Mackenzie River (Arctic and Taiga)
Source: Great Slave Lake, N.W.T.
Mouth: Arctic Ocean
Direction of flow: north
Length: 1,738 kilometres (4,241 kilometres to head of Finlay River)
Origin of name: after Scottish explorer Sir Alexander Mackenzie
Dene name: Deh Cho, meaning “big river”
The Mackenzie River is replete with superlatives: it is the longest river in Canada with the largest watershed, covering almost one-fifth of the country. It has the largest delta and the second largest wetland area in the country. Flowing through sparsely populated territory, it is one of the last vast unspoiled regions of the world.
On its northward journey, the Mackenzie River starts out from the shallow swamps and mudbanks of Great Slave Lake. It flows through rolling plains and parallels the Mackenzie Mountains. Its path widens, then narrows between soaring limestone cliffs. It ends in a wide fan-shaped delta of channels and islands where it empties into the Beaufort Sea.
A symbol of Canada’s North which graces our 25-cent coin, the caribou is one of a number of large mammals to roam the Mackenzie River valley. Herds of barren-ground and boreal woodland caribou are constantly on the move, on the tundra and in northern coniferous forests. They feed primarily on lichen, the only large mammals able to do so because of the digestive capabilities of specialized bacteria and protozoa in their stomachs.
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Caribou continue to be an important source of food for aboriginal peoples in the Arctic. In recent years, however, their numbers have declined due to habitat destruction, hunting and predation by wolves, coyotes and bears. The boreal woodland caribou is listed as a species at risk. Biologists predict that caribou herds will be further threatened if a proposed natural gas pipeline is constructed along most of the length of the Mackenzie River.
The Mackenzie River has long been a lifeline for a number of distinct cultures, including the Dene, Inuit, Inuvialuit, Gwich’in and Métis. Alexander Mackenzie, a fur trader with the North West Company, was the first European to travel the river from Great Slave Lake to the Arctic Ocean in 1789. He set out with Dene guides looking for a route to the Pacific Ocean, but wound up at the frozen Beaufort Sea after a 40-day paddle.
In the early 1950s, the federal government gathered nomadic Inuit families into communities on Arctic islands to help assert Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic.
Distanced from the mainland caribou herds that had always sustained them, Inuit became dependent on the government for their basic needs. Food, fuel, building materials and vehicles were shipped by barge down the Mackenzie River from Hay River on Great Slave Lake to Tuktoyaktuk, then on to communities in the High Arctic. As part of a land claims settlement in the 1980s, Inuvialuit of the western Northwest Territories and Inuit of Nunavut gained ownership of the Northern Transportation Company, which operates tugs and barges on the Mackenzie River and along the Arctic coast.
Few natural areas in the world are still considered pristine; the Mackenzie River valley is one such place. It supports a broad range of ecosystems, from forests to tundra and wetlands. It’s an important migratory corridor for waterfowl and sustains a rich diversity of wildlife. It transports more than half of the fresh water flowing north to the Arctic Ocean from Canada and, as a result, is a major influence on the global climate and ocean circulation systems.
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There is some mining in the Mackenzie River basin, most notably the extraction of oil at Norman Wells. But the largest potential threat to the river and its watershed is the proposed Mackenzie Gas Project, which would transport natural gas from the Beaufort Sea through the Mackenzie Valley to northern Alberta. Conservationists warn that the 1,220-kilometre pipeline could fragment crucial wildlife habitat and migration corridors and affect the way of life of aboriginal residents. The project would open up a largely undeveloped region to further exploitation of resources and construction of infrastructure such as roads and hydro dams. The Canadian government is expected to make a final decision on the Mackenzie Gas Project in 2007.