Last revised on July 16, 2022.
- 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!
- 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 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 – all except for this very day; 30 to 50 millimeters of rain was 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 10 a.m., we were on the water and paddling up the west side of the lake.
We were looking for potential campsites, but with the possible exception of the camp property three kilometers 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.]
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.
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!
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.
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! 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, it took 45 minutes to deal with the steep first 200 meters.
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.
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 liter of Gatorade, a couple of Clif Bars, and some gorp to replenish the fuel we were rapidly burning.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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!
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 Lake:
The RHaslam 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 come back from her descent of the river, she included 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
Is the Diablo Portage really so much worse than the alternative?
My description of the Diablo Portage has perhaps over-dramatized its difficulty. It has led some paddlers to embrace a two-kilometer/three-portage alternative that may be just as demanding and time-consuming. From what we heard afterward, the two crews that did the Diablo that week after us had an easier time –
- it wasn’t raining when they did it, and
- our lame hot pink 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! Thanks to their clearing, trimming, and signing, they have made the Diablo Portage much better 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!
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.