In late May 2016, Good To-Go had the opportunity to sponsor a 3 month, 2000 mile canoe journey from the source of the Yukon River at Lake Bennett, Canada to its mouth at Emmonak at the Bering Sea, Alaska—Pull of the North.
Along the entirety of this wilderness expedition is the home of the Athapaskan first nation people who more than 10,000 years ago, crossing the Bering land bridge from Asia, settled within Western Canada, Alaska and the Yukon River region. Until recent times these 1st nation communities have relied on the King and Chinook salmon as a way of subsistence living, but due to environmental changes and the possibility of over fishing in the Bering Sea the larger salmon are struggling to find their way back, under their biological call to spawn, into the Yukon River and world's longest Salmon run. The salmon represents a culture and identity to the native communities of Canada and the western Yukon and with their subsistence lifestyle at risk; the ancient culture is at risk with it. As the team made their way to these remote communities, the aim was to ground themselves in their story and landscape.
There are also cultural changes affecting the progression of native languages to the younger generation. An important component of the journey was to explore and highlight significant cultural changes but also learn about the resurgence and revitalization in many of the communities.
The strength that binds these native cultures together is linked to the landscape, the animals, the ancestral knowledge and the spiritual beliefs. The journey from the Yukon’s source to the Bering Sea will be a journey of discovery into what being human means to the “people of the river”.
Upon completion of the project, Pull of the North team members Jay Kolsch and Ian Finch sat down for a Q & A session with Justin Hagen, Director of Marketing for Good To-Go.
Justin: A focal point of this project was the impact modern society is having on the Athabascan first nation people, namely the King and Chinook salmon run they have relied on for generations. Can you describe what your team encountered, and perhaps something you learned from this experience, that might influence others to change their own behavior?
Ian: The Yukon Rivers most precious natural resource is the King Salmon. For the people of the river, especially those that still live a subsistence fishing lifestyle, this fish is a part of their culture and way of life. It’s almost seen as a sacred animal as it travels, against the current, 3000km to it’s original spawning ground and in some cases the original stream. For many this is seen as a spiritual journey to nourish the population of the river. However, we found that due to reducing numbers and sizes of the fish, government policies have been put in place to restrict the numbers of fish that can and can’t be taken from the river. When you have a culture that depends on the arrival of the Salmon each year to feed their families over winter, these restrictions can have a huge impact on the food that becomes readily available. In some cases, harvesting Salmon is the only way for remote communities to obtain fresh and nutritious food. To restrict this is restricting the growth of a culture. As a team, we witnessed first-hand how vital the connection between man, wildlife and the landscape is for the people. It was mesmerizing.
Justin: How reliant are these people on the salmon run today, compared with past generations?
Ian: For the people of past generations, and those of today, the King Salmon is a vital aspect of their diet. The culture, beliefs and even daily prayers involve the arrival and the harvest of this precious resource. We found by speaking to certain members of the tribal communities that the fish almost holds a spiritual connection that links humans directly to the river. As we encountered, the fish are never over caught. There is always a thought for future generations, taking only what they need to survive.
Justin: Can you highlight an instance of the first nation people’s resilience as they learn to adapt and cope with a changing climate?
Ian: Resilience breathes at the DNA level for many tribal communities and indigenous groups that still thrive to this day. They overcame huge changes of climate in the past, which led the cycle of the seasons mutating and the huge difference in local wildlife. They also overcame the historical trauma of the introduction of a foreign culture and disease. If there is a display of resilience then these people are it, they know how to adapt, move on and never forget. Yet in today’s world one of the greatest risks is climate change. At many stages of the expedition we found tribal elders speaking somber words of how the landscape and river is changing especially in the last 30/40 years. The summers are warmer, the winters are shorter and less cold, the pattern of animal migrations within the seasons is overlapping. There certainly is concern. Yet they will adapt, they’ll make it work somehow. It’s what they’ve been doing for 10,000 years.
Justin: Jay, as a photographer, can you share some of the unique challenges you encountered on a project of this scope?
JK: As an adventure photographer you need to be ready and most importantly willing to be an amateur. You're not going to be good at the sport or expedition you photograph, and you have to be willing to suffer more and work harder. When I agreed to the expedition I had never been in a canoe, and to make things more interesting I didn't have any down time to learn. That means three months later when we shoved off from Bennett Lake the first paddle stroke I ever made was the one that started a two-thousand-mile journey.
Justin: Paddling long distances and dealing with the elements can burn a lot of calories. Take me through an average day. How did you manage to stay fueled in the Yukon backcountry, and what type of foods did you rely on?
JK: My meals need to be nutritious but most importantly fast. Often during expedition meals, people tend to slow down and relax, possibly cooking over fires, and those moments always contrast the hardships of the journey we are on. Those are images I need to capture, and often I find myself photographing the entire meal, not getting a chance to really sit and eat. I ate Good To-Go almost every day on the Pull of the North to keep me going. There is no mess or cleanup for me to worry about and the calorie counts are super high, keeping me photographing at full speed.
Justin: Three months, 2k miles spent on the Yukon River—the memory of this experience will likely last a lifetime, for you and the others involved. Describe the effect such an experience has had on the bonds shared between you and the others on the team.
JK: We arrived in Whitehorse strangers, not having ever met one another. We all shook hands over breakfast, and as we made our last-minute decisions and prep we became quick friends. Over the course of the next three months we would share tarps, food and stories, becoming very close. I'm struggling to find the words to describe what it's like to not know a group of people and then very quickly know everything there is to know about a person, the real person. You don't get to hide behind some identity you've crafted when you travel through the wilderness for three months. You tired, dirty and real... I feel as if my expedition mates know me better than some people I've known my whole life. Leaving the expedition is hard as well, life becomes so simple and purpose driven that it can leave you with a profound sadness when it's over.
photo credit: Jay Kolsch