Liard River | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Liard River

The Liard River is 1,115 km long and is a major tributary to the Mackenzie River.
Liard River near Nahanni Butte, 2012.
Liard River near Nahanni National Park, 2012.
Liard River at the confluence of the Mackenzie River, 2012.

The Liard River is 1,115 km long and is a major tributary to the Mackenzie River. The Liard River basin is located in an area of discontinuous permafrost, and the region is characterized by short, dry summers and long, cold winters. The Liard River is ice covered for nearly six months of the year, and is known for dramatic river ice break-up that frequently causes flooding in downstream communities, often triggering ice break-up on the Mackenzie River.


The Liard River begins in the Pelly Mountains of southeastern Yukon and traverses the steep mountain terrain of the Western Cordillera through northeastern British Columbia. The upper Liard is wild and treacherous, with numerous rapids and canyons. Tributaries include the Dease, Hyland, Kechika, Coal, Trout and Toad rivers. The 30 km long Grand Canyon of the Liard, with rapids called Hell Gate and Rapids of the Drowned, is located between the confluence of the Trout and Scatter rivers.

The Liard River then shifts northeast and flows through the southwest corner of the Northwest Territories. The Liard River flows past Fort Liard and Nahanni Butte, adjacent to Nahanni National Park, to Fort Simpson at the confluence of the Liard and Mackenzie rivers. Major tributaries include the Fort Nelson and South Nahanni rivers. Highway 1 crosses the Liard near Fort Simpson, and is serviced by a ferry during summer months and an ice bridge in winter.

Flora and Fauna

The Liard River flows from the alpine region of the Northern Cordillera to the moist wetlands of the Taiga Plain. The mountainous region of the Upper Liard and major tributaries are home to alpine fir and Engelmann spruce at higher elevations, lodgepole pine, paper birch and aspen at lower elevations, and white and black spruce throughout. Vegetation in the Lower Liard includes quaking aspen, white and black spruce, balsam fir, balsam poplar, and areas of wetlands including bogs and fens.

The Upper Liard is home to numerous wildlife species including wolverines, mountain goats, bison, Stone’s sheep, Dall’s sheep, red fox, beaver, muskrat, grouse, ptarmigan and snowy owl. Additionally, moose, black bear, grizzly bear, snowshoe hare and waterfowl are found throughout the Liard River Basin. Wildlife in the Lower Liard includes woodland caribou, lynx, wolf, deer and elk.

Environmental Concerns

The Liard River basin has a low human population and therefore is relatively unaffected by human activities. However, forestry, oil and gas development, and former and current mines, are sources of environmental concern. Due primarily to erosion from snowmelt, river ice and heavy rainfall, the Liard River has naturally high levels of suspended particles during spring and summer that affect water quality. Climate change is an additional concern, as thawing permafrost has implications for transportation and community infrastructure, as well as for the drainage and hydrological connectivity of wetlands.

Oil and gas exploration and forestry have caused the fragmentation of wildlife habitat, particularly in the Liard River Valley near Fort Liard. Seismic lines are long, narrow clearings through the boreal forest, and are used for oil and gas exploration. The deforested corridors have a slow rate of regrowth, and affect the movement and distribution of birds and wildlife.


The Upper Liard is the traditional territory of the Kaska people, while the Lower Liard is the traditional territory of the South Slavey. The Kaska and Slavey led nomadic lifestyles, hunting, trapping, fishing and travelling in small family groups. Their movements were dependent on the availability of food sources and trade between neighbouring Aboriginal peoples.

Alexander Mackenzie journeyed to the confluence of the Mackenzie and Liard rivers in 1789.A fur trade post was established on this site — now Fort Simpson — in 1804,prompting European exploration of the Liard River. Trading posts were soon set up along the lower Laird at Fort Liard and Nahanni Butte.

The Lower Liard was explored for potential fur trade expansion between 1824 and 1829, but it wasn’t until John McLeod’s expedition in 1831 that the Upper Liard was explored by Europeans. McLeod led his expedition along the treacherous rapids and canyons of the Upper Liard to the headwaters of the Frances River, and repeated this expedition in 1834 to the headwaters of the Dease River.The Upper Liard was further explored by Robert Campbell in 1837–39 in a push to find an overland route to the Stikine River,and in 1840 to the previously unexplored headwaters of the Upper Liard.

The Liard River was used a route to the Yukon interior during the Klondike Gold Rush from 1897–99. In 1942 the Alaska Highway was built alongside the Liard River from the Trout River to Watson Lake.This construction spurred the development of the Liard Hot Springs, which remains a popular stop for travelers along the Alaska Highway.

River // Key Terms

Drainage area (or basin)

The land surface area surrounding a river, typically bounded by higher elevations, where all of the rainfall or snowmelt flows into that river.

Mean drainage

The average volume of water that flows out of the river over a specific unit of time, usually cubic metres per second. The average is calculated for the entire year, but there are months when flow is naturally higher or lower.


A river or stream that flows into a larger river. The point at which the two rivers meet is called the confluence.

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