Stronghold: One Man's Quest to Save the World's Wild Salmon

Stronghold: One Man's Quest to Save the World's Wild Salmon

by Tucker Malarkey


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PNBA BESTSELLER • “A powerful and inspiring story. Guido Rahr’s mission to save the wild Pacific salmon leads him into adventures that make for a breathtakingly exciting read.”—Ian Frazier, author of Travels in Siberia

Editors’ Choice: The New York Times Book Review Outside Magazine • National Book Review Forbes

In the tradition of Mountains Beyond Mountains and The Orchid Thief, Stronghold is Tucker Malarkey’s eye-opening account of one of the world’s greatest fly fishermen and his crusade to protect the world’s last bastion of wild salmon. From a young age, Guido Rahr was a misfit among his family and classmates, preferring to spend his time in the natural world. When the salmon runs of the Pacific Northwest began to decline, Guido was one of the few who understood why. As dams, industry, and climate change degraded the homes of these magnificent fish, Rahr saw that the salmon of the Pacific Rim were destined to go the way of their Atlantic brethren: near extinction.

An improbable and inspiring story, Stronghold takes us on a wild adventure, from Oregon to Alaska to one of the world’s last remaining salmon strongholds in the Russian Far East, a landscape of ecological richness and diversity that is rapidly being developed for oil, gas, minerals, and timber. Along the way, Rahr contends with scientists, conservationists, Russian oligarchs, corrupt officials, and unexpected allies in an attempt to secure a stronghold for the endangered salmon, an extraordinary keystone species whose demise would reverberate across the planet.

Tucker Malarkey, who joins Rahr in the Russian wilderness, has written a clarion call for a sustainable future, a remarkable work of natural history, and a riveting account of a species whose future is closely linked to our own.

Praise for Stronghold

“This book isn’t just about fish, it’s about life itself and the fragile unseen threads that connect all creatures across this beleaguered orb we call home. Guido Rahr’s quest to save the world’s wild salmon should serve as an inspiration—and a provocation—for us all, and Tucker Malarkey’s exquisite book captures Rahr’s weird and wonderful story with poignancy, humor, and grace.”—Hampton Sides, author of In the Kingdom of Ice and Blood and Thunder

“A crazy-good, intensely lived book that reads like an international thriller—only it’s our beloved salmon playing the part of diamonds or oil or gold.”—David James Duncan, author of The River Why and The Brothers K

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781984801715
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/02/2021
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 243,695
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Tucker Malarkey is the author of the critically acclaimed and nationally bestselling novels An Obvious Enchantment and Resurrection. Her career began at the Washington Post, her love of human culture and wilderness have since taken her all over the world. She now lives with her son in Berkeley, California. Malarkey grew up fly-fishing, studied Sovietology, and has traveled to Russia numerous times. Stronghold is her first major work of nonfiction.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The First Stronghold

There were two fishing cabins on the Deschutes River, nestled up against the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. Guido’s family took a boat across the river and wheelbarrowed their provisions to their cabin. There were no roads on their side of the river, just miles of wilderness. The trails, mountains, canyons, draws, and creeks were part of their family mythology, a landscape both unknowable and intimate, like the river that flowed so full and strong even when they were not there, that changed every moment and changed not at all.

Here also, there were many ways to die. There were rattlesnakes coiled in the woodpile, scorpions sheltering under flat rocks, black widows spun into the corners of the boot room. None of them was as dangerous as the river itself; the river that had taken a beau of Guido’s mother and a beloved cousin, swallowed them from sight, tugging them into the whirling currents and underwater vortices.

The other cabin belonged to our family. My father and Guido’s mother were siblings, and in summers our families merged into one. There were five children in the Rahr family, and three in ours. Clustered around the same age, we were knit close in that rough country, playing games and making up stories that were too wild for most children.

Guido (pronounced Gee-doe) was the oldest of our pack of first cousins, and the only one who moved through our dangerous kingdom as if he belonged there. He had a natural grace and assurance and he rarely stepped wrong. As early as seven years old he would disappear for the day and rejoin us wordlessly, leaving us to wonder about the life he was leading, and how different it was from ours. He had been born with a natural intelligence that gave him a power we all recognized.

I tried to follow him. I was younger and a girl, but I was tough and I didn’t complain. He tolerated me sometimes, but only if I moved through the landscape as he did, mimicking his silent walk, my senses alert. I stood by as he divined where a blue racer lay resting in the shade of a sagebrush, or when he lifted a rock that harbored a scorpion. He was no more afraid of a rattlesnake than a mouse, and his quick hands could catch anything.

He told me that even with his feet on the ground, he saw the earth from far above. I believed, in some shamanistic way, that he could. I believed that from his place in the sky, the stories of the land were apparent to him: those of rock formations, springs, volcanoes, and landslides. And within these large stories were smaller ones, each as complex and complete as a miniature solar system. He could make me see these things, and so was a kind of god to me.

I could not have guessed then how close we would one day be nor, indeed, that it was even possible to be close to such a boy.

I knew in a childlike way that Guido wasn’t wired like most people. Nor was I. Since infancy, I had experienced brain tremors when for intense moments I trembled and shook and was unable to communicate. The episodes were both frightening and mysterious, for no doctor could explain why they happened. The tremors temporarily severed my connection to the world around me, and were terribly isolating. Guido was also isolated, but his was a strong isolation, and it was happy. Our slight maladaptations marked us as black sheep, the children the adults worried about most, the ones discussed in the hushed hours after dinner. But in those lonely, afflicted childhood years, Guido’s contrariety was a gift to me. When I was with him, I lost track of time. His simple, focused world delivered me from the painful vicissitudes of my own. I didn’t grasp then what an impossible child he was for his parents to raise—or how hurtful he was to the family he more or less ignored. My aunt Laurie later told me how she and Guido Sr. had struggled with a son who had no interest in learning what they had to teach him, or indeed in what the wider world considered a conventional education.

What Guido wanted, from infancy, was the freedom to pursue his own learning, unimpeded by the many adults who oversaw his life. Another world beckoned to him, and the wilder the better. When his parents denied him access to it, he ran away. By the age of four, Guido had run away multiple times to roam the fields and streams around their home in Oregon; the local police became familiar with the boy who vanished into Lake Oswego’s undeveloped swaths of suburbia, where he captured anything that moved and befriended it long enough to study it. Back in his room, he filled notebook upon notebook with renderings of insects, reptiles, and fish.

His mother was struck by the accuracy of his drawings. In preschool his precocity was noted by his teacher when she asked the class to draw what they thought their insides looked like. Most of the children drew circles filled with scribbles. Guido’s drawing had intestines and bones and organs. His teacher was so astonished she called his parents to inform them that their four-year-old had a rudimentary understanding of human biology. Laurie was mystified. The only way Guido could have known such things was by studying the family World Book Encyclopedia, and what four-year-old did that?

His first-grade teacher, Helga Peters, told Laurie that she’d never had a student like Guido; that in her experience most children were like sausages—you could stuff them full of knowledge. But Guido wasn’t like that; he knew exactly what he wanted to learn—and it wasn’t what she was teaching.

She wrote,

Guido has been the most original student during his first year in our primary grades. The academic tools, i.e. learning to read, learning to write and coping with mathematical concepts are to Guido an evil to be suffered. . . . He wants to read and write about the mysteries of nature, the creatures and the glorious wonders of creation. Although he can express himself magnificently in all art forms he is trying hard to read and to write, not easy when he has to match his excellent vocabulary. Since his speech is fast and slurred it is very hard for him to sound and spell words.

Up until this point, his parents had no idea anything was unusual about their firstborn other than that he was spirited and independent. “We didn’t know he was different,” Laurie said. “It was other people who told us he wasn’t normal.” As Guido grew older, the Rahrs began to struggle with their expectations of him. “That he simply wouldn’t cooperate came as a terrible shock to us,” Laurie remembered. Guido Sr. was bewildered by his son’s obstinacy and a character so unlike his own. The product of a genteel aristocratic German family, Guido Sr. was a pipe smoker and reader of poetry, and his love of nature ran to the romantic. He preferred fields of wildflowers to the high desert, the Alps to Oregon’s rivers, a vintage rifle to a fishing rod. The rest of the Rahr children pleased Guido Sr. greatly; they were well behaved and seemed to understand the order of things. His firstborn continued to thwart his expectations.

One time the family set off for a posh tennis camp in Arizona to polish both their children’s games and their etiquette. On their first day there, Guido failed to show up for a single tennis class. Somehow he managed to escape the compound and slink into the wilderness to see what lived in the bushes and under the rocks of the John Gardiner Tennis Ranch. He knew there were collared lizards and banded geckos. Of particular interest were the chuckwalla lizards, native to the region. These lizards did not live in Oregon, and Guido was eager to get his hands on one. When the family returned after their day of tennis, Guido was nowhere to be found. A scream issued from his mother in the bathroom when she found the bathtub filled with foot-long chuckwalla lizards.

“We couldn’t keep track of him,” his mother said. “He always had his own agenda—and we were not party to it. It was only afterwards, when it was a fait accompli, that we learned what he was up to.”

While he showed an aptitude for natural science, it was clear that something else was going on with Guido. He had an aversion to reading, and to any book that didn’t involve pictures of reptiles. Unlike his educated and literary parents, he did not enjoy school, nor did he excel in classes other than art. Midway through elementary school, Guido was diagnosed with dyslexia. Special tutors were called in and he was forcibly held to the studies he loathed. When he was released, he disappeared, melting into the woods like a spirit. In fourth grade, Guido showed a glimmer of a deeper capacity. On a hunch, his mother gave him Raymond Ditmars’s The Reptiles of North America. It was a thick, academic tome, filled with Latinate terms, scientific descriptions, and beautiful black-and-white plates and illustrations. “His eyes grew big,” she remembered. “He sat down with it right away. I think it was the first book he had ever wanted to read.” His parents watched as Guido bored into the pages of Ditmars’s guide. “It took him weeks to get through it, but he memorized it cover to cover.” Laurie Rahr was fascinated by Guido’s determination. It seemed that by sheer will, her nine-year-old son overcame his dyslexia.

Table of Contents

Map xvi

Introduction xix

Chapter 1 The First Stronghold 3

Chapter 2 Tumbling Downstream 24

Chapter 3 The Briny Estuary 35

Chapter 4 The City 51

Chapter 5 Scaling the Ivory Tower 69

Chapter 6 Of Maps and Math 77

Chapter 7 Russia-The First Glimpse 92

Chapter 8 Oregon Trout 111

Chapter 9 Catching Lee 122

Chapter 10 Cold War Warriors 129

Chapter 11 Tiger by the Tail 143

Chapter 12 The Krutogorova 152

Chapter 13 At the River's Bottom 164

Chapter 14 Truth and Beauty 174

Chapter 15 A Perfect Stronghold 182

Chapter 16 Deeper Codes 190

Chapter 17 The Right River 198

Chapter 18 Big Fish 210

Chapter 19 The Human Ecosystem 221

Chapter 20 The Human Factor 230

Chapter 21 State of the Salmon 240

Chapter 22 An Ocean Shared 244

Chapter 23 Oceans and Markets 253

Chapter 24 The Oligarchs 259

Chapter 25 The Inner Sanctum 267

Chapter 26 The Taimen Code 273

Chapter 27 The Dispossessed 278

Chapter 28 The Apex Predators 296

Chapter 29 The Tugur 310

Chapter 30 Going Forward 328

Acknowledgments 339

Bibliography 343

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