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!

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 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 Natural Resources Canada 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.”

[Note: It may have felt like just under a mile to Jacobson but it is “only” about  1100 meters or .7 miles.]

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. Northern Approach from Highway 11 – Eaglecrest Lake

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 Highway 17 – Santoy Lake  

Santoy Lake Put-In

There is also a southern approach off the Trans-Canada Highway. 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 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

This entry was posted in wilderness canoe tripping and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 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.

    Thanks,
    Noah

    • 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

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!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s