i.e. what the hell was he thinking?) – I reached the Peel River crossing. It was quite late in the day – almost midnight – but still full daylight.
I managed to make the last ferry across the river for the night. On the ferry, I met one of the crewmen a local First Nation fellow from the nearby community of Fort MacPherson. He asked lots of questions and laughed a lot with his toothless grin. He told me to go stay in his fishing cabin. He pointed it out from the ferry and told me the door was open. Beat setting up the tent in the oppressive black-out of mosquitoes.
The mosquitoes were so bad that I was riding in 30 degree Celsius (about 90 F) weather with my rain gear on and duct tape on the sleeves. Uphills were torture, not just because it was gravel, and I was overloaded with gear, and I was not in great shape (yet) – but more because the mosquitoes would descend on me in layers. I would grit my teeth – literally – so that I didn’t have insect lunch on every breath. I was nervous that with all the hard breathing through my nose I’d suck mosquitoes into my sinuses – thank ghad for nose hairs…
It was horrendous – until the wind blew… then I could actually enjoy the views.
After spending the night in the cabin, and realizing that it was tougher to kill all the buzzing divebombers before falling asleep – then in a tent. I woke up and walked down to the river. I saw a lady in a canoe checking her fishing nets. I asked her if she minded if I took some pictures.
“Not at all” she told me in her thick northern accent. She was an elder from the nearby community, in her 70s. And here she was on her own hauling in the net from her canoe with some pretty darn big fish. I asked her about salmon, and whether she caught them in her nets.
“oh yeah, all the time” she explained.
“For how long?” I asked.
“Always” she said, “my grandmother used to catch them too.”
I told her about this theory that more salmon were showing up in the Arctic, and moving east across the Arctic.
“oh, they’ve always been here…. it’s just that no one ever asked.”