Canoeing The Steel River – Day One – The Diablo Portage

Last revised on March 31, 2023.

Table of Contents:

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


Map and Basic Data

  • distance: about 8.3 km. (plus at least 2.5 km. on the portage trail and another 400m paddling around the island we camped on)
  • time: start – 10:10 a.m.; finish – 3:45 p.m.
  • portages: one
  • SP01  – 1100 meters (3 h) the Diablo Portage!  [S for Steel; P for Portage]
  • N.B. Our portage and campsite #s  differ from the ones on the Haslam maps.  Ours begins 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 northeast end of the west (larger) island on Diablo Lake about 400 meters from the put-in  [S for Steel; C for Campsite]
  • Federal Gov 1:50000 Topo MapColdwell       042 D 15

Steel River Day1 - portage and camp


Accessing The Santoy Lake Put-in From Hwy 17

weather forecast - July 6-July 13


After the 1200 km. drive up from Toronto on a 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 – except for this very day! 30 to 50 millimetres of rain and a thunderstorm were predicted.

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.

the side road to Santoy from Hwy 17 (the Trans-Canada)

As the pix below show, the water was glass-like, and it wasn’t raining when we arrived at about 9:30.  By 10 a.m., 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.


Paddling Up Santoy Lake’s West Side

We were looking for potential campsites, but with the possible exception of the camp property three kilometres from the put-in, we would see no places to camp. [A week later, we camped 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 a 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.

The Diablo Portage - .the take-out spot

The Diablo Portage – .the take-out spot


The Diablo Portage –  What To Expect

Cliff Jacobson:

The previous post had this assessment of the Diablo Portage found in the August 2014 issue of Backpacker magazine.  The article “Go Big: Ten Tough Trails We Guarantee You’ll Love” quotes Cliff Jacobson, the U.S. version of Kevin Callan (sorta) –

After canoeing waterways all over the world, guidebook author Cliff Jacobson says the portage between Santoy and Diabolo [sic] 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:  If the Diablo (not the Diabolo) Portage was 1,673 meters, it would not be “just under a mile.”  At 1.04 miles, it would be just over a mile!  However, the actual length of the portage is “only” about .7 miles or 1100 meters. Jacobson got the incorrect figure from the 1981 Canoe Routes of Ontario booklet put out by Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources.]

Rob Haslam:

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 his reply to my Canadian Canoe Routes forum thread here.)  Having done the portage, I can better appreciate his point, even if it isn’t the approach I apply to almost everything I do. As my various posts surely indicate, I obsess over all the details beforehand – and feel compelled to share them afterward!

Satellite Image With Contour Lines:

So even before we left home, we were primed for something special in the portage department!  We 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.”

We agreed on one thing very early: 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 halfway and then, dropping them off, return for the canoe.  While I carry the canoe to the far end, Max returns for the stuff I left halfway. We know we’ve made a good estimate if we meet at the halfway point. Well, not for the Diablo!


Diablo’s First Section – A Steep Uphill

We decided to break it into sections, the first 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 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 used our handsaws and prospectors’ tape to make the trail easier to see on second and third carries.  It didn’t hurt that Max is a veritable trail hound with a knack for finding the mere rumour of a trail in a mess of green.

Note: In the summer of 2018 the Diablo Portage, as well as all others right to the south end of Steel Lake,  were cleaned up by a four-man crew. See the end of the post for more details!

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 those who take on the added workload!

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 Second Section – Alongside  The Creek

With 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, making things more interesting. All we had was a litre of Gatorade, a couple of Clif Bars, and some Gorp to replenish the fuel we were rapidly burning.

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 Third Section – the Boulder-Lined  Gorge

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 a 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 come up!

the upper stretch of the Diablo Portage

the upper stretch of the Diablo Portage

Mind the Gap! Some dark holes are included in the middle and gorge section of the trail – I noticed a half-dozen.  We didn’t step into any of them, but the result of doing so is pretty obvious. Callan notes that he and his wife gave the portage the pet name “Face Plant” after his wife had one leg go into a hole while 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 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” is gone as of August 2018! See below…


The Final Section: The 100-Meter Trail to Diablo Lake

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 shows 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 new Helinox camp chairs and leaned back with our mugs of filtered coffee, and celebrated the fact that rain and all, the trip’s single worst portage was done!


Northern Scavenger’s Youtube Video – Raw Footage of The Diablo Portage

The Northern Scavenger duo did their own tussle with the Diablo in 2017!  Their 32-minute Youtube video will give you a  good idea of what it is like. The video begins with this thought –

We don’t want to say it wasn’t too bad….but I think we had our expectations that it was going to be a much more difficult portage and it ended up not meeting…not quite as bad,,, it’s still .a very challenging portage.

The occasional strands of that pink prospectors’ tape we put up a couple of years before were still dangling there. Nice to see them popping up in the video every few minutes!

Breaking down the video into sections of each of the four  I mentioned above –

  • Section 1 – up to 8:30;
  • Section 2 – 8:30 – 24:00;
  • Section 3 – 24:00 – 29:00;
  • section 4 – 30 to the end.


Update August 2018 –  Diablo Portage Clearing & Signing

Fantastic news! A four-man Anishinaabe (i.e.Ojibwe) work team just did some work – with chainsaws and all – on the portages that take you from Santoy to just below the south end of Steel Lake.  I found the info in a Canadian Canoe Routes forum thread. The poster Speckling wrote this –

As we were about 300 m from the end at Diablo Lake I was stunned to hear a chainsaw working ahead. Turned out it was 4 fellows from Pic River (father, son and 2 others) that had been hired by the band to clear portages. They started at the bridge between Cairngorm and Steel Lake and were making their way out via Santoy Lake. The large log suspended across a rock pinch in the portage trail, that required threading your canoe through the space needle, is no more, and we subsequently sailed through without a hitch.

Further related to portage clearing, the 1st leg (800 m) of the portage from Diablo to Cairngorm was absolutely spotless and not once across the entire length did I hear so much as a squeak from the canoe touching anything! The guys did a real nice job on it… See here for the thread and scroll down to August 12, 2018.


An Alternative Access Route to Diablo L.:

The  Canadian Canoe Routes forum thread Steel River Loop Maps Repost has inspired several other canoe trippers, including us, to head to the  Steel River.   In August 2020, in a reply by PaddlingGal, who had just returned from her river descent, she included maps detailing an alternative route to Diablo Lake. The map below shows the three portages that make it happen.

See the forum thread discussion (here) for her full description of the portages. I’ve made a point-form summary of her notes on the three portages below.  They add up to about 2000 meters of portaging instead of the 1100 meters of the Diablo.

SP9(a): 16U 508260 5417236   

  • take out spot located just to the left of the dock in the NW corner of the lake
  • well-maintained approx. 1200-meter port to Pike Lake (local name)
  • marked with yellow signs installed by the trail clearing crew from Biigtigong First Nation
  • lots of ups and downs, wet terrain, and a fair amount of elevation gain. 

SP9(a)E: 16U 507120 5417694    

SP9(b): 16U 506473 5417963   

  • an easier 350-meter carry 
  • slight elevation gain
  • ends in a part of the creek instead of the lake proper. 
  • some new deadfall on the trail, but compared to the first port out of Santoy, still a breeze.

SP9(b)E: 16U 506117 5417902  

SP9(c): 16U 505976 5417473   

  • 500-600 meters long with moderate incline, and a few tricky sections. 
  • exits into the northeast part of Diablo L., right where the “Poor Campsite” marker is on Rob’s map. 
  • paddle south to the middle of Diablo, then turn back north to get to SP10 on the Haslam map

SP9(c)E: 16U 506102 5417099   


The Diablo Portage – is it really that bad?

My description of the Diablo Portage has perhaps over-dramatized its difficulty. It has perhaps led some paddlers to embrace a two-kilometre/three-portage alternative that may be just as demanding and time-consuming. From what we heard afterward, the two crews that did the Diablo later that week had an easier time –

  • it wasn’t raining when they did it, and
  • our dangling pink prospectors’ tape gave them something to follow!

See the Comments section at the end of the post.  Brian has done both the Diablo and the alternative entry route and makes some points of comparison.


The Biigtigong First Nation trail crew from Pic River – not exactly next door to Santoy Lake!  Their clearing, trimming, and signing have improved the Diablo Portage for the next few years.  



Now back to our trip report!

We looked toward 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 for 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

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9 Responses to Canoeing The Steel River – Day One – The Diablo Portage

  1. Anonymous says:

    I did this portage away back in 1973 from Diablo Lake down to Santoy. The first ‘gentle’ stretch was a cruel lure into the most hellish carry we’d ever done – and we did it all in one carry, thinking the portage was steep but otherwise not too bad…two packs (including rock samples!) and a 75-pound cedar/canvas canoe.

    For the final stretch we had to put the packs in the canoe and let it down by rope – me at the top with the rope around a tree and letting it out slowly, my partner at the front of the canoe guiding it over rocks and logs. We thought we’d somehow missed the ‘real’ portage, and of course by the time we were into it, going downhill, there was no hope of going back. Later we found out – THAT was the real Diablo! Well-named, to say the least.

    Your blog and information is fabulous – I’m glad to have come across it.

    • true_north says:

      Anon, a real buzz to read the details of your “reverse” Diablo portage. 1973 makes your reminiscence downright “historical”! And a 75-lb. canoe on top of a bag of rocks – ouch!

      It was probably more difficult the direction that you did it! The initial “gentle” stretch, as you call it, was clearly a ploy to suck you in; we got to experience it as we exhaled at the end of our own tussle with the Diablo!

      Happy to hear my post helped you relive a real “character-buidling” moment in your life!

  2. Brian bailey says:

    Looks beautiful! We want to try next year but are unsure. rhnx we’re all getting older but would like to check off our list.


    • true_north says:

      Brian, list or not, it is a terrific one-week adventure.

      Just add an extra day or two to the usual six or seven and you’ll “git ‘er dun”! Portage trail work done in the summer of 2018 will make the section to Rainbow Falls that much easier. The carries around the log jams can be done over two days if you are okay with a beach camp on on of the river’s many bends as it makes its way to Santoy Lake.

      Re: getting older. I’m 68 and my bro is 65 – we hope to be canoe tripping into our late 70’s!

  3. Brian says:

    Just a follow up now that our trip is done about the alternate route into Diablo Lake via the three portages on the northwest corner of the lake- nothing crazy, but we all love the information we can get on these things! We couldn’t resist a direct comparison between Diablo and the alternative route. As of July, 2022, the portages remain in good condition, and my canoeing partner Dan and I removed the few fallen trees from the portages that stymied seamless passage. (Given the three lengths, we dubbed them Papa Bear, Mama Bear and Baby Bear during the traverse.)

    The longest begins river right immediately next to the shed of the home on the northwest corner of Santoy and the homeowners have kept it majestically trimmed until it reaches an overflow channel from the river. You do indeed cross the river early in the process. Rolling hills upward do have a couple of mucky spots, even in otherwise dry conditions. One important note: the Biigtigong Nishnaabeg did mark the trail with the small yellow diamond markers at a few locations. Ignore the pink flagging tape in the middle sections as it is used to mark trappers’ spur trails, and was a bit confusing, especially given the marking tape’s exceptional utility on the early portions of Diablo. The largest portage ends river left on Pike Lake, and gps coordinates are:

    N 48°54.642′
    W 086°54.286′

    Beyond that, some undergrowth and overhanging branches were the only (miniscule) obstacles that we found. Kudos to those who spent their time and effort making the route.

    Final note – we did a double portage on Diablo and our completion time was 2:20:00. Single portaging the “Three Bears” took us almost identical time in the downhill direction to Santoy. A true portage and a half or double, (and uphill) will take longer, so plan accordingly.

    Thanks to you @true_north for this gold mine of information. Your trip reports are second to none!

    Cheers and happy paddling!


    • true_north says:

      Brian, thanks for the update on the alternative series of portages to enter Diablo Lake.

      And thanks for the positive review of my trip reports. My brother points out that I spend more time on them than on the actual trips – and he is probably right! Somehow it just adds to my enjoyment of the trip and I end up noticing things I didn’t while we were doing it.

      So you have done both the Diablo and the alternative. You note that they take about the same amount of time. Do you think it is worth paddling to the north end of the lake from a Santoy put-in to avoid the Diablo? I sometimes think I overdid the “pain and suffering” emphasis when it really wasn’t all that bad. A sunny day and a marked trail would have been nice though!

      Send me a link to your Steel River Adventure when it gets done!

  4. Anonymous says:

    With full packs and double/1.5 portaging, the alternate route will definitely take longer. Our roughly equivalent timing was both with slightly lighter packs and the timing was taken in the downhill direction on the new route. Dan and I actually discussed this at length during our long drive home and we both actually preferred Diablo itself versus the alternative. We did Diablo in three sections, and the trail is visible now in most places. Having the right attitude (respecting that a slow pace and careful footing are both necessary) and not trying to “beat the portage” make it almost enjoyable (perhaps the ample black flies drove us insane and clouded our judgement?). That said it was undoubtedly the most difficult we’ve done in 25 years of canoeing together. It’s a gatekeeper to an obviously wonderful route and although very difficult, it’s definitely doable. Diablo has the advantage that the island campsite is nearby the end, so the needed recovery is close at hand following the long carry. We do agree with your assessment on canoe weight- a heavy boat would make it much, much worse!
    The alternate route definitely has a few things going for it though- MUCH better footing, less arduous climbs, and a wider, more visible path throughout. Also, if starting on the northern route, it’s a great bet if you want to avoid the paddle to Diablo or you find heavy seas on Santoy.

    So my thoughts are that an honest assessment of fitness should be considered before attempting Diablo, as well as a willingness to allow time and pace to be determined by the portage and conditions. Also, having a snack and water at the ready made a huge difference.

    Interestingly, we found ice still sitting in the “dark hole” you provided the picture of above. Imagine, in early July!


  5. Brett Graves says:

    not one mention of the fabulous fishing that awaits you. Trophy speckled trout. We did this trip many times in the 80s and early 90s we are loggers from Manitouwadge.

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