Arctic Red River

Location: Northwest Territories
Region: Outside Ontario
Character: Heritage River
Length/Size: 450 km

Arctic Red River (Tsiigehnjik)
By The Canadian Heritage Rivers System

River of the Gwichya Gwich'in

The Arctic Red River (Tsiigehnjik) offers limitless wilderness experiences to adventurers ready to take on the challenge of this wild land. Unlike many mountain rivers, the Arctic Red flows placidly for much of its course. Its valley, framed by high mountains, provides rich habitat for Dall's sheep, caribou, grizzly bear and peregrine falcon. The river's watershed is homeland for the Gwich'in people. At its confluence with the Mackenzie is the village of Arctic Red River (Tsiigehtchic). Once the site of a Roman Catholic mission, it is now a native community where ancient traditions of living with the land blend with modern lifestyles.

The Arctic Red River traverses 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. It appears as a canyon river through its middle reaches, having incised an impressive canyon and valley system through the uplifted Peel Plateau. In its final stages, the Arctic Red is a slow, sediment-laden river, flowing across the Mackenzie Lowlands towards its junction with the Mackenzie River.

For innumerable centuries, the Gwichya Gwich'in have called the Arctic Red "Tsiigehnjik" or "river of iron." Both the Gwich'in and English names are appropriate descriptions of the river. The black shale cliffs, which define much of the river valley, occasionally give way to radiant displays of red, purple and yellow. The cliffs of the river provide ideal peregrine falcon nesting sites. Despite the rugged appearance of these cliffs, the river is one of the most accessible in Canada's North.

The Gwich'in have long known that there are no serious impediments to upstream travel for over 150 km. Until well into this century, they would make an annual migration up the river to hunt and fish. The same route can be followed today by adventurous travellers, who can access the mouth of the river from the Dempster Highway. From there, they are free to unravel the mysteries of the Arctic Red for themselves and discover the outstanding natural and cultural features of this Canadian Heritage River.

The watershed of the Arctic Red can be divided into three regions roughly equal in area: the North Mackenzie Mountains, the Peel Plateau and the Mackenzie Lowlands. The river is approximately 450 km long, flowing north-northwest from glaciers in the North Mackenzie Mountains. From its headwaters, the Arctic Red flows for 120 km through the Backbone and Canyon Ranges and descends some 1300 m. It then enters the foothills, flowing through the Yellow and Lichen Ranges of the Peel Plateau. Finally it winds its way through the Mackenzie Lowlands, crossing the Arctic Circle, and gathering flow from its two main tributaries, the Cranswick and Sainville Rivers (Bernard Creek). It joins the Mackenzie River 25 km south of the southern apex of the Mackenzie River Delta. The total land area within the watershed is some 18,800 km2 and its mean annual discharge is 150 cubic metres/second.

The entire watershed is within the Gwich'in Land Claim Settlement Area. The only permanent settlement in the watershed is the community of Tsiigehtchic, (formerly Arctic Red River) (pop. 162). The Peel River Preserve, which occupies the northwest corner of the river's watershed, was established in 1921 as an exclusive hunting area for the Gwich'in.

Most of the western boundary of the watershed defines the border between the Yukon Territory and the Northwest Territories. To the east of the watershed lies the Sahtu Settlement Region and the town of Fort Good Hope.

Natural Heritage
The North Mackenzie Mountains were uplifted during the Laramide Orogeny (65 million years ago) from sedimentary material laid down in previous periods. The Peel Plateau and Mackenzie Lowlands are extensions of the vast interior sedimentary plain of North America. Originally deposited in a shallow sea during the Upper Devonian and Cretaceous periods (360-100 million years ago), these sedimentary formations did not experience the extensive mountain building forces that created the Mackenzie Mountains, and they are only slightly folded. Rocks from this period are well exposed through the Peel Plateau, in the black shale cliffs that dominate this section of river.

In the Mackenzie Mountains, the U-shaped river valley is a reminder of the continental and alpine glaciers that once enveloped the area. In the Peel Plateau and Mackenzie Lowlands, the river has incised a canyon and valley system which is typically 100-200 m below the surrounding terrain. This difference in elevation and the constant lateral movement of the river across the valley results in impressive examples of valley wall landslides and thermokarst erosion.

Much of the mountain area above 900 m is unvegetated or vegetated with tundra shrubs, dwarf birch and grasses. Below 900 m are trees of the open spruce forests, which must be able to survive fierce arctic wind. The sheltered valley bottom offers a protected and superior environment for white spruce stands. Individual trees can grow to 70 cm in diameter and achieve ages of over 600 years. These are some of the oldest trees found anywhere within Canada's boreal forests.

From the air the mountains appear barren and inhospitable, but Dall's sheep find safe feeding areas between the peaks. Mountain caribou, primarily from the Wernecke Herd, migrate through the mountains. Wandering grizzly bears prey 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 can be found.

As the first major tributary up the main channel of the Mackenzie, the Arctic Red is an important migration route and spawning area for whitefish, jackfish (northern pike), coney (inconnu) and loche (burbot). It is also a major supplier of the fine silts that build the islands of the Mackenzie Delta.

Of all the outstanding natural features of the river, its hydrology is the most fascinating. During the ice break-up in May, the level of the Arctic Red can rise 10 metres above winter levels. The Arctic Red typically clears itself of ice before the Mackenzie. When the Mackenzie ice breaks, it too will rise 10 metres or more. Mackenzie River ice is then pushed upriver along the smaller Arctic Red. 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, 5 m above the river surface.

Human Heritage
Archaeological digs at the mouth of the river indicate that the Gwich'in utilized this excellent fishing eddy centuries before Alexander Mackenzie first gazed up the river in 1789. Elders in the community tell stories of the annual migration up the Arctic Red. Families and bands of people would head upstream once the river level dropped in the late summer. They were heading for the foot of the North Mackenzie Mountains, over 280 km from the mouth of the river. When the flow of the river became too swift for easy upstream travel, they would head overland.

Winter camps were established on fishing lakes at the base of the front ranges of the mountains. The people survived the winter by hunting caribou and Dall's sheep and by catching fish through the ice on the lakes. In the spring, they would return to their summer camp at the mouth of the river. Some of the old portage trails can still be found. If one listens carefully, the voices of these travellers can still be heard echoing off the black shale cliffs.

Today, the river still provides much of the basics of life for the community of Tsiigehtchic. Dry wood is cut from trees in the white spruce forests for heating homes. In the summer and fall, the river is full of fish nets tended by the residents of Tsiigehtchic. Hunters return regularly from successful hunts of moose and waterfowl. In the winter, trappers travel hundreds of kilometres upstream to their traditional trapping areas. Sparkling drinking water is melted from large blocks of ice chopped from the river.

Missionaries of the Roman Catholic Church first came to Arctic Red River in 1868. The church which graces the mouth of the river was built in 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. The RCMP had a detachment here for much of the 20th century. One constable from the Arctic Red River detachment was killed by Albert Johnson, the "Mad Trapper of Rat River".

The most significant event in the recent history of the Gwich'in is the settlement of their land claim. Negotiated with the Government of Canada, the Gwich'in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement gave beneficiaries ownership to 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 is one of the longest navigable tributaries of the Lower Mackenzie River. The river flow is sufficient to allow travel upstream, without portage, some 200 kms any time between early June and late September. This provides an outstanding wilderness boating opportunity, particularly for motorized crafts with motors smaller then 50 hp. Since the river has virtually no human development on it, wilderness travellers can camp at any of the many natural camp sites on the river.

The recreational fishing opportunities of the Arctic Red River are completely undeveloped at present but comprise one of its outstanding recreational resources. Species of interest to rod and reel fishermen are jackfish (northern pike), arctic grayling and coney (inconnu), which are found in both impressive numbers and impressive sizes. Potential recreational fishing locations include Swan Creek, Bernard Creek, Jackfish Creek and Weldon Creek.

The Arctic Red River is navigable downstream by canoe, kayak and raft an impressive 340 km. A number of lakes in the North Mackenzie Mountains provide locations from which to start a downriver trip. The Peel Plateau canyon and valley section involves three short portages around small drops. The high black shale cliffs make this an impressive section of river.

There are outstanding hunting opportunities in the watershed. Dall's sheep is the prize for trophy hunters in the mountains. Arctic Red River Outfitters is currently utilizing this resource for guided parties hunting from a base camp at Svent Lake. The area in the Source Peaks region offers exceptional mountain scenery, with high glacial lakes, small glacial icefields and high vertical relief. This area has the potential for spectacular backpacking trips across alpine tundra, with many routes over high mountain passes and through numerous canyons.

Visitor Information
Access: The Arctic Red River is one of the most accessible rivers in the Northwest Territories and can be approached by road and by river. The Dempster Highway runs immediately beside the mouth of the river at the point where the highway crosses the Mackenzie River. A ferry carries vehicles and passengers across the mouth of the Arctic Red River and into Tsiigehtchic.

Upstream access to the river by aircraft without pontoons is limited to one maintained gravel airstrip at the Svent Lake base camp of Arctic Red River Outfitters. Aircraft with pontoons have a myriad of lakes to choose from near the river throughout the Mackenzie Lowlands and landings on the river itself are possible on the straighter and deeper sections of the river. In the mountains, the choice of lakes suitable for pontoons is limited to either of the twin lakes known as the Misfortune Lakes, a small lake known as Archie Lake in the Source Peaks area (short take off and landing aircraft only), Svent Lake and several of the lakes which compose the Otter Lakes south of the confluence of the Orthogonal and Arctic Red Rivers.

The Arctic Red River is considered a navigable waterway in the (Gwich'in Land Claim agreement. This means that visitors are free to utilize the river as a transportation corridor. Some restriction to access and use are placed on Gwich'in private lands and the visitor is advised to contact the Gwich'in Tribal Council in Fort McPherson or in Tsiigehtchic before travelling on the Arctic Red.

Accommodation and Services: The community of Tsiigehtchic offers the visitor a store, automotive services and gas. While there is no formal camping area, visitors are welcome to camp on the flats near the ferry landing. Inuvik is 120 km north of Tsiigehtchic along the Dempster Highway. Inuvik offers a full range of accommodations, restaurants, campgrounds, specialty shops and air charter operators and outfitters.

The only commercial guide operating in the watershed is Arctic Red River Outfitters, whose outfitting area includes the mountain section of the river. They can be reached at: P.O. Box 5988,Whitehorse, Yukon, YlA 5L7; (867) 633-4934, Fax: (867) 668-4934, ( ). Guides for the middle and lower sections of the river are available on a casual basis. Check at the office of Chartered Community of Tsiigehtchic, Tsiigehtchic, NWT, X0E 0B0, (867) 953-3201 or

Topographic Maps: The Arctic Red River is covered by the National Topographic Series 1:250,000 scale maps 106N (Community of Arctic Red River), 106K, 106G, and 106B.

The maps may be obtained from: Canada Map Office, 615 Booth St., Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0E9 (613) 952- 7000 (; or Energy, Mines and Resources, 4914-50th Street, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, X1A 2L9.

Further Information
Services, Permits and Regulations: Tourism and Parks, Dept. of Industry, Tourism and Investment, Government of the Northwest Territories, PO Box 1320, Yellowknife, NT X1A 2L9 ( Tel.: (867) 873-7902 Fax.: (867) 873 - .

Econ. Dev. & Tourism, GNWT, Inuvik, NT X0E 0T0. (867) 979-7230.

Gwich'in Tribal Council, Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories, Canada. X0E 0J0. Tel.: (867) 952-2330. (www.gwich

Chartered Community of Tsiigehtchic, Northwest Territories. X0E 0B0. (867) 953-3201. (

National Manager, Canadian Heritage Rivers System, c/o Parks Canada, Ottawa, Canada K1A 0M5. Tel. (819) 994-2913, Fax (819) 953-4704. E-mail address:

Member for Northwest Territories, Canadian Heritage Rivers Board, c/o Director, Parks and Tourism, Dept. of Resources, Wildlife and Economic Development, Yellowknife, NT X1A 2L9 (