Previous Post: Canoeing The Steel – Day Four – Steel Lake
- distance: 15.3 km
- time: start – 9:30 a.m. ; finish – 3:15 p.m.
- portages: three
SP08 – 250m (15 min) river right from campsite to the first small lake;
SP09 – 460m (1h 10m) river right; over hill and dale to the second small lake;
SP10 – 160m (1 min) Class 1 with a bumpy ride and haystack finish in high water or portage, which is on river right. Nice campsite area at the bottom.
- weather: sunny and very warm
- campsite: SC05 river right; cedar grove; room for multiple 2 person tents; small beach area; easy access to water; picturesque east view of rock face bathed in setting sun. An alternate site about 700m down on river left is west-facing with small beach beside a creek with room for several 2 or 4 person tents
It was morning five and since turning off from the highway to the Santoy Lake put-in we had yet to see anyone. No fishermen, no paddlers…not even any four-legged wildlife – no moose, no bear. Well, chipmunks had visited a couple of our campsites but that had been about it. We figured things might change as we got down to the turn-around point and headed back south.
But first – more portages to get there, three carries interrupted by two little puddles of water. We had walked SP08 the evening before, doing a bit of trail maintenance in some of the more grown-over spots. Now we did it one more time with the gear and then paddled down to the take-out spot for the second portage.
We found SP09 in pretty rough shape with some ridge-edge sections having collapsed thanks to mini-landslides. It definitely felt longer than the measured 460-meter distance. The steep take-out did have a welcoming portage marker!
This was one of those portages where even manoeuvring the canoe became an issue in a couple of messy spots. Blueberry bushes have covered parts of the trail. There are definitely some ups and downs to guarantee an aerobic workout and it all ends with a sustained downhill to the put-in. You notice this when you go back for the second load. As always, it gets done and you sit there at the put-in and get ready for the next challenge.
We had just loaded the canoe and were about to push off to the third portage when someone came down to the put-in! It was John Mark, one of four American guys (two had driven up from Wisconsin and the other two from Detroit). Soon the others joined him and we had a brief chat about the sketchy trail and the Steel in general. They had put in at Santoy the day after us – and here they were! Three had never been on a canoe trip before and they were still totally psyched about the experience. As we pushed off, I thanked the Detroit guys for their hockey coach; they were quick to reply that he was hoping to get a job where he’d be done in April! Wishing them all the best, we pushed off for SP10.
As we approached we saw a Class 1 set of rapids with enough water (almost!) to run. Within a minute we were down and through and approaching a nice campsite (SC02 on Haslam’s maps, SCS04 here in this GPS data file) at the confluence of the Steel and Little Steel Rivers. That’s it in the pic below, looking like very few tents have been put up there so far this year.
A Side Note:
Callan and many others mistakenly identify the Steel River here as Aster Lake. However, Aster Lake is actually found about five kilometres due east of the Steel River. The Garmin Topo Canada map above has Aster Lake correctly located, as does the Fed Govt topo 042E/07 map below –
None of the government topos have a lake name for the confluence of the Steel and Little Steel Rivers, though the stretch from the confluence down to our campsite for the night has, in order, Burrow, Stewart, Savoie, and Mckernan Lakes. I would guess that a set of rapids or swifts would indicate the bottom of one “lake” and the top of another. Given the negligible drop from one lake to the other, the Garmin Topo Canada map set has the same above sea level figures in meters for the first three lakes as you paddle down from the confluence.
I am making a real effort to get a great shot in the pic above. The funny thing is that all my DSLR flower shots turned out to be crap while Max’s Canon SX280 p&s captured the scene perfectly. After our moment with the flowers, we would paddle the 5.5 kilometres down to the bottom of Stewart Lake before we stopped for lunch. At first, as we started down the river, I recorded the location of the swifts we were zipping through but after three or four of them it struck me that the swifts were something to enjoy and did not need GPS exactness to deal with. I felt better when I put the GPS device away and just went with the flow of water. Looking at the GPS track just now, I see that we hit speeds of up to 11 kilometers an hour – if only for a few seconds at a time! Nevertheless – totally enjoyable! In the end, Haslam’s maps have all the swift and rapid info if you want a bit of a warning about upcoming “challenges”. There is a zip file of the gpx waypoints of our trip – and of the swifts and rapids in particular – which you can download here. (Ignore the sales pitch if you want; just click on No thanks, continue to view at the bottom of the page.)
We figured that a canoe trip starting at one of the lakes north of the confluence down through here would make a great introduction to canoe tripping! The lakes would give newbies a chance to practise their paddling skills and then the moving water would give them their first shots of rapids-induced adrenaline.
It would be somewhat like the Spanish River starting at Ninth Lake and working your way down the lakes to the rapids. However, there are no rapids on the Steel that come close to what the Spanish has further down. It was thirty years ago but I still remember tanking at Graveyard Rapids!
We love paddling down narrow rivers – and we were loving the Steel since the turnaround. Around 12:30 we stopped for lunch on a shady stretch of the river and watched the river flow by for an hour as we cooled down and had a bite to eat.
After another very easy ten kilometers after lunch, we stopped for the day at the campsite (SC05) mentioned in the Callan trip report. It is a sheltered and shady spot on the west side of the river with a nice stretch of vertical rock across the water. Callan describes their afternoon as they paddled down to it from the Steel/Little Steel confluence –
Eventually we reached Aster Lake [sic], turned south, and almost immediately began running rapids. The whitewater was a welcomed diversion. Only once did we have to portage, 180 yards to the left of a technical Class II rapid. The rest of the day was spent negotiating a combination of fast chutes, manageable Class Is’, and easy swifts. In fact, the strong current remained consistent most of the way, squeezing itself through walls of granite or high gravel banks. Even when the river eventually broadened out, becoming more lake-like, the scenery still remained breathtaking. Jagged cliffs provided a backdrop to thick forested banks, left untouched by the past fire, and tiny islands of sand and gravel split the current in all directions. It was a place of awesome beauty, an absolute dream scape. We camped directly across a spectacular cliff face, and celebrated the day with an extra glass of wine. It continued to pour down rain while we set up camp, but at this point in the day nothing seemed to dampen our spirits.
While we had a similar experience with the water – totally buzzed by the swifts and Class I rapids which sucked us down the river while we watched the shoreline zip by – we didn’t see anything that warranted being called CII or CII technical. Then again, if they had lower water that would certainly change the character of the two or three – we didn’t really notice – rapids we had run with no problem. As for Callan’s effusive praise of the scenery, it seems to us a bit over the top. The reality, while still a very nice slice of the Canadian Shield, is hardly that dramatic.
And now for our own bit of hyperbole! We thought of the exhilarating river running as the flip side of the Diablo Portage, the yin to the yang of the 1.1 km carry. As much work as the portage had been, the swifts and rapids were simple fun. It really brought home the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde nature of the Steel River Loop. Consider – over three kilometers of gruesome and often messy portages in the first two days topped off by forty-five kilometers of lake paddle. And now this – the sweet gurgling sound of swifts and easy rapids all afternoon as we finally headed south.
For most paddlers the highlight of their Steel River loop will be the two days they spend on the stretch of the Steel River from the turnaround point at the confluence to just below the Dead Horse Road bridge some ten kilometres south of Rainbow Falls.
We had just set up the tent and put some water on to boil when the four canoe trippers from the morning paddled towards the campsite. We told them that if they were looking for a place to camp, they were welcome to join us; if not, I mentioned the site on the other side of the river some 700 meters downriver. (See map above for location.)
Ben had a copy of Callan’s trip report and had probably planned on camping at the same spot. Whatever the case, they accepted the offer and soon had their two tents up in spaces on either side of ours (fortunately 2-person tents!). An evening’s worth of great conversation followed – as is often the case when kindred spirits meet on the river.
An After-Supper Paddle:
After our usual supper, we did take advantage of the evening stillness to paddle the 700 meters down to the other campsite noted on Haslam’s maps. Our canoe is definitely meant to be paddled loaded and it handled a bit strange empty. Down at the other campsite, we found a flat and fairly open site (compared to our sheltered site upriver). It also seemed warmer thanks to its exposure to the setting sun. The pic below captures some of that sun streaming down on the east side of the river.
This river left campsite is located beside a creek and offers plenty of room for multiple 2-person tents and even a few 4-person tents with no one complaining about not getting a flat spot. This is when you ask yourself if you should have kept paddling for a ‘nicer’ spot.
On the edge of the site, we found the sunlight streaming down through the cedars onto the creek bed that seemed like the portal of a magical world. We got there just as the sun was starting to dip below the western hills and was casting those nice, long. soft sunset light rays right up the creek making for an enchanting picture-taking opportunity.
We spent a good ten or fifteen minutes there framing different shots that captured the light and the creek bed that it lit up. It is Zen moments like these that make the act of photography special – and sometimes we are even rewarded by an image that captures most of what it is that beguiled us in the first place.
We would also drop in the next day to see what the early morning light might show.
On our way back we also paddled up close to the rock face across from our campsite. And then it was back to the euchre tournament as we marvelled about the bug-free evening on the Steel River.
It had been a fun day. The next day – but only a half day of paddling – would serve up more of the same as we got to scamper around Rainbow Falls!