In 1789 the river was descended by Alexander Mackenzie of the Northwest Company, who was seeking a passage to the Pacific. It took him to the Arctic instead, so he cursed it as "The River of Disappointment." Yet his journey was, in a sense, a success. Within years, trading posts lined the banks of the waterway.
Modern-day voyageurs still paddle the river from source to sea. Starting at Great Slave Lake, it takes four to six weeks to canoe or kayak the 1738-kilometre length of the Mackenzie. En route, paddlers will encounter 10 idyllic communities, countless fishing and hunting camps, a hotsprings, a couple of rapids, a famous canyon, and more pure wilderness than you ever knew existed on Earth.
Amazingly, over its entire course the Big Mac is straddled by just one bridge – the Dehcho Bridge at Fort Providence. Completed in 2012, the $202-million structure stretches more than a kilometre from shore to shore, making it by far the longest bridge in Northern Canada. It has cattle grates on the north side, to prevent wild wood bison from wandering onto the span. At mid-river the bridge is 100 feet above the water, allowing barges and other large vessels to pass beneath. Due to the extreme weather of the Northwest Territories, the bridge expands and contracts as much 47 inches between summer and winter.
In winter, the Mackenzie becomes a frozen thoroughfare, paved with ice four feet thick. Portions of the Mackenzie Valley Winter Road run directly atop the river, providing access to otherwise isolated riverside communities such as Tulita, Norman Wells and Fort Good Hope. In the Mackenzie Delta, meanwhile, an ice road links Inuvik to Aklavik.
Not far from Fort Good Hope, the Mackenzie transects the Arctic Circle. Here, on the summer solstice, you can stay up all night watching the sun not set. As you follow the river even further north, the period of summer daylight gets longer and longer. At Tuktoyaktuk, where the Mackenzie pours into the polar sea, the sun spins in the sky for more than two months in row, steadfastly refusing to set.
The Mackenzie is a bounty of modern riches. North of the confluence of the Bear River, Alexander Mackenzie noticed an oily sheen leaching from the shore. More than 100 years later, drillers hit black gold – the Northwest Territories' first resource boom. Today the oil still flows, with pumpjacks built on manmade islands pulling petroleum from deep beneath the currents. The operation provides employment for hundreds of people at Norman Wells, one of the largest communities in the Mackenzie Valley.
However, it is the Mackenzie's timeless riches that visitors will likley cherish the most. All along the waterway, famous landmarks resonate with Dene spirituality, history and lore. Pictured above is the Edhaa National Historic Site on the flats of Fort Simpson Island, where for centuries Dene gathered during their seasonal rounds to allocate land-use, arrange marriages, resolve disputes, undertake ceremonies of healing and thanksgiving, and trade goods and knowledge.
Want to learn more about the mighty Mackenzie River? Check out the riverside villages of the Dehcho, Sahtu and Western Arctic regions, or look into paddling opportunities in the Northwest Territories.