Hay River

The Hay River Basin is a part of the Mackenzie River system, which drains into the Arctic Ocean, drawing water from British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and the Northwest Territories. “Kátło’dehé is the South Slavey Dene name for the Hay River, or an earlier spelling Xatlo Dehe” (Green 1960), or from the K’átł’odeeche First Nation report, K’átł’odee ‘willow grass river,’ referring to the origins of the river in Hay Lakes, northern Alberta, which is a prairie-like area (KFN & CA 2006:1). In Chipewyan, the Hay River is Hátł’oresche. In Cree, it is Maskosï-Sïpiy” (AANDC 2014). The Hay River is named for the abundant hay fields, which were nourished by the floods periodically experienced at the river mouth, which also brings driftwood into the Great Slave Lake (Piper 2009:261).

The Hay River Basin spans three provinces, lying in the northeastern part of BC, with the majority of the basin in northwestern Alberta, and in the NWT south of the Great Slave Lake. The basin is located in the northern section of the Great Central Plain in the Alberta Plateau sub-region. The geological profile of the area consists of sedimentary bedrock (shale, sandstone, limestone, and dolomite). The basin is covered in boreal forest with a grassland and marsh in the Hay-Zama Lakes region (GNWT & GC 1984:1). The basin trends to the northeast, with the result that the Northwest Territories receives the surface runoff from Alberta and British Columbia (GNWT & GC 1984:5). About 6.5% of the basin is in the NWT, 19.5% in British Columbia, and the remaining 74% lies within Alberta (GNWT & GC 1984). The basin size is 51,700 km2 (AANDC 2014:4). The Town of Hay River is the largest in the basin with approximately 3600 people; population density throughout the rest of the basin is less than two people per square kilometer (AANDC 2014:4).

The Hay River headwaters originate in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, run across the northwest portion of Alberta, into the Northwest Territories, and then into Great Slave Lake, which drains to the Arctic Ocean via the Mackenzie River. Some accounts suggest that the Hay River has multiple origin points, one headwater in muskeg country of northwestern Alberta and mountain sources in BC (GNWT & GC 1984:6).

The headwaters of the Hay River in northwestern Alberta begin near Rainbow Lake, looping into BC where mountain-sourced streams such as the Shekilie River and Kyklo Creek and water from Kotcho Lake join the flow. The Hay River curves back into Alberta toward Hay and Zama lakes, where it is joined by the Mega and the Amber rivers, to flow by the communities of Habay and Chateh on to its junction with the Chinchaga River, one of the Hay River’s major tributaries in the southwest portion of the basin. One of the Chinchaga’s arms comes in from BC, making this basin probe into BC at two points.

Hay River water is distinguished by its ‘distinct, tea-like colour,’ which results from the presence of humic substances, tannins, and lignins in the water (AANDC 2014:15). This likely originates form the marshy areas around the Zama-Hay Lakes region through which the river flows. There are two waterfalls on the river (north of Enterprise and south of Paradise Gardens—Alexandra Fall and Louise Falls), both part of the Twin Falls Gorge Territorial Park.


AANDC—Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (2014). The Hay River: Water Monitoring Activities in the Hay River Region. Plain Language Report. Ottawa: Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.

GNWT & GC—Government of the Northwest Territories & Government of Canada (1984). Hay River Basin Overview. Environmental Planning and Assessment Division, Department of Renewable Resources, GNWT, and Inland Waters Directorate, Department of the Environment, Government of Canada. Ottawa: The Directorate.

KFN & CA—K’átł’odeeche First Nation and Crosscurrent Associates (2006). Traditional Knowledge Assessment of the Proposed Mackenzie Gas Pipeline. Hay River, NWT: K’átł’odeeche First Nation.

Piper, L. (2009). The Industrial Transformation of Subarctic Canada. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press.