The Nile Flows North


"How can a river flow north?" the real estate lady asked me. "I mean, it's impossible." The offending river, within whose watershed I proposed to buy a house, is the Wallkill. It rises in Northern New Jersey – near Sparta – and passes by Middletown, NY, and through Montgomery, Walden, the eponymous town of Wallkill, New Paltz, Rosendale, and finally (with a complication) drains into the Hudson River at Kingston, NY – approximately 100 miles north of its source.

In defense of the American public school system, I add that my realtor was born and educated in Europe.

A colleague of mine (I work at a university) said at least semi-seriously that, except for the Nile, the Wallkill is the only river in the world that flows north.

Now where have I heard that before? I used to live in DeKalb, Illinois. It was common wisdom in those parts (indeed, if memory serves, even stated in the student newspaper), that – except for the Nile – the Kishwaukee River is the only river in the world that flows north.

You've all heard of that, of course: the famous, north-flowing Kishwaukee? The only problem is that only the South Branch (sort of) flows north. The main course, if anything, heads south.

I grew up in Eugene, OR, at the headwaters of the Willamette, which really does flow north. But I don't recall any of my high school chums telling me about the Willamette and the Nile. Maybe they knew me too well. Or perhaps that's because so many other rivers in Oregon flow north: the Deschutes, the John Day, and the Hood. Even the Oregon portion of the Snake flows north.

I do understand that in Cairo the word on the street is that, except for the Willamette, the Nile is the only river in the world that flows north. Odd, since in Sudan for about 200 miles, the Nile River actually flows south.

So what accounts for this urban legend that (fill in the blank) river and the Nile are the only two rivers that flow north? I can think of three reasons.

First, had I pressed her, the reason that my Realtor likely would have given: Rivers flow down, south is down on the map, and therefore rivers must flow south. OK, so that one is silly. My European Realtor should consider the Rhine, Elbe, Neisse, Vistula, and (arguably) the Seine or the Havel.

My colleague, on the other hand, is smarter. He asked for an example of another north-flowing river, and I (pulling his chain) mentioned the St. Lawrence.

"But that doesn't really flow north."

And it is true, it flows only northerly. But that begs the question: how true to the compass does a river actually have to flow before it counts with the Nile? Clearly, if you define "north" narrowly enough, then very few rivers flow north – not even the Nile.

I gave him better examples: The Mackenzie, Churchill, Red (ND), Fox (WI), San Joaquin, Bitterroot, Yellowstone, Madison, Jefferson, Lualaba.

The Lualaba? That, my friend could argue, surely shouldn't be on the list, though it flows nearly due north for almost 1000 miles. After all, it is just a different name for the Congo, upstream from Kisangani Falls. But nobody really knew that: for at least two centuries it was thought that the Lualaba drained into the Nile, surely establishing its northward credential. It was only in 1877 that Henry Morgan Stanley (of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" fame) took a boat down the Lualaba all the way to its mouth at the Atlantic Ocean.

Lest you think that multi-named rivers exist only in uncharted Africa, think again. Our very own Niagara River flows due north, from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, and is just an extension of the St. Lawrence.

The Lena, the Ob, and the Don flow north, all of which drain into the Russian arctic.

But that brings us to the third reason for this persistent legend: that it's true. No, I am not wearing a tinfoil hat, but even the most improbable urban legends have a grain of truth. I'll argue this one does, and here is why.

Most of the world's continents are in the northern hemisphere, and conversely, oceans are disproportionately in the southern. Thus, to reach the ocean, rivers must on average flow south.

We are all subject to the Mercator fallacy, and assume that the northern coast is as long as the southern. But it isn't. The northern shores of Russia, Alaska and Canada are much, much shorter than the southern coasts of Asia, Europe and North America. Thus, just by the odds, there have to be many fewer rivers flowing north than flowing south. I do believe this is true.

How could one prove that? I don't know. It would be a lot of work – counting rivers, controlling for south-heading-north-flowing ones, etc., etc. Not worth the candle. So I'll just accept my hypothesis as both reasonable and true.

I'm not willing to give my real estate agent much credit. But my university colleague is not quite as far off the mark as you might have originally thought. North-flowing rivers are, indeed, relatively rare.

The Richelieu, Monongahela, Shenandoah, and the St. Mary's (FL).

I've listed all the ones I can think of. Can you think of more? Creeks, brooks, streams and canals don't count. And neither does the St. Lawrence. But other than that, I'm curious what you'll come up with.

Except for the Nile.

Daniel Jelski is Dean of Science & Engineering State University of New York at New Paltz.


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Rivers that flow north-ish

The Santa Cruz river here in southwest AZ is a north flowing river, although it is only really visible during the summer monsoons when the rain raises the level above ground. I find the "only river that flows north" claim to be pretty interesting because I have heard people say that the Santa Cruz is also very rare as far as it's north flowing status, which prompted my visit here; curiosity and a need to be less ignorant I guess! Thank you for the informative and fun article.

Wyoming Rivers

(Received as e-mail from John Whitehead, and posted with his permission.)

Daniel: In my home state of Wyoming I can think of three rivers flowing north right off the top of my head:

1 - The Bighorn. It starts with the name "Wind" but changes names at a canyon just south of Thermopolis. The Bighorn flows north and empties into The Yellowstone in Montana.

2 - The Powder. It flows north and empties into The Yellowstone in Montana.

3 - The North Platte. It flows north into Wyoming from Colorado to Casper but there flows back ESE toward Nebraska and the junction with the South Platte.

More obscure are:

4 - The Tongue. It flows north and empties into The Yellowstone in Montana.

5 - The Little Missouri. It flows north from Wyoming into Montana, South Dakota, then North Dakota and empties into The Missouri after taking a turn to the east in North Dakota.

Daniel, the southern border of Wyoming has something interesting about rivers that I doubt can be found elsewhere. It has one major river flowing north across the border (The North Platte) and one major river flowing south across the border (The Green). Of course the two rivers are on opposite sides of the Continental Divide, their waters empty into different oceans.

I know the Kishwaukee; I've been swimming and canoeing in that river southeast of Rockford.

- John Whitehead / Cheyenne, WY /

fact checking needed

While there are plenty of rivers that flow North, Don does not. In fact Don drains into the same basin as Nile (via Sea of Azov, and Black sea and eventually into Med). The other Don river (in Toronto) also drains south into Lake Ontario. Of course it is pretty small and should probably be classified as a creek.

This is pretty lousy geography for a site with geography in its title.

SOUTH Branch of the Potomac River flows north

Like the Shenandoah River, the South Branch of the Potomac River and several of its tributaries flow north from their sources in Virginia and West Virginia into the "main" Potomac River (which marks the southern border of Maryland for most of its length) near Green Spring, W.Va.

Traveling north down the Hudson

The Wallkill flows north into the Hudson River, but which direction does the water head from there? Depends on the tide at the moment of its arrival.

Famously known as ‘the river that flows both ways’ – at least in the urban lore about Native American nomenclature -- the Hudson is seriously tidal and bi-directional well up past Kingston. When the tide is coming in, the river flows almost exactly due north, with the water heading back south while the tide ebbs.

It’s a shallow estuary with about a three foot tide at Kingston. True, the net flow is slightly southerly, but try telling the poor soul paddling a canoe south against the incoming tide that the Hudson doesn’t flow north.

Rivers that Flow North -

The St, John's River

The 310 mile St. Johns River emerges from swamps and marshes at its upper basin in Indian River County near Vero Beach and meanders north through 14 Florida counties, emptying into the Atlantic Ocean near Jacksonville. This "lazy" river is documented in the Travels of William Bartram and was once home to many aboriginal populations including the extinct Timucuan tribe. It is designated as both an American Heritage River and one of America's Ten Most Endangered Rivers. The St. John's Watershed served as the backdrop for one of the earliest colonial clashes between French Huguenots led by Jean Ribault and Spanish Conquistadors commanded by Pedrom Menendez de Aviles.

The southern hemisphere

(I thought I had already posted this comment but it seems to have disappeared. Sorry it if it lurking somewhere visible to the rest of you.)

Not surprisingly many rivers in the southern hemisphere flow north and many flow south and many flow east and many flow west.
Look at the maps of Australia and South America for starters.
Then on the premise that water makes a bee line for the coast don't be surprised to find many rivers in New Zealand flow east and west.

The theory of the length of the coastline is interesting but of course coastlines are difficult things to measure. They are fractals and hence their length depends on the length of the ruler. A one mile ruler will give you a different length to a twenty mile ruler while a one foot ruler will give you a huge length of coastline.
At the atomic level all coast lines are the same length - infinite.

Owen McShane, Kaiwaka, New Zealand.
Director, Centre for Resource Management Studies.

Genesee River

There's also the Genesee that flows from northern Pennsylvania pretty much directly north, emptying into lake Ontario at Rochester, NY.