Last revised on May 23, 2023.
Table of Contents:
Previous Post: Day 2 – Portaging Into Cairngorm Lake
- Day 3 Essential Data – Portages, Campsite Locations, etc.
- The Early 2000s Fire in the Cairngorm Area
- Portage From Cairngorm Lake Into Esker Lake
- Deadfall And Beaver Dams On the Way To Esker Lake
- Portage Out of Esker Lake on RL Across Fire Road
- Confusing Out-Of-Date Maps and Reports
- Campsites on the South End of Steel Lake
- Next Post: Day Four – Steel Lake
Essential Data – Portages, Campsite locations, etc.
- 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 from the beach; multiple tent spots, could easily accommodate several two-person tents and at least a couple of four-person tents.
The Early 2000s Fire in the Cairngorm Area
Sitting in the bay waiting for me to do a last quick campsite 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.
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 2000s. The yellow area in the map below illustrates the extent of the fire zone that we entered as we left our west side campsite.
The desolate look reported by canoe trippers who passed through soon after the fire has been replaced by a fairly uniform (in terms of height) carpet of tree growth that signals the start of a new cycle in this patch of the boreal forest.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.
Portage Into Esker Lake From Cairngorm Lake
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! With our handsaws out, we spent some time defining the trail and tape-marking some of the more vague sections.
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!
Deadfall And Beaver Dams On the Way To Esker Lake
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 what we paddled under and around and through.
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 was half that.
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.
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.
Portage Out of Esker Lake on RL Across Fire Road
With lunch done, it was back to work. First up was a quick paddle down Esker Lake and the start of a narrow two-kilometre 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. 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.
Confusing Out-Of-Date Maps and Reports
Garmin’s Out-of-Date Data
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 set 4.0 would include it over a decade later.
To be fair, the Fed. Govt. topo 042E02 Killala Lake 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 here is a newer 2022 sat image from the Ontario Government map site –
Callan’s Out-of-Date Route Descriptions
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.
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 with a 20-year-old trip report map from 1981 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”.
Released in March 2023 was Callan’s Top 70 Canoe routes Of Ontario, an expanded version of the Top 60 (2017) and Top 50 (2011) editions that have appeared in years past. Included again in this new release is Callan’s Steel River write-up. It is the same as the one from the early 2000s quoted above.
A note at the beginning of some of his older trip reports from the 1990s and early 2000s – like this Steel River report – indicating when they were written and if they have been updated with subsequent trips would certainly be helpful to paddlers using them to plan their own Ontario canoeing adventures.
Late 70s/early 80s Ontario MNR Steel Trip Map
I also found what looks to be the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources info sheets on the Steel River canoe trip that used to be given out to interested paddlers. It may be included in the 1981 booklet Canoe Routes of Ontario – I haven’t been able to get a copy to see if my guess is correct.
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 (i.e.north end) of Esker Lake. It no longer exists.
The portage further down the river and on river left (marked in red on the map) is the one that Rob Haslam mentions putting in after the fire.
Note also the next portage (#7) just before you come into Steel Lake – it is presumably still there. In early July there was enough water for us to run/line the short CI rapids. We did not look for evidence of the portage trail.
Norm Stewart’s 1980 Steel River Circle Trip Notes
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!
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. You can see them in the middle of the satellite image below.
Given the higher water level, we did a combination of lining and running (and occasionally scraping) 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!
Campsites on the South End of Steel Lake
The Haslam maps have two marked campsites, both on the east shore of the lake and both described as beaches. 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 fairly level spot for our tent.
Off to the next one – a couple of kilometers further north on 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 into the clump of mature cedars we found an excellent tent site, nicely sheltered. We had our home for the night!
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.
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!