Steel River Circle Route
Ontario, Canada
June, 1997


The Steel is a beautiful loop canoe route with plenty of challenges, including the toughest portage I have experienced, the Diablo Portage. It was also the only trip on which we had to blaze a completely new portage trail through the woods around a huge displaced logjam. Another first was that I contracted giardia while on this trip. Unfortunately, no one kept a journal; so, many years after the fact, I put this summary together with the help of scattered notes, photographs, maps, and fading memories. While it lacks the detail of the contemporaneous journals, it does provide an accurate description of our experience. I would gladly paddle this route again if I could skip Diablo and the giardia.

Day 1
Santoy Lake; the infamous Diablo Portage; dehydration and giardia.

This was actually a trip I planned for my two oldest sons, Drew (16) and Brent (14). Although he was a seasoned canoeist, this would be Brent's first major foray on a Canadian wilderness route. Drew had accompanied me two years earlier on the Chapleau trip. Given the rigors of traversing the Canadian Shield Country, my rule was that my sons had to be at least 14 years of age and be able to shoulder a heavy pack to qualify. This seemed like the perfect trip because it was easy to access from Canada Highway17 and it formed a loop starting and ending on Santoy Lake. My friend Jim readily agreed to join the crew.

We spent the prior night camped at White Lake Provincial Park, expecting to reach the put-in at Santoy Lake by mid morning. However, we underestimated the distance and it took us until nearly noon to get there. Initially, we had trouble locating the unpaved road leading to Santoy. If there was a sign, we did not see it. With the help of a topographic map, we located it and traveled north just a few miles to the lake. There was ample parking space and a rough wooden dock. It was a beautiful sunny day-almost too hot.

As is usually the case, embarking on a trip is exciting. Santoy Departure. We hustled around unloading the van and loading the canoes with a kind of nervous energy, anxious to be on our way and mindful that the day was getting late and we had Diablo Portage ahead of us. The plan was to reach Cairngorm Lake on the first day which meant negotiating Diablo plus three other portage trails. Because I new we were behind schedule, I made a strategic mistake: I skipped lunch, settling for a brief snack.

At last, we paddled out into beautiful, sunny Santoy Lake surrounded by rocky rolling hills. It was an easy paddle half way up the lake to the beginning of the Diablo Portage. The portage is on the west side of the lake and travels for a distance of 1000 meters through a narrow pass between two hills, low mountains really. Much of the trail goes uphill at 45 over roots and jumbled rocks, necessarily converting a hike into a climb. Near the top, the trail is very rocky and treacherous with many of the ankle-wrenching crannies disguised by ferns and other ground cover. In one area, canoes have to be held sideways to maneuver them through the narrow gaps between boulders.

On a hot day, with too much heavy equipment, and insufficient food and water, Diablo can indeed be pure hell. On the first trip over the trail with the heavy packs, I began to feel lightheaded and suffered a complete energy loss. I was dehydrated and, having skipped lunch, without an energy source. I could virtually take no more than 5 or 6 steps without stopping to rest. I was forced to take less weight and forage in the packs for any available snack food. We soon ran out of water altogether. Jim had to shoulder most of the weight, including the formidable Hell Pack containing all of the food supplies which, of course, was at its heaviest at the start of the trip.

On the other side of the mountain, the trail was slippery and precipitous down to a small lake where we briefly caught our breath before returning back over the trail to retrieve the two canoes. Because each canoe had to be 2-manned by Jim and me for part of the journey, we essentially did three trips over the trail.Diablo Portage. It was extremely difficult getting the canoes up the steep slopes, especially my 85-pound Tripper. In places, the angle was so severe that the man holding the bow would be crouched down pulling the canoe with one hand with the other hand holding on to a tree root while the stern man would be standing upright pushing the canoe over his head. I have endured much longer portages than Diablo, but never anything as challenging.

It was late in the day before we finished the trek. We were well behind schedule and utterly exhausted. We wearily loaded the canoes and paddled into Diablo Lake toward a small island less than a mile away. It made a good campsite and we set to work getting things set up, building a fire, and, most importantly, purifying drinking water. I did not have the energy or patience to pump a water filter, so I used water purification tablets. Although I believe I followed the directions correctly and waited long enough for the tablets to be effective, I was not aware at the time that a beaver lodge was located on the other side of the small island. Later in the evening, we heard splashing and noted the beaver activity. I suspect the area was heavily polluted by the beaver. In any event, a few weeks later I was diagnosed with giardia, the dreaded "beaver fever," and I suspect this evening was when I contracted the parasite.

Day 2
Portages to Cairngorm Lake; the marsh; rain-sodden camp.

The next day was much cooler, with rain threatening. There were three portages between Diablo Lake and the much larger Cairngorm Lake. According to the map, they were of 800, 260, and 190 meters long, but I have little memory of them, except that they were reasonably tough, but child's play when compared to Diablo. One of them brought us into a grassy marsh hemmed in by trees.Marsh. We then paddled through the short marsh weaving our way through and around fallen trees and brush to the next portage.

Cairngorm Lake is very long and as we paddled northward it began to rain hard and continued through much of the afternoon and evening. We reached the 590-meter portage at the north end of the lake late in the afternoon and plodded down the marshy trail in the cold rain. At the end of the trail was a campsite that would have been beautiful on a nicer day. It was on a small bluff among the trees overlooking a waterfall across the water. We set up our tents and tarp in the rain and huddled on the ground to eat our supper. Whenever the rain would stop, we vainly tried to dry some of our clothing by hanging it on the guy lines.

Day 3
Portages and a narrow river; Steel Lake; more rain and another sodden campsite.

The next day was overcast, cool, and buggy. Everything seemed wet. We paddled over to the waterfall to take a few pictures and then headed across a small lake to a short portage and into a narrow river flowing toward Steel Lake. We encountered our first small logjams or tree-falls on this stream and were generally able to maneuver around or pull over them. A final portage of 80 meters around a shallow rushing stream was easily avoided by lining. At last we reached Steel Lake and soon found a nice rocky outcrop for lunch.Steel Lake. As we finished our lunch, it began to rain in earnest.

Steel Lake is an extremely elongated body of water stretching for miles northward until it bends to the east nearing the Steel River. That near conjunction forms the top of the loop as one then enters the Steel River which flows southward to Santoy Lake. We paddled northward the rest of the day through the intermittent rain and made it perhaps halfway up the lake. As the day and our endurance waned, we paddled into one of the side coves looking for a place to camp and some shelter from the rain. We found a cleared spot and took it although it was not particularly appealing. It appeared to have been roughly and indiscriminately cleared and the surrounding trees were unhealthy looking. Undoubtedly, the constant gray skies and rain affected our perceptions. We set up camp in the rain, then cooked on the small camp stove under the rain tarp and retired early.

Day 4
Burn areas along Steel Lake; Minneapolis canoeists; hot portage through burn area; the Steel River; dry and pleasant campsite.

The next day was sunny, beautiful, and much warmer. We continued northward on Steel Lake paddling past extensive burned areas along the eastern shore. There had been a significant forest fire a few years earlier. By midday, we reached the northern end of the lake where we came ashore at the start of a 240-meter portage and a campsite occupied by three guys from Minneapolis. They were friendly and we talked a bit about common canoeing experiences and the Steel route. Black flies had just hatched in the area and were swarming around the campsite making conversation somewhat difficult. Each of them paddled a solo canoe using a double kayak paddle. They extolled the virtue of this system when they observed the severe strain we each endured when we solo-carried our heavy tandem canoes through their campsite and down the portage trail. They also had set up a large screen tent suspended from a rope that purportedly kept the black flies at bay.

We quickly finished the portage and left them to their fishing as we paddled down a narrow stream headed toward the Steel River. Firescape Portage. The next portage of 510 meters was not far downstream. This was an unusual trek in that it ran through the burned area. Without the vegetation, it was quite hot and we soon discovered that there were many fallen trees, some of them in unstable configurations. At one point we actually had to repair the trail as the loose soil and logs gave way beneath our feet creating a dangerous situation.

A final short portage of 140 meters around a narrow rocky portion of the river led us to a small lake formed at the convergence with the Steel River. Here we drifted for awhile snacking and taking pictures before heading south for the first time on the Steel. We were roughly half way through our journey.

As we headed down river with the current we encountered 2 or 3 rapids with significant haystacks, but we had no trouble running any of them. Otherwise, it was all easy class I and a steady current running along through beautiful scenery, including high rock bluffs reflecting the late afternoon sun. This was more like it!

We soon found a good campsite carpeted with pine needles along the left bank. It was high and well drained and we proceeded to string rope lines everywhere so we could start drying all of the clothing and equipment that had been wet for two days. It looked a bit like a mobile home park after a hurricane with everything hanging from lines or strewn about on the ground, but we thought it was beautiful. Soon we had a fire blazing and everything seemed right with the world.

Day 5
Moose sighting; 20-meter falls; campsite above the falls.

The next morning was chilly and cloudy as we broke camp and shoved off down the river. Soon, however, the sun broke through the clouds splashing the landscape with bright sunshine and transforming the calm water into a perfect mirror of the sky and surrounding forest. It was a great morning for viewing wildlife. The highlight was coming upon a moose mother and calf swimming together near the bank. It took a few moments for them to detect us and we were able to take several photographs before they swam to shore and bounded into the brush.

It was a pleasant unchallenging paddle down a beautiful unobstructed river. 20-Metre Falls. By mid-afternoon, we had reached our intended campsite. It was a well-used and spacious site just up the hill from a beautiful and exhilarating 20-meter falls. We set up camp and took the rest of the afternoon off to enjoy the falls and relax. Jim and I even took quick baths in the cold water. Drew and Brent had considerably more energy, so they had a good time pitching driftwood off the top of the falls, climbing around on the rocks, and pretending to pole vault using whatever driftwood they had not already pitched.

After an enjoyable afternoon around the waterfall, we relaxed at the campfire and went to bed early.

Day 6
Logjams and portages; blazing a new portage trail; buggy camp in the weeds.

The next day was bright and sunny, but the paddling was more arduous. The current slowed, then disappeared altogether, and we encountered several logjams with portages that were marked on the map. The portages were fairly tough to negotiate, replete with fallen trees and uphill climbs. In one instance, the portage trail ended with a straight drop of six-eight feet partially blocked by fallen trees necessitating a fire brigade approach to moving our gear down to the canoes. Some of the logjams were huge, perhaps 50 to 100 feet across.

Even more daunting were the undocumented tree-falls and logjams we encountered. Apparently, we were the first canoeists down the river since the spring floods, or perhaps the heavy rains we had experienced earlier in the week had precipitated these jams. In any event, we encountered several small jams with no evidence of prior passage. Logjam.These obstructions required a fair amount of improvisation and effort to overcome.

We met our greatest challenge late in the afternoon. The map indicated a portage trail on the right bank around a logjam. We found the trail, but there was no logjam. Puzzled, we continued on our way and discovered that the entire sizable logjam had apparently been relocated by recent floods about a mile down river. The logs were jammed tightly into a sharp bend of the river and there was no trail available.

The river turned sharply to the left, so the only logical place for a trail was on river left. The bank was steep, perhaps eight feet up, rimmed by impenetrable forest and scrub. I climbed up the bank to reconnoiter and scouted through the forest to determine the feasibility of portaging. There wasn't much choice, so I decided it was feasible. I returned for the ax and cleared a space at the top of the bank where the canoes could be placed. Then, while the others unloaded the canoes and struggled to get everything up the steep bank, I blazed a trail through the forest across the river bend to the other side of the logjam. Needless to say, it was hard work and very time-consuming for all of us.

Although we were proud of our handiwork, we didn't spend any time taking pictures or admiring our new trail. We were intent on finding a campsite and getting some rest. Unfortunately, the river at this point meanders slowly through lowlands where hospitable campsites are hard to find. To make matters worse, another portage around another logjam had to be tackled that afternoon. We paddled late looking in vain for some decent spot to stop.

Finally, in desperation, we settled upon one of the ubiquitous sandbars formed at the inside of every river bend. It was overgrown with vegetation, but was relatively flat. After setting up the tents, we donned our mosquito head nets, settled down in the weeds, and cooked supper over the camp stove. At dusk, the bugs attacked in force driving us into our tents. At least it wasn't raining.

Day 7
Minneapolis paddlers again; mouth of the Steel River; lunch on the sand bar; Lake Santoy against the wind; lower Steel waterfall; final camp on Lake Santoy.

The next morning was bright and sunny, but still buggy. We slept late and were slow to break camp. Drew and Brent spent time wading through the shallows and observing miscellaneous aquatic life. While we were breaking camp, the Minneapolis paddlers passed by. They thanked us for blazing the portage trail and marveled at the work we had done.

We finally embarked with the sun already high in the sky. We thought we must be very near Santoy Lake, but the river continued its serpentine meandering for several more miles. At last we came to the mouth of the river where we were met by strong winds from the south. We paddled to a broad sand bar or delta near the mouth to reconnoiter and have lunch. Larry and the boys on the Sandbar. The wind was blowing unimpeded across Santoy Lake kicking up whitecaps. It must have been gusting to at least 30 miles per hour.

We ate lunch on the sand with some difficulty, trying to prevent everything from blowing away. Drew and Brent found the wind so invigorating that they began inventing track and field contests, racing against the wind and then back. We took our time, enjoying the openness of the sandbar after the recent stultifying confines of the river. Then we embarked into the teeth of the strong wind and waves headed due south. As we traversed the lake, we saw again the gap of Diablo Portage and grimly remembered our experience there.

Rather than paddle back to our vehicle, we chose to camp one more night on the lake. We found an established site at the south end of the lake where the Steel River exits the lake and tumbles toward Lake Superior. It was a good site nestled in the trees with a trail leading down alongside the river to a significant waterfall. After setting up camp, we took the trail to the bottom of the falls to enjoy the scenery and take pictures. Afterwards, we had a blazing fire and a pleasant final night in the wild.

Day 8
Short paddle to the van; vaulting the crevice; return home.

The next morning, we packed up early in anticipation of the long drive home. We paddled the short distance back to the van, loaded up the canoes and gear and headed off. But our adventures were not over. About a mile down the unpaved road, we rolled to a stop. A small stream had seemingly caused a wash out, leaving a crevice about three feet wide and several feet deep across the entire road. It appeared that the heavy rains we encountered early in the week had swollen the stream and done the damage. We were stranded in the middle of nowhere.

I was driving the family mini-van, a four cylinder Toyota Previa fully loaded with canoes and gear. Unwilling to concede to this final impediment, I had everyone exit the van. I backed up a considerable distance, hit the accelerator hard, and barreled toward the crevice. The van went sailing over without mishap. Everyone piled back in and we resumed our long journey all the way home to Ohio.

Last Camp.

L. Walter
January, 2006


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Upper Missinaibi
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