From Russia with love — and salmon

A new book explores the borderlands of ‘Salmon Nation,’ from the American West to Russia’s Far East.

 

The observation that Russia and the United States share a borderland sounds at first like the setup to a threadbare Sarah Palin joke. Yet for salmon — stateless migrants that flow from their natal rivers around the Pacific Rim to mingle in the storm-tossed Bering Sea — the 20th century’s two great rivals comprise a single habitat. The entire North Pacific, in fact, functions as “one big, fluid system” best understood as “Salmon Nation,” writes Tucker Malarkey in Stronghold: One Man’s Quest to Save the World’s Wild Salmon. When Japanese hatcheries pumped their rivers full of chum salmon, for instance, thousands of these factory-produced fish crossed the ocean and flowed into Alaska’s Norton Sound. Fisheries may be managed by nations, but salmon themselves are blissfully ignorant of borders.

That we are all citizens of Salmon Nation is the singular insight of the conservationist Guido Rahr, Stronghold’s subtitular protagonist. Malarkey and Rahr are first cousins who passed their formative years together on Oregon’s Deschutes River, a relationship that gives the author rare insight into her subject’s character. Rahr, in Malarkey’s telling, was a taciturn angling savant who empathized more deeply with fish than with his family. He connected most intimately with the Deschutes’ famed steelhead, rainbow trout that spend their adulthood feeding at sea and return home transformed into massive silver torpedoes. Rahr “was instructed by (steelhead’s) majesty, strength, and singularity of purpose,” Malarkey recalls, “and by their ability to adapt, to change in their very cells.”

Guido Rahr fishes the Wilson River in Tillamook State Forest, Oregon.
Rahr’s own evolution, from feckless fishing bum to charismatic leader, is nearly as complete. An indifferent student who spurned his coursework to host a fly-tying TV show, Rahr eventually finds his calling at the Wild Salmon Center — a scrappy group, founded by an ex-Navy Cold Warrior, that’s brokered an uneasy partnership between American fly anglers and Russian scientists on the remote Kamchatka Peninsula. When Rahr visits Kamchatka in 1993, he’s awed: Its rivers are undammed, its forests unlogged, its creeks free to run like wild horses across the floodplains. The region becomes the focus of the Salmon Center’s Stronghold Strategy, a campaign to protect a necklace of unadulterated salmon-bearing watersheds along the Pacific Rim. Let other organizations muck about in the dammed Columbia Basin and the overdrawn Central Valley: Rahr’s mission is to ensure that Salmon Nation’s healthiest remaining runs never need resuscitation in the first place.

Kamchatka’s untouched appearance, however, turns out to be largely illusory — and not only because the Indigenous Nanai people have plied the region’s rivers since long before Russia existed. Law enforcement in eastern Russia, which was left destitute after the fall of the Soviet Union, is nonexistent, permitting caviar poachers to run wild. Officials feed their families with bribes; unsupervised fossil fuel companies plot new pipelines. Few locals are inclined to cooperate with the daft American toting the flimsy fly rod. People assume he’s a CIA operative: When he places a call from his hotel room, Rahr is spooked by the “telltale click of electronic eavesdropping equipment.” At its best, Stronghold possesses the tangled geopolitical intrigue of a John le Carré novel, its setting a place and era that have been little explored by environmental journalists.

Although Stronghold’s subtitle suggests a “great man” theory of conservation, Rahr is shrewd about empowering his Russian collaborators. We meet Vladimir Burkanov, an incorruptible official besieged by death threats; Misha Skopets, a swashbuckling ichthyologist dubbed the “Indiana Jones of the Russian Far East”; and Maxim Ageev, a schoolteacher who stumbles upon an armed gang of illegal fishermen, cuts their nets and nonchalantly hands them anti-poaching pamphlets. Malarkey, who speaks Russian herself, deftly captures their devil-may-care bravery, a courageous fatalism born of life in a kleptocracy; Western conservationists driven to despair by the Trump administration can at least take solace in the fact that our rivers aren’t patrolled by the private militias of oligarchs.

The action is less scintillating on the American side of Salmon Nation, where Rahr becomes a prolific fundraiser whose Rolodex brims with millionaires. Stronghold, like some environmental groups, occasionally suffers from its proximity to famous philanthropists. We hear about Gordon Moore’s “prodigious intellect,” Tom Brokaw’s “inexhaustible energy,” and Yvon Chouinard’s “hardcore and determined” nature. Schmoozing with the wealthy is, for better or worse, integral to conservation, but the mechanics of fundraising make for a less than enthralling narrative.

Like Rahr’s spirits, the tale revives when it returns to Kamchatka. In Stronghold’s finale, Malarkey joins Rahr in pursuit of Siberian taimen, monstrous trout that feast on adult salmon. She vividly conjures the Tugur River, a watercourse so powerful that lifejackets are considered useless. “The line between life and death here was thin; one could easily slip away — all it would take was a misstep, a momentary loss of balance,” Malarkey warns. The book inevitably culminates in a riverside tête-à-tête between an American angler and a Russian fish, their negotiation mediated by a strand of monofilament. Stronghold’s achievement, and Rahr’s, is the unification of Salmon Nation, a state whose borderlands encompass an ocean.

Ben Goldfarb is a frequent High Country News contributor and the author of Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They MatterEmail HCN at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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