Making up more than half of the northern hemisphere from north to south, Canada is the world’s second largest country and one rich in natural wonders. Of these, lakes and rivers make up just over ten percent of the country’s surface area.
Most of the rivers in Canada were formed during the last ice age, between six and fourteen thousand years ago. What’s more, the cold climate in Canada has curbed the effect of the rivers in shaping the land, slowing it down to a glacial pace. Nevertheless, these waterways have had a significant impact in many other ways, shaping the nation’s heritage and culture, its wildlife and economy. And nowhere is this more evident than when looking at Canada’s longest rivers.
So, what are the longest rivers in Canada? It’s not an easy question to answer. With disagreement as to where rivers begin and end, answers tend to conflict. But you can bank on us navigating these choppy waters as we set out to explore the longest rivers of Canada. And we’ll start with the biggest river in Canada, the Mackenzie River.
The Mackenzie River: The Largest River in Canada
Length: 2,635 miles
The Mackenzie River is Canada’s longest river, flowing from the Canadian Rockies to the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Ocean. While the Mackenzie proper measures 1,025 miles, its full length when accounting for its tributaries is 2,635 miles.
Located in the Northwest Territories, the river remains largely frozen for two-thirds of the year, but is an important source of fresh water for many communities along its length. The Mackenzie River Basin, which measures over 690,000 square miles, also makes it the largest river in Canada. Within this catchment live a variety of wildlife, among them beavers, lynx, muskrats, foxes, and bears.
Mackenzie is just one of the river’s names. The indigenous Dene call it Deh Cho, the Inuvialuktun call it Kuukpak, and the Gwich’in Nagwichoonjik. These names all translate roughly to describe it as a “great” or “big” river. The English name meanwhile is after the first European to travel the river’s length in 1789, Alexander Mackenzie.
The Yukon River
Length: 1,980 miles
Rising in the northwest of Canada’s British Columbia, the Yukon travels 1,980 miles to its mouth in the Bering Sea. Not only is it amongst the longest rivers in Canada, but it is considered one of the great rivers of North America.
The indigenous Yup’ik and Inupiaq names for the Yukon translate roughly to “big river”, while its Gwich’in name means “white water river”. It’s said that “Yukon” was derived from the latter and that the Canadian state was named after the river.
The river’s watershed covers over 350,000 square miles, encompassing mountains, forests, and tundra. Arctic grayling, burbot, inconnu, and three types of salmon are just some of the fish species that live in the Yukon, providing food for wildlife like bears and eagles as well as supporting the fishing trade.
An important route for transportation and trade, the Yukon played a significant role in the Klondike Gold Rush of the 19th century. Today, it’s popular for recreation, including fishing, camping, and kayaking.
Length: 1,900 miles
One of Canada’s longest rivers, the Saint Lawrence is of vital geological, economic and social importance. Firstly, it’s the main outflow for America’s Great Lakes, and connects these lakes with the Atlantic Ocean. Along the way, it demarcates a number of boundaries, including part of the Canadian-US border.
Beginning at Lake Ontario, it flows northwest from its source in the Great Lakes to the Gulf of St. Lawrence before emptying into the North Atlantic. The Saint Lawrence River proper is an estimated 700 miles in length. However, when taken as an entire river system, it is around 1,900 miles long.
The Saint Lawrence River is an important waterway for trade and transportation, especially since the creation of the system of canals and locks of the Saint Lawrence Seaway. This allows large ships to travel through the river and up to the Great Lakes, and is amongst the busiest commercial waterways in the world.
The Saint Lawrence River is also a major source of hydroelectric power. Several dams have been built along the river to generate electricity. As for its ecological significance, the river supports a diverse range of wildlife. At least 83 mammal species live in and around the river, including beaver, mink, muskrat, and the beluga whale. Furthermore, the river and its basin host approximately 400 bird species and many types of fish.
Length: 1,205 miles
The Saskatchewan River forms at the confluence of the rivers of North and South Saskatchewan. Measured from that point to where it empties into Lake Winnipeg, it travels 340 miles or so. But when taken as a larger structure beginning at the source of its farthest tributary, Bow River, it is 1,205 miles long and one of Canada’s longest river systems. By this standard, its watershed encompasses much of the country’s prairie regions, stretching westward to the Rocky Mountains in Alberta and north-western Montana in the United States.
Length: 1,600 miles
Measurements of the Nelson River range from 400 to 1,600 miles long, depending on where one deems its beginning and end. The highest of these measurements include it as a continuation of one of Canada’s longest river systems, the aforementioned Saskatchewan. Meanwhile the river proper, which runs from Lake Winnipeg into Hudson Bay, measures 400 miles. Whichever figure one takes, Nelson is an important source of hydroelectric power for the province of Manitoba.
Length: 1,240 miles
Whilst three-fifths of the Columbia River is located in the US, this iconic waterway begins its 1,240-mile journey in Canada’s Columbia Lake. One of the longest rivers in Canada, its dams provide around half of British Columbia’s hydroelectricity. The river is home to a diverse array of wildlife, including Rocky Mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and grizzly bears.
The Longest Rivers of Canada
The longest rivers in Canada have played a role in its history and culture, and continue to exert their influence today. Whether it’s supporting wildlife or providing commercial transport routes, Canada’s longest rivers are truly impressive.