Over the years we try to get out tripping as much as possible. Unfortunately, like most, the confinements of a day job usually means these last shorter than we’d like. Despite this, we try to get out for at least one annual trip that is a little more lengthy.
With each one of these annual trips we try to add a new twist to the route. This has subsequently meant that with each route we would try to push our limits a littler further and get ourselves a little more remote. What started as extended trips in southern Ontario, quickly became an allure to get ourselves into more isolated regions which would test us both physically and mentally.
This past year we found ourselves looking at the Steel River as an option. The Steel River is a Provincial Park near Terrace Bay, Ontario. The park has no facilities and does not require any permitting. The landscape consists of long, deep, narrow lakes, rugged cliffs, ravines, swamps, rivers, rapids and oxbow lakes.
We caught wind of this route in Kevin Callan’s Ontario’s Lost Canoe Routes. For further information we used Ramblin’ Boy’s website. Both of these reports have very useful information including technical maps and other documentation.
The difficulty and beauty of the route portrayed in both Kevin’s and Ramblin’s report made this trip sound very appealing. It was safe to say that we were hooked.
- Total Distance: 170 km
- Portages: 19
- Total Portage Distance: 6000 m
- Longest Portage: 1670 m
- Portage Difficulty: Advanced (rugged terrain that is unmaintained)
- Number of Days: 8
- Maps: Coldwell- 042D15, Killala Lake- 042E02, Spider Lake- 042E07
Kevin Callan’s “Ontario’s Lost Canoe Routes”
Ramblin’ Boy's Blog Post on the Steel River
PART ONE: INTRODUCTION
We gave ourselves 10 days to complete the trip which included the 12 hour drive from home in Toronto. On a Friday night in late July we headed up from Toronto and drove until 3:00am to Sault Ste. Marie. Being the cheap, adventurous type that we are, we decided that it would be best to sleep in the parking lot of a grocery store in what seemed to be a relatively sketchy neighbourhood. We grabbed some much needed rest before waking up dazed and confused to continue for the final 5 hours to the put-in on Santoy Lake.
Santoy Lake is 4km off the Trans Canada and is accessed by a dirt road. We arrived at the put-in on the Southwest tip of the lake for 1:00pm where we were greeted by the stunning scenery and one other car. While we were unpacking we got into a conversation with a local who was fishing on Santoy for the day. We explained what our plan was and he proceeded to tell us that we were nuts…particularly because of the grueling terrain we would have to face. After reading Kevin’s report and Ramblin’s blog, we were well informed of a deadly portage that we would have to tackle right off the bat; that being the infamous Diablo portage.
We left the launch at 1:45 and paddled for roughly 7km before we were introduced to the beast of a portage. Paddling up the shores it looked apparent that this was not your ordinary portage…what we were looking at looked more like a mountain. This infamous portage known as “Diablo” could have been named this because of the adjacent lake, Diablo Lake, but it could have also been named this because of the hell it puts you through. Being only 1600m, it really makes you work for every meter.
We found that the portage can be divided into three main technical sections which all had their own tricks and treats.
Section 1: The Slopes. Extremely Steep terrain. This section required switch backs and extreme panting
Section 2: Fern Forest. Ferns covering basketball-sized rocks which worked well in camouflaging cracks and crevices. Be very careful moving over loose rocks and blind sections where a wrong move could easily result in a twisted or broken ankle
Section 3: Rock Garden. Car-sized boulders which require the canoe to be threaded through small gaps and passages.
For more details on the Diablo Portage, click to watch the Raw Footage
The total portage required us to make two trips and was completed in 2.5 hours. The time it takes to complete really depends on your fitness level as well as the weather because sections of the route can become extremely hazardous in wet/rainy conditions. Luckily for us, Alex was coming off a half iron man and conditions were favourable which led to us completing Diablo in a relatively short time.
Once we arrived on Diablo Lake we were both sleep deprived and physically drained. We paddled the short distance to the island camp, had dinner and then went to bed.
Day 2- DIABLO LAKE
Diablo Lake is roughly 2.4 km long with a maximum depth of 49 m with an average depth of 6m. Fish species include Brook Trout. Expect to see cliff faces and steep rocky terrain along the water’s edge.
We woke up at 7:00 to another beautiful morning. The lake was glass calm and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. We spent a couple hours at camp enjoying the fire and going through our maps before packing up.
Paddling the short distance up Diablo Lake Alex was able to catch us a beautiful brook trout. Being Alex’s first brooky, we kept it for a shore lunch where we would stuff it with onion and bacon and slow roast it on a bed of coals. If you have never tried brook trout before I would highly recommend it. The cold, fresh water that these fish live in make for an unbelievable tasting fish. Be sure to always consult with the areas fishing regulations before keeping any fish.
We reached the end of Diablo Lake where there were three consecutive portages. These portages are relatively short and connect small fens which link Devils Lake to Cairngorm Lake. Assuming we already completed the toughest portage on the route, we approached these with a cocky attitude assuming they would be a walk-in-the-park compared to Diablo. These delusions quickly vanished once we realized the only difference between these portages and Diablo were that they were shorter (and bit less steep). Once again we were pushing our way through tight overgrown paths weaving through rocks and fallen trees.
Cairngorm Lake is roughly 17km long with a maximum depth of 60m with an average depth of 15m. Fish Species include Lake Trout and Northern Pike. Expect to see large cliff faces and steep, rolling, mountainous terrain.
We carried out the rest of the day canoeing through this long, narrow lake. Along the way we hooked into two Lake Trout. These trout were personal bests for both myself and Alex which made this moment an absolutely surreal experience.
We ended up spending the rest of the day on the water fishing and slowly making our way up Cairngorm. We stopped at a rocky point for a shore dinner and had a swim before heading a bit further to find a site. We paddled until dusk looking for the third campsite marked on Kevin Callan’s map. For whatever reason we couldn’t find it so we made use of a miniature beach which looked to be just wide enough to pitch a tent for the night.
The next morning we were greeted by beautiful conditions once again. We watched the morning fog slowly be burned off by the rising sun as we pushed off at 8:00am for the day’s paddle.
Near the end of the lake we started seeing the presence of past forest fires. The terrain started to become more barren and was dominated by birch and alders. Once we reached the portage, the path was almost impenetrable with these fast-growing trees, shrubs and blowdowns. Luckily for us, a past canoeist was kind enough to tie up some orange tape which kept us heading in the right direction as we plowed through branches and shrubberies. This 590m portage took us a little over an hour to complete.
PART 2: Let's get to the turn around
Esker Lake is roughly 1 km long with a maximum depth of 27m, and an average depth of 5m. Fish Species include Brook Trout and Walleye. Expect to see weeds and reeds, rolling terrain and lower succession forests.
After the portage leaving Cairngorm. We reached a small river system that would take us into Esker Lake. This is the first section of the route with creek paddling. The creek had a very mild current and meandered through shallow sections and dead fall from the early 2000’s forest fire. This section requires a few carry overs but is not physically demanding or technical.
Once in Esker Lake it is a quick paddle to more creek paddling through marshy shallow water. Again, this section is short and sweet, until you reach a large-scale beaver dam. The beaver dam is marked on Kevin Callan’s map as a 170m portage around the East shore of the obstacle. It turns out, you shouldn’t waste your time looking along theses shores, the portage is on the west side right on the peninsula. From here there is an easy navigable portage which will take you to Esker Lake road. From here the portage gets a little trickier. The rest of the route takes a little bush wacking as you follow what looks like animal paths that criss-cross through the bush. Eventually you will find one trail that will take you all the way down to the river. The total portage decreases by 10m in elevation from start to finish. Most of this takes place near the end of the portage…watch your footing!
Once at the bottom of the portage, the current becomes a little more apparent and the river meanders through marshy wetlands. Along this section there was an abundant amount of water fowl that kept thinking they could escape us by splashing down river past the next bend. You could see the frustration in their eyes every time we came around the next corner and surprised them. It turned in to a game of Heard the Ducks Down the Steel River! Fun for us, annoying for them.
Near the end of this section the marshy creek starts showing signs of a faster current and cobble. As the creek nears Steel Lake, the creek narrows and a rocky bottom becomes more apparent. Here there is a marked 80m portage which will take you around a section of shallow rocky water. Instead of portaging we lined the canoe down the shallow water. It turned out there were many sharp rocks and if we didn’t have the “The Mistake” (Our beefy plastic Coleman canoe), we probably would have put a hole in our canoe. We don’t recommend lining.
Steel Lake is roughly 28km long with a maximum depth of 64m, and an average depth of 16m. Fish Species include Walleye and Northern Pike. Expect to see the presents of past forest fires, steep, mountainous terrain, and cliff faces. This narrow, long, deep lake is one of the most scenic portions of the route.
We worked our way up Steel Lake catching a couple walleye and pike as we paddled. This lake was one of the personal favourites in terms of landscape and scenery. We weren’t the only people to think this, on the southern portion of the Lake we saw the first signs of human activity. A fishing outpost. Although we didn’t see anyone, it was odd seeing motor boats in such a remote location. It just goes to show you how hard it really is to find a place of total solitude.
We paddled on Steel Lake until 5:30pm where we then found a very nice, scenic site on a rocky peninsula. This particular site was not marked on Kevin Callan’s map but it did look to be used before. The site was open and rocky which only had one traditional flat mossy spot to pitch our tent. Unfortunately, there was a large dead tree right beside the pad. Due to this we didn’t feel comfortable sleeping under dead wood so we had to make due with a flat, open rock face exposed to the elements. To make our pad a little more comfortable we gathered some lichen to put under our tents. Although crunchy, this worked very well to soften our floor.
We woke at 6:00am with the goal to reach Aster Lake, the lake where we would turn south and start paddling down the more defined Steel River. When we got out of the tent we were welcomed by fog so thick you could cut it with a knife. Like the other mornings, we quickly got to business brewing coffee and preparing our oatmeal.
We left the site by 7:50 and paddled the 20km to the end of the lake by 2:45. The conditions along this portion of the route were amazing; the water was glass calm and the sun was shining. Words can’t describe how great the weather was. Along the way both of us hooked into our personal best walleye as well. Another amazing fishing experience brought to you by the great Steel River Provincial Park.
At the Northern end of the lake, reeds start to become present and sand bars scatter the shoreline as the Lake drains into the Steel River. Here there are three consecutive portages that go around rapid and technical sections. Depending on water levels these rapids can either be run or lined. We attempted to run the first 240m portage which had barely enough water to get us through. The second portage could not be run due to a large rocky drop-off on the bottom section of the 510m portage. The third portage would be considered class 1 rapids in higher water, but due to water levels, this 140m portage had to be lined.
We arrived on Aster Lake around 5:30 where there is a site directly adjacent to the final portage. The site is a grass flat with signs of human ingenuity in the form of bushcraft tables and chairs. It was strange to suddenly see signs of fellow campers, but after looking at the map, there is an alternate access route North of Aster Lake from the Kimberly Clark logging road. We opted to stay on this site for the night.
Across the lake from the site there is a large landslide which exposed the sandy soil on the steep slope of Aster Lake. The deep, rocky lakes of the earlier portion of the route were slowly being replaced with sandy banks and shallower lakes. One of the many aspects of how diverse this route is.
That night we paddled over to the rapids of the final portage for a little fresh fish for dinner. We were presently surprised to be bombarded with walleye almost every cast. We kept a couple for dinner and went to bed looking forward to what the Steel River had to offer.
PART 3 - The Steel River
Day 5: Aster Lake to Steel River
We rolled out of the tent at 7:30am eager for the day of swifts and rapids we had ahead of us. We had some breakfast and had the canoe packed by 10:00am when we pushed off. There were some emotions that came with crossing the mid-point on our trip. It was going to be all “down-stream” from here.
We managed to get though the first few set of swifts with relative ease. Battling with the low water levels seemed to be working in our favour whiling bumping into the odd rock here and there.
We think we passed about 15 sets of swifts on our way down the river before hitting the 140m portage that we had to do. It was about 8km down the river when we pulled over at the side of the shore, where a tree was arched perfectly over the river. Alex took the opportunity to stretch his legs and climb the tree for a picture.
Shortly after the tree the river ran along a beautiful cliff face. We took this as an opportunity to try and locate where we were on the map and have a sip of whisky while we were at it. Knowing that we didn’t have much longer until the 140m portage, we continued on.
The portage was about 9km from where we had started our paddle that day. The water levels did not permit us to run the rapids, so we were forced to do the portage. At the outflow point of the rapids, there was a place that looked perfect for a shore lunch. It also looked like it could be a great spot to fish.
After about 4 minutes, I had caught us 3 pickerel to have for lunch, and Alex was still tying his line. We had a nice shore lunch that was rushed due to the clouds that were rolling in. Before long we could hear the sound of rain hitting the forest around us, and eventually it was right on us. Luckily we had the chance to wrap the canoe in a tarp to keep our gear from getting soaked.
We continued down the river trying to keep spirits up as the rain came pouring down on us. Alex and I put our heads down and paddled on. Before this rain, the weather had been perfect with not a cloud in the sky. It was starting to get difficult to focus on making progress forward.
Just when hopes were getting low, Alex turns around and whispers to be quiet. I immediately look ahead to see a giant bull moose drinking in the river. It didn’t matter how cold or wet either of us was, we were completely distracted by the sight we had in front of us.
We managed to get a few photos of him before hoping to paddle past without disturbing him. It only took a few paddle stokes before he lifted his head and went tearing across the river to run into the forest. He obviously wasn’t looking for anyone to join his party that day.
It wasn’t much further past the moose that the weather let up and we started to look for a spot to camp. We found a spot where low water levels had created a bit of a beachfront, to a spot in the woods that we could camp. This site had a beautiful rock face right across the river from us.
We set up camp, made some chilli and went for a swim. We tried some casts from shore but we were only able to catch one pickerel that had a bright blue tinge on it. We sat by the fire for a while drinking tea with whisky before calling it a night. We had paddled about 15km but we were lucky to have the current with us.
Day 6: Steel River - A day of swifts
We started the day at 7:00am, waking up and having our classic proatmeal mix (oatmeal and protein powder) that Alex was starting to get sick of. He decided to switch it up and make a peanut butter wrap with bacon on it, which he assured me was a nice change of pace from the oatmeal. It was a beautiful foggy morning where we could barely see past the rock face that was in front of us.
This day was going to be another that was filled with swifts. We figure we must have hit about 20 sets of swifts that day. This section of the river actually had a few larger sets of rapids that would likely be considered class 2 due to their technicality.
We stopped for a quick pack of tuna with crackers that allowed us to stretch our legs momentarily. We had not done too much fishing but still managed to get some nice pickerel at the outflows of the rapids.
We continued our paddle down the river where there seemed to be more and more sand in the water and along the shorelines. After about 20km of paddling we knew we were nearing the waterfall.
Just as we went around the bend in a river, we could see a sign for a portage. Along with that, came a large roar from the water falling over the edge. We jumped out of the canoe and pulled it safely on shore before running over to check out what we had in store.
I think both of us were very surprised by the size of Rainbow Falls. We both knew it was big but its different when you are staring at it. There was one large waterfall that cascaded over 2 different levels before the water split around and island that had rapids around either side of it. It was absolutely stunning.
We portaged our gear down the trail that runs along the right side of the waterfall. Many other people have used the campsite that is here. There were pots and pans, as well as a small shelf that someone had built. Based on the waterfall it wasn’t a shock that this was a popular spot. It also had 2 rabbits that were hoping around the site. They were pretty friendly and we figured they were likely used to seeing people by now.
We opted to try and go for a swim, which proved not to be a good idea. As soon as Alex put his foot in the water, he pulled his leg out covered in what looked to be baby leeches. We still are not aware of what these were but they were bad enough to keep us from swimming near the waterfall.
We went for a dip at the top of the waterfall where it was more of a sandy beach. We decided to make a fire at the top of the waterfall and have dinner there before bed. It was the perfect night to watch the sun set over this beautiful area.
Before long, our bug friends were out, and it was time to go to bed.
Day 7: Rain, Kilometers, and Log Jams
This morning was our most efficient of the mornings. We were up at 5:50am and we left by 7:25am. There were many swifts right off the bat, which got us moving quickly down the river.
The topography in the area had changed significantly. There was not nearly as much rock as we had seen previously and there was an abundance of sand along the shore. The river was very windy in this section and due to the low water levels, each turn seemed to have a mini beach that was likely typically submerged.
As we continued our paddle, we were able to crush a number of kilometers very quickly due to the faster moving current. We approached a few fallen pine trees that acted a sweepers. As Alex and I both ducked, we didn’t realize that the tree had actually swiped by daypack off the top of the canoe. It wasn’t until we had paddled about 4km down the river that I realized it was gone. At this point it would have been a mission to paddle back. Below is a list of the items that were in the pack.
- Cell phone
- Water purification chemicals
- Fishing lures
- Pocket knife
It was not until a week after we had been home that Alex got a phone call from a gentleman by the name of John from Michigan. He and a friend had done the trip right after us and had found our pack submerged in the water by the tree. The cell phone managed to still work since it was in a dry bag inside the pack. Lucky for us, campers are good people, and John is one of those people. He shipped it back to us in the mail with not a single piece missing – Thank you John.
We continued our paddle down river where it continued to curve like a snake. In this section of the river we saw 2 owls that were perched on trees that bent over the river. We also passed under a bridge that we had read about in another blog.
Eventually we hit our first log jam. Alex and I had no idea what to expect. I have to be honest when I say that the thought did cross our mind that we might be able to “lift over” the log jams rather than do the typical portage. Were we ever wrong…
For those of you who don’t know…A log jam on the Steel River, is a section of the river that could be blocked up to 500m in length. There is absolutely no access to the water due to the hundreds of trees that have fallen into the river to block the way.
Just as we make our way over to the take out, we start to realize that because of the lower water levels, these were some steep sand banks on the edge of the river. Not only were the take-outs and put-ins a challenge, but the portages themselves were very much what we had started to refer to as the “classic” Steel River portage. Whether it was steep hills, missing trails, or fallen trees, each one of these portages was an absolute treat. Many times we found ourselves having to stand very close to the edge of the forest, which dropped into the log jam area.
A downpour with lightning in the afternoon required us to pull off the river. We still had another log jam to pass. Once the rain let up we continued on paddling down each curve in the windy river until we found a spot for lunch. We pulled off on the side of the river where low water levels again exposed a sandy area that was covered in pebbles. At this point we had already travelled about 20km and had completed 2 of the log jam portages.
We had some log jams for lunch which was a new creation of ours. We decided to fry up some of the summer sausage that we had been eating cold up until now. We realized how much better they were cooked and decided to cook some and put it on a wrap with peanut butter (and sometimes bacon). The name was inspired by the day of log jams that we had to get through. We still had one last log jam to cross before it was going to be smooth paddling.
After completing the final log jam we paddled for about 6km until we pulled over on again, another sandy shore where we would set up camp for the night. We ate some Mr. Noodles with dehydrated onions and peppers and went for a swim in the river. The current was stronger than we realized since it wasn’t as noticeable in the canoe. Today was a big day for us as we had crushed close to 35km on the river.
Day 8: Back to the launch
We woke up and got a fire going right away. Now that we did not have any way to clean our water, we were resorting to boiling. We were all packed and launched by 9:40am.
This portion of the river was much slower due to the deadwood floating in the river. The winding river was losing its appeal and we were looking forward to seeing Santoy lake once again. After paddling 15km we arrived at the mouth of the river. Once again utilizing a beach spot to have a shore lunch.
After some food and swim, we paddled onward to cover the remaining portion of Santoy Lake to get back to the launch. Obviously we were not going to cross this body of water without throwing a line in to catch a few more fish.
We found a spot 2km from the launch were we chose to clean the fish and make dinner. Chilli Fish wraps were on the agenda for the night. We wanted to clean the fish away from our site as we had seen a bear at the launch on our way in.
After dinner we paddled back to the launch were we packed the car and loaded the canoe. We set up the tent one last time to get a good night sleep before setting off early the next morning. We had a 12 hour drive to complete on Sunday before we both went back to work on Monday.
NS Personal Bests on the Steel River 2016:
- Longest trip in amount of nights (8 nights)
- Longest trip in distance (170 km)
- Hardest Portage (Diablo)
- Most km paddled in a day (35 km)
- Noah and Alex: Both caught their biggest pickerel and biggest lake trout
- Alex’s first brook trout
- Most remote route
- Most swifts and rapids