March 05, 2021
By Tucker Malarkey. Spiegel & Grau 2019, 368 pages, $28 hardcover. ISBN: 9781984801692
Kamchatka and Alaska aren’t just close enough for their respective local politicians to (almost) see over their morning coffee, they also both represent one large, sprawling native habitat for the world’s largest and most abundant salmonids, and those fish take no heed of international borders. In Stronghold by Tucker Malarkey, a former Washington Post writer and author of two acclaimed novels follows the life of her eccentric cousin Guido Rahr, as he spends his life learning to catch, understand, and protect wild salmon—first as a concerned guide and angler, and later as the first executive director of the Wild Salmon Center.
In Malarkey’s own words, Guido’s “singular achievement was in raising the issue of conservation above geopolitics.” As readers learn over the course of 300-plus captivating pages, he did so by working with a wide variety of international partners to establish a network of salmon strongholds all across the Pacific Rim, from Kamchatka to Oregon.
Stronghold is first and foremost a story of adventure, danger, and intrigue. Full of surly Russian bush pilots, specially bred bear-defense huskies, and close-up encounters with salmon and taimen in some of the last unexplored waters on earth, it will at once slake and pique the interest of anglers and citizen scientists curious to learn more about how the modern salmonid conservation movement began. Particularly fascinating to me was the in-depth account of how American interest in the Russian Far East rivers started. Seeking to launch a systematic study of crashing salmon and steelhead populations across the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s, American conservationists came across the work of a Russian fisheries biologist from the early 70s, whose research suggested that the answers they sought about what geological, hydrological, and biological features are necessary to create salmon strongholds may well be found in Siberia and Kamchatka. This work led Rahr and his colleagues to conduct many expeditions to rarely visited waters over the next 15 years—a total of 17 different impossible expeditions, which form the backbone of Malarkey’s narrative. Traveling to some of the most remote corners of the world, Rahr and his team map, survey, sample, and fish their way to understanding, catching everything from migratory salmon in the headwaters of the Krutogorova River to the massive, salmon-eating taimen of the Tugur River.
Anglers on the fence about booking a trip to our fish-filled neighbor to the West will find their grips on their wallets further loosening, and those learning about the magnificent wilderness of Russia’s Far East for the first time will likely spend long hours drooling over all the wild green nothingness on Google Maps. In either case, Stronghold is up to the task of filling in any gaps in the angler’s riparian knowledge—and providing considerable fodder for their freestone fantasies.