Paddling To Temagami’s Maple Mountain

Previous Post: Canoeing The Steel River – Santoy Lake/Our Thoughts On The Steel As A Canoe Trip

sunset over Temagami's Maple Mountain ridge

sunset over Temagami’s Maple Mountain ridge

Having decided to turn southward at the confluence of the Steel /Little Steel instead of paddling up and then back down the series of lakes that make up the Little Steel River system,  we were left with a few more days of food in our pack and the need of an impromptu mini-trip whose paddle strokes would burn it all up.

We started with two options. The first was based on a trip we had done in the Temagami area in the fall of 2014 – it would be a shortened version of Revisiting the Diamond Lake Pictographs,  this time giving us a couple of nights at Chee Skon Lake. The second was revisiting Maple Mountain (according to this list Ontario’s 17th highest point at 642m), a side visit on our 2009  mountaineering/canoeing combo trip to Ishpatina Ridge, Ontario’s official highest spot at 692m. In the end, Maple Mountain was our choice.

We’d also get to set up our tent at one of our favourite campsites, the one on the east side of Hobart Lake.

Hobarth Lake campsite overview

Hobart Lake campsite overview

It has all the qualities of a classic Canadian Shield campsite – the sloping rock outcrop that goes up to a flat and sheltered area with room for more than one tent, a great open view west towards Maple Mountain Ridge, and it would also serve as an excellent base camp for the next morning’s paddle over to Tupper Lake and the summit attempt on Maple Mountain!

Hobarth campsite view in the afternoon

Hobart campsite view in the afternoon – the view does not get old!

Neither of us was keen on re-paddling Lake Temagami from the access road across from Temagami Island.  A closer access point to Maple Mountain is Mowat Landing.  Only one portage – the one around the Mattawapika Dam not far from where the Lady Evelyn River and the Montreal River meet. And only one possible drawback – the long stretch of lake paddle to get to the end of Lady Evelyn.  It is about 40 kilometers from Mowat Landing to Tupper Lake and the start of the 3 km. hiking trail to the top of Maple Mountain.

Two Routes To Maple Mountain There is an alternative access – the Red Squirrel Road to Sandy Inlet on Ferguson Bay.  It took us about an hour and half from Temagami to get to the parking area at the end of a pretty rough road that runs from Red Squirrel towards the water.  It is a 300-meter portage from the car to the shore.  Camp Wanapitei is visible to the south as you walk onto the beach.

While the Mowat Landing approach is 40 kilometers with one portage, our choice of entry adds three kilometers to the distance and includes five possible portages. We accepted the extra kilometers and carries instead of the potential drama of a bad day or two of wind on Lady Evelyn Lake.

Day One: Sandy Inlet To Diamond Lake

  • distance: 14 Km
  • time: 1:30 p.m. start – 6:15 p.m. end
  • weather: overcast; strong N/NW wind (20 kph)
  • portages: two
    – 740-meters, the one we thought was the Napoleon Portage;
    – 220m the short portage from Sharp Rock Inlet into Diamond lake
  • campsite: island site; multiple 2-person sites; 4-person not so much, water access was ok but a long walk depending on where you set up your kitchen; fuel stove needed unless you paddle to mainland to look for wood
Temagami. Day One. Sandy Inlet to Diamond Lake

Temagami. Day One. Sandy Inlet into Diamond Lake

The Napoleon Portage(s)Into the water at 1:30 p.m., we paddled across Ferguson Bay with a strong NW wind blowing. That, and the fact we were not 100% clear on the Napoleon Portage’s take-out spot, had us ending up too far south on the west side of the bay.  As the map to the left shows, we headed up along the shore to the take-out. We  figured we were there when we saw the tree with four bright orange bands on it. We had only been on the Napoleon once – six years ago when we came at it from the west side on Whitefish Bay.  The initial steep part was there.  What wasn’t there was a portage trail that has existed for 100 years!  We explained it away with reasons like a bad string of blowdowns and ice storms since our last visit.  Given the presence of fresh blazes and marking tape we somehow got sucked into the “trail”.  And once we were in, the only thought was getting to the end of the thing.  Somehow it made sense and didn’t make sense at the same time!  We’d hit a stretch or two that seemed like a portage trail – and then we’d bushwhack through another section that had us shaking our heads in disbelief.

N.B. we only found out that it was not the Napoleon Portage four days later coming back.  On that day as we approached the take-out landing for the “mystery trail” we spotted what looked like a portage landing about 100 meters north of where we were heading.  Going up the shoreline to take a look, I hopped out of the canoe, walked a few meters into the bush from the landing area and came back to announce – “This is the Napoleon Portage!”  We are still confused about that “mystery trail’ we followed on Day One – see here for some possible explanations offered by fellow canoe trippers at the Canadian Canoe Routes forum.

Below is the picture we took four days later when we walked the actual Napoleon Portage to Ferguson Bay from the west. The Napoleon Portage comes out at bottom right. Dangling on the branch  is some tape I had just put there. Other than my fresh tape there was nothing at the Napoleon portage other than the very well-used trail itself!    The “mystery trail’ begins on the left hand side in the middle of the image. Enlarge the pic and you should see the four bands of orange tape. When we approached it from the south we wrongly figured that we had arrived at the take-out. From the Canadian Canoe Routes poster comment to my thread, we were not the only ones to make that mistake that week!

the mystery trail and the Napoleon - side by each!

the mystery trail and the Napoleon – side by each!

To make matters worse, we have added to the confusion by putting up our own marking tape in certain difficult sections as we walked “the mystery trail”. Seeing that tape will unfortunately reassure some poor canoe tripper who makes the same initial mistake we did.

a rough stretch of the mystery trail

a rough stretch of the mystery trail – the blazes were reassuring!

more of the mystery trail

more of the mystery trail

the mystery trail south of the Napoleon Portage

the mystery trail S of the Napoleon

mystery trail - seemingly normal

seemingly normal and looking like a trail!

the west side of the mystery trail

the Whitefish Bay side of “the mystery trail” – pretty crooked for a prospector’s stake line

The portage done, we got down to paddling and by 5 we were at the far end of the Sharp Rock Inlet Portage.  We had already seen twelve canoes in the first three hours of our trip, mostly belonging to the various summer camps located on Lake Temagami.  That was twice as many as all the canoes we had seen in five previous summers of Wabakimi and Woodland Caribou tripping!

Day One Island Camp at east end of Diamond Lake

Day One Island Camp at east end of Diamond Lake

Just after the portage  we paddled by the two small islands you see in the map above.  We landed on the west side of the sloped granite outcrop and walked up to the top where we found a fairly flat area to put up our home for the night.  We had started the morning at the motel in Iron Bridge and here we were at the east end of Diamond Lake!  The next target – Hobart Lake and one of our favourite campsites.

Day Two: Diamond Lake To Hobart Lake

  • distance: 27.2 Km
  • time: 9:15 start – 4:15 p.m. end
  • weather: mixture of cloudy and overcast, sunny and warm, N/NW wind (15+ kph)
  • portages: three
    – 40m Diamond L to Lady Evelyn Lake – the main portage is on west side (left as you’re going down); we just ran it and scraped through. It can also be easily lined on the right.
    – 220m Lady E to small Lake (shorter due to beaver dam activity and higher water)
    – 510m  small Lake to Willow Island Lake (Lady Evelyn River (South Channel)
  • campsite: Hobart Lake – awesome!! multiple 2-or 4-person tents, thunderbox; easy access to water; great swimming opportunity; great view of Maple Mountain all day.

N.B. Follow the next three maps from the bottom map up to the top one.

Sucker Gut To Maple Mountain

lay-evelyn-south-arm-to-sucker-gut-lake

Diamond Lake to Lady Evelyn (South Arm)

We set off shortly after nine and after passing another group of summer camp teen trippers on the way up the north arm of Diamond Lake, we looked over to the pictograph site that we had visited the previous October. (See here for the report.) From the other side of the arm it looked rather small and unimpressive; we decided to leave a visit to our return a few days later.

Diamond Lake Picto site in passing

Diamond Lake Pictograph site in passing

Instead we headed right for the Lady Evelyn Lift-Over. The name “lift-over” has always puzzled us because while we have portaged it on the left, lined it on the right, and run it down the middle, we have never managed a literal lift-over. Seeing it in the image below, it is difficult to picture the Lady Evelyn Falls that was once there.

It was the construction of a dam at  near the confluence of the Lady Evelyn River and the Montreal River across from Mowat Landing at Mattawapika Falls – a smaller one in 1915 and a higher one in 1925 – that raised the water level of Lady Evelyn Lake by some nine meters.   It also caused the falls to all but disappear!  It has been reduced to a one-foot drop!

Lady Evelyn Lift-over

Lady Evelyn “Lift-over” – easy to line on the right side

Thanks to a reader of this post for the following detailed explanation of the dam’s history and purpose:

The dam was put in by mining companies operating in the area to supply water for power plants on the Montreal River. A canoe trip on the Montreal River below Latchford will have you pass over and around all of these ancient dams and compressor plants that used to be there to supply air to the mines of the area.

These days the dam holds back water to help operate the string of hydro plants on the Montreal. Many of these plants are peaking plants that operate only intermittently.  The water on Lady Evelyn Lake gets drawn down over the winter to supply hydro operations.

If you go to Lady Evelyn Lake in the early spring, as soon as the ice is gone, the lake level with be about 15 feet lower than in the summer months.  The water level has to be raised by May 15 or so to permit cottagers and others to enjoy the lake.

The Diamond Lake into Lady Evelyn Lake spot was not only massively impacted by the Mattawapika dam 30 kilometres to the north-east. There was another dam – a six-foot timber dam – built right across the stream at this point as in the pic above.  It was constructed in 1942 by a lumber company to float its logs from Diamond Lake down to its mill in Latchford.  The dam remained there until 1973 when it was removed by a Ministry of Natural Resources work crew. Apparently the water level on Diamond Lake went down by some 4.5 feet after its removal.

the little drop - all that is left of Lady Evelyn Falls

the little drop – all that is left of Lady Evelyn Falls

Forgotten in all this were the Anishinaabe people who had lived in the area for centuries if not millennia. Among other landmarks, the Diamond Lake pictograph site was partially submerged during the period of the dam’s existence. Check out Brian Back’s Ottertooth article here for a well-researched summary of the two dams and their impact.

Meanwhile…

There was some scraping as we slipped through the “rapids” into Lady Evelyn Lake.  Then it was a short paddle up to the first of the two portages which take you from Lady Evelyn Lake into Willow Island Lake  (a part of the Lady Evelyn River system).

the two portages from Lady evelyn Lake (South Arm) to Willow Island Lake (Lady Evelyn River system)

the portages from Lady Evelyn Lake (South Arm) to Willow Island Lake (Lady Ev River system)

the start of the first portage from Lady Evelyn Lake over to Willow Island Lake

the start of the first portage from Lady Evelyn Lake to Willow Island Lake

the end of the first portage to Willow Island Lake

the end of the first portage to Willow Island Lake

An initial fifteen-meter stretch on a creek bed made up of boulders made for some awkward walking. It soon led to a well-trodden trail that came out to the marshy area at the end of the high-water portage. We had to do a double take since the area had changed some over the past decade.  Where we had once pitched our tent on a previous trip was now on the edge of a beaver dam that has created a wetland.

The 220-meter carry over, we loaded the canoe and set off down the pic you see below to get to the small lake and the start of the next portage.  Running along on the north side is a trail that may be used during lower water periods. We were happy to paddle through.

looking west from the beaver dam

looking west from the beaver dam

The next portage was easy to find and do.  Near the end there is a bit of a diversion to deal with some recent  blowdown; the orange tape guides you through the small change to the route.

Down Willow Island Lake through the narrows into Sucker Gut Lake and a hard left and we paddled into what you see in the pic below.  The first time we came through here we didn’t know anything about the Mattawapika Dam near the mouth of the Lady Evelyn River where it meets the Montreal River.  It raised the water level of the entire lake by nine meters – all for the convenience of the mining companies.  We had learned since that as a preliminary step fires would often be set in the area to be flooded. The charred trunks of the pines and spruces stand as silent witness to those times.

view of Maple Mountain ridge from Sucker Gut Lake

view of Maple Mountain ridge from Sucker Gut Lake

As we paddled westward we also saw the Maple Mountain ridge and the faint presence of the fire tower again.  We had been here in 2009 and hadn’t forgotten.

closer up view from Sucker Gut Lake

When we saw a canoe on Hobart Lake I figured that the premier campsite we were hoping to get was already occupied.  We were busy formulating a Plan B as we paddled up to the site, one of our favourites,  and found – well, nobody was there!

The second and third  pix of this post show the site and two happy campers sitting in their plush Helinox chairs taking in a late afternoon view of Maple Mountain.  We’d spend more time as the hours rolled by sipping on tea and maple liqueur and  snapping pix of the sun setting over Maple Mountain. A few of them follow –

dusk on Hobarth Lake

dusk on Hobart Lake

Maple Mtn Ridge at sunset

Maple Mountain Ridge at sunset

Hobarth sunset

Maple Mtn Tower from Hobarth campsite

Maple Mountain Tower from Hobart campsite

Day Three: Hobart Lake – Maple Mountain – Lady Evelyn River

  • distances:
    9.5 km (Hobart L campsite to top of Maple Mount back to Tupper Lake
    12.6 km Tupper L to Lady Evelyn River (south channel) campsite
  • time: Maple Mtn 09:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.; Tupper L to campsite 1:30 p.m.-5:15 p.m.
  • weather: sunny and warm; S wind (10 kph) adding to the work,
  • portages: none
  • campsite: poor to fair; easy access to water but long walk. room for multiple 2-person tents nothing really ‘flat’; also hard to find one good 4-person site; thunder box
Hobarth and Maple Mountain in the morning

Hobart and Maple Mountain in the morning

Unlike the overcast day we had six years previously, this one would be clear and sunny. After our usual oatmeal breakfast, we savoured both the mugs of coffee and the morning view of Maple Mountain. And then it was off – first paddling the 3.5 kilometers to the start of the Maple Mountain trail.  The map below shows the route – about 1.7 km to the “confluence” of Tupper Creek and Willow Island Creek and then up to the beaver dam and Tupper Lake itself.

Hobart Lake To Tupper Lake and Maple Mountain

Hobart Lake To Tupper Lake and Maple Mountain

Maple Mountain at 642 meters is not, contrary to what some may think, the highest point in Ontario. It actually ranks 13th. according to this well-researched list of the province’s high spots. (See here for the Ottertooth article.)  Mind you, there is only a 51-meter gap between it and Ishpatina Ridge, the #1 point at 693 meters. Ishpatina is located just twenty-seven kilometers to the west.

It was Robert Bell of the Geological Survey of Canada who gave it the name “Maple Mountain”  back in 1888 . However,  the ridge with its dramatic rise in elevation had long  been on the mythological map of the local Anishinaabek (i.e.Ojibwe), known to them as Chi- bay-jing, “The Place Where Spirits Go”.

Where Maple Mountain does rank #1 in Ontario is in terms of vertical rise.  it is 351 meters higher than Tupper Lake down below, while Ishaptina, for example,  is 317 meters above Scarecrow Lake. For more solid information on Maple Mountain, Brian Back’s in-depth look here is your best bet.

the last and steepest stretch up to the top of Maple Mtn

the last and steepest stretch up to the top of Maple Mountain, #1 in vertical rise (in Ontario)

As we approached the landing and the start of the trail, we spotted a canoe sitting there. We were obviously not the day’s first. Given that we had not seen anyone paddle by that morning, chances were good that they had camped on Tupper the previous night.

the take out spot for the Maple Mtn Trail

the take out spot for the Maple Mtn Trail – a green canoe sits at the landing area

looking out from the Maple Mtn. trail start

looking out from the Maple Mtn. trail start

At the start of the trail are the ruins of the fire ranger’s cabin. Nearby is a spring where we filled up our water bottle. And then it was on to the trail.

the remains of the ranger's cabin at the start of the Maple Mountain trail

the remains of the ranger’s cabin at the start of the Maple Mountain trail

The trail for the first five hundred meters is quite flat and has a long stretch of 10′  boards taking you over some mushy bits.  I counted 35 of them as we walked along; after a bit of a gap we came to seven more. It made for easy walking.

the board walk at the start of the Maple Mountain Trail

the board walk at the start of the Maple Mountain Trail

Some altitude need to be gained though and it comes soon enough, a gradual ascent – and occasional giving away of all the “up” you just gained as the trail heads downward for a bit!  The trail also gets somewhat less groomed.  We counted at least a couple dozen places where a chainsaw would help to reestablish the trail. As it is,  deadfall across the trail has hikers walking around the obstructions.  We spent the first half hour stopping often to clear smaller trees and branches from the path but we realized that it would take forever to get to the top if we were also going to be doing trail work as we walked up.

Half Way Lake off the Maple Mountain Trail

Half Way Lake  – really? –  off the Maple Mountain Trail

It was somewhere near the lake that we met the two women and their dog, an older Labrador who was having trouble with the blockages on the path. They had decided to turn back without getting to the top. Given what was coming up, there would have been more stretches that the Lab would not be able to handle.

This six-meter steel ladder take you up an almost vertical section of the trail and leads to  more scrambling before the summit.  In true mountaineering fashion, there are a couple of points where you think you are there, only to realize that wishful thinking alone does not make a summit!

twenty foot ladder section on Maple Mountain top

twenty-foot ladder section near Maple Mountain top

up the ladder to Maple Mountain top

up the ladder to Maple Mountain top

getting close to the top of Maple Mountain

getting close to the top of Maple Mountain – staring up a a jet’s vapour trail

a scrambly section near the top

a  section requiring for some scrambling near the top

Half Way Lake as seen from the top of the ridge

Half Way Lake as seen from the top of the ridge + Sucker Gut Lake at the top of the image

Seeing the 30-meter high Fire Tower is the sign that you are almost there! The last time we were here it was overcast and the bugs were so bad I climbed half way up to the cupola to escape while I snapped some photos. We would have no such problems this morning – no bugs, no clouds.

getting close to the top and the tower

getting close to the top and the tower

Maple Mountain Fire Tower

Maple Mountain Fire Tower – unnecessary since 1970

There was another change since our last visit. The first seven meters of the ladder have been removed, making access to the rest somewhat awkward.  I am sure some will still be up to the challenge!  There is one complication – even if you do get up to the ladder and join the elite crew who have climbed up over the decades, you will end up at the bottom of the cupola with no way to get in.  It has been locked! The sign at the foot of the tower explains all this to discourage you from even bothering to make the climb.

Maple Mtn. Fire Tower Notice

“Fire tower closed to public access. Lower ladder section removed and cupola access door locked. Climbing tower is prohibited.”

As we read the sign, we wondered why the Ontario Parks folks didn’t just take the thing down. We figured that the expense probably encouraged someone in an office in Toronto to come up with the partial ladder removal as a cost-saving alternative.  Well, we were wrong about that.  Check out this Ottertooth news brief “Adios To Fire Towers” from August 6, 2015. You’ll read –

With the exception of Caribou Mountain*, a municipally-operated tourist site, above the town of Temagami, the rest of Ontario’s towers are on the chopping block. That includes two in Lady Evelyn-Smoothwater Wilderness Park: Ishpatina and Maple Mountain, both popular backcountry destinations.

See here for the full article. If seeing that fire tower is a major reason for your visit to Maple Mountain, better get there sooner than later!

Maple Mountain fire tower - the cupola

Maple Mountain fire tower – the cupola

looking up the Maple Mountain tower

memorial on paddle at fire tower base

memorial plaque on paddle at Maple Mountain fire tower base

As iconic as the fire tower may be, there is something else much more majestic up on top of Maple Mountain. The images  below – minus the feel of the wind and the sun as you sit there and take it all in – give you an idea of what you’ll see after spending one and half hours on your canoe trippers’  pilgrimage. It is a “wow” moment for sure.

In the end, the experience of walking up to the top and taking in the view trumps all the statistics and the tower.  As we approached the top we watched two eagles in the skies above the mountaintop. Eagles are often associated in the Anishinaabe world with the manitou Animiki, the Thunderbird, next to Gitchi Manitou the most powerful of spirits. They were swooping back and forth, riding the winds and surveying their domain and we were under their watchful gaze! You just know you’re in the right place when you see eagles.

panorama - looking east from Maple Mountain top

panorama – looking east from Maple Mountain top

Looking east from Maple Mountain

Looking east from Maple Mountain

looking SE from Maple Mtn - Sucker Gut, Willow Island, and Chris Willis Lakes

looking SE from Maple Mtn – Sucker Gut, Willow Island, and Chris Willis Lakes

We spent forty-five minutes  taking in the views, chillin’  and refueling for the walk back to the canoe.  If it takes 1 1/2 hours to get to the top, it takes maybe an hour to get back to the canoe. Instead of an extended bit of aerobic exercise, now your knees and leg muscles get to be stressed.  A pair of trekking poles – not part of a typical paddler’s kit – would help.

on the way back down from Maple Mountain top

on the way back down from Maple Mountain top

Before we paddled back to Hobart Lake we dropped in at the campsite on Tupper’s east side. It has a beautiful view of the mountain and the fire tower.  While the site is not in the same league as the one on Hobart it would serve as a good alternative if the other one was already taken. We had lunch there and then set off to retrace the route that got us there.

looking from the Tupper Lake campsite to the Mountain

looking from the Tupper Lake campsite to the Mountain

Tupper Lake campsite

Tupper Lake campsite

That afternoon we paddled as far as the narrows between Sucker Gut Lake and Willow Island Lake.  After having wind from the north-west for the two previous days, now that we had started paddling south the wind had changed too; it was coming from the south-west.

The campsite we found there was average at best but did the job.  The tent was nicely tucked away in the woods and there was an open area where we set up our cook gear. The canoe on its side provided a nice wind screen and we soon had the two butane stoves going. Given that it was past 5 p.m. other paddlers had also probably stopped for the day since we didn’t see anyone come through the narrows after we set up camp.

Day Four: Back To Sharp Rock Inlet

  • distance: 21.4 km
  • time: 07:40 a.m. to 2:40 p.m.
  • weather: sunny, cloudy and overcast, then rain – SSE wind (15 kph)
  • portages: four – lined the one from Lady Evelyn to Diamond Lake (same as previous days)
  • campsite: island site in the inlet, nice site for multiple 2-person tents or a couple of 4-person tents; other campsites on the island; thunder box; easy access to water; some firewood maybe; nice view down the inlet
the second portage going into Lady Evelyn Lake from the lady Evelyn River (Willow Island Lake)

the second portage going into Lady Evelyn Lake from the Lady Evelyn River (Willow Island Lake)

After an early breakfast we were on the water before 8; we were hoping to get some calm water before the south wind kicked in again. By eleven we were past the two portages and into Lady Evelyn Lake.  That is when it started raining – spitting at first and then getting more serious as we moved into the afternoon.

We would stop for a cup of coffee under the tarp before moving on to the Lift-Over.

lunch spot under the tarp on Lady Evelyn Lake

coffee break under the tarp on Lady Evelyn Lake

approaching the Lady Evelyn Lift-Over

approaching the Lady Evelyn Lift-Over

When we got to the Lift-Over, we paddled to the south side and decided to track the canoe up the current. It took a couple of  tries to get the nose in just right.  However,  the effort required was much less than the hassle of emptying the canoe,  hauling it and the gear 40 meters, and then putting everything back in again.  We spent the free time hopping around and taking photos of this historical spot. (See Brian Back’s Ottertooth article here for the story.)

the little drop - all that is left of Lady Evelyn Falls

the little drop – all that is left of Lady Evelyn Falls

our canoe after being tracked up the %22rapids%22

our canoe after being tracked up the “rapids”

looking up into Diamond Lake from the top of the drop

looking up into Diamond Lake from the top of the drop

looking down the north arm of Diamond Lake

looking down the north arm of Diamond Lake

As we entered Diamond Lake, I looked down the shore and spotted the pictograph site on the west shore.  As humble as it had looked from across the water as we paddled by on our way up, now it looked even less imposing.  We did paddle by just to be sure that it was the site. You can see it in the image above – the sandy brown bit about two-thirds of the way along the water line running across the middle of the picture.

coffee time at the east end of Diamond

coffee time at the east end of Diamond

As we approached the Sharp Rock Portage, the rain came down heavier and we pulled in at a designated campsite and put up the tarp. We figured we would sit out the worst of it and then get moving again. In the meanwhile we fired up the stove and got the lunch and coffee fixings out.

under the tarp as the ranin comes down

under the tarp as the rain comes down

our Swift Dumoine sitting in the rain

our Swift Dumoine sitting in the rain at the east end of Diamond lake

While we sat there we noticed five specks on the misty horizon – a Temagami camp group was approaching!  We would lose sight of them after a while as it seemed that they had paddled up a bay to the north. However, as we were taking down the tarp and getting ready to move on, there they were again.  They were looking for a campsite and wanted to know if “ours” was available.  The thing that most impressed us was the toughness and resilience shown by these canoe trippers in their mid-teens. It was still raining and they were carrying on with their business.  We wished the girls good luck with the weather and pushed off, wondering how far we would get. It was a good thing that we had started the day as early as we did.

a canoe party approaches

a canoe party approaches

close up of the Temagami summer camp canoe group

close up of the Temagami summer camp canoe group

the Sharp Rock Inlet side of the portage

the Sharp Rock Inlet side of the portage

We didn’t get too far!   After the Sharp Rock Portage we paddled for a bit but the combination of rain and wind and choppy water convinced at least me that we should just call it a day.  Talk about toughness and resilience!  Max wanted to keep on going in order to make the next day – the one back to the car – that much shorter.

With the classic argument of – why kill ourselves now when tomorrow morning it will take half the energy to cover the same distance?  – we pulled in at the south end of the island seen on the map below. It was 2:35 and we had covered maybe 3.5 km. since our mugs of coffee.  Tent and tarps went up and the canoe was set up as a windscreen and we hoped for better weather the next morning.

Diamond Lake:Sharp Rock Inlet

Sharp Rock Inlet campsite

Sharp Rock Inlet campsite – a wet and cool evening in Temagami

both tarps up at the Sharp Rock Island campsite

both tarps up at the Sharp Rock Island campsite

looking down the arm to the rest of Sharp Rock Inlet

looking down the arm to the rest of Sharp Rock Inlet

panorama of Sharp Rock Inlet area

panorama of Sharp Rock Inlet area at dusk – the wind had died down

Day Five: Sharp Rock Inlet – Ferguson Bay (Sandy Inlet)

  • distance: 9 km
  • time: 07:30 to 09:45
  • weather: overcast but no rain
  • portages: two
    – 770m – the real Napoleon Portage
    – 370m or 900m Ferguson Bay landing to car park areas  (depends on where you can park your vehicle)
  • campsite: home sweet home!!, easy access to water; plenty of flat spots; thunder boxes through out etc…
morning view of sharp rock inlet arm

morning view of sharp rock inlet arm

The previous evening’s major deliberation had centered around which portage to take into Ferguson Bay.  About an hour’s paddle down from what we still thought was the Napoleon Portage there is another shorter one that goes into Pickerel Bay. (See the map below for the location.)  We’d then have to paddle an hour north to get back to the top of the bay.  Plus we had no idea about the shape that this shorter portage was in. For all we knew it could be in the same shape as the trail we had done.

Portage Choices To Get To Ferguson Bay

Portage Choices To Get To Ferguson Bay

Of the trail that we thought was the Napoleon we knew this – it was a hell of a trail , it would take us about an hour to do, and it would save us two hours of paddling down to the other portage and then back up.  And that is how we decided to do again a trail we swore we would never set foot on again!

Except – as our Day One trip notes already made clear – we luckily ended up at the start of the actual Napoleon Portage trail and were spared both the additional paddling that the Pickerel Bay trail would have entailed and the bushwhacking of the “mystery trail”.

We unloaded our canoe at 8:15 on the west side of the Napoleon and at 9 we were already paddling across Ferguson Bay to the beach on Sandy Inlet just up from Camp Wanapitei.  We had pulled one big rabbit out of that hat!

the Ferguson Bay side and the two Napoleon portage trails

the Ferguson Bay side and the two Napoleon portage trails

Useful Links:

Wilson Temagami 2011

The best introduction to Temagami remains Hap Wilson’s book of the same name. It has seen a few editions and the sub-titles have changed with the times but it guides you through some choice Temagami canoe routes, giving you not only the information you need to deal with the lakes and rivers  – portages, rapids, campsites – but also filling you in on the long and rich history of the area. As well, there are tips on gear and camping and canoeing skills for those in need of a primer.   The first edition, I think, came out in the late 1970’s and these days is considered a worthwhile investment as a collectible!   The copy of the edition I’ve got is titled Temagami: A Wilderness Paradise – Canoeing – Kayaking – Hiking and was published in 2011, a reprint of the 2004 edition.

Route #14 in the book is “Maple Mountain Loop”, a more ambitious trip than ours. It starts at Mowat Landing and, after the visit to Maple Mountain, heads north to the Montreal River which it then follows downstream back to Mowat Landing.  Of this route Wilson writes –

A long-time favourite, this route tantalizes the adventure spirit with a congenial medley of lakes, creeks and river paddle. This route can be taken in either direction; however, caution should be employed while travelling the open stretches of Lady Evelyn Lake, as the wind can toss up metre-high waves in minutes. (Temagami, 99)

The topographical maps maintained by the Canadian Federal Government’s map department still provide the most accurate map information for canoe trippers.  They are available online for free download if you want to print them yourself– or the parts of them that are relevant to your trip.  For this  trip there are two 1:50,000 topos that would cover all your map needs:

  • Obabika Lake           041 P 01 
  • Lady Evelyn Lake    041 P 08

The government’s own no-frills folder-based canmatrix collection of maps is one source of the maps. Both the 1:50000 and the 1:250,000 and in either tif or pdf format.    For the maps above go to the 041 folder using the appropriate letters and numbers to get the specific maps.  Get started here.

Jeff's Topos Home Page

These days there is a much more user-friendly and visual approach to access the maps that Jeff McMurtrie has come up with.  As with the maps above, they are available for free download. If you want, McMurtrie has the equipment to print the maps for you on plastic sheets.  See his Jeffstopos website to get started.

JeffsTemagamiMap

McMurtrie also has an annotated Temagami mapset available – a series of five maps covering the area. They will give you the portage and campsite information you need, as well as points of historical interest that you will paddle by. Check out the Jeff’s Temagami Map website here. You’ll want the Central one for this trip.  Again, you can download the file and print it off yourself – all or just selected parts. Or copies are available either from Jeff directly or in select stores.

FOT Map

When we dropped in at the Temagami Outfitters store to buy a copy at the start of our trip, we were told that copies of Jeff’s maps were available – except for the sold-out Central map!  Luckily we had downloaded digital copies  the night before on our way to Temagami from the end of our Steel River trip.

We ended up buying a copy of the map put out by the Friends of Temagami – a double-sided map with the Obabika Loop on one side and the Maple Mountain area on the other – which did the job nicely. Portage and campsite locations and other information is there.

Like most maps these days, it is made of a waterproof and tear-resistant material.  It is meant to go along with – and not replace – the 1:50000 topos mentioned above. See here for the map details at the Friends of Temagami online store.

We both also have Garmin gps units with the Topo Canada maps v4.0  installed.  While we like to navigate from the hardcopy maps in the mapcase, the gps units are appreciated in those inevitable instances when we’re just not 100% sure where we are!

Canoeing The Steel – Day Eight – Santoy Lake/ Our Thoughts On The Steel As A Canoe Trip

Previous Post: Canoeing The Steel – Day 7 – Meandering Our Way To Santoy 

  • distance: 10.8 km
  • time: start – 11:30 a.m. . ; finish – 1:35 p.m.
  • portages: none
    – after take out from Santoy Lake drove to Iron Bridge and overnighted; then to the Red Squirrel Road put-in (north of Temagami)
  • weather: overcast, breezy, intermittent rain before leaving and while paddling very misty with visibility at lake level less than 250m most of the way; the brisk wind from SW calmed a bit by hugging the west shoreline
  • campsite:  Village Inn Motel in Iron Bridge was fine; next day an island on Diamond lake just past Sharp Rock Inlet which has room for multiple 2-person tents, room for a couple of 4-person tents.

Steel River Santoy Lake

We woke up at 6 a.m. to the sound of a heavy rain which would go on for a couple of hours and then peter out a bit. It looked for a while like we wouldn’t be going anywhere as the wind from the south-west was doing its thing and there we were at the north end of the ten-kilometer long and narrow lake.

Already I was thinking about a possible wind day on Santoy when we got up around 9:30 – very late for us – and put up the tarp over the tent for extra protection.  We also had  breakfast and – importantly – our jolt of caffeine! Amazingly, the rain had stopped and the wind seemed to have died down.

We were expecting it to pick up again – but when it hadn’t by 10:30  we decided to take advantage of the interlude. We packed up and by 11:30 we were on our way. The choppiest water we would face would be that in the first three kilometers or so – and even it was nothing compared to Temagami waves and wind we had dealt with on our trip the previous October.

west shore of Santoy Lake in the mist

west shore of Santoy Lake in the mist

As the map above shows, we stuck pretty close to the west shoreline most of the way down. We would get to look at the start of the Diablo Portage one more time. The pic below shows the portage marker indicating the entrance – the Devil’s Hole! – to our three hours of “pain and suffering” on Day One.  What a way to start a canoe trip!

paddling by our old friend, the Diablo!

paddling by our old friend, the Diablo!

a last misty look at the Devil's Hole

a last misty look at the Devil’s Hole and the start of the Diablo Portage from Santoy Lake

It would take us two hours to paddle to the dock and the parking area at the south end of Santoy Lake.  We had made the right call in packing up since the rain held off and the wind was not an issue once down the initial open stretch. The pix below capture a little of what it was like to paddle through the mist.

approaching the south end of Santoy Lake

approaching the south end of Santoy Lake

Santoy shoreline in the mist

Santoy shoreline in the mist

As we approached the dock,  the rain which had held off for the past two hours started coming down – at first just a little and then, while we were getting the canoe tied down on the car, a bit harder.  Still – no cause for complaint from us.  At least we were not at the north end of Santoy dealing with a “wind and rain” day!

Santoy Lake parking area and dock

Santoy Lake parking area and dock

Santoy Lake boat at the dock

Santoy Lake boat at the dock

another view of the boat and dilapidated dock at Santoy Lake

another view of the boat and dilapidated dock at Santoy Lake

Instead we would be able to get back on the road and head east. How far we were not sure – but by ten that night we were approaching Iron Bridge and the Village Inn Motel. We had stayed there last summer after our Bloodvein trip so we knew it would be a decent place to stop. We were busy until 1 a.m. cleaning up and repacking the bags for our next mini-canoe trip!

strapping down the canoe

It’s not what it looks like!  Max strapping down the canoe…

heading back east on a rainy day

heading back east on a rainy day

We had originally planned to spend more time on the Steel River system – time to paddle up Eaglecrest and Evonymus and the north stretch of the Park. However, the allure of more lake paddle had faded after we were finished with Steel Lake and we had turned south at the Steel/Little Steel confluence instead.

Santoy Lake is not the end of the Steel River. From Santoy it continues down to Lake Superior. There is a campsite at the top of a couple of twenty-meter drops  unofficially known as Staircase Falls, which are found right where the river exits the lake.

Norm Stewart, whose online trip report from 1980 is downloadable as a pdf file (here), makes the last stretch sound like a great ride.  It also leaves you figuring out a way to get back to that vehicle at Santoy Lake!

Steel River From Santoy To Lake Superior

the Steel River From Santoy Lake To Lake Superior

While we had originally considered camping at the top of Staircase Falls and spending some time in tourist mode walking down the portage trail to the river with our camera gear, the weather told us to do otherwise.

Conclusion: Our Take On The Steel River As a Canoe Trip Choice

If you want to experience a compact one-week route with many of the highs and lows of wilderness canoeing,  then the Steel River Loop may be the trip for you. Here are the main points that came to mind as we drove east from Santoy to Wawa in the rain – 

Plus –

  • It is a loop! You get to do an entire river system and somehow end up back at the starting point! Of course, there is a catch. See the Minus section!
  • The length of the trip (six to eight days) fits in with the amount of time trippers seem to have these days. You can leave home on a Friday night, put in on a Saturday or a Sunday morning  and be back home nine days later on a Sunday night.  
  • You won’t see a lot of other canoe trippers – especially. on the upper stretch of the loop. We met one party of two canoes.
  • You are treated to a solid day (or two if you stretch it out a bit)  of fast water, swifts, and runnable rapids that will see you doing 10 kilometers and hour at times with little effort.  It was the “fun” section of the trip. It would make a great intro to canoeing.
  • Paddling down stetches of the river with that intimate feel thanks to how narrow it becomes is always a treat. 
  • To stand at the top of Rainbow Falls on a sunny afternoon and watch the water tumble down is a pleasure relatively few will experience.
  • There was evidence of moose and bear on the portage trails and on the shore. While we did not encounter either this trip, they were there.  
  • You get to see how the Cairngorm/ upper Steel Lake area has rebounded from the large fire of the early 2000’s. 

Minus –

  • one of the more punishing portages in Ontario – the Diablo Portage – made more tiring by the fact that it is poorly maintained and marked. 
  • forty-five kilometers of lake paddle down Cairngorm and Steel Lakes. For us wind was not a factor but imagine a wind coming from the NW for a couple of days.
  • poorly maintained portage trails that are sometimes difficult to find the starts of. To no surprise the ones in the upper part of the loop are in the worst shape. 
  • the treadmill effect of narrow river paddling down a meandering river, especially if you decide to go from Rainbow Falls to Santoy Lake in one day. 
  • The route is not rich in classic Canadian Shield campsites. (In our mind that would include the following –  a gentle sloping rock outcrop going up to a sheltered level spot on the top with a great view of the river and some exposure to the sun. A nice canoe landing spot and easy access to water would round off the list!)  

Rob Haslam has done the river a dozen times, which must be a record!  Check out his post in the Ontario Trip Reports section of the Canadian Canoe Routes Forum for another perspective on the Steel River Loop.  Click on the title below –

RHaslam’s “Solo On The Steel” Post

He recounts a  trip he did in 2012 which begins from the north end at Eaglecrest Lake. I had never even heard of the Steel River before I clicked my way into  this post back in 2012.  Thanks for planting that seed, Rob!

We still had five days’ worth of food and were keen to paddle a bit more so we decided to pass through Temagami on our way back to southern Ontario. We had done the hike up to Maple Mountain in 2009 as a part of longer canoe trip; this time we figured we’d just paddle from the Red Squirrel Road put-in and make a return visit to one of our favourite campsites – the one on Hobarth Lake with all the qualities of a classic Canadian Shield site!- and walk up to the fire tower again.  The next day we’d get to Temagami around noon.

Next Post: Paddling To Temagami’s Maple Mountain

Canoeing The Steel – Day Seven – Meandering Our Way To Santoy

Previous Post: Canoeing The Steel – Day Six –  Rainbow Falls

distance: 44 km

time: start – 07:40 a.m. . ; finish – 6:30 p.m.

portages: four log jams

  • SP14 190m river left (steep bank take out and steep bank put in) (40 min);
  • SP15 400m river right  (steep bank take out and steep bank put in (45 min);
  • SP16 120m river left (steep bank take out and steep bank put in)  and
  • SP17 360m river right (steep bank take out relatively easy put in; flat and roomy) (30 min)

weather: sunny and very warm

campsite: SC07 Santoy Lake beach frontage with various possible 2-person sites plus odd 4-person site set back in trees/brush providing some wind/rain shelter.

Steel River canoe route Day7

We had spent a relaxing day at the Rainbow Falls Spa & Resort but it was time to move on.  Ahead of us was a meandering stretch of the river defined not by Canadian Shield rock outcrop but by the massive glacial sand deposits that the river has carved its way through.

The change in terrain  explains the source of all that deadwood which has accumulated at four major logjam points on this stretch of the Steel.  Due to the erosion of the sand banks, which in parts can rise 40 meters or more from the river,  the trees rooted in the shallow earth topple into the river over time and join the deadwood already there.

steep sandy banks The Steel River below Rainbow Falls

some of the steep sandy banks of the Steel River below Rainbow Falls

Steel River banks between Rainbow Falls and Deadhorse Bridge

Steel River banks between Rainbow Falls and Dead Horse Bridge

We got on the water early this day – 7:40.  We knew that it would be a longer one.  Given the scarcity of campsites between Rainbow Falls – the Haslam maps only mention a couple of emergency sandbar sites – we decided to make the beach on the north end of Santoy Lake our goal.  It would mean paddling and portaging about 45 kilometers.

Deadhorse Bridge below Rainbow Falls on the Steel River

Dead Horse Creek Road bridge below Rainbow Falls on the Steel River

By nine we were approaching the bridge which crosses the Steel River about 11 kilometres down from Rainbow Falls. (The road is named after Dead Horse Creek, which it follows up from Highway 17.)   We paddled another five minutes before stopping at a spot on the riverbank for breakfast.  Some stretches of the river after the Falls still have swifts and we enjoyed the feeling of being moved along with little effort on our part.

The easiest stretch of the day done – and breakfast over – it was time to deal with the first couple of the day’s challenges, the two logjam portages which are about 2.7 kilometers as the crow flies from the bridge.  As a hint of what paddling on the meandering Steel for the rest of the day would be like, in actual paddling distance it came out to 5.5 kilometers!

the top of the first of the Steel River logjams

the top of the first of the Steel River logjams

Our picture file for this very hot day is rather thin!  No doubt we were living our mantra of “gittin’ ‘er dun” and intent on efficiently knocking off the portages as they came up.  During the course of the day we would deal with the four logjams which Haslam mentions in his map set.  We had also reread the Callan description of this section of the Steel the previous evening but were to find out that it did not reflect what is on the river these days. On top of the four major logjams his map has another four indicated. These four may have broken up over the past decade. We would not see them.

our gear at the end of the third Steel logjam portage

our gear at the end of the third Steel logjam portage

The portage entry and exit points were easy to find and a couple even had  portage markers. We left marking tape on the other two.  Thanks to the steep banks they were also, to no surprise, usually awkward.  One of us would haul the bags out of the canoe and the other person would grab them from the top of the bank and dump them in a nearby staging area.  Then it just came down to moving everything along what were mostly good portage trails. Perhaps our trail grading standards had slipped a bit after our Diablo/Cairngorm experience on the upper Steel!

The first two portages are located close to each other and then there is an hour and a half of heading in every cardinal point on the compass as you make your way down the river.

The third logjam portage was the shortest (120 meters) and the easiest. The trail was in excellent condition. Do note that we paddled about fifty meters further down from the portage marker. This fits in with what Haslam wrote about the entire logjam moving down river a bit.  It was shortly after 2 when we got to the end of this portage. We set up our camp chairs in the shade and had a one-hour lunch break. It was one hot day out in the sun.

collapsing sand banks and the Steel River logjams

collapsing sand banks and the Steel River logjams

After our break we were back on the river, cheered by the fact that it was only 8.5 kilometers (as the crow flies!) to Santoy Lake but knowing that we were looking at about three hours of paddling. Some two and half hours later we were at SP17, the fourth and last logjam portage. We found a boat shell at the take-out spot and a trail that is in pretty good shape with just a bit of deadfall to deal with.  We got it done in a relatively quick and easy half hour.

the top of the Steel River's final logjam

the top of the Steel River’s final logjam

SP17 - final logjam before Santoy Lake -360 meter portage

A 1.5 kilometer paddle from the put-in after the last logjam, past a private cottage that sits on the west side of the river as it enters Santoy,  and we were finished for the day. With a strong wind from the SW to deal with, we turned east towards the beach area and found a decent campsite SC07 tucked inside the bush.  It came complete with a grass floor!  In either direction from our camp spot were a number of others, some with fire pits and some not. The area has definitely seen some campers over the years.

start of Santoy Lake beach on north shore

start of Santoy Lake beach on north shore

Santoy Lake north shore beach and camping area

Santoy Lake north shore beach and camping area

The tent up we sank into our camp chairs and looked south to the other end of Santoy Lake.  The following morning it would be a final paddle down the ten-kilometer lake past the take-out for the Diablo Portage to our vehicle sitting near the public dock at the south end. The wind  from the southwest was worrisome but there was a half-day for it to blow itself out.  We hoped for calm waters the next morning!

looking down Santoy Lake from the north beach

looking down Santoy Lake from the north beach

Santoy in the evening

Next Post: Canoeing The Steel River – Day Eight – Santoy Lake

Canoeing The Steel River – Day Six – Rainbow Falls

Previous Post: Canoeing the Steel River – Day Five – Heading South On the Steel 

  • distance: 17.0 km
  • time: start – 09:10 a.m. . ; finish – 12:30
  • portages: three – we only did the last
  • SP11 – 150m (river left per Haslam’s waypoints check whether RR or RL – C1)
    SP12 – 140m (river right per Haslam’s waypoints – C1)
    SP13 – 500m river right to campsite (then veer left for ~100m to the river put in)
  • weather: sunny and hot
  • campsite: SC06 – Rainbow falls; ¾ down the portage trail on a bluff above a creek; poor water access; room for multiple 2 or 4 person tents; fairly open and away from main falls area; great scenery; very good rest day site.

Day6

SC05 camp on the Steel - a new day begins

SC05 camp on the Steel – a new day begins

overturned canoes at the campsite

overturned canoes at the campsite

Left the campsite about 9 and dropped in to the other campsite on our way down for another look at that creek from the previous evening. We were curious about what the morning sun from the east would do to the creekbed.

a return visit to the enchanted creek

a return visit to the enchanted creek

Not far from the previous night’s campsite – about 3 km. – at the bottom of McKernan Lake –  we came to the set of rapids that Haslam’s notes describe this way –

The rapid at the bottom of the map can be problematic. (They are incorrectly labeled C2) It is difficult to run, unless the water is very high, and there is no port. Best approach is to line down RR until you can hop in and shoot the haystacks at the end.

We took a quick look and lined the initial drop on river right and then, as Haslam suggests, hopped back in for the ride down.  When we turned around to take a look at the rapids from down below, we saw John Mark and Adam up near the top making their way down.

Steel Rapids below our Day 5 campsite

Steel Rapids (C1/C1Tech) below our Day 5 campsite – the view from below

the-days-first-set-of-rapids

fellow paddlers riding the rapids

fellow paddlers riding the rapids

Steel River rapids - cutting through the turbulence

Steel River rapids – cutting through the turbulence

Steel River morning adreneline rush

Steel River morning adrenaline rush

Big grins all around! Not too shabby for a couple of rock wall climbers from Detroit on their first wilderness canoe trip!

Steel River shore - open clam shells in water

Steel River shore – open clam shells in water

For us this would not be a long day on the water!  We continued on down, enjoying one set of swifts after another and a set of CI  rapids or two.  And sometimes we’d hit quiet stretches of the river like the ones illustrated in the pix above and below.

a quiet stretch of the Steel River above Rainbow Falls

a quiet stretch of the Steel River above Rainbow Falls

While our goal for the day was the campsite at Rainbow Falls, we did check out the site about 4.5 kilometers above the falls on river right. You can see the red campsite sign on the tree in the middle of the pic below. A quick visit revealed a large and pretty flat area with room for a number of tents.  It would serve canoe trippers well in a pinch although given how close you are to Rainbow Falls, an extra 30 minutes would get you to the Falls  campsite and access to some stunning views.

established campsite 4.5 km. above Rainbow Falls on the Steel River

established campsite 4.5 km. above Rainbow Falls on the Steel River

large campsite above Rainbow Falls on the Steel River

large campsite less than  five kilometers above Rainbow Falls on the Steel River

About 500 meters above Rainbow Falls we saw the warning sign on river right. We wondered if it was put there as a result of someone having gone over the Falls. As we got to the take out spot on river right, the American guys caught up to us.  We got our canoe and gear out of the way so they could land. Then we proceeded to set up camp at the large (100′ x 30′) rectangular clearing about two thirds of the way down the portage trail and actually some distance from the falls themselves.

Meanwhile, they had lunch up by the falls and took in the splendid views.  Eventually they would come trucking by the campsite area.  The portage trail actually takes a hard turn to the left just as you come onto the campsite area and then goes down somewhat steeply to the river alongside a creek.  They were going to paddle down the river a bit more before calling it a day.

Steel River -campsite and Rainbow Falls

Steel River -campsite and Rainbow Falls

satellite shot of the Rainbow Falls stretch of the Steel River

Our plan was much less ambitious!

Not even one and we were done for the day . After lunch we walked back on the portage trail to the top of the falls where we spent a good chunk of the afternoon. Rainbow Falls became part spa and part photo opportunity as we set up our camp chairs just below the top of the falls and to the side of  the first two drops. Rainbow Falls Spa and Resort Our first real wash-up in a three days, catching a few rays as we lounged in our chairs and felt the mist of the tumbling water…taking in the scene in front of us. For us perhaps the highlight of our Steel loop was the time we spent at this twenty-meter drop in the river.   Eventually we got out the camera gear and framed some shots – you can see some of the results below.  We would return to the falls closer to the dusk to catch the scene in a different light.

The Steel River's Rainbow Falls - looking down from the top

The Steel River’s Rainbow Falls – looking down from the top

view of river right at Steel River's Rainbow Falls

view of river right at Steel River’s Rainbow Falls

Max standing at the top of Rainbow Falls

Max standing at the top of Rainbow Falls

a shot of me framing the previous shot at Rainbow Falls!

a shot of me framing the previous shot at Rainbow Falls!

The first two drops of the Steel River's Rainbow Falls

The first two drops of the Steel River’s Rainbow Falls

Steel River's Rainbow Falls - the island and the end run

Steel River’s Rainbow Falls – the island and the end run

Max at Rainbow Falls

Max at Rainbow Falls

checking out the drop at Rainbow Falls

checking out the drop at Rainbow Falls

Meanwhile, as I would learn later, our fellow paddlers continued on their way down the river.  They eventually stopped paddling at 11 that night!  By then they were deep into the meandering stretch of the Steel and may well have gotten to a sandbar campsite close to the end!  They found out just how difficult it is to find even a barely adequate place to pitch a couple of tents in the final stretch from Rainbow Falls to Santoy Lake.

We would get our own taste of the Steel below Rainbow Falls the next day.  As if to make up for the meagre distance we had covered on this day (17 km) , we’d paddle and portage almost triple that the next day.  Check the next post for the details!

Next post: Canoeing the Steel – Day Seven – From Rainbow Falls To Santoy Lake

Canoeing The Steel – Day Five – Heading South On The Steel River

Previous Post: Canoeing The Steel – Day Four – Steel Lake

  • distance: 15.3 km
  • time: start – 9:30 a.m.  ; finish – 3:15 p.m.
  • portages: three
    SP08 – 250m (15 min) river right from campsite to first small lake;
    SP09 – 460m (1h 10m) river right ; over hill and dale to second small lake;
    SP10 – 160m (1 min) Class 1 with bumpy ride and haystack finish in high water or portage is on river right. Nice campsite area at the bottom.
  • weather: sunny and very warm
  • campsite: SC05 river right; cedar grove; room for multiple 2 person tents; small beach area; easy access to water; picturesque east view of rock face bathed in setting sun – as an alternate about 700m down river left is another west-facing site with small beach beside a creek with multiple sites for 2 or 4 person tents. Steel River Day 5
so long to the campsite at the north end of Steel Lake

a last look at our campsite SC04 at the north end of Steel Lake

Morning five and since turning off from the highway to the Santoy Lake put-in we had yet to see anyone. No fishermen, no paddlers…not even any four-legged wildlife – no moose, no bear.  Well, chipmunks had visited a couple of our campsites but that had been about it. We figured things might change as we got down to the turn-around point and headed back south.

But first – more portages to get there, three carries interrupted by two little puddles of water. We had walked SP08 the evening before, doing a bit of trail maintenance in some of the more grown-over spots. Now we did it one more time with the gear and then paddled down to the take-out spot for the second portage. Day5_Ports_details_revised

the put-in for the first of the portages from Steel Lake to the Junction (the turn south point)

the put-in for the first of the portages from Steel Lake to the Junction (the turn south point)

We found SP09 in pretty rough shape with some ridge-edge sections having collapsed thanks to mini-landslides. It definitely felt longer than the measured 460 meter distance.  The steep take-out did have a welcoming portage marker!

the take-out spot for SP08 on the Steel River

the take-out spot for SP09 on the Steel River

This was one of those portages where even manoeuvring the canoe became an issue in a couple of messy spots.  Blueberry bushes have covered parts of the trail. There are definitely some ups and downs to guarantee an aerobic workout and it all ends with a sustained downhill to the put-in.  You notice this when you go back for the second load.   As always, it gets done and you sit there at the put-in and get ready for the next challenge.

relaxin' at the other end of a somewhat messy SP08

relaxin’ at the other end of a somewhat messy SP09

break time at the end of SCP09

break time at the end of SP09 – chewing on some water

We had just loaded the canoe and were about to push off to the third portage when someone came down to the put-in!  It was John Mark, one of four American guys (two had driven up from Wisconsin and the other two from Detroit).  Soon the others joined him and we had a brief chat about the sketchy trail and the Steel in general. They had put in at Santoy the day after us – and here they were!  Three had never been on a canoe trip before and they were still totally psyched about the experience.  As we pushed off, I thanked the Detroit guys for their hockey coach;  they were quick to reply that he was hoping to get a job where he’d be done in April!  Wishing them all the best, we pushed off for SP10.

As we approached we saw a Class 1 set of rapids with enough water (almost!) to run. Within a minute we were down and through and approaching a nice campsite (SC02 on Haslam’s maps, SCS04 here in this gpx data file) at the confluence of the Steel and Little Steel Rivers. That’s it in the pic below, looking like very few tents have been put up there so far this year.

the campsite at the confluence of the Steel and Little Steel Rivers - the Junction!

the campsite at the confluence of the Steel and Little Steel Rivers – the Junction!

A Side Note:

Callan and many others mistakenly identify the Steel River here as Aster Lake.  However, Aster Lake is actually found about five kilometres due east of the Steel River.  The Garmin Topo Canada map above has Aster Lake correctly located, as does the Fed Govt topo 042E/07 map below –

From Steel Lake To Aster Lake

See here for another map source which shows Aster Lake 5 km east of the confluence

None of the government topos have a lake name for the confluence of the Steel and Little Steel Rivers, though the stretch from the confluence down to our campsite for the night has, in order,  Burrow, Stewart, Savoie, and Mckernan Lakes. I would guess that a set of rapids or swifts would indicate the bottom of one “lake” and the top of another. Oddly, the Garmin Topo Canada map set has the same above sea level figures for the first three lakes as you paddle down from the confluence.

Steel River Junction field of flowers

Steel/Little Steel Junction field of flowers

framing the shot in the LCD screen

framing the shot in the LCD screen

I am making a real effort to get a great shot in the pic above. The funny thing is that all my dslr flower shots turned out to be crap while Max’s Canon SX280 p&s captured the scene perfectly. After our moment with the flowers, we would paddle the 5.5 kilometres down to the bottom of Stewart Lake before we stopped for lunch. Confluence of the Steel and Little Steel Rivers At first as we started down the river, I recorded the location of the swifts we were zipping through but after three or four of them  it struck me that the swifts were something to enjoy and did not need gps exactness to deal with.  I felt better when I put the gps device away and just went with the flow of water. Looking at the gps track just now, I see  that we hit speeds of up to 11 kilometers an hour – if only for a few seconds at a time! Nevertheless – totally enjoyable!  In the end, Haslam’s maps have all the swift and rapid info if you want a bit of a warning about upcoming “challenges”. There is a zip file of the gpx waypoints of our trip – and of the swifts and rapids in particular – which you can download here.

We figured that a canoe trip starting at one of the lakes north of the confluence down through here would make a great introduction to canoe tripping!  The lakes would give newbies a chance to practise their paddling skills and then the moving water would give them their first shots of rapids-induced adrenaline.

It would be somewhat like the Spanish River starting at Ninth Lake and working your way down the lakes  to the rapids.  However, there are no rapids on the Steel that come close to what the Spanish has further down. It was thirty years ago but I still remember tanking at Graveyard Rapids!

vertical rock face on the east side of the Steel River

vertical rock face on the east side of the Steel River

We love paddling down narrow rivers – and we were loving the Steel since the turnaround.  Around 12:30 we stopped for lunch on a shady stretch of the river and watched the river flow by for an hour as we cooled down and had a bite to eat.

shady Lunch spot on the Steel

shady lunch spot on the Steel – getting some water for the soup of the day

a tiger lily cathces Max's eye while we are having lunch on the Steel south of the Junction

a tiger lily catches Max’s eye while we are having lunch on the Steel south of the turnaround point

After another very easy ten kilometers after lunch,  we stopped for the day at the campsite (SC05) mentioned in the Callan trip report. It is a sheltered and shady spot on the west side of the river with a nice stretch of vertical rock across the water. Callan describes their afternoon as they paddled down to it from the Steel/Little Steel confluence –

Eventually we reached Aster Lake [sic], turned south, and almost immediately began running rapids. The whitewater was a welcomed diversion. Only once did we have to portage, 180 yards to the left of a technical Class II rapid. The rest of the day was spent negotiating a combination of fast chutes, manageable Class Is’, and easy swifts. In fact, the strong current remained consistent most of the way, squeezing itself through walls of granite or high gravel banks. Even when the river eventually broadened out, becoming more lake-like, the scenery still remained breathtaking. Jagged cliffs provided a backdrop to thick forested banks, left untouched by the past fire, and tiny islands of sand and gravel split the current in all directions. It was a place of awesome beauty, an absolute dream scape. We camped directly across a spectacular cliff face, and celebrated the day with an extra glass of wine. It continued to pour down rain while we set up camp, but at this point in the day nothing seemed to dampen our spirits.

While we had a similar experience with the water – totally buzzed by the swifts and Class I rapids which sucked us down river while we watched the shoreline zip by – we didn’t see anything that warranted being called CII or CII technical.  Then again, if they had  lower water that would certainly change the character of the two or three – we didn’t really notice – rapids we had run with no problem.  As for Callan’s effusive praise of the scenery, it seems to us a bit over the top. The reality, while still a very nice slice of the Canadian Shield, is hardly that dramatic.

a set of rapids we ran after lunch

a set of rapids we ran after lunch – about as wild as it got on the Steel

And now for our own bit of hyperbole!  We thought of the exhilarating river running as the flip side of the Diablo Portage, the yin to the yang of the 1.1 km carry.  As much work as the portage had been, the swifts and rapids were simple fun. It really brought home the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde nature of the Steel River Loop. Consider – over three kilometers of gruesome and often messy portages in the first two days topped off by forty-five kilometers of lake paddle.  And now this – the sweet gurgling sound of swifts and easy rapids all afternoon as we finally headed south.

For most paddlers the highlight of their Steel River loop will be the two days they spend on the stretch of the Steel River  from the turnaround point at the confluence to just below the Dead Horse Road bridge some ten kilometres south of Rainbow Falls.

Steel River campsite

Steel River campsite SC05

end-of-day coffee on the Steel

end-of-day coffee on the Steel – and souvenir scratches of the rapids we had scraped through

the rock face across from our Steel River camp site

the rock face across from our Steel River camp site

paddlers drop in for afternoon tea

paddlers drop in for afternoon visit – and stay the night!

Day 5 campsite SC05 and alternative We had just set up the tent and put some water on to boil when the four canoe trippers from the morning paddled towards the campsite.  We told them that if they were looking for a place to camp, they were welcome to join us; if not, I mentioned the site on the other side of the river some 700 meters downriver.  (See map above for location.)

Ben had a copy of Callan’s trip report and had probably planned on camping at the same spot. Whatever the case,  they accepted the offer and soon had their two tents up in spaces on either side of ours (fortunately 2-person tents!). An evening’s worth of great conversation followed – as is often the case when kindred spirits meet on the river.

An After-Supper Paddle:

After our usual supper, we did take advantage of the evening stillness to paddle the 700 meters down to the other campsite noted on Haslam’s maps. Our canoe is definitely meant to be paddled loaded and it handled a bit strange empty. Down at the other campsite we found a flat and fairly open site (compared to our sheltered site upriver). It also seemed warmer thanks to its exposure to the setting sun. The pic below captures some of that sun streaming down on the east side of the river.

looking north towartds our campsite from the one on the east side of the Steel River

looking north towards our campsite from the one on the east side of the Steel River

This river left campsite is located beside a creek and offers plenty of room for multiple 2-person tents and even a few 4-person tents with no one complaining about not getting a flat spot. This is when you ask yourself if you should have kept paddling for a ‘nicer’ spot.

campsite east side of the river 500 meters down from ours on the Steel

campsite on east side of the river 700 meters down from ours on the Steel with evening sunlight

On the edge of the site we found the sunlight streaming down through the cedars onto the creek bed that seemed like the portal of a magical world.  We got there just as the sun was starting to dip below the western hills and was casting those nice, long. soft sunset light rays right up the creek making for an enchanting picture-taking opportunity.

We spent a good ten or fifteen minutes there framing different shots that captured the light and the creek bed that it lit up.  It is Zen moments like these that make the act of photography special – and sometimes we are even rewarded by an image that captures most of what it is that beguiled us in the first place.

the creek running into the Steel by the next campsite from ours

the creek running into the Steel by the next campsite from ours

The Steel River - The Enchanted Creek at dusk

The Steel River – The Enchanted Creek at dusk

The Enchanted Creek - another look

The Enchanted Creek – another look

We would also drop in the next day to see what the early morning light might show.

Steel River rock across from SC05

Steel River rock across from SC05

On our way back we also paddled up close to the rock face across from our campsite. And then it was back to the euchre tournament as we marvelled about the bug-free evening on the Steel River.

It had been a fun day. The next day – but only a half day of paddling – would serve up more of the same as we got to scamper around Rainbow Falls!

Next Post: Canoeing Down the Steel – Day Six – Rainbow Falls

Canoeing The Steel – Day Four – Steel Lake

Previous Post: Canoeing The Steel – Day 3 – From Cairngorm Lake To Steel Lake

  • distance: 27.5 km
  • time: start – 8:00 a.m. ; finish – 2:20 p.m.
  • portages: none – just one long lake
  • weather: sunny and hot; no wind in the morning and a gentle SW wind in the aft
  • campsite: SC04  at start of portage trail at end of lake; room for a couple of two-person tents; site maintenance required before pitching tent (deadfall removal); good access to water; evening work on portage trail

Day4

Steel lake -early morning start for the big paddle

looking south on Steel lake – early morning start for the big paddle

The previous evening the wind had blown strong from the SW and we were hoping for a repeat of that as we got up a bit earlier than usual for our day of Steel Lake paddling. The pic above shows what we found – i.e. an almost ripple free lake.  Shortly after 8 we were off, having postponed breakfast until we put in a few hundred paddle strokes in the early morning coolness.    By 9:15 we were down the lake about seven kilometers sitting in the shade, coffee mugs in hand, enjoying the stillness.

Steel River - paddle to bkft

sunny breakfast spot on Steel Lake

sunny breakfast spot on Steel Lake

There is a bit of a treadmill effect that kicks in when you get to stare at the same horizon for an hour or more.  The island in the pic below was just one of many upcoming points we paddled towards in the course of our twenty-seven kilometres down river to the campsite. Paddling on the east side of the lake across from the island was a nice stretch of vertical rock face that is always a pleasure to glide past.

paddling down Steel Lake

paddling down Steel Lake

a typical Steel Lake vista

a typical Steel Lake vista

While we are not talking Mazinaw Rock here, these stretches of the Steel Lake shoreline are still impressive.  Ever on the look for pictographs (as my brother rolls his eyes), I scanned the rock face for signs of applied ochre and sometimes my will to see something helped create pictographs out of lichen and natural rock stain.
On the other side of the lake, the shoreline look is more rounded with an occasional rock outcrop.  Much less evident were signs of the big burn of the early 2000’s. (See here for a map which shows the area most affected.)
rock face on the east side of Steel Lake

rock face on the east side of Steel Lake

a shady spot on the east side of Steel Lake for a morning break

a shady spot on the east side of Steel Lake for a morning break

driftwood on rock on Steel Lake

driftwood on rock on Steel Lake

picto fever strikes again!

pictograph  fever strikes again!

Shortly after two we approached our campsite at the bottom (i.e.north end) of Steel Lake. We found there a campsite just meters from the take-out spot and after a bit of site rehab put up the tent. We also put up the silnylon tarp as a precaution as it clouded over in the early evening.  Not only does the tarp take the brunt of any rain and keep the tent itself much drier, but it also makes taking down the tent in the rain the next morning that much easier.

campsite at the north end of Steel Lake

campsite at the north end of Steel Lake

campsite slope down to the water - rapids start on bottom right

campsite slope down to the water – rapids start on bottom right

One of the things we discussed that evening was our original plan to paddle up Eaglecrest Lake and even further north (up Evonymus, Kawabatongog, and Grehan)  the next day. The Steel River Provincial Park includes this twenty-kilometre stretch of lakes which make up the Little Steel River system.
In the end, we decided that after the forty-seven kilometers of Cairngorm and Steel, we’d had enough lake paddle!  The thought of another forty had lost its appeal.  We would instead turn south at the confluence of the Steel and Little Steel Rivers (mistakenly named Aster Lake in a number of trip reports) and enjoy a day or two of swifts and CI rapids.
the start of the 22-meter drop from Steel Lake to the confluence of the Steel and Little Steel down below

the start of the 22-meter drop from Steel Lake to the confluence of the Steel and Little Steel down below

a stretch of SP08 portage on the Steel River

a stretch of SP08 portage on the Steel River

Given our early finish, we had time this day to trim back some of the new alder growth on the portage trail.  Something we can’t comment on – but which is clearly a real attraction for some canoe trippers – is the chance to drop a hook into some A+ fishing spots.  It was a point made by more than one of the trip reports I read through.

the bottom of the rapids that SP08 takes you around

the bottom of the rapids that SP08 takes you around

The upper Steel loop portion almost done, we were looking forward to heading south and feeling the pull of the river as we paddled down to Rainbow Falls.

Next Post: Canoeing The Steel River – Day 5 – Heading South On The Steel River

Canoeing The Steel River – Day Three – From Cairngorm Lake To Steel Lake

Previous Post: Canoeing The Steel River – Day 2 – Portaging Into Cairngorm Lake

  • distance: 20.7 km
  • time: start – 9 a.m. ; finish – 5 p.m.
  • portages: three (did the first two lined/ran/scraped the 3rd)                                              SP05 – 510m (1h 45min) from Cairngorm Lake to Steel Creek/River leading to Esker Lake
  • SP06 – 300m (45 min) river left and over fire access road well-groomed for first half less so second half but appeared well used.
  • SP07 – 60m  river right but with higher water may be possible to run or scrape/line (we did the latter)
  • weather: sunny with cloudy periods and very warm
  • campsite: SC03 – beach landing and sheltered camping area in a cedar grove 15 meters in from the beach; multiple tent spots, could easily accommodate several two-person tents and at least a couple of four-person tents. Day3
Max waiting while I give the Cairngorm campsite a last looking over

Max waiting while I give the Cairngorm campsite a last looking over

Sitting in the bay waiting for me to do a last quick camp site check for stray items, Max focussed on the reflections in the water – a definite favourite theme of his. The image below is what caught his eye. Before I uploaded it, I flipped the image so that up became down and made it look like a fuzzy Group of Seven impression of reality.

 Max in a reflective mood while I do a last check of the campsite

Max in a reflective mood while I do a last check of the campsite

We had just over ten kilometres of paddling to do to get to the north end of Cairngorm – and  the wind, such as it was, was playing nice and blowing our way!  We were curious to see how the neighbourhood had responded to the large forest fire that had burned through in the early 2000’s. The yellow area in the map below illustrates the extent of the fire zone that we entered as we left our west side campsite.

new growth on Cairngorm Lake after the fire of the early 2000's

new growth on Cairngorm Lake after the fire of the early 2000’s

Cairngorn Lake - Steel Lake Forest Loss History Since 2000

Cairngorn Lake – Steel Lake Forest Loss History Since 2000 – see here for source

The desolate look reported by canoe trippers who passed through soon after the fire has been replaced by a fairly uniform (in terms of height) carpet of tree growth that signals the start of a new cycle in this patch of the boreal forest.

Recently I listened to a podcast of an older episode of CBC Radio’s  Quirks and Quarks in which the speaker dealt with the notion that by the year 2075 50% of Canada’s existing boreal forest will have burned. (Click here to access.) He explained that this is largely due to natural causes and a part of the boreal life cycle. However, with the increase in human cause climate change and insect infestation the boreal forest is under additional stress and this makes predictions that much more difficult.

another post-fire stretch of the west side of Cairngorm Lake

another post-fire stretch of the west side of Cairngorm Lake

the heart of the burn on Cairngorm Lake

the heart of the burn area on Cairngorm Lake – both sides

A couple of hours of paddling and it was portage time.  As the map below illustrates, the portage towards Esker Lake is actually in a side bay 300 meters east of  Cairngorm Lake’s actual outlet, the very start of the Steel River. We spent an hour and 45 minutes on the portage. It is in rough shape and began with a muddy stretch that reminded us of the start of last summer’s portage into Knox Lake on the Bloodvein in WCPP.

The post-fire terrain is covered with lots of new growth – alders and young firs. You look ahead into a clump of bush and think to yourself -“Naw, that can’t be it!”  But of course that is where the trail is! Our handsaws out, we spent some time defining the trail and tape marking some of the more vague sections.

From Ciarngorm Into Esker Lake

From Ciarngorm Into Esker Lake (also referred to as Moose Lake in a number of reports)

the start of SP05 at the north end of Cairngorm

the start of SP05 at the north end of Cairngorm Lake

The portage comes out across from a waterfall (called First Falls in the Toni Harting account);  there was room there for a two-man tent if it was necessary to stop for the day. The entire area is quite scenic and just begs to be photographed.

We paddled up close to the falls and dipped our Nalgene bottle into the flow.  Soon we were sipping what we labelled  Steel River Nouveau and toasting the fact that after 2 1/2 days  we were finally sitting on the Steel River!

waterfalls from Cairngorm Lake - the start of the Steel River

waterfalls from Cairngorm Lake – the start of the Steel River

the waterfalls at the end of SP05 - the start of the Steel River

the waterfalls at the end of SP05

a bottle of Steel River Nouveau to celebrate - we are finally on a river!

a bottle of Steel River Nouveau to celebrate – we are finally on our river!

Then it was down the mighty Steel – well, at this point perhaps Steel Creek. Some deadfall across the river below the falls required a bit of manoeuvering and once or twice we had to saw our way through. The pix below show some of the what we paddled under and around and through.

looking back at the end of SP05, the first portage from Cairngorm into Steel Lake

looking back at the end of SP05 and its portage sign

Steel River deadfall before Esker Lake

Steel River deadfall before Esker Lake

No pix taken but we also dealt with a couple of beaver dams – standing on top of the dams and then hauling the canoe over the top and hopping back in. The one closer to Esker Lake was perhaps half the two foot height of the first one.

more sweepers on the Steel on the way to Esker Lake

more deadfall on the Steel on the way to Esker Lake

It is less than one kilometer from the SP05 put-in to Esker Lake. Within a half-hour we were sitting on Esker Lake ( referred to as Moose Lake in Toni Harting’s report in Paddle Quest  and in some older trip reports) and looking for a lunch spot with some shade. It was blazing hot and we were wilting.

approaching Esker Lake on the Steel River from Cairngorm Lake

approaching Esker Lake on the Steel River from Cairngorm Lake

We finally found a spot – easy to land, reasonably flat, but shade was scarce. We would eventually huddle under the branches of the tree pictured on the edge of the outcrop below.  Off came the boots and the socks; they would get a good drying while we sat in the shade and went on with our one-hour lunch ritual.

looking north from our lunch spot on Esker Lake

looking north from our lunch spot on Esker Lake

Lunch done,  it was back to work. First up was a quick paddle down Esker Lake and the start of a narrow two-kilometer stretch of the river which would take us into Steel Lake. SP06 comes up about 700 meters from the north end of Esker.

As we paddled up to the portage take-out we could see the bridge crossing the river. The portage trail  itself is on river left (as indicated in Haslam’s map set) and looks used and maintained – at least up to the road that goes over the bridge. Day3_Port2and3 On the other side of the gravel road (called the Esker Lake Road on some maps), we noticed some long marking tape streamers on a tree branch.  Walking over, we found yet another portage marker in the grass – the third in the past two days! The trail from here on down to the put-in was visible but in rougher shape than the first half.

Steel River portages between Esker Lake and Steel Lake

Google satellite image of fire road between Esker Lake & Steel Lake

As much as I find  the Garmin Topo Canada map set useful, it sometimes disappoints with its lack of up-to-date information.  If that logging or fire road was constructed in the early 2000’s you’d figure that the Garmin map would be include it.  To be fair, the fed. govt topo 042E02 Killala Lake (see here)  is also missing the fire road, though an Ontario Govt map site does have it. *See here.)  The Google satellite view above shows the road as it crosses the river.

And, as much as I find Kevin Callan’s trip reports useful, they sometimes disappoint with a confusing description of what canoe trippers will face.  The passage below is a good example. Having read it a few times, I am still not sure what he is talking about. It doesn’t seem to fit with the maps you see above – the stretch from Esker to Steel Lakes. As confused as he says he was by the government pamphlet, he leaves the reader in the same state. Callan Esker lake to Steel Lake Callan map Esker Lake to Steel Lake It would seem that a big reason for Callan’s confusion in the Esker-to-Steel section was due to his portaging the first set of rapids on river right. A snippet of his trip map is on the left and shows their 170-meter portage. We looked at the terrain and were impressed that he and his wife bushwhacked their canoe and gear 170 meters to their RR put-in.  He calls it “yet another rough carry-over”. It looked to us like a mini-version of the Diablo Portage!

It may be that the road was not there when they passed through; the huge boulders we saw on either side of the road may also have been added as a part of the road construction. And the beaver dam you see in the second image down below may be a more recent addition too. In any case, do not portage this on river right! As for his comment about paddling downriver for fifteen or twenty minutes before hitting the portage, this  doesn’t seem to fit with the map either.  It is about 800 meters to the bridge and the rapids; the take-out would be even closer.


Update: Some additional information in the form of a response to my posting by Rob Haslam, clarifies some things – and makes sense of Callan’s portage choice. Haslam writes this –

…that portage indicated on Kevin’s report as RR after Moose Lake (locals call it that sometimes) was indeed river right. When the big fire went through in 2000 or sometime around then, they pushed that new road in to combat the fire and built the bridge. When I went through, I had no choice but to re-establish the port on RL, around the bridge.

So, while the portage trail SP06 is now on river left it used to be on river right. The Callans were working on that information when they went through  after the fire but before the road and bridge were put in.  The fire had probably obliterated whatever trail they were looking for and they were left with a “rough carry-over”.

Esker To Steel Portages

I also found what looks to be the Ontario MNR info sheets on the Steel River canoe trip that used to be given out to interested paddlers.  (Info on the sheets seem to date them from the late 1970’s/early 1980’s.)   You can access a pdf copy of this “historical” document here.

It helps explain why the Callans were looking for a portage at the bottom of Esker Lake. It no longer exists – if it ever did! The portage  further down the river and on river left is the one that Rob Haslam mentions putting in after the fire . Note also the next portage j(#7) just before you come into Steel Lake – it is still there. In early July there was enough water to run/line the CI rapids.

the view looking NW from the Esker Lake logging Road bridge

the view looking NW from the Esker Lake logging Road bridge

The Steel River as it leaves Esker Lake

looking back from the bridge at The Steel River as it leaves Esker Lake

portaging SP06 - the portage on river left from Esker to Steel

portaging SP06 – the portage trail on river left from Esker to Steel

As a comparison with Callan’s description of their difficulties on the Cairngorm-to-Steel section, consider this description of a 1980 trip (see here for the report) which Norm Stewart and his son did. “Nonchalant” best describes his approach – Norm Stewart. 1980 trip report extract Like Harting twenty years later, Stewart gives Esker Lake the name Moose. The name does seem to be fitting, given his experience!  The “small drop” that he mentions is the second set of rapids on the Esker  L.- Steel L, stretch. SP07 is a 60-meter portage on river right around them.  Given the higher water level, we did a combination of lining and running (and occasionally scraping) our way down.

the top of SC07, the last rapids before Steel Lake

the top of the set of rapids at SP07, the last rapids before Steel Lake

looking back up the rapids at SP07 - we scratched our way down!

looking back up the rapids at SP07 – we scratched our way down!

And that would be the end of river travel for a while.  Ahead of us was Steel Lake, all thirty kilometres of it! On our Haslam maps in the map case we had two potential campsites, both on the east shore of the lake and both described as beaches. (See his Steel Map 16 for the locations.)  We checked out the first one and – thanks to the high water – there was little actual beach to camp on. A closer look at the ground a few meters in from the beach area did not turn up a suitably level spot for our tent.

one beached Swift Dumoine - the tent site was in about 20 meters

one beached Swift Dumoine – the tent site was in about 20 meters

Off to the next one – a couple of kilometres down the lake. The pix above and below show what we found when we got there – a fairly long and wide beach area. Even better, when we walked in to the clump of mature cedars we found an excellent tent site, nicely sheltered.  We had our home for the night!

our upper Steel Lake beach property - for one night

our upper Steel Lake beach property – for one night

east side campsite off the beach at the start of Steel Lake

east side campsite off the beach at the start of Steel Lake

campsite at the top (i.e. south) end of Steel Lake

campsite at the top (i.e. south) end of Steel Lake

A stove pipe, a window frame, bits of blue tarp – from the debris of a shelter nearby, the spot had probably been used by hunters in the past. Moving away some of the logs seen in the pic below would create space for even more tents.

the remains of a hunters' camp at our campsite on Steel Lake

the remains of a hunters’ camp at our campsite on Steel Lake

Our nine-to-five day had been our biggest one so far –  twenty-one kilometers and three portages knocked off.  On tap for the next day was even more distance with one big plus – no portages.  We planned to paddle the length of the Steel Lake and went to sleep dreaming of a moderate breeze from the SW blowing us the twenty-seven kilometres down to the next campsite. Who needs sheep when you can count the kilometres of Steel Lake!

Next Post: Canoeing the Steel River – Day Four – Steel Lake

Canoeing The Steel River – Day Two – Portaging Into Cairngorm Lake

Previous Post: Canoeing The Steel River – Day One – The Diablo Portage

  • distance: 12 km (from Diablo Portage plus another .5 km paddling around a high water island)
  • time: start – 10:00 a.m. ; finish – 4:15 p.m.
  • portages: three
    SP02 – 760m from Diablo Lake to 1st small lake/pond (1h 30m);
    SP03 – 300m from 1 st lake to second lake/pond (20 min);
    SP04 – 150m from 2nd pond/lake to Cairngorm Lake (30 min)
  • The S stands for Steel, P for portage and C for campsite. SP01 was the Diablo Portage.
  • weather: mostly sunny and warm
  • campsite: SC02. sheltered hilltop site; possible beach at bottom in lower water; no easy access to water; room for multiple 2-person tents; 4-person tents not so much

Steel River Day2

Cairngorm Lake (356 m a.s.l.)  is the headwaters of the Steel River system and sits another five meters a.s.l. higher than Diablo Lake. The agenda for the day – not overly ambitious – was to do the three portages up into the lake and then paddle down to a campsite on the west side of the lake which Haslam had recommended in his trip report. The report also provides locations for a site at the south end of the lake (3 km from the last put-in) and another potential island campsite a 10 kilometer paddle to  the bottom (.i.e the north end) of the lake. The A+ he gave that the one we were heading to sounded good!

Max's zen moment with the iris on the shore of Diablo Lake

Max’s zen moment with the iris on the shore of Diablo Lake

Before we headed to the first, and worst, of the portages, we turned back to our old friend, the Diablo! Thanks to the rain and our desire to get the thing done with, we had not taken many pix of the last difficult boulder stretch of the portage trail. It was a sunny morning when we paddled back.  Just going back as tourists made for a different experience!  Max momentarily set aside the purpose of our mission to focus on a flower drying in the sun.

iris at the end of the Diablo Portage

iris at the end of the Diablo Portage

And then it was along the easy section the trail which led us right back to the previous day’s piece de resistance, the boulder path up the gorge section of the Diablo Portage.

Max looking down the boulder stretch of the Diablo Portage the next morning

Max looking down the boulder stretch of the Diablo Portage

another view of the boulder path we had portaged in the rain

another view of the boulder path we had portaged in the rain the previous afternoon

Our return visit over, we headed out into Diablo Lake for the half-hour paddle to the other end and the start of SP02, a 760-meter carry that would take us into a small lake.

Day2_Cairngorm_Ports

looking east at Diablo Lake from the first take-out

looking back east at Diablo Lake from the first take-out

A few minutes spent looking for the start of the trail and then it was on to a rolling trail with a bit of mush and mud, sometimes helped by logs laid down to deal with the worst of it.

the start of the first portage into Cairngorm Lake

the start of the first portage into Cairngorm Lake

About an hour and a half later we put in on the edge of a small puddle which we were able to walk up to without a lot of difficulty.  The pic below shows the terrain – with the canoe ready to be slipped into the water after our little Gatorade/Clifbar break is done.

the put-in after the first portage towards Cairngorm

the put-in after the first portage towards Cairngorm

The start of the second portage (SP03) is in the distance.  We knew we were at the trailhead when we found the portage sign  laying in the grass.  We really should have done a better job of putting the sign back up; that prospectors’ tape is not going to be holding it very long.

looking across the pond to the start of the next portage into Cairngorm

looking across the pond to the start of the next portage into Cairngorm

start of another portage trail to Cairngorm

start of the second  portage trail to Cairngorm

As for the trail itself, it felt like a portage trail!  Again, a mix of mostly nice stretches and a bit of mush and in less than a half-hour we were off to the third, and last of the portages into Cairngorm Lake.

leaving a Ciarngorm portage put-in spot

leaving the second Ciarngorm portage put-in spot

A short 400-meter paddle to the other end of another puddle lake and we faced our third and last carry of the day (SP04).  Again, the portage sign was not initially visible when we looked for the start of the trail.  We found it laying in the grass and put it back up. We also made more use of our hot pink prospectors’ tape on some of the more vague or confusing sections of the trail.

Cairngorm portage sign in the grass

Cairngorm portage sign in the grass

Within a half-hour we arrived at the end of portage into Cairngorm and found a beaver dam to deal with.

beaver dam before entering Cairngorm Lake

beaver dam before entering Cairngorm Lake

We paddled across and hauled the canoe over the dam itself.  Finally – Cairngorm, the literal high point of our Steel River Loop!

looking back at the beaver dam from the start of Cairngorm Lake

looking back at the beaver dam from the start of Cairngorm Lake

At about 2 p.m. we stopped for our usual one-hour lunch further down Cairngorm Lake. Out came the Wasa bread and peanut butter as well as a couple of Thai soup packages that we hydrate in our mugs.  Sometimes extra water is boiled for coffee or tea but given the heat of this day, we were quite content to fill the one-liter Nalgene bottle with water, shake the Steripen around in it for a minute, and then pour in the Gatorade crystals.

Cairngorm Lake view - a bit of vertical rock

Cairngorm Lake view – a bit of vertical rock

Campsites on Cairngorm are few and far between, other than the three which Haslam locates on his map set. The pix below show our campsite, nicely sheltered on a hill top on a point and with a trail down to the landing and what would be a beach with lower water conditions. We were able to find a mostly flat spot for the 8′ x 10′ footprint of our MEC Wanderer 4 tent.  We did miss having a view of the lake and having a “patio” outcrop where we could let the wind take care of the mosquitos.

Cairngorm Campsite on west side of Lake

Cairngorm Campsite on west side of Lake

the Cairngorm campsite

the Cairngorm campsite

Now that we had slipped into trip mode with two shorter – if not totally easy – days  we had a bigger day coming up.  We hoped to paddle down to the bottom of Cairngorm and, after more portaging, find our way to a campsite at the south end of Steel Lake.  It would prove to be a scenic day!

Next Post: Canoeing The Steel River – Day Three – From Cairngorm Lake To Steel Lake

Canoeing The Steel River – Day One – The Diablo Portage

Previous Post: Canoeing Ontario’s Steel River system: Introduction, Maps & Approaches

  • distance: about 8.3 km. (plus at least 2.5 km. on the portage trail and another 400m paddling around the island)
  • time: start – 10:10 a.m.; finish – 3:45 p.m.
  • portages: one
  • SP01  – 1100 meters (3 h) the Diablo Portage!
  • N.B. Our portage and campsite #s  differ from the ones on the Haslam maps.  Ours begin with the Diablo Portage (SP01) and the Diablo Lake campsite (SC01); Haslam’s are numbered from Eaglecrest Lake on down.
  • weather: overcast morning; rain in the afternoon; sunny early evening and then more rain overnight
  • campsite: SC01 north east end of the west (larger) island on Diablo Lake about 400 meters from the put-in Steel River Day1 - portage and camp weather forecast - July 6-July 13After the 1200-km. drive up from Toronto on the Sunday, we spent the night at Marathon’s Airport Inn on Highway 17.  The next morning we listened to the forecast on the Weather Network while we consumed a continental breakfast which was, in retrospect, way too meagre for the work we’d be doing later on.  The forecast for the next week looked great – all  except for this very day; 30 to 50 millimetres of rain predicted as well as a thunderstorm.

What to do? The thought of a second night in a motel on Highway 17 didn’t appeal so we figured we would get on the water and at least paddle up to the north end of Santoy and camp off the beach there for the day before heading back to Diablo the next morning. As the pix below show the water was glass-like and it wasn’t raining when we arrived at about 9:30.  By ten we were on the water and paddling up the west side of the lake.

Santoy Lake - the put-in

the south end of Santoy Lake – the put-in

Santoy Lake put-in and parking area

Santoy Lake put-in and parking area – our car is the only one in the parking area

We were looking for potential campsites as we paddled up the lake but with the possible exception of the abandoned camp property three kilometers from the put-in, we would see no suitable places to camp. [A week later we would camp at the north end of Santoy Lake at one of the many campsites in the bush off the long strip of beach.]

Santoy Lake shoreline - not for camping

Santoy Lake west side shoreline – not for camping

Thanks to a gentle SW wind in an hour and a bit  we approached the portage take-out.  The white stop sign and the black and white portage marker were quite visible.  The weather was holding up and it looked like it would be okay for while.  Rather than camp at the north end of the lake for the day, we decided to go for it – to “git ‘er dun” so to speak. (By the time we paddled by a week later the little portage opening you see on the left side of the image had become “The Devil’s Hole”, but we didn’t know that yet!)

The Diablo Portage - .the take-out spot

The Diablo Portage – .the take-out spot

Rob Haslam’s advice, delivered I am sure with a wink and as the result of having done the Diablo Portage “trail” a dozen times, is this –

“Don’t even bother trying to look at Diablo on a map. Nothing will prepare you for the pain and suffering. Best to go in with very little information or expectations.”

(I lifted his words from a reply he made to my Canadian Canoe Routes forum thread here.)  Having done the portage, I can now better appreciate his point, even if it isn’t the one I would recommend.

My approach is the same one I used as a high school teacher for thirty-five years.  It goes something like this – Make sure you walk into that classroom knowing everything you can  about your subject and with a clear idea of what you expect your students to get out of the time they will be spending with you. So even before we left home we had examined all the topos and satellite maps, trying to get a handle on “the pain and suffering” we were taking on.  The sat image below with the 15 meter contour lines superimposed on top was the most illustrative image I found.

according to my Garmin Topo Canada map, Santoy is at 248 m asl  and  Diablo is at 351 m – a bit over 100 meter gain in altitude over a distance of 1100 meters of “trail”

One thing we agreed on very early is that we would not attempt to do our usual carry-and-a-half system.   It has Max take a pack and a duffel to the far end while I carry the other pack and duffel half way and then, dropping them off, return for the canoe.  While I start to carry the canoe to the far end,  Max is returning for the stuff I left half way. We know we’ve made a good estimate if we meet at the half-way point.

Well, not for the Diablo!  We decided to break it into sections with the first one being the carry from the water up to the top of the steepest part of the trail where things levelled out somewhat.  Complicating matters was that we often had to find the trail first. It has not been groomed in years and the ferns and alders have filled in the blank spaces very nicely.  Carrying half-loads, it took 45 minutes to deal with the steep first 200 meters.

the intial steep section of the Diablo Portage

near the top of the initial steep section of the Diablo Portage

We did make use of our handsaws and marking tape to make the trail easier to deal with on second and third carries.  It didn’t hurt that Max is a veritable trail hound with a real knack for finding the rumour of a trail in a mess of green.

Another thing that definitely did not hurt was the weight of our Swift Dumoine kevlar/carbon canoe. It weighs 42 lbs., much less than the weights on the leg press machines and loaded barbells we had spent the winter and spring pushing up and down at the gym. There are Steel trip reports out there with 80+ lb. canoes being carried up to Diablo Lake.  My hat goes off to the survivors!

Really, though, the swifts and the CI rapids of the Steel do not need anything more than a lightweight canoe. I’d say your canoe is a great place to cut thirty pounds of unnecessary haulage.

Max sniffing out an easier stretch of the Diablo Portage trail

Max sniffing out an easier stretch of the Diablo Portage trail

The first section done, it was time to deal with the second section. It did not involve much altitude gain but did require careful footing over and beside a moss-covered creek bed which led up to the gorge. It had also started raining just as we finished the first section and that made things more interesting. All we had was a liter of Gatorade, a couple of Clifbars, and some gorp  to replenish the fuel we were rapidly expending.

a bit of the middle strech of the Diablo Portage

a bit of the middle stretch of the Diablo Portage

our marking tape provides a clue in the middle stretch of the Diablo Portage

our marking tape provides a clue in the middle stretch of the Diablo Portage

another shot of the middle stretch of the Diablo

another shot of the middle stretch of the Diablo

typical section of the middle stretch of the Diablo

typical section of the middle stretch of the Diablo

The middle section of the Diablo Portage led to the last hurdle – the boulder-lined gorge. I had wondered what folks were getting at when they wrote things like – “Just when you  think it can’t get any worse, it does.”

Take a look at the image below.  That is indeed the trail – a more gentle stretch of the final section.  All that is missing is Max or I carrying pack or canoe as we negotiate our footing in the rain. Actually, our gear is not in the rest of the pics of the trail because the pics were taken the next morning – sunny and clear – when we returned to have another look at what we had survived!

the upper stretch of the Diablo Portage

the upper stretch of the Diablo Portage

Mind the Gap! Included in the middle and gorge section of the trail are a number of dark holes – I noticed a half-dozen.  We didn’t step into any of them but the result of doing so are pretty obvious. Callan notes that he and his wife gave the portage the pet name of “Face Plant” thanks to the damage that his wife suffered and Callan  having one leg go into a hole while he was hauling gear.

one of the many dark holes we noticed on the side of the the Diablo Portage trail

one of the many dark holes we noticed on the side of the Diablo Portage trail

The last particular obstacle I remember is the deadfall crossing the trail in the two pix below.  I was carrying the canoe and first attempted was to carry it sideways between the two boulders and under the log. When that didn’t work I made a full retreat and pushed the canoe bit by bit over the top of the log and then went to the front end to pull it over.  It took the last bit of energy I had to deal with the canoe yoke getting caught on the branch stubs and not moving forward. Meanwhile, Max had single-hauled the packs and duffles over this stretch – in all, seven trips back and forth, each an  opportunity to add more face to the ‘Plant’. Luckily, we were spared ankle twists and disappearing legs! The only problem we had to deal with was fatigue.

a bit of the upper section of the Diablo Portage Trail

a bit of the upper section of the Diablo Portage Trail

the log over the Diablo Portage

the log over the Diablo Portage”Trail”

Believe it or not, the trail – I always want to put quotation marks around the word when I use it in this post! – becomes civilized at this point and for the last one hundred meters or so leads you gently to the shores of Diablo Lake.  The image below show a part of this section – it looks a lot like a portage trail!

the gentle end to the Diablo Portage

the gentle end to the Diablo Portage

We had started from the other end at about 11:20.  At about 2:30 we had all of our stuff – an estimated 200 lbs. including canoe and paddles – at the put-in point on Diablo Lake.  It was pouring at this time so we put up the tarp and made some lunch. We pulled out our newish Helinox camp chairs and leaned back with our mugs of filtered coffee and celebrated the fact that, rain and all, we had survived our exquisite piece of torture.

This was definitely the most taxing, the most demanding portage we had ever done. We looked towards the island shown on the map below. When the rain stopped we did the 400-meter paddle over to the campsite on the north end, first doing a spin around the island to see if there was another – i.e. better – site.  Not seeing one, we set up camp at the perfectly acceptable spot indicated on Haslam’s map.  Without a doubt we were done for the day! Steel River Day1_Diablo campsite on Diablo Lake island

Rainbow over the Diablo Portage

Rainbow over the Diablo Portage

In the early evening the rain stopped for a while and the sun came out – and over the Diablo Portage appeared a rainbow.  Noah had been given his rainbow as a sign that the world would never again be flooded. We considered the possible meanings for us as we stood on our island on Diablo Lake and looked back to the portage. As for the predicted thunderstorm, it  never did pass through and over the next six days we would get a string of warm and sunny days as we paddled down the Steel River system.

looking west to the next day's portages to Cairngorm Lake

looking west to the next day’s portages to Cairngorm Lake

Next Post: Canoeing The Steel River – Day Two – Into Cairngorm Lake

Canoeing Ontario’s Steel River System: Introduction, Maps, & Approaches

We were looking for a shorter Ontario river system this year, do-able in a week or so and with uncomplicated logistics while still with having the feel of wilderness. In the Steel River system in the Lake Superior High Country to the north of Terrace Bay we found it.

Rainbow Falls - one of the highlights of a trip down the Steel

Max at the top of Rainbow Falls, which was  one of the highlights of our trip down the Steel

All images enlarge with a click; all blue text leads to more info.

Actually, what we found first was Rob Haslam’s post “Steel River Maps” in the Ontario Trip Reports section of the Canadian Canoe Routes forum. In the post Rob provides the most up-to-date and detailed information on the river – everything from portages to campsite locations to rapids and swifts and logjams. That was easy! The bulk of our research was done!

Eventually flowing into the north shore of Lake Superior, the Steel River system is smack dab in the middle of the very scenic High Country between Marathon and Terrace Bay.  We have driven past it a few times on Highway 17 on our way up to and back from Wabakimi or Woodland Caribou.  It makes up the core of Ontario’s Steel River Provincial Park,  which is categorized as “non-operating” since it is not staffed by anyone and does not have maintained campsites or portage trails.

For Ontario residents that means no overnight camping fees, though out-of-province visitors are expected to pay the $10.50 a night fee. (I am not sure who would be checking for camping permits since there are no officials in the park.)

Toronto - Terrace Bay route

a 1200-kilometer “grande portage” from Toronto to the put-in at Santoy Lake

A quick visit to the Parks Ontario website turned up the following brief description –

This wishbone-shaped park consists of long, narrow lakes, rugged cliffs, ravines, swamps, ponds, oxbow lakes, and a 20-metre waterfall. Great blue herons nest on the islands of Cairngorm Lake.

Park Facilities and Activities: There are no visitor facilities. Backcountry camping and canoeing are recommended activities.

Location: Twenty-four kilometres east of Terrace Bay, off Highway 17, above Lake Superior’s north shore.

Even better, we could paddle away from our vehicle on Day One, paddle down the 170 kilometres of the river over six or seven days, and end up right back where we started. It sounded like the canoe trippers’ version of a Penrose Staircase! Escher would be interested!

Penrose-Impossible Staircase More research revealed that the Steel river loop was a tripping favourite of Cliff Jacobson, who has done the loop at least eight times since his first in 1976. I had a couple of his books in the canoeing section of what is left of my hard copy library and was impressed by the scope of his paddling adventures so his recommendation meant something.

Santoy Lake Put-in On Day One

my bro Max at the Santoy Lake Put-in On Day One – calm waters at the start!!

lost canoe routes of ontarioLeafing through a copy of Kevin Callan’s A Paddler’s Guide to Ontario’s Lost Canoe Routes I found an account of a trip down the Steel that he had done with his wife Alana sometime in the early 2000’s.  Included was a map of the route with Santoy Lake as the put-in. Callan has also included the chapter on the Steel River in a more recent compilation titled Top 50 Canoe Routes of Ontario[A mapless version can be found at the paddling.net website here.] Paddle Quest

Sitting next to Callan’s book on the public library bookshelf was PaddleQuest, a compilation of various writers each describing one of  thirty-seven of Canada’s best canoe routes.  Edited by Alister Thomas, the book, published in 2000, provided yet more fuel to stoke our interest.

It has a chapter by the late Toni Harting, noted photographer as well as past editor of the Wilderness Canoe Association’s journal Nastawgan.  Titled “The Steel River: A Remarkable Loop”,  Harting’s chapter provides the following evaluation –

The Steel River offers a remarkable 170-kilometer adventure just north of Lake Superior, all in one loop, beginning and ending on Santoy Lake. In many respects, this is a superb wilderness river: remote, clear, lots of flatwater, and manageable whitewater, between 15 and 20 portages…A marvellous river indeed, but not a trip for novices without sufficient whitewater and portaging experience.

Yet another positive recommendation to clinch the deal! It was time to look more closely at all the maps available to get a handle on the trip!

The Steel River System Overview Map 1:50,000 Topo Maps: 

As mentioned, Rob Haslam’s maps are the obvious starting point. They are derived from the Garmin Topo Canada v4.0 mapset and have all portages, most campsite possibilities, and the locations of the four major  logjams on the lower Steel indicated. Haslam knows the river and has done the loop a number of times, the last trip being in 2011. We would find his information totally reliable and very helpful in dealing with the challenges of the river.

The topographical maps maintained by the Canadian Federal Government’s map department still provide the most accurate map information for canoe trippers.  They are available online for free download if you want to print them – or the parts of them that are relevant to your trip.  For the Steel River Loop there are three 1:50,000 topos that would cover all your map needs:

Coldwell       042D15

Killala Lake  042E02

Spider Lake  042E07

The government’s own no-frills folder-based canmatrix collection of maps is one source of the maps, both the 1:50000 and the 1:250,000 and in either tif or pdf format.    For the Steel River you can find the above maps in the 042 folder using the appropriate letters and numbers to get the specific maps.  Get started here.

These days there is a much more user-friendly and visual approach to access the maps that Jeff McMurtrie has come up with.  As with the maps above, they are available for free download. If you want, McMurtrie has the equipment to print the maps for you on plastic sheets.  See his Jeffstopos website to get started –

Jeff's Topos Home Page As well as paper copies of the  federal govt. topos, we each have a Garmin gps unit – the Oregon and the Etrex 20 – with the latest Garmin Topo Canada v 4 maps on it.  While not quite as accurate as the maps above, they serve as back up and provide a ready answer in those situations where you just can’t figure out exactly where you are!  We also like the waypoint and tracking features and the way it archives each day’s progress.

If I didn’t already have a gps unit, I’d be tempted to get the Delorme Inreach Explorer, which serves as  a two-way communication device and also has many of the features of a gps unit.  We have been using the Spot Connect over the past five years to provide gps tracking and nightly brief email message to the folks back home.

With Haslam’s maps, a gps unit,  and relevant bits of the the 1:50000 topos in your map case, you would have all you need to take on the Steel River loop.

We have also uploaded the gpx file of our Steel River Loop waypoints (along with a number of points noted on Haslam’s maps). You can download the 66 kb .gpx (Garmin format) file as a 5 Kb zip file from my Dropbox folder here.

A Slight Complication!

Needless to say, that nifty 2-D Penrose Staircase shown above cannot exist in reality!  In their trip reports, all of the above paddlers are quick to point out the one thing I haven’t mentioned yet – the price to be paid to get to that starting square for the ride down.  Known as the Diablo Portage, it is a 1100-meter carry from Santoy Lake (249 m asl )  to Diablo Lake (348 m asl) and involves a 100-meter gain in altitude. Another 10 meters of altitude gain from Diablo Lake to Cairngorm Lake via three more portages and you are in the true headwaters of the Steel River system.  Some work will be required!

typical stretch of the upper part of the Diablo Portage

typical stretch of the upper part of the Diablo Portage “trail”

The August 2014 issue of Backpacker magazine included an article entitled “Go Big: Ten Tough Trails We Guarantee You’ll Love”. It turned to Jacobson’s experiences to describe the Diablo Portage –

After canoeing waterways all over the world, guidebook author Cliff Jacobson says the portage between Santoy and Diablo Lakes is tougher than any other he’s found, even in the remote reaches of Nunavut—yet this pristine paddling escape sits right off the Trans-Canada Highway. “At just under a mile—1,673 meters, to be exact—it would be doable in 20 minutes if it were relatively flat,” he says, but hauling a canoe and gear through piles of Mini Cooper-size boulders takes all day. The elevation gain is about 300 feet (with 100 feet stacked into the first 100 yards), so “progress is measured in meters, not miles, per hour.”

We repeated our canoe tripping mantra – ” we’ll git ‘er dun” – a few times as we looked in amazement at the contour lines bunching up close to each other between Santoy Lake and Diablo Lake.  We knew it would be the price of admission but embraced it as only those who don’t really know can!

Access Points: There are two main approaches to the Steel River system – a northern one via the Catlonite Road off  Highway 11 to the east of Long Lac and a southern one a few kilometres off the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 17) east of the town of Terrace Bay (or west of Marathon for those coming from the east).

1. Eaglecrest Lake:

northern approach to Steel River

northern approach to Steel River

Rob Haslam describes this approach in the post referred to above.  Beginning at one of the lakes from Grehan to Eaglecrest  (Haslam gives directions on how to get to Eaglecrest), you paddle down the Little Steel River system to the point where it meets the Steel River itself.  Then it is all the way down to Santoy Lake and the Diablo Portage.

After your little tussle with the devil, it is mostly lake paddle all the way back north to your vehicle.  Among the plusses of this approach would be the chance to get into trip-shape before you hit the Diablo Portage – and the lighter food load you’ll have to haul up to Diablo Lake.

2. Santoy Lake:   Santoy Lake Put-In This was the option we chose for our Steel River loop.  While the driving distance from Toronto to Longlac is about the same as that to Santoy Lake, we liked the idea of getting the worst of the trip done first. Also, the ride in to the Santoy put-in point from the highway is much shorter than the 50 kilometres of the Catlonite Road from Highway 11 .

Given that there is no sign indicating  the side road that goes to Santoy, we drove right by  the turn-off and had to come back at it from Jackfish Lake.  The gravel road leads to a fair-sized parking area, a dilapidated dock and boat launch ramp in a bay on the south shore of Santoy.

You are not yet in the park at this point; it only begins near the far end of the Diablo Portage about 100 meters from  Diablo Lake.  Our vehicle was the only one in the parking lot the day we arrived; on our return a week  later there were a few more. On the lake itself there are a  a couple of cottages at the north end, as well as a trailer camp on the east side.

Now to get this canoe trip on the water!  It started with an hour’s paddle up Santoy and then our “uplifting” experience on the Diablo Portage – and we got to do it in the rain.

Day-By-Day Account of Our Steel River Loop:

Day One – The Diablo Portage

Day Two – Portaging Into Cairngorm Lake

Day Three – From Cairngorm Lake To Steel Lake

Day Four – Steel Lake

Day Five – Heading South On The Steel River

Day Six – Rainbow Falls

Day Seven – Meandering Our Way To Santoy Lake

Day Eight – Santoy Lake/Our View Of The Steel As a Canoe Trip