Tsiigehnjik flows north-northwest from glaciers in the Source Peaks area of the North Mackenzie Mountains and joins the Mackenzie River at the community of Tsiigehtchic. It is a mountain river for the first third of its length, descending through the Mackenzie Mountains and gathering flow. Through its middle reaches, Tsiigehnjik 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 Peel Plain (Mackenzie Lowlands) towards its junction with the Mackenzie River.
The North Mackenzie Mountains were formed by tectonic forces over 65 million years ago. The lower levels of these mountains and the river valley support spruce forests. Some of the oldest boreal forests in Canada can be found here.
In the mountainous section of the river, grizzly bears prey on 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.
The Gwichya Gwich’in of Tsiigehtchic (the community at the mouth, or outlet, of the river at the Mackenzie River) have used and travelled up Tsiigehnjik for hundreds or thousands of years. The Gwichya Gwich’in hunted and trapped along the river and its tributaries, in the foothills of the mountains, and in area at the foot of the mountains. They also fished at the mouth of the river, at river eddies, and in many of the creeks and lakes up the river. These areas and the important resources they held made the river an important part of the Gwichya Gwich’in seasonal round: heading up the river in the fall, and coming back down after break-up in the spring. Long ago, people “tracked” up the river to go into the mountains to hunt moose, Dall’s sheep, and mountain caribou or Porcupine caribou. Tracking involves pulling a canoe up the river from along the shore, in some cases with specially trained dogs. In the spring, they returned to the river with their dogs, coming from hunting locations along well-travelled trails. They would bring many bales of dried meat from their winter’s hunting. People camped at the river’s edge for about a month during spring breakup, sometimes in large gathering sites with friends and family from other communities. During this time, large moose-skin boats were manufactured, and all the families would wait for the ice to start to move. Once the river began to clear of ice, people started their journey down Tsiigehnjik to the Mackenzie River in their moose skin boats to fish for the summer.
Archaeological digs at sites along the river revealed multi-component, stratified sites, which are very unique for the subarctic, and confirm the oral history that indicates the Gwich’in utilized the rivers long before Alexander Mackenzie, the first European traveler to see Tsiigehnjik, arrived 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 participants of the Land Claim ownership of large land areas within the Mackenzie Delta and the Arctic Red River region, among other areas. The agreement also made provisions for Gwich’in involvement in the management of regional natural and cultural resources.
Tsiigehnjik 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.
Tsiigehnjik is also navigable downstream by canoe, kayak and raft for an impressive 340 km. The recreational fishing opportunities 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.
Tsiigehnjik means “iron river” in the Gwichya Gwich’in dialect and refers to iron or mineral deposits upstream.
Each spring, the ice on Tsiigehnjik typically melts before the Mackenzie River. When the Mackenzie River then starts to melt and break up, ice and debris jams cause water levels to rise which in turn causes a flow reversal in the lower 40km of Tsiigehnjik, as water from the Mackenzie River starts to flow “up” Tsiigehnjik. In years of high water, Mackenzie River ice can be pushed as far as 70 km up Tsiigehnjik! The flowing ice leaves scars on river bank trees up to five metres above the usual summer water levels.
Adjacent to one section of the river there is a place known as Jùuk’an, which means “burning” in Gwichya Gwich’in, (also known as the “Smoking Hills”), where smoke slowly rises from smouldering rocks, an unusual geologic phenomenon involving permanently burning sulphide formations. The fire can be seen only at night, although there is a strong sulphuric smell in the area. This is one of several places that the Gwichya Gwich’in made moose skin boats after spending their winters in the mountains, returning with many loads of drymeat and furs to trade at the trading post in Tsiigehtchic.
In 2007, Tsiigehtchic resident Shane Van Loon discovered animal remains eroding from the side of a cliff beside Tsiigehnjik. The remains were of a steppe bison, and were 13,650 years old. Steppe bison became extinct near the end of the last Ice Age, around 10,000 years ago. Due to the permafrost and the undisturbed terrain, the bison was well-preserved and is one of the most interesting palaeontological discoveries made in the Northwest Territories.
In lower reaches, the river cuts away the permafrost from the valley walls and large chunks of ground ice are visible in many of the river cut-banks.
Tsiigehnjik is managed as a Canadian Heritage River by a number of community and government organizations. Members of the community of Tsiigehtchic are the primary stewards of the river, watching over it as they continue to travel the river while harvesting. The Gwich’in Tribal Council Department of Cultural Heritage has a key role in the management of cultural resources along the river. The Gwich’in Renewable Resources Board is the main instrument of wildlife, fish and forest management. The Gwich’in Land Use Planning Board implements the Gwich’in Land Use Plan which includes specific zoning along Tsiigehnjik. The Government of the Northwest Territories works with all of these organizations to coordinate management of the river.
The 450 km-long Tsiigehnjik was designated as a Canadian Heritage River in 1993 for its outstanding natural and cultural heritage. Flowing placidly for much of its course to the Mackenzie River Delta, Tsiigehnjik is framed by high mountains where Dall’s sheep, caribou, grizzly bear, and peregrine falcon can be found.
The river’s watershed is home to the Gwich’in people.
The Canadian Heritage River plaques offer a brief glimpse into why a river has been designated to the System. They are often located nearby one of its historically significant locations, and highlight some of the most important natural, cultural and recreational values of the river.
Tsiigehnjik (Arctic Red) River Plaque Text
The Arctic Red River - Tsiigehnjik, the Arctic Red River, is of great cultural and historical importance to the Gwicha Gwich’in. Until the early 1900’s, people tracked up the river in early fall to hunt moose, caribou and Dall’s sheep in the Mackenzie Mountains. In the spring, people walked back to the river, made large mooseskin boats and continued to the Mackenzie River after ice breakup. At this time, the river rises as much as 10 metres in a powerful display of surging ice and water. Ice from the Mackenzie River forces its way up the Arctic Red River for 50 kilometres or more. For these reasons, and the river’s natural beauty, the entire 430 kilometres of the Arctic Red River, Tsiigehnjik, is hereby proclaimed a Canadian Heritage River.