Back River

Extending 974 km from the outlet of Muskox Lake to Chantrey Inlet on the Arctic Ocean, Back River is the longest river in Canada located entirely within the Barrenlands of the Canadian Arctic. British explorer Sir George Back, the first European to descend the river in 1834, gave the Back its name. The actual headwaters are at Sussex Lake in the Northwest Territories, approximately 380 km northeast of Yellowknife and 580 km east of the Inuit community of Baker Lake (Qamani'tuaq). The three most notable tributaries draining from the south include the Baillie River, the Morse River, and the Meadowbank River. The Back River system comprises a drainage area of 106,500 km2.

Rising in the western Barrens of the Canadian Arctic, the Back flows northeast through Beechey Lake, Pelly Lake, Upper Garry Lake, Garry Lake, Lower Garry Lake, Buillard Lake, and MacDougall Lake, and then turns north, passing through Franklin Lake before flowing into Chantrey Inlet on the Arctic Ocean, south of the Boothia Peninsula. The nearest Inuit settlement to the estuary is Gjoa Haven on the southeastern coast of King William Island. A relatively low relief with glacial substrates of silts, sands, and gravels characterizes the tundra landscape of the Back River area. The topography varies from rugged to gentle, rolling hills and long, sand eskers. Low Arctic tundra with sedge meadows, lichen-moss vegetation, and shrub tundra comprise much of the vegetation of the Back River area. The barren-ground caribou of the Beverley-Kaminuriak herd graze throughout the region. Grizzly bears and muskox are also common.

The Caribou Inuit originally inhabited the upper Back River area. Another Inuit group, the Netsilik Inuit, lived downstream of Pelly Lake and near the mouth of the river. The Dene of Great Slave Lake, who occasionally traveled to the Back River area, called the river Thlew-ee-choh-dezeth ("Great Fish River"). After George Back explored the river in 1834, the area came to be known as "Back's Great Fish River" and then later shortened to simply Back River. Back accompanied Sir John Franklin's Arctic expeditions in 1818, 1819-1822, and 1824-1827 and was subsequently asked to conduct an overland expedition to the Arctic coast in search of the missing Captain John Ross. Ross had led a private expedition to the North West Passage and had apparently vanished near the mouth of the Back River. Despite the safe return of Ross's expedition, Back, along with a crew of ten men, set out to explore the waterway and successfully navigated the river to the Arctic Ocean at Chantrey Inlet. Back's account of his expedition—Narrative of the Arctic Land Expedition—was published in 1836.

Jörg Tews

See also Back, Sir George Further Reading

Back, Captain George, Narrative of the Arctic Land Expedition to the Mouth of the Great Fish River and Along the Shores of the Arctic Ocean in the Years 1833, 1834 and 1835, Edmonton: M.G. Hurtig Ltd., 1970

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