The river's sparsely populated basin is one of the few great unspoiled areas of the world. The main headwaters are the PEACE RIVER and the ATHABASCA RIVER, while the main stream (1738 km) issues from the shallow swamps and mudbanks of the West Arm of GREAT SLAVE LAKE. It flows west to FORT PROVIDENCE, where scows, canoes and YORK BOATS were hauled upstream. At FORT SIMPSON the LIARD RIVER reaches the south bank of the Mackenzie, which receives its muddy waters. Near the North Nahanni River the Mackenzie trends west-northwest through a rolling plain and deflects north past an escarpment of the MACKENZIE MOUNTAINS, which lie parallel to the river. The Redstone and Keele rivers and other streams cut through the mountains and pour into the lowlands through deep canyons.
At TULITA the clear, cobalt waters of the Great Bear River enter over a shallow gravel bar. Past NORMAN WELLS the Mackenzie continues through weedy channels and beneath ribbed cliffs, widening to 5 km, its path braided among countless islands. At Sans Sault Rapids a rocky promontory juts into midstream, and rough water endangers navigation. A few kilometres above FORT GOOD HOPE the river widens and constricts again, between limestone cliffs called The Ramparts, then resumes its meandering northwest, its channels clogged with islands and shifting sandbars. The Arctic Red River enters 270 km from the sea, and at Point Separation the delta begins.INUVIK on the easterly edge of the delta; Peel Channel in the west, which flows past AKLAVIK; and Middle Channel, which carries the main outflow into the BEAUFORT SEA. TUKTOYAKTUK, northeast of the delta, is the transfer point for river and ocean cargo; its harbour is open from July to late September.
The Mackenzie River Lowland is a great northward extension of the central plains. On the west side rise the Mackenzie Mountains, and on the eastern edge lie the rocky outcrops of the Canadian SHIELD. The valley is underlain by sedimentary rock, but its surface is mostly glacial gravel, sand and clay. The plains of MUSKEG are broken by stunted spruce and fir, bog, swamp and lakes. Much of the terrain is underlain by PERMAFROST, which presents a challenge to construction of buildings and transportation.
The lowland is still sparsely populated. The fur-trade economy dominated until the mining rushes of YELLOWKNIFE and GREAT BEAR LAKE and the CANOL PIPELINE of WWII. Fur remains important to the local residents; mining has been dominant, although its fortunes fluctuated in the latter part of the 20th century. Most mining has been concentrated in the Shield. Today the key mining centres are Yellowknife (gold), Norman Wells (oil and natural gas) and Fort McMurray (tar sands). In the past there was mining along Great Bear Lake at Echo Bay - formerly Port Radium - and Lake Athabasca, at Uranium City (uranium); and along the Flat River at TUNGSTEN (tungsten). Large natural gas deposits have also been found near FORT LIARD on the Liard River and in the Mackenzie Delta. The fine clay soil would support agriculture, but climate prevents it. Waterpower sites are on the Snare, Talston and Yellowknife rivers, which all flow into Great Slave Lake, and on the Peace River near its headwaters. The river and the delicate environment of the NORTH were brought to the national consciousness during the debate over the MACKENZIE VALLEY PIPELINE.
Author JAMES MARSH
Links to Other Sites
The Mackenzie River Basin Board
This website features an extensive collection of exceptional maps that depict the geology, geography, and ecology of the Mackenzie River Basin region.
Gwich'in Tribal Council
Local news and information about the Gwich'in communities in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Also photographs of the rugged landscape and glimpses of daily life in the region. Check out the Gwich'in Social and Cultural Institute.
Rivers of Canada
This site highlights the political and economic importance of Canada’s major river systems. From the Canadian Geographic Magazine.
Inuvialuit Place Name Virtual Exhibit
A fascinating multimedia exhibit on Inuvialuit place names, including the village of Kitigaaryuk. Meet the Inuvialuit people, their land and their traditions, as you journey along the Mackenzie Delta region. From the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.
History of Oil and Gas in the NWT
Historical overview of petroleum exploration in the Northwest Territories. Focuses on oil activity in the Norman Wells region, the Mackenzie Delta, the Beaufort Sea, and the Liard Plateau. Also mentions the Canol agreement signed by US and Canada during World War II. A Government of the Northwest Territories website.
The Mackenzie Gas Project
The website for the Mackenzie Gas Project, a proposed 1,196-kilometre natural gas pipeline system along the Mackenzie Valley in the Northwest Territories which will connect northern onshore gas fields with North American markets. Click on the interactive map to view the pipeline's route.
Deh Cho Bridge
An information website for the Deh Cho Bridge in the Northwest Territories.
N.W.T. celebrates Deh Cho Bridge opening
A CBC News story about the opening of the Deh Cho Bridge across the MacKenzie River in the Northwest Territories. Includes photos of the bridge and the opening events.