The early settlers of the New World must have been delighted to find the land to be criss-crossed with navigable waterways. This allowed them to explore further and further into the West, and gave them the ability to irrigate crops to elicit maximum yields. From the rapids of the James River rolling through Richmond, Virginia to the untamed Yukon River in Alaska, one cannot travel across this continent without discovering some of the most astonishing riparian habitats to be found anywhere in the world. Here’s the cream of the crop, the must-see rivers of North America.
The St. Lawrence
The primary run-off for the Great Lakes, connecting them directly to the Atlantic Ocean, this 1900-mile long river works its way through Canada to the St. Lawrence Seaway, a system of locks allowing ocean liners access to Great Lakes shipping lanes. It was first explored in earnest by Jacques Cartier in the year 1535.
Traversing a huge swath of Canada that includes Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the Churchill includes a series of several lakes and completes its journey by emptying into Hudson Bay. It is a habitat for over a dozen species of fish, including perch, walleye, Northern pike, lake trout and lake sturgeon.
Yukon is the Gwich’in word for Great River. With portions in both Western Canada and Alaska, the Yukon runs 1,980 miles through the middle of some of the most pristine wilderness left on this planet, finishing its journey at the Bering Sea. For all of its length and territorial sprawl, there are only four bridges – total – that cross the Yukon.
The Rio Grande
The 1,885-mile long Rio Grande is so popular that towns have sprung up on its banks, right across from each other, in two different countries. It runs through “sister cities” in Laredo, Texas (across from Nuevo Laredo in Mexico), El Paso, Texas (paried with Juarez) and at its mouth in Brownsville, Texas (Matamoros).
In 1804, the expedition party of Lewis and Clark departed from St. Louis, heading up the Missouri River. By the time they reached its starting point, they would be in Montana – at the Continental Divide. At 2,500 miles, it is easily the longest river in the United States, reaching 10 states and 28 different Native American tribes.
The Niagara, as a waterway, serves to empty Lake Erie into Lake Ontario. Statistically speaking, the Niagara isn’t much; it’s only 35 miles in total length but it ranks very highly among must-see rivers in North America because it is home to Niagara Falls. Over the years, 15 people have gone over the falls on some sort of flotation device; five of them did not survive the attempt.
The Pacific Northwest’s largest river, the Columbia begins in the Canadian Rockies, winding up as the border between Washington and Oregon. There are 14 hydro-electric power plants operating on its main stem. Its chief tributary is the infamous Snake River, the location of Evel Knievel’s ill-fated “Rocket Cycle” jump attempt at Snake Canyon in Idaho.
Tumbling out of the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado winds its way 1,450 miles through the American Southwest, running through the Grand Canyon and all the way to the Gulf of California. The Colorado River basin has provided habitat for humans for over 8,000 years, although it remained largely uncharted until the 1869 Powell Expedition.
Located entirely within the United States, the Mighty Mississip’ rises out of northern Minnesota and rolls all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. The first bridge crossing the river was constructed in 1855 in Minneapolis. A year later came the first railroad crossing – which was rammed by the steamboat Effie Afton just two weeks after it opened. The case went to court; the lawyer who defended the railroad was a serious-looking fellow from Illinois. His name was Abraham Lincoln.