It was difficult to believe at first that the almost sheer slab of rock directly in front of us was actually the beginning of the Diablo portage. It's not as if my wife, Alana, and I thought that a wilderness trail labeled after Lucifer would be a walk in the park. In fact, all our trip planning prior to heading out on the Steel River, north of Lake Superior, gave us good reason to actually avoid this 1000 meter portage that immediately begins with a 350 meter rise in elevation.
In most cases, canoeists will choose to use a logging road north of Terrace Bay to access the main section of the river, reducing a ten day trip to only five days, and, at the same time, avoid some of the most rugged topography en route. By taking the easy way out, however, you also have to organize a lengthy car shuttle rather than loop directly back to your vehicle; the plague of most river routes that I also desperately try to avoid. And besides, our pre-trip research also indicated that the first few days of the full 170 kilometer circuit allowed canoeists to travel through some of the most scenic landscape the province has to offer. Alana and I figured such a large chunk of wilderness was well worth portaging through hell and back and decided to take on the infamous Diablo portage despite the warnings by other canoeists who had gone before us. After all, how bad could one portage really be?!
The initial access point for the Steel River loop was the rail bridge close to the shore of Lake Superior (Canadian Pacific Railway brochures of the 1890s advertized this route as a prime canoe destination). But now a government dock is used at the south end of Santoy Lake, located at the end of a gravel road leading in from Highway #17, 4.6 kilometers west of the highway bridge. The take-out for the Diablo portage is actually eight kilometers north on Santoy Lake, between two high mounds of rock, and along the west shoreline. It's poorly marked by a strip of blue ribbon tied to an alder branch and the letter 'P' spray painted on the weathered trunk of an old cedar tree.
Our plan was to first haul our canoe and gear up the almost vertical portion of the trail. Once we had everything up to the summit, Alana and I would then double carry over what remained - a somewhat level but rugged path that worked through a steep-walled ravine for approximately 800 meters. It sounded reasonable. But on any regular portage, walking with at least half your body weight strapped tight to your back is no easy task. Pulling yourself up a 30 degree slope, with loose rocks and fallen trees littering the path, is absolutely suicide.
Somehow we managed to get the first two packs up. Even our hyper Springer Spaniel, Bailey, coped with lugging her ten days of dog kibble to the top. On the second trip, Alana had to deal with the largest of our packs, which she ended up dragging most of the way, and I had the darn canoe to carry. Although the weight of the boat was only 60 pounds (not bad for a plastic model) I felt uneasy blindly walking up a rock ledge with it balancing over my head.
I cursed a lot at first, thinking the profanity would give me some type of super human strength to help me along. But I finally had to give in about halfway. At this point the bow of the canoe was continuously ramming into the trail in front of me. Any forward motion became impossible and I had to resort to winching the canoe uphill by looping a rope around a solid tree at the top of the rise.
An hour later Alana, Bailey and I had somehow successfully gathered everything to the top without serious injury. And, thinking the worst was over, we immediately continued on to Diablo Lake. Little did we know, the worst was yet to come.
With no maintenance done to the trail for quite some time, the correct path became extremely difficult to locate. Even when an obvious route was laid out in from of us, it was either blocked by a pile of jagged boulders or fallen trees. A network of well-hidden crevices also made walking with a full load of gear extremely hazardous.
Surprisingly, by the time the portage was completed we only had to deal with three major mishaps: I fell into one of the trip holes and had the canoe come crashing down on me, leaving a large gash on my forehead; Alana took a tumble and managed to wedge her face between two sharp rocks (we renamed the trail 'face-plant portage' after the insistent); and Bailey had a close encounter with a wild lynx while she rushed ahead of us on the portage (she's been afraid of our neighbors cat ever since).
It took us half the day to complete the dreaded trip across Diablo and we took the first campsite once out on the lake - a small island stuck out in the middle of the west bay. All three of us dragged our gear up to the site and, wherever we happened to collapse, Alana, Bailey and I took time out for a well deserved snooze before cooking up dinner.
Obviously we were slow to start the next day and it wasn't until10:00 a.m. when we began taking on the first of three consecutive portages leading into Cairngorm Lake. Thankfully the trail wasn't as steep as Diablo. But at times it seemed just as demanding. It measured a long 800 meters and, thanks again to poor maintenance done over the years, the proper trail was extremely difficult to locate. The worst part, however, was getting to the put-in. For some reason the trail ended a couple hundred meters away from the next lake and Alana and I had to push our way through a bug-infested marsh to reach open water.
The second portage, found to the right of a small creek and measuring a seemingly long 260-meters, was easier to find but was extremely wet in places. And once again a number of downed trees cluttered the path and made what should have been a relatively easy carry over into a frustrating and dangerous ordeal.
Finding the take-out for the third portage (190-meters) was the most challenging. A beaver dam had covered the first section and Alana and I searched both sides of the creek for half-an-hour before we discovered a faint path crossing over from right to left only thirty meters from the dam.
Eventually we reached Cairngorm Lake and were lucky enough to have a tail wind for the entire sixteen kilometer crossing. Of course, with the south wind came rain. So, rather than set up camp early on one of the islands clumped together at the far end of the lake, Alana and I decided to continue on to Steel Lake.
Cairngorm's far northern bay is where the Steel River begins, flushing itself over a moderate falls found at the northern tip of the lake. The portage, however, is no where near the falls. To reach the take-out for the 590-meter carry, you have to paddle to the far end of the northeast bay.
It's a surprisingly easy trail, at least when compared to the previous ones Alana and I had already endured. But the narrow stretch of river below the cascade was a different story. From here to Esker Lake we walked most of the way, wading over shallow riffles and lifting over several log jams blocking the stream.
Once on Esker Lake (an extremely scenic spot) we were forced to pull up on a beach along the north shore and spend some time orientating ourselves. The pamphlet supplied by the government made no sense here. It told of another portage (measuring 170 meter and to the right of another cascade) at the far end of Esker Lake. The portage didn't exist, however, until at least another kilometer down river, which made us second guess everything the map told us from here on in.
It was quite late by the time we hauled all our gear over yet another rough carry over. To make matters worse, it still was raining. And, after consulting the map, we knew there was at least another hour of river paddling ahead, plus another portage to deal with (118 meters and marked to the right of a small chute). By the looks of things, we would be setting up camp on the lower half of Steel Lake just before dark - cold, wet, and very hungry.
Alana and I weren't all that concerned though. It wouldn't be the first time we had to cook dinner in the dark. Besides, we were slowly getting used to roughing it. And by now, the rewards for paddling in such a remote place were finally beginning to pay off. That afternoon we had spotted two bald eagles, a family of otter, and a cow moose with twin calves - proof that the upper Steel is truly a wild place.
Alana and I crawled out of the tent the next morning feeling a little anxious about the next day's events. We had the entire 30 kilometers of Steel Lake to cross, which happens to be perfectly lined up with the prevailing winds. We also had to assume that the scenery wouldn't be all that exciting throughout the day since most of Steel Lake's shoreline was burnt to a crisp by a forest fire only two years previous. Thinking back though, paddling across this gigantic lake was actually a highlight of the trip. We were lucky enough to have a south wind help us down the lake and we made camp near the north end as early as 2:30 p.m.. Seeing the affects of the fire was also a much more positive experience than we expected. The new plant life growing thick beneath the blackened stumps was a true sign of how diverse this rugged landscape was. As well, only the top of the ridges were severally scarred. Less exposed areas, where either stands of poplar and birch indicated deeper soil or where the fire had burned at night when the wind was down, proved how subtle and highly local a wild fire actually is.
The only negative part of the day was that it continued to rain down hard on us, especially when we stopped to make camp. Our site was on a small island that had little cover and the rain tarp had to be set up away from the fire pit. At first we would snuggle up under the tarp and head over to the fire between bursts of rain to try and dry ourselves out. It wasn't long, however, before the constant drizzle put out are fire and the cold wind made sitting under the tarp unbearable. So we escaped to the tent and spent the night curled up in our sleeping bags, reading our books we packed along: Alana had chosen 'A Walk in the Woods' by and I had 'The Tent Dwellers' by Albert Bigalow Paine. In a way, reading about someone else's misadventures in the wilderness helped make our trip seem less of a disaster.
The storm continued through the night and come morning it was difficult to leave the warmth of the sleeping bags to cook breakfast out in the rain. Actually, we had no need to get up early since the continuous south wind had left us at least two days ahead of schedule. But we were only three portages away from Aster Lake - the turn around point of the trip - and were looking forward to begin the river section of the trip.
It only took us an hour to pack up and paddle the remainder of Steel Lake. It was another two hours, however, before finishing the three portages leading to Aster Lake.
The first and second portage (234 meters and 139 meters, marked on the right) were relatively easy. It was the second portage (509 meters and also marked on the right) that we spent most of our time on. The trail worked it's way alongside a steep ravine, where getting a good foot-hold was next to impossible at times. The ridge we were walking along had also been heavily burnt over in the previous fire and, apart from the normal problem with downed trees blocking the path, large patches of blueberry and raspberry bushes hid large sections of the trail.
It was beyond doubt that the entire area was a perfect feeding ground for black bears (we counted four piles of fresh bear scat directly at the take-out) and I actually considered lining the rapids instead. A quick look at the strength of the water being flushed through the chasm, however, confirmed that battling bear phobia along the portage would be far less stressful and we walked the trail making as much noise as possible.
When returning to the take-out for the second load, I spotted bear tracks beside our food barrel, tracks that weren't there before. I was amazed that nothing had been disturbed. His gait was straight, not irregular, and went directly towards a patch of ripe blueberries. The bear had obviously ignored whatever temptations our freeze-dried foods provided (after having eaten the stuff for the last four days, I couldn't blame him in the least).
Eventually we reached Aster Lake, turned south, and almost immediately began running rapids. The whitewater was a welcomed diversion. Only once did we have to portage, 140 meters 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 dreamscape.
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. Even when Alana discovered we were missing two very important items from our pack - a bottle of biodegradable soap and our second roll of toilet paper - we calmly planned out a strategy. I replaced the soap with alcohol swabs from the first-aid kit and Alana began reading her paperback novel to provide surplus T.P.
Our second day on the river was just as exciting as the first. We spent a good part of the morning fishing between two swifts and caught a mess of walleye and pike. We also successfully ran two technical class II rapids. Both were not marked on our map. But then again, none of the rapids were, and we were now used to checking out each and every bend in the river.
The first class II was approximately two kilometers down from the last swift. It looked possible to line along the right bank but Alana and I chose to run straight through. The only disappointment was that we had forgotten to put away the towel Alana had left on top of the packs to dry and had to title the set 'Lost Towel rapids'.
After already misplacing the soap and extra toilet paper during the trip, we thought losing the towel was quite a big deal. That is, until we noticed a collection of someone else's camping gear washed up at the base on the rapid. One noticeable item was a T-shirt reading 'I'm not as think as you drunk I am'.
Prior to our trip we had been informed by the local tourist office in Terrace Bay that a group of local canoeists paddling the river in early May had dumped in some rapids. They were able to retrieve one canoe and two members paddled out for help. Eventually a helicopter retrieved the other canoeists but left all their gear behind - including there favorite T-shirt I guess.
Two kilometers downstream from 'Lost Towel Rapids' was another swift and just beyond it was the second technical class II rapid.
We checked the run from a rough 75-meter portage on the right, and, after making the decision to attempt it, we rushed back to the canoe and pushed off from shore. Prior to the drop I stood up to re-check our predetermined route while Alana gave Bailey the command to sit (the one thing our dog is good at is sitting still during rapids). It was all over quickly and even though we went a totally different direction than we had planned, only the stack of high waves at the end caused some concern. Thankfully we were able to slow the boat down just before smacking into the haystacks and kept most of the water out.
A quick current continued almost right up the brink of Rainbow Falls. Here, the river opens up just prior to the 20 meter drop and Alana and I inched our canoe slowly toward the take-out for the 350-meter portage on the right.
It's a good trail around the falls, except for a steep section past the campsite marked three-quarters the way along. The site is also well away from the water and Alana and I chose to have our lunch break back near the take-out instead.
A good set of rapids begin immediately beyond the falls, with some sections even being quite technical. But eventually the river leaves the Shield country and it's current tires out. The banks begin to meander uncontrollably, the water turns murky with silt, and only glimpses of mountainous rock can be seen in brief, distant glimpses.
A good number of logs also started to block our path. Alana and I had to either walk around them, sinking up to our knees in the silty-mud deposited along the shore, or lift directly over them, always being careful not to go broadside with the current.
Our map indicated where we had to actually portage around a total of five massive log jams later in the route. But soon after passing under a logging bridge, Alana and I came to a giant build-up of logs that had obviously been formed since it's printing.
Neither side of the river showed any evidence of a portage, so, for no real reason, we chose to get out on the left bank. Then, I volunteered to get out of the canoe, scramble up the four-meter high bank, and search the shore for a way around the jam. Alana stayed behind to prevent our hyper dog, Bailey, from following me into the bush. Bailey is the greatest canoe tripping dog, and can actually find a portage better than I. But she tries my patience at times, and this was not the moment for her to run into another lynx.
The second I entered the brush I hit a wall of deadfall. The best I could do was detour away from the eroded bank, and head deeper and deeper into the woods. But there was still no apparent trail.
Just when I was about to call it quits and suggest to Alana that we paddle back to the logging road and thumb a ride, I looked down and spotted a Tootsie-Roll wrapper. Usually when I see garbage left behind in the forest, I instantly curse the thoughtless person. Now, however, I praised them. They had left a piece of encouragement, a bit of proof that someone else had actually made it around, and survived. I hurried back and Alana and I began the ordeal of dragging our gear through an entanglement of fallen trees and dense vegetation.
The distance we covered was only 58-meters. The time it took us to haul everything up the incredibly steep bank, cut a trail with our flimsy camp saw, and follow it through like a couple of out-of-shape limbo contestants, was an insane two hours and five minutes.
It was 7:00 p.m. by the time we stopped for the day, and the second we made camp a violent thunderstorm forced us into the confines of the tent. Our site was a small sand spit, as vulnerable as any place could possibly be, and at times we could actually feel the lightening strike the ground around us. But our weariness overpowered any fear we had of the chaos going on outside and we soon passed out with exhaustion.
Around midnight I crawled out of the tent to pee. The storm had moved on by then, leaving a clear evening sky and a welcomed calm. I took a short walk barefoot along the beach, relieved myself, and then sat down by the water to listen to two barred owls conversing with one another across the river. What a beautiful setting. This small, intimate river has so much to offer; it's just a matter of getting my mind set on the good points rather than the bad. So, before crawling back into bed, I promised myself to have a more positive attitude towards what's waiting for us downstream.
Of course, come morning only a short twenty minute paddle brought us to the next log jam. It was bigger than the first, and the 200-meter portage that's supposed to be marked on the right bank had been completely washed out. It was raining again, and the moment we stepped out of the canoe, mosquitoes swarmed us by the thousands. Trying to remain positive, however, I allowed Bailey to go first this time and scout out a trial. And, after considerable deliberation, she actually discovered a somewhat clear path around the worst of it. This time we were back on the river in less than an hour.
Another hour downstream was a third log jam, complete with a rough 60-meter path on the left, and not far behind was a fourth. This one was the largest yet, reaching at least five meters in height. The good news was that it actually had a marked portage (170-meters) on the left. A new collection of logs had blocked the initial take-out, adding another 50 meters to the trail, but it still was quite an easy carry considering.
This was definitely a sign of better things to come and we pushed on with more vigor than ever before. By noon we were paddling 'through' the next pile of logs. Our map indicated a 160-meter portage on the right. Thankfully, however, the entire blockage had been pushed aside by Spring flood waters.
Another two-and-a-half hours of leisurely river paddling brought us to the last log jam (this one measured at least 7 meters high), complete with a clear 120-meter portage on the right, and eventually, the entrance to Santoy Lake.
Santoy is an enormous strip of blue reaching far off to the south and is bordered by huge mounds of granite. It's a place of incredible beauty but can also become extremely dangerous when the wind picks up. There was only a slight breeze when we arrived, and Alana and I even considered taking advantage of the calm to paddle the last 12 kilometers to the launch site that evening. One look at the gigantic beach stretching out across the entire north end of the lake, however, and we couldn't resist spending one more night out.
Our decision was foolhardy in a way. We began the crossing as early as 5:30 a.m. but by 6:00 a.m. we were bailing water out of the canoe about every fifth stroke.
To help beat the wind, Alana and I kept close to the west shore. It was the same rugged shoreline that held the dreadful Diablo portage, and the high cliffs did little to protect us from the rough water. Rebounding waves slapped back from the rock and constantly tossed our canoe broadside to the wind.
Almost instantly I began shouting out, yelling obscenities at the wind, the rock, and the gulping waves. The cursing was obviously created by fatigue and not of real animosity. I guess we were just destined to end the trip just as we had begun - in absolute fear. After all, isn't that what wilderness canoeing is all about. It's a pragmatist's paradise. A painful, nerve-racking ordeal mixed together with the most peaceful, uplifting and self-satisfying thing you've ever done.
The Steel River loop was exactly that. Alana and I may never attempt the same trip again but neither of us recent having survived the experience for a second.
Jackfish Lake Motel & Efficiency Cottages
P.O. Box 436
Terrace Bay, Ontario
Time: 8-10 days
Number of Portages: 16
Longest Portage: 1000-metres ADiablo Portage@
Difficulty: Only intermediate whitewater skills are needed for the river section of the trip. However, advanced canoe tripping skills are necessary due to the remoteness of the entire route. Canoeists must also be physically fit to deal with the demands of most portages.
Alternative Access: Kawabatongog Lake, located by driving approximately 100 kilometres north of Terrace Bay on the Kimberly Clark Road, and at Deadhorse Creek Road bridge crossing, approximately 35 kilometres north of Highway 17.
Alternative Route: To avoid the entire lake section of the trip, as well as the difficult Diablo Portage, a five day trip down the Steel River can be done by using the Kawabatongog Lake access. Deadhorse Creek Road bridge crossing can also be used to eliminate all the log jams on the lower section of the river.
Steel River Provincial Park
P.O. Box 970
42 D/15, 42 E/2 & 42 E/7
This is one chapter from Lost Canoe Routes by Kevin Callan. We highly recommend the book! For more of Kevin's self-effacing humor and information on 14 other Ontario Canoe Routes pick it up today! Get lost on these unpoiled river routes and loops: Wabakimi Provincial Park, Steel River Loop, Chapleau and Nemegosenda Rivers, Wakami Lake Loop, Ranger Lake Loop, Dunlop Lake Loop, Lac aux Sables: Bark Lake Loop, Nabakwasi River Loop, Four M Circle Loop, Tatachikapika River, Chiniguchi River, Temagami's Canton Lakes, Marten River Provincial Park, South River and York River.