Canoeing The Steel River – Day Three – From Cairngorm Lake To Steel Lake

Previous Post: Canoeing The Steel River – Day 2 – Portaging Into Cairngorm Lake

  • distance: 20.7 km
  • time: start – 9 a.m. ; finish – 5 p.m.

portages: three (did the first two lined/ran/scraped the 3rd)

SP05 – 510m (1h 45min) from Cairngorm Lake to Steel Creek/River leading to Esker Lake

SP06 – 300m (45 min) river left and over fire access road well-groomed for first half less so second half but appeared well used

SP07 – 60m river right but with higher water may be possible to run or scrape/line (we did the latter)

  • weather: sunny with cloudy periods and very warm
  • campsite: SC03 – beach landing and sheltered camping area in a cedar grove 15 meters in from the beach; multiple tent spots, could easily accommodate several two-person tents and at least a couple of four-person tents. Day3
Max waiting while I give the Cairngorm campsite a last looking over

Max waiting while I give the Cairngorm campsite a last looking over

Sitting in the bay waiting for me to do a last quick camp site check for stray items, Max focussed on the reflections in the water – a definite favourite theme of his. The image below is what caught his eye. Before I uploaded it, I flipped the image so that up became down and made it look like a fuzzy Group of Seven impression of reality.

 Max in a reflective mood while I do a last check of the campsite

Max in a reflective mood while I do a last check of the campsite

We had just over ten kilometres of paddling to do to get to the north end of Cairngorm – and  the wind, such as it was, was playing nice and blowing our way!  We were curious to see how the neighbourhood had responded to the large forest fire that had burned through in the early 2000’s. The yellow area in the map below illustrates the extent of the fire zone that we entered as we left our west side campsite.

new growth on Cairngorm Lake after the fire of the early 2000's

new growth on Cairngorm Lake after the fire of the early 2000’s

Cairngorn Lake - Steel Lake Forest Loss History Since 2000

Cairngorn Lake – Steel Lake Forest Loss History Since 2000 – see here for source

The desolate look reported by canoe trippers who passed through soon after the fire has been replaced by a fairly uniform (in terms of height) carpet of tree growth that signals the start of a new cycle in this patch of the boreal forest.

Recently I listened to a podcast of an older episode of CBC Radio’s  Quirks and Quarks in which the speaker dealt with the notion that by the year 2075 50% of Canada’s existing boreal forest will have burned. (Click here to access.) He explained that this is largely due to natural causes and a part of the boreal life cycle. However, with the increase in human cause climate change and insect infestation the boreal forest is under additional stress and this makes predictions that much more difficult.

another post-fire stretch of the west side of Cairngorm Lake

another post-fire stretch of the west side of Cairngorm Lake

the heart of the burn on Cairngorm Lake

the heart of the burn area on Cairngorm Lake – both sides

A couple of hours of paddling and it was portage time.  As the map below illustrates, the portage towards Esker Lake is actually in a side bay 300 meters east of  Cairngorm Lake’s actual outlet, the very start of the Steel River. We spent an hour and 45 minutes on the portage. It is in rough shape and began with a muddy stretch that reminded us of the start of last summer’s portage into Knox Lake on the Bloodvein in WCPP.

The post-fire terrain is covered with lots of new growth – alders and young firs. You look ahead into a clump of bush and think to yourself -“Naw, that can’t be it!”  But of course that is where the trail is! Our handsaws out, we spent some time defining the trail and tape marking some of the more vague sections.

From Ciarngorm Into Esker Lake

From Cairngorm into Esker Lake (also referred to as Moose Lake in a number of reports)

the start of SP05 at the north end of Cairngorm

the start of SP05 at the north end of Cairngorm Lake

The portage comes out across from a waterfall (called First Falls in the Toni Harting account);  there was room there for a two-man tent if it was necessary to stop for the day. The entire area is quite scenic and just begs to be photographed.

We paddled up close to the falls and dipped our Nalgene bottle into the flow.  Soon we were sipping what we labelled  Steel River Nouveau and toasting the fact that after 2 1/2 days  we were finally sitting on the Steel River!

waterfalls from Cairngorm Lake - the start of the Steel River

waterfalls from Cairngorm Lake – the start of the Steel River

the waterfalls at the end of SP05 - the start of the Steel River

the waterfalls at the end of SP05

a bottle of Steel River Nouveau to celebrate - we are finally on a river!

a bottle of Steel River Nouveau to celebrate – we are finally on our river!

Then it was down the mighty Steel – well, at this point perhaps Steel Creek. Some deadfall across the river below the falls required a bit of manoeuvering and once or twice we had to saw our way through. The pix below show some of the what we paddled under and around and through.

looking back at the end of SP05, the first portage from Cairngorm into Steel Lake

looking back at the end of SP05 and its portage sign

Steel River deadfall before Esker Lake

Steel River deadfall before Esker Lake

No pix taken but we also dealt with a couple of beaver dams – standing on top of the dams and then hauling the canoe over the top and hopping back in. The first one was perhaps two feet high and the one closer to Esker Lake half that.

more sweepers on the Steel on the way to Esker Lake

more deadfall on the Steel on the way to Esker Lake

It is less than one kilometer from the SP05 put-in to Esker Lake. Within a half-hour we were sitting on Esker Lake ( referred to as Moose Lake in Toni Harting’s report in Paddle Quest  and in some older trip reports) and looking for a lunch spot with some shade. It was blazing hot and we were wilting.

approaching Esker Lake on the Steel River from Cairngorm Lake

approaching Esker Lake on the Steel River from Cairngorm Lake

We finally found a spot – easy to land, reasonably flat, but shade was scarce. We would eventually huddle under the branches of the tree pictured on the edge of the outcrop below.  Off came the boots and the socks; they would get a good drying while we sat in the shade and went on with our one-hour lunch ritual.

looking north from our lunch spot on Esker Lake

looking north from our lunch spot on Esker Lake

Lunch done,  it was back to work. First up was a quick paddle down Esker Lake and the start of a narrow two-kilometer stretch of the river which would take us into Steel Lake. SP06 comes up about 700 meters from the north end of Esker.

As we paddled up to the portage take-out we could see the bridge crossing the river. The portage trail  itself is on river left (as indicated in Haslam’s map set) and looks used and maintained – at least up to the road that goes over the bridge. Day3_Port2and3 On the other side of the gravel road (called the Esker Lake Road on some maps), we noticed some long marking tape streamers on a tree branch.  Walking over, we found yet another portage marker in the grass – the third in the past two days! The trail from here on down to the put-in was visible but in rougher shape than the first half.

Steel River portages between Esker Lake and Steel Lake

Google satellite image of fire road between Esker Lake & Steel Lake

As much as I find  the Garmin Topo Canada map set useful, it sometimes disappoints with its lack of up-to-date information.  If that logging or fire road was constructed in the early 2000’s you’d figure that the Garmin map would include it.  To be fair, the Fed. Govt. topo 042E02 Killala Lake (see here)  is also missing the fire road. Checking other sources, I found that the Ontario Govt map site does have it. (Link  here.)  The Google satellite view above shows the road as it crosses the river.

And, as much as I find Kevin Callan’s trip reports useful, they sometimes disappoint with a confusing description of what canoe trippers will face.  The passage below is a good example. Having read it a few times, I am still not sure what he is talking about. It doesn’t seem to fit with the maps you see above – i.e. the stretch from Esker Lake to Steel Lake. As confused as he says he was by the government pamphlet, he leaves the reader in the same state.

Callan Esker lake to Steel Lake Callan map Esker Lake to Steel Lake

It would seem that a big reason for Callan’s confusion in the Esker-to-Steel section was due to his portaging the first set of rapids on river right. A snippet of his trip map is on the left and shows their 170-meter portage. We looked at the terrain and were impressed that he and his wife bushwhacked their canoe and gear 170 meters to their RR put-in.  He calls it “yet another rough carry-over”. It looked to us like a mini-version of the Diablo Portage!

It may be that the road was not there when they passed through; the huge boulders we saw on either side of the road may also have been added as a part of the road construction. And the beaver dam you see in the second image down below may be a more recent addition too. In any case, do not portage this on river right! As for his comment about paddling downriver for fifteen or twenty minutes before hitting the portage, this  doesn’t seem to fit with the map either.  It is about 800 meters to the bridge and the rapids; the take-out would be even closer.


Update: Some additional information in the form of a response to my posting by Rob Haslam, clarifies some things – and makes sense of Callan’s portage choice. Haslam writes this –

…that portage indicated on Kevin’s report as RR after Moose Lake (locals call it that sometimes) was indeed river right. When the big fire went through in 2000 or sometime around then, they pushed that new road in to combat the fire and built the bridge. When I went through, I had no choice but to re-establish the port on RL, around the bridge.

So, while the portage trail SP06 is now on river left it used to be on river right. The Callans were working on that information when they went through  after the fire but before the road and bridge were put in.  The fire had probably obliterated whatever trail they were looking for and they were left with a “rough carry-over”.

Esker To Steel Portages

I also found what looks to be the Ontario MNR info sheets on the Steel River canoe trip that used to be given out to interested paddlers.  (Info on the sheets seem to date them from the late 1970’s/early 1980’s.)   You can access a pdf copy of this “historical” document here.

It helps explain why the Callans were looking for a portage at the bottom of Esker Lake. It no longer exists – if it ever did! The portage  further down the river and on river left (it is marked in red on the map) is the one that Rob Haslam mentions putting in after the fire . Note also the next portage j(#7) just before you come into Steel Lake – it is still there. In early July there was enough water to run/line the CI rapids.

the view looking NW from the Esker Lake logging Road bridge

the view looking NW from the Esker Lake logging Road bridge

The Steel River as it leaves Esker Lake

looking back from the bridge at The Steel River as it leaves Esker Lake

portaging SP06 - the portage on river left from Esker to Steel

portaging SP06 – the portage trail on river left from Esker to Steel

As a comparison with Callan’s description of their difficulties on the Cairngorm-to-Steel section, consider this description of a 1980 trip (see here for the report) which Norm Stewart and his son did.  His description does not even mention the first set of rapids and portage!

Norm Stewart. 1980 trip report extract

Like Harting twenty years later, Stewart gives Esker Lake the name Moose. The name does seem to be fitting, given his experience!  The “small drop” that he mentions is the second set of rapids on the Esker  Lake- Steel Lake stretch. SP07 is a 60-meter portage on river right around them.

Given the higher water level, we did a combination of lining and running (and occasionally scraping) our way down.

the top of SC07, the last rapids before Steel Lake

the top of the set of rapids at SP07, the last rapids before Steel Lake

looking back up the rapids at SP07 - we scratched our way down!

looking back up the rapids at SP07 – we scratched our way down!

And that would be the end of river travel for a while.  Ahead of us was Steel Lake, all thirty kilometres of it!

On our Haslam maps in the map case we had two potential campsites, both on the east shore of the lake and both described as beaches. (See his Steel Map 16 for the locations.)  We checked out the first one and – thanks to the high water – there was little actual beach to camp on. A closer look at the ground a few meters in from the beach area did not turn up a suitably level spot for our tent.

one beached Swift Dumoine - the tent site was in about 20 meters

one beached Swift Dumoine – the tent site was in about 20 meters

Off to the next one – a couple of kilometres down the lake. The pix above and below show what we found when we got there – a fairly long and wide beach area. Even better, when we walked in to the clump of mature cedars we found an excellent tent site, nicely sheltered.  We had our home for the night!

our upper Steel Lake beach property - for one night

our upper Steel Lake beach property – for one night

east side campsite off the beach at the start of Steel Lake

east side campsite off the beach at the start of Steel Lake

campsite at the top (i.e. south) end of Steel Lake

campsite at the top (i.e. south) end of Steel Lake

A stove pipe, a window frame, bits of blue tarp – from the debris of a shelter nearby, the spot had probably been used by hunters in the past. Moving away some of the logs seen in the pic below would create space for even more tents.

the remains of a hunters' camp at our campsite on Steel Lake

the remains of a hunters’ camp at our campsite on Steel Lake

Our nine-to-five day had been our biggest one so far –  twenty-one kilometers and three portages knocked off.  On tap for the next day was even more distance with one big plus – no portages.  We planned to paddle the length of the Steel Lake and went to sleep dreaming of a moderate breeze from the SW blowing us the twenty-seven kilometres down to the next campsite. Who needs sheep when you can count the kilometres of Steel Lake!

Next Post: Canoeing the Steel River – Day Four – Steel Lake

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