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

Related Post: The Little Missinaibi River From Top To Bottom – Intro, Maps, and Logistics

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!

Steel River Provincial Park and surrounding parks

Steel River Provincial Park and surrounding parks

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 kilometers 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 favorite 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 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 Natural Resources Canada Topo Maps: 

As mentioned, Rob Haslam’s maps are the obvious starting point. They are based on the Garmin Topo Canada maps 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 entire loop a number of times, the last trip being in 2012. 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  cover all your map needs:

  • Coldwell       042D15
  • Killala Lake  042E02
  • Spider Lake  042E07

[See here for the Natural Resources Canada folder with the entire Canada topo collection. Be prepared for folders inside of folders inside of folders. Not elegant!]

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.  (It is listed at an amazing $181. CDN in early 2018. We paid $110. back in 2011.) 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 a 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 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 an 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

a 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.”

[Note:  1,673 meters is not “just under a mile” – at 1.03 miles it is just over!  And while it may have felt like just under a mile to Jacobson,  it is “only” about .7 miles or 1100 meters.]

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!

Update: August 2018. A four-man Anishinaabe crew from nearby Pic River First Nation  just worked on the portages from Santoy Lake all the way to the south end of Steel Lake.  This should make things easier for the next few years! See my Day  One – Diablo Portage post for more info.

Access Points:

There are two main approaches to the Steel River system –

  1. a northern one via the Catlonite Road off  Highway 11 to the east of Long Lac and
  2. 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. Northern Approach from Highway 11 

northern approach to Steel River from Highway 11

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.

2. Southern Approach From Hwy 17 – Santoy

Santoy Lake Put-In

The southern approach off the Trans-Canada Highway 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 into the Santoy put-in point from the highway is much shorter than the 50 kilometers on 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 a 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 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 Posts 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

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

  1. Noah says:

    Hi there,

    I am looking into doing the Steel River loop this summer in early August. I was curious what the water levels were like for you during your trip. Were there long portions of very shallow water?

    Also I am curious about the overall fishing of the route.

    I appreciate your in-depth description of your trip. Hope to hear from you.


    • true_north says:

      Noah, Excellent choice of a nice compact canoe trip with a little bit of everything. Nice to hear you found the day-by-day report useful. With a copy of Haslam’s maps and notes you really have all you need to make the trip a reality.

      Re: Water levels. we did the trip in July of 2015. It was never very shallow. We never had to walk our canoes. The first part of the trip – from Santoy Lake to Diablo lake to Cairngorm Lake to Steel Lake – is obviously not a problem!

      The stretch back south after the Big Turn is where you have a river and even there narrow stretches are interspersed with lakes. I’d guess that water levels in early August will be marginally lower than they would be in mid-July though I’m not sure how this year will compare to last. I’d say that water levels will not be an issue and if they are it will be in spots near sets of rapids where you might want to line or portage anyway.

      Re: fishing. I am told it is excellent though I do not fish – or, as a vegan, even eat fish! What a waste of a great fishing spot, eh! If you check out Rob Haslam’s report he may have a comment or two about fishing.

      Enjoy your trip -and when you post a trip report send me the link so I can add it to my list of useful links on the river.

    • I have been on Steel Lake camping and fishing in the 1990’s. Good Walleye along structure and drop offs. Campsite here…………49.295632, -86.761579

  2. Bryan Bishop says:

    If experience is there, would you recommend a Kevlar Canoe?

    • true_north says:

      Bryan, we took our 42-lb. Swift Dumoine Kevlar/Carbon Fusion on the trip and had no regrets. There are no extensive rock-strewn rapids to deal with – lots of swifts and Class I on the part of the trip when you start heading south. If the water level is too low, lining it would make a good option.

      You’ll be glad not to have a 75-lb. Royalex on your shoulders – total overkill for this trip! – as you do the three kilometers of portages in the first three days and then – at the end of the trip – deal with the awkward up-the-banks carries around the four log jams.

      Whatever you take, enjoy your week on a river system that has a bit of everything! Let me know how it went!

  3. Mike says:

    I’ve been tripping with the same group of friends for 26 years, and I’m looking into doing the Steel River loop this year, but I’m curious about water levels during the summer, and when is the best time to go. Most posts and YouTube videos don’t seem to mention when people are doing the loop. We would like to go in August, and I was wondering if you have any input for this time the year? Your post here has been excellent and one of my main sources of info for planning this years trip. Thanks for all your great information. Mike

    • true_north says:

      Mike, you’ve picked a nice little river!

      The portage trail clearing done in the summer of 2018 will make the bit from Santoy Lake to Steel Lake a bit more obvious for the next four or five years.

      Re: water levels. I don’t think an August trip date is a problem. It is not an issue from the put-in at Santoy all the way to the Steel/Little Steel confluence (mistakenly labelled Aster Lake in some trip reports). That stretch is mostly made up of a string of lakes. South of the confluence there are a number of narrow lakes connected by stretches of fast water, swifts, and C1 rapids. I don’t think water levels will be an issue even there. At worst, in some spots you may have to walk the canoe down a short distance.

      Enjoy the trip – we talk about doing it again!

      • Anonymous says:

        Thanks for your input and advice, True North.

        This trip is starting to come together nicely and because of guys like you and Rob Haslam, the information to plan it has been excellent. I’ll definitely post an update about the Steel next August/September.

      • true_north says:

        It is early November and you’ve already got the seed of next year’s adventure planted.

        Meanwhile, I haven’t even uploaded my pix and maps from this year’s ten-day paddle!

  4. Duncan M Michano says:

    Ramblin Boy. thx for the mention in your updates. In actuality we have cleared out the portages all the way up to Aster Lk. then south from the Deadhorse Road bridge to Santoy. This spring we are going to do the section from Eaglecrest down to the Deadhorse Creek bridge. We are also cleaning up and signing the campsites where possible and installing “boom boxes”. We have tried to clean the portages fairly wide so that it will last a while but as you know blowdowns are common on any portage or trail.
    We did not do, nor do we intend to, clean the Diablo Portage. Instead we have created access to Diablo Lk through a series of lakes at the NW side of Santoy. It will probably add another day to the trip but it is much safer. Specially when taking youth. Because of the extra day we have also created a campsite with a boom box on Diablo Lk.
    We are creating our own canoeing map for the Steel. It should be ready this summer.

    Miigwetch. Happy canoeing. I’m a canoeist myself.

    • true_north says:

      Duncan, ahneen and thanks for your hard work. Canoe trippers appreciate it! We may do a second run down to see the difference the “new and improved” trails make.

    • Mike Williams says:

      Thanks so much for all your hard work. My friend and I are planning to do the route late this summer, and hearing this is just making the thoughts much more enjoyable. I look forward to seeing your map when you have finished it. Please keep TrueNorth updated with all your hard efforts.


    • Ian Merringer says:

      Thank you for all the hard work, Duncan. You mentioned you were making maps. Did that come to pass and can you tell me where to buy them? Ian

  5. Jeremy Braive says:

    I just got back from completing this loop in 5 days. I would have done it in 7-8 if the weather hadn’t sucked, but it did not stop raining from the time I got out of my car till when I got back. The portage cleanup crews have made this route very manageable, had no issues with finding portages, keeping to the trails etc. There are a couple more sites, some of which may be new, which would have been sweet to know, but none of the ones I stayed on were great. My canoe took a hell of a beating, the water level in the Steel River was much lower than expected from the top of Steel Lake to just past Rainbow Falls. I kinda feel like I am going to have to re-do it, as I really did not get to enjoy it, I just got one hell of a workout. Did not see a single person the entire time. Really appreciated all the info here, was very helpful.

    • true_north says:

      Jeremy, too bad about the crappy weather card you were dealt! We had better weather and the water level issue was not one we had to deal with either. Like you, we have talked about going back for a second helping of a memorable little river. Re: info. Glad to hear it was of use. There is some more recent stuff at the myccr website, not that you really need it now! Steel River Loop Maps Repost

      • Jeremy Braive says:

        Thank you, sir! Forgot to mention, as it may be important: I was able to do it in 5 days because of an outrageously strong and consistent tail wind from the beginning of Santoy all the way to the top of Steel Lake. I would not have been able to do it in this amount of time if that had not been the case. I also had a kayak paddle and was using a 42lb pack-boat which was easy on portages. Double carried every portage.

Your comments and questions are always appreciated, as are any suggestions on how to make this post more useful to future travellers. Just drop me a line or two!

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