Arctic Red River (Tsiigehnjik)
The Arctic Red River flows north-northwest from glaciers in the North Mackenzie Mountains and joins the Mackenzie River 25 km south of the southern apex of the Mackenzie River Delta, traversing extremely diverse terrain. It is a mountain river for the first third of its length, descending through the barren Mackenzie Mountains and gathering flow from rain, sun-warmed snow, and melting glaciers. Through its middle reaches, the Arctic Red has incised an impressive canyon and valley system through the Peel Plateau, and in its final stages, is a slow, sediment-laden river, flowing across the Mackenzie Lowlands towards its junction with the Mackenzie River.
The North Mackenzie Mountains, which dominate the landscape, were formed by tectonic forces over 65 million years ago. The lower levels of these mountains and the river valley support spruce forests, which are able to survive the arctic wind. Some of the oldest boreal forests in Canada can be found here.
In the mountainous section of the river, grizzly bears can be observed preying on the sheep and caribou herds. In the lower sections of the river, moose, wolf, marten, muskrat, beaver, otters, lynx, wolverine, red fox and woodland caribou are found.
Archaeological digs at the mouth of the river indicate that the Gwich’in utilized the Arctic Red as fishing grounds for centuries before Alexander Mackenzie first saw the river in 1789. Missionaries from the Roman Catholic Church came to the Arctic Red River in 1868, though the church at the mouth of the river wasn’t built until 1921. Traders from the Northern Trading Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company established rival posts at the river mouth in the 1890’s and early 1900’s, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had a detachment here for much of the 20th century.
Today, the river still provides many of the basics of life for the community of Tsiigehtchic: trees are cut in the white spruce forests for heating homes and in the summer and fall, the river is full of fish nets tended by the residents of Tsiigehtchic. The most significant event in the recent history of the Gwich’in is the settlement of the Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement, negotiated with the Government of Canada, which gives beneficiaries ownership of large land areas within the Mackenzie Delta and the Arctic Red River region. The agreement also made provisions for Gwich’in involvement in the management of regional natural and cultural resources.
The Arctic Red River provides outstanding wilderness boating opportunities for both motorized and non-motorized crafts. The river flow is sufficient to allow travel upstream for nearly 200 km.
The Arctic Red River is also navigable downstream by canoe, kayak and raft for an impressive 340 km. The recreational fishing opportunities, although undeveloped, are one of the river’s most outstanding recreational resources and there are also great hunting opportunities in the watershed. Dall’s sheep are considered the prize for trophy hunters in the mountains. Wilderness travellers can camp at any of the numerous natural campsites on the river.
Who Manages the River?
The Arctic Red is managed as a Canadian Heritage River by the Government of the Northwest Territories.
Each spring, ice in the Arctic Red River typically melts before the Mackenzie River, so in years of high water, Mackenzie River ice can be pushed 70 km up the Arctic Red! The flowing ice leaves scars on river bank trees up to five metres above the surface of the river.
The name Tsiigehtchic means “at the mouth of the iron river” in the Gwichya Gwich’in dialect, an apt description of this community at the mouth of the Arctic Red River.