Note: this is the same text and (insofar as it was compatible) HTML formatting as the GeoCities website Rivers that Flow North. GeoCities is going out of the webhosting business in July, 2009, so I am migrating this page and the "Words that End in Gry" page to Google Sites, at least temporarily until I find another home for them. The background and illustrations don't seem to have made the migration, at least not yet.
This is an adaptation for the Web of a post I made to the Stumpers List in July, 1997, which was itself an adaptation of a list I compiled for our library a few years before that. It's LONG: the printout will be 10 pages, give or take a page or two (it depends on the settings on your particular computer).
CAVEAT: I have not mentioned every north-flowing river in the world, and I acknowledge that the list has a definite bias, radiating out from the Western Pennsylvania/West Virginia area where I'm from to the United States as a whole and then to North America generally. Since the list is already so long, I really do not care to add any more rivers unless by some chance I've missed a really important one. (Do e-mail me at email@example.com , though, if you think there's one that is important enough to be added.) Nonetheless, there are a good many rivers listed here from every continent, except Antarctica, as explained later.
RIVERS THAT FLOW NORTH
From time to time, the library gets questions about rivers that flow north. There are many more of these than you might think.
The whole idea of rivers flowing north seems backwards to many people. Most maps have north at the top, so that rivers which flow toward that direction seem to be flowing upward, against nature. And even in an era where traveling by river is uncommon we speak of "downriver" and "upriver", and we know that "upriver" (or "up the creek") means against the current, while downriver, with the current, is much easier going. So for "upriver" to be south of somewhere on a river that's flowing north really seems illogical, if you have the "north on top" map in mind. Still, consider this: the Niagara River flows north, from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. Is the water at Niagara Falls going "up"?
Also keep in mind that north-on-top maps are purely a convention, albeit one practiced since at least the Middle Ages; there can be and occasionally are maps that put other points of the compass at the top. On a map with south at the top, for example, the Nile and the Monongahela would seem to flow "down" in a manner that would seem normal, and the Mississippi would flow "up".
The Earth is spherical, and so no direction is really more "up" or "down" than any other, no matter where you are on the planet. And water (from which rivers are made, of course) cannot flow "up". Water flows in only one direction: down. The important thing to remember is that to a river, or more precisely to the drops of water that make up the river, "down" has nothing to do with compass points -- with latitude or longitude -- only with altitude. Water flows from higher altitudes to lower ones, and the river's channel has to be steep enough to overcome not only gravity and inertia, but also friction between water currents. Otherwise, you get a lake.
"Down" can therefore be in any compass direction, and most rivers wind around in all of them to one degree or another in what are called "meanders" -- the very word comes from a river, the Maiandros (now Menderes) in Asia Minor, now the nation of Turkey, that was notorious to the ancient Greeks for winding around. And most rivers flow neither north nor south, but east or west, or southeast or southwest, or northeast or northwest, and few of them flow in a straight course for long; they all meander to some extent. As far as the water is concerned, though, all rivers flow in only one direction: down.
Here is the most meandering river I could find a picture of. It's the Sebaskachu River in central Labrador; the photo is from the Terrain Sciences Division of Natural Resources Canada. (There's an even better picture of the meanders at http://www.geosurv.gov.nf.ca/images/minjpg/73_2.jpg!) Unfortunately for the purposes of this list, the Sebaskachu's main direction is east and a bit south, not north!
Probably some of these loops are flowing north, though. The atlases I have access to aren't detailed enough to show the meanders. But some rivers loop around and meander in larger loops that do show on maps. For a good example of a large, famous river that loops around in all sorts of directions, look closely at a map of the Ohio River, which flows mainly west-southwest for 981 miles from Pittsburgh until it meets the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois. But during that route, you can see it head north-northwest from Pittsburgh to East Liverpool, and loop north again a few times -- near Marietta, Ohio, a bit farther down near Point Pleasant, W.Va., and still further along between Huntington, W.Va. and Portsmouth, Ohio. In fact it continues roughly northwest to Cincinnati, and doesn't take a more southerly direction again until the Indiana border; there are more such loops between Kentucky and Indiana, too.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Goddard Space Flight Center has a site, "Is it true that there are few rivers that flow north toward the sea?", which is one of the few other sites I have found that discuss this question. In addition to the points I've already mentioned, NASA notes that
Surprisingly, four of the world's ten longest rivers flow generally in
THE CONTEST QUESTION
In July, 1993, a Pittsburgh-based supermarket chain which operates a store in Weirton ran a contest featuring questions on American history and geography, so that its customers would learn more about our country. This is a laudable goal. However, one question read as follows:
"There are three rivers in the United States that flow north, one is the St. John's River (FL), another is the Willamette River (OR), what is the third?"
Overlooking the run-on sentence, the fact remains that there are many more than three rivers that flow north, even if you limit it to rivers in the United States. Searching through maps, books on rivers, and the "Geographic Names" list in Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary led to a fairly lengthy list. (In fact this question somewhat resembles the riddle about the third word that ends in -gry.) Thus the problem became, since there are quite a few more than three such rivers, which was the "correct" answer?
And the answer is . . . the Monongahela River.
We determined this in three ways:
In the meantime, we had discovered quite a few
(Note that this list does not include streams named "Creek", "Run", etc., only those named "River". There are quite a few more creeks, runs, and so on flowing north, too. Since local opinions differ and what might be only a "creek" in one part of the country could be considered a "river" in others, this very terminology does not help create a complete list. However, it's somewhat built into the original question, so I decided to continue using it as a limiting factor.)
Big Horn (WY and MT), near which General Custer met his doom Hawaii has several north-flowing rivers. Two of the most northerly flowing ones are the Hanalei and the Wailua, both on the north shore of Kauai. Other rivers that flow northerly but not necessarily due north Rivers partly in Canada that flow north: In northern Vermont there are so many rivers that flow into Canada and the St. Lawrence that Howard Frank Mosher called a novel about that region Where the Rivers Flow North. It was later made into a movie starring Michael J. Fox. Puerto Rico has at least one north-flowing river interesting enough to add to the list -- the Arecibo River, known in Spanish as the Río Grande de Arecibo, flows for about 40 miles in western Puerto Rico from the Cordillera Centra northl to the Atlantic Ocean; it's mouth is just east of the town of Arecibo. South of the town is the great Arecibo radiotelescope. At least two northerly-flowing rivers begin in Mexico and end in the United States. The San Pedro begins near Cananea, in the state of Sonora, and flows north and slightly west to the Gila River in Arizona. The Santa Cruz also begins near the border, loops south into Sonora for a little, and flows north and northwest through Tucson and into the Gila near Phoenix. These two, like other rivers in desert areas around the world, appear dry much of the time, but fill with water when it rains (and it does rain sometimes, even in deserts), and they can even flood after heavy rainfall. "However, water always flows beneath their sandy beds," according to the World Book Encyclopedia article on Arizona.
Hawaii has several north-flowing rivers. Two of the most northerly flowing ones are the Hanalei and the Wailua, both on the north shore of Kauai.
Other rivers that flow northerly but not necessarily due north
Rivers partly in Canada that flow north:
In northern Vermont there are so many rivers that flow into Canada and the St. Lawrence that Howard Frank Mosher called a novel about that region Where the Rivers Flow North. It was later made into a movie starring Michael J. Fox.
Puerto Rico has at least one north-flowing river interesting enough to add to the list -- the Arecibo River, known in Spanish as the Río Grande de Arecibo, flows for about 40 miles in western Puerto Rico from the Cordillera Centra northl to the Atlantic Ocean; it's mouth is just east of the town of Arecibo. South of the town is the great Arecibo radiotelescope.
At least two northerly-flowing rivers begin in Mexico and end in the United States. The San Pedro begins near Cananea, in the state of Sonora, and flows north and slightly west to the Gila River in Arizona. The Santa Cruz also begins near the border, loops south into Sonora for a little, and flows north and northwest through Tucson and into the Gila near Phoenix. These two, like other rivers in desert areas around the world, appear dry much of the time, but fill with water when it rains (and it does rain sometimes, even in deserts), and they can even flood after heavy rainfall. "However, water always flows beneath their sandy beds," according to the World Book Encyclopedia article on Arizona.
NORTH-FLOWING RIVERS AROUND THE WORLD
Every continent has north-flowing rivers except Antarctica, and it would except for the ice-cap which covers the entire continent. You might want to stretch the point and consider the glaciers as rivers of ice, which flow north, away from the center of the continent at the South Pole, toward the oceans.
The oceans themselves contain currents, and the North Atlantic Drift, part of the Gulf Stream, flows north-northeast from the Caribbean to the coast of western Europe, bringing enough warm air and water along the way that there are places on the coasts of Ireland and Scotland where palm trees can grow!
In fact, if you look hard enough, it might even be true that most countries have north-flowing rivers. Certainly many do. It would be nearly impossible to list every north-flowing river in the world, but here are some from each continent.
North America (outside U.S.):
In Canada, in addition to the rivers listed above that are partly in the United States, there are many more north-flowing rivers that flow into lakes, Hudson Bay, the Atlantic or Arctic Oceans, etc.
Mexico also has more north-flowing rivers than those it shares with the United States, though a few flow into bodies of water shared with the U.S., such as the Rio Conchos, which flows into the Rio Grande. In southern Mexico there are other rivers that flow north into the Bay of Campeche (part of the Caribbean Sea), such as the Crijalva. In fact, some of Mexico's southern border is made of north-flowing rivers: the Usumacinta,whose mouth is near that of the Crijalva, forms part of the border with Guatemala; and the Hondo, which flows into the Gulf of Honduras, forms part of the border with Belize. In addition, some of these rivers also have north-flowing tributaries; for example, the Lacantum is a tributary of the Usumacinta.
In South America, there are many rivers that flow into the Amazon from the south, such as the Beni, Jurua, Tapajos, Xingu, and Tocantins, to name only a few. There are also north-flowing rivers in the northern part of South America that flow into the Caribbean and Atlantic.
As in Canada, many of the north-flowing rivers in Siberia (the part of Russia in Asia) flow into the Arctic Ocean. The Ob, Yenisey, Lena and Kolyma flow into the Arctic (again, one ought to add "in summer" since in winter they freeze over), but there are others including the Nadym, Yana, Indigirka, Omolon, Vitim, and Irtysh. Like many of the rivers mentioned for North America, some of these rivers wind around quite a bit; the Lena, for one, starts out flowing north, then northeast, then north again. In the European part of Russia there are north-flowing rivers too, including the Pechora and Severnaja.
In Europe, there's the Rhine, which flows north from Switzerland between France and Germany past the part of the world the Fundis family originally came from, though it veers northwest toward the Netherlands shortly past there. On the other side of Germany is the Elbe, which flows into the Baltic Sea, and with its tributary the Neisse has formed Germany's border with Poland since the end of World War II. Other north-flowing rivers in Germany include the Ems, Uecker, Spree, Necker, Weser, and Warnow; there are many more. Other north-flowing rivers in Poland include the Vistula and the Warta.
Not to be outdone, Africa has the longest and most famous of all, the Nile -- not merely the most famous or longest north-flowing river, but the longest and very possibly the most famous and most historic river in any direction, anywhere on Earth. The Encyclopædia Britannica calls it "the father of African rivers". The Nile's origins, once mysterious, begin south of the Equator: it starts from Lake Victoria and then flows north from Tanzania for over 4,000 miles (35 degrees of latitude, nearly a fifth of the entire distance from the North to South Poles!) through Uganda, the Sudan and of course Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea. Southern parts of the Nile have different names -- the Victoria Nile, the Albert Nile, the Mountain Nile, the White Nile -- but are all the same river, and all flow primarily north. Several of the Nile's tributaries also flow north, including the Barat al Azraq (also called the Blue Nile), the Bahr al Jaraf (or Giraffe River), and the Atbarah River. And like all rivers, the Nile meanders; in the Sudan it takes some S curves and for a couple of hundred miles flows primarily southwest until it turns northward again. The Nile is typical of many rivers in other ways, too, in that it has cataracts (waterfalls), and has been dammed (the Aswan High Dam, forming Lake Nasser in southern Egypt) to prevent flooding. Ironically, in ancient times it was the Nile's annual flooding that, by providing water in what was otherwise a desert, enabled farming along its banks, and thus the growth of the ancient Egyptian civilization. See a map of the Nile at http://www.nilebasin.org/nilemap.htm.
There are other north-flowing rivers in Africa too, of course, including several tributaries of the Congo.
Australia has many north-flowing rivers on its northern shore. Some of these are dotted lines on atlases, which means they have flowing water only in the rainy season. A few that are solid-blue lines, and thus wet all year around, are the Drysdale, Victoria, Fitzroy, King Edward, Durack, Daly and Ord. The island of Tasmania also has north-flowing rivers, the Massey, Macquarie and Tamar.
That's all I'm going to list for now. There are also north-flowing rivers in Japan, Madagascar, Sarawak ... why not get out an atlas and find a few yourself?
"Geographic Names", [Merriam]-Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, pages 1433-1518.
Kolenkow, Robert J. et al. Physical Geography Today: A Portrait of a Planet (Del Mar, Calif.; CRM Books, 1994), especially chapter 12, "Flowing Water and Its Work." (Most of the information on what makes rivers flow at all is from this.)
Phillips, Angus. "Simple Gifts of the Shenandoah." Photographs by Vincent J. Musi. National Geographic, December 1996 (vol. 190, no. 6), pp. 38-57 (especially p. 46, which includes the quote above).
Rolling Rivers: An Encyclopedia of America's Rivers, Richard A. Bartlett, ed. (New York, McGraw-Hill, c1984)
Stumpers List archives, mostly from March, 1997 -- special thanks to T.F. Mills, Ron Schaeffer, Carolyn Caywood, Kate Cummings, David Ibbetson, and particularly Patricia Beuerlein, who contributed a list as long as the one I already had but mostly of non-U.S. rivers. In March, 1997, Elaine Powell Hooker, Reference Librarian at the Spartanburg County Public Library in Spartanburg, SC, was asked a "rivers that flow north" question and on March 12 posted the question to the Stumpers List. Stumpers is an e-mail list primarily for reference librarians. In the course of the list discussion, I posted an earlier version of this list and other librarians mentioned others. Therefore, some of the rivers mentioned above, especially those from outside the U.S., were suggested by these other members of the list or were found in atlases while looking up rivers mentioned by them
Thanks to Jennifer Monroe for bringing to my attention the Withlacoochee River of central Florida.
Thanks to Ronald Beall who mentioned the north-flowing section of the Missouri.
Other sources consulted, especially to verify facts about individual rivers:
"Like a river that don't know where it's flowin'