Last revised on January 21, 2023.
Previous Post: Canoeing The Steel River – Day One – The Diablo Portage
- distance: 12 km (from Diablo Portage plus another .5 km paddling around a high water island)
- time: start – 10:00 a.m.; finish – 4:15 p.m.
- portages: three –
SP02 – 750m from Diablo Lake to 1st small lake/pond (1h 30m);
SP03 – 300m from 1 st lake to second lake/pond (20 min);
SP04 – 150m from 2nd pond/lake to Cairngorm Lake (30 min)
- The S stands for Steel, P for portage and C for campsite. SP01 was the Diablo Portage.
- weather: mostly sunny and warm
- campsite: SC02. Sheltered hilltop site; possible beach at the bottom in lower water; no easy access to water; room for multiple 2-person tents; 4-person tents not so much
Cairngorm Lake (356m a.s.l.) is the headwaters of the Steel River system and sits another five meters a.s.l. higher than Diablo Lake. The agenda for the day – not overly ambitious – was to do the three portages up into the lake and then paddle down to a campsite on its west side, which Haslam had recommended in his trip report. The report also provides locations for a site at the south end of the lake (3 km from the last put-in) and another potential island campsite a 10-kilometer paddle to the bottom (.i.e, the north end) of the lake. [See Haslam’s Maps 12, 13, and 14 for campsite locations.]
The A+ he gave to the middle one we were heading to sounded good!
Back To The Diablo Portage For Another Look
Before we headed to the first and worst of the portages, we turned back to our old friend, the Diablo! Thanks to the rain and our desire to get the thing done, we had not taken any pix of the difficult boulder stretch of the portage trail. It was a sunny morning as we paddled back. Returning as tourists made for a different experience! Max momentarily set aside the purpose of our mission to focus on a flower drying in the sun.
And then, it was along the final easy section of the trail, which led us right back to the previous day’s piece de resistance, the boulder path up the gorge section of the Diablo Portage.
The First Portage (750m) Into Cairngorn Lake
Note: We did this trip in 2015. In July 2018, a four-man Anishinaabe (i.e. Ojibwe) crew from nearby Pic River First Nation worked on the portages from Santoy Lake to the south end of Steel Lake. This should make things much easier for the next few years!
Our return visit over, we headed out into Diablo Lake for the half-hour paddle to the other end and the start of SP02, a 750-meter carry that would take us into a small lake.
A few minutes were spent looking for the start of the portage, and then it was on to a rolling trail with a bit of mush and mud, sometimes helped by logs laid down to deal with the worst of it.
About an hour and a half later, we put in on the edge of a small puddle which we could walk up to without much difficulty. The pic below shows the terrain – with the canoe ready to be slipped into the water after our little Gatorade/Clifbar break is done.
The Second Portage Into Cairngorn Lake
The start of the second portage (SP03) is in the distance. We knew we were at the trailhead when we found the portage sign lying in the grass. We really should have done a better job of putting the sign back up; that prospector’s tape will not hold it very long.
As for the trail itself, it felt like a portage trail! Like the first one it was a mix of mostly nice stretches and a bit of mush. We were off to the third and last portage of the day into Cairngorm Lake in less than a half-hour.
The Third and Last Portage Into Cairngorn From Diablo
A short 400-meter paddle to the other end of another puddle lake, and we faced our third and last carry of the day (SP04). Again, the portage sign was not initially visible when we looked for the start of the trail. We found it lying in the grass and put it back up. We also used our hot pink prospectors’ tape on some of the trail’s more vague or confusing sections.
Within a half-hour, we arrived at the end of portage into Cairngorm and found a beaver dam to deal with.
We paddled across and hauled the canoe over the dam itself. Finally – Cairngorm, the literal high point of our Steel River Loop!
At about 2 p.m., we stopped for our usual one-hour lunch further down Cairngorm Lake. Out came the Wasa bread, peanut butter, and a couple of Thai soup packages that we hydrate in our mugs. Sometimes extra water is boiled for coffee or tea, but given the heat of this day, we were quite content to fill the one-liter Nalgene bottle with water, shake the Steripen around in it for a minute, and then pour in the Gatorade crystals.
Cairngorm Lake Campsites
Campsites on Cairngorm are few and far between, other than the three which Haslam locates on his map set. The pix below show our campsite, nicely sheltered on a hilltop on a point and with a trail down to the landing and what would be a beach with lower water conditions. We found a mostly flat spot for the 8′ x 10′ footprint of our MEC Wanderer 4 tent. We did miss having a view of the lake and having a “patio” outcrop where we could let the wind take care of the mosquitos.
Now that we had slipped into trip mode with two shorter – if not totally easy – days, we had a bigger day coming up. We hoped to paddle down to the bottom of Cairngorm and, after more portaging, find our way to a campsite at the south end of Steel Lake. It would prove to be a scenic day!