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.
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.)
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!
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.
Leafing 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.]
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!
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!
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.
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. Northern Approach 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
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.