I've flown 1,800 miles to a remote part of western Alaska but I still have 140 to go before I hit the wild salmon jackpot. I climb into an Amelia Earhart-style Cessna that soars across the nearly treeless tundra and over the mighty Yukon River Delta, in the direction of the Bering Sea.
From 10,000 feet, the view is the stuff of nature documentaries, a breathtaking early autumn palette that includes marigold yellows and oranges with splashes of chartreuse that bring to mind the bold brushstrokes of a post-Impressionist painting. From my window, I see flock after flock of swans; the spectacular scenery fails to bore the pilot, who holds a digital camera in one hand and is intent on showing me a moose.
Ninety minutes later, our itty-bitty flying pencil bounces onto a dirt airstrip, and at long last, our X has marked the spot—the Yup'ik Eskimo village of Emmonak (pronounced E-MONIC; the locals call it "Emo").
A dirt road leads us into town, a motley assortment of plywood homes and the most basic of services: a general store, school, medical clinic and police department among them. There is no bank for the 849 villagers, but there is a gas pump that currently reads $7.25 per gallon. A motorboat trip upriver—which I came to refer to as the "Yup'ik highway"—now costs 300 bucks.
Autumn—the brief period before the river freezes—is a busy time here in Emo. It's prime moose hunting season, and when seals—valued for both their iron-rich oil and flesh—are easy targets where the river drains into the Bering Sea. On the tundra, a buffet of wild berries—blueberries, crowberries and lingonberries—awaits, promising a winter-long supply of Vitamin C. Hunting and gathering is a way of life for the Yup'ik people, a 10,000-year-old indigenous culture that largely relies on a subsistence diet (of which salmon is a mainstay).
Unlike these other subsistence staples, salmon, which was nearing the end of its season when I arrive, is the one economic link between the Yup'iks and the outside world.
The company making that connection is Kwik'pak Fisheries, a cooperative of six Yup'ik villages owned by Yukon River Fisheries Development Association, a quasi-governmental group based in Anchorage.
For this year's season, Kwik'pak employed nearly 600 villagers, including 375 fishermen who traverse the lower Yukon on flat-bottomed skiffs, using gillnets pulled in by hand. In 2005, it became the first and remains the only certified Fair Trade fishery in the world, a commercial standard that ensures a fair price and secure working conditions for the Native Alaskans who work the fishery.
There are just a few days remaining of this year's season, which was late, slow and proceeded in fits and starts. (It could have been worse: California's salmon season was completely cancelled this year.)
But first, the salmon life cycle in a nutshell: Salmon are anadramous: They're born in fresh water, migrate to the ocean, then return to fresh water to spawn—and die. Yukon salmon spend between three and seven years (depending on the species) in the Bering Sea before their return journey upriver.