Steel River Circle Route

CanadaOntarioLake Superior basin
Submitter & Author Information
Route submitted by: 
Trip Date : 
Route Author: 
Additional Route Information
157 km
7 days
Loop Trip: 
Portage Information
No. of portages: 
Total Portage Distance: 
5200 m
Longest Portage: 
1673 m
Difficulty Ratings
River Travel: 
Lake Travel: 
Background Trip Info
Water Levels: 
Route Description
Access to Put-In Information: 

Several very difficult portages

Technical Guide: 

The Steel River Loop is located in the northwestern region of Ontario going north through a series of lakes then turning 180 degrees into the Steel River and running south and back to the route's beginning. It eventually flows into lake Superior between the towns of Marathon and Terrace Bay.

The circle route starts and ends at the Santoy Lake Access Dock and boat ramp, which is 5 Km off of Highway 17, 22 Km east of Terrace Bay.

From the boat ramp at the southwest tip of Santoy Lake, paddle north up the lake to the portage to Diablo Lake (7.6 Km). The route follows the very difficult portage into Diablo Lake (1673 M) then across Diablo and three more portages through beaver ponds into the southeast tip of Cairngorm Lake (4.26 Km).

From the southeast tip the route turns due north and runs up the very narrow Cairngorm Lake to the east arm into a small bay and the first portage to Steel Lake (18.2 Km). Portage (590 M) into the twisty little stream, now called the Steel River (700 M), to Moose Lake to continuation of twisty little stream at west end of Moose Lake (2 Km), travel down this stream section (1 Km) to the second portage (167 M), then more of the twisty little stream (2 Km) to the last portage (118 M) into Steel Lake (We waded/lined this last rapids instead of portaging).

Steel Lake is another narrow lake running south to north into a small pond-like bay that bends off to the northeast of the main lake (31.6 Km). The route continues through a combination of portage (234 M), stream (400 M), second portage (750 M), small pond and stream (400 M) into Aster Lake, which are the headwaters of the main branch of the Steel River. There is a 139 meter portage around the rock garden into Aster Lake but we waded/lined this section instead of portaging.

At this junction the route turns due south and starts it's run to Santoy Lake and Lake Superior, beyond. The river runs through a combination of narrow lakes and stream sections to the next take-out at Rainbow Falls (30.7 Km). Portage around the falls (400 M) and the next 8 Km are more stream-like with numerous swifts and Class I rapids but then the river begins to meander and you encounter the first logjam (14.6 Km). This is a small logjam with a short carry over a gravel bar on river-left.

From here the river begins to seriously meander so that you are going 3 times the distance to cover the straight-line distance. The next logjam is huge with the logs disappearing around the bend (9.4 Km). The portage is on river-right and the take-out is hard to spot because the bank is so steep but the trail is obvious, once you find it (550 M).

The second major logjam is not much further downstream from the last one and has it's take-out on river-left (1.6 Km). This trail cuts across the horseshoe bend and like the other take-out; it is up a steep riverbank (150 M).

As the river continues its very tight meanders you come on the third major logjam with the portage on river-right up the customary steep bank (9.3 Km). We came upon a false trail on this portage that led into a marsh and had to back track to find the right trail, which follows the river (350 M).

The fourth and last major logjam is nearly at the end of the river (6.6 Km). The portage trail is up the, now familiar, steep bank on river-right and was in the best shape of all the logjam trails (420 M). It cuts off a horseshoe bend and puts you in the river with little distance to go to the lake.

There are only four more meanders beyond this and you are at the head of Santoy Lake (1.7 Km).

There is a long, wide beach at the head of Santoy Lake, which is a popular camping spot. From here it is a straight south paddle down the lake with a short southwest "dog-leg" to the access dock and the take-out (10.6 Km).

Trip Journal/Log/Report/Diary: 

Trip Log / Diary
Neil Miller
Michael Miller
Brian Prodin
Keith Prodin

Trip Dates
August 9 through August 15, 2003 (on the water)
Total trip including driving was August 8 through August 16, 2003

Day One (Saturday, August 9) 9.7 Km

We loaded up our canoes at naturally Superior Adventures in Wawa and departed at 10:30 AM. We had one Novacraft Prospector (16') and one Swift Yukon (17'6") both constructed of Royalex. We arrived at the Santoy lake Access at 12:45 PM and by the time we sorted out the gear and shoved off it was 1:20 PM.

We arrived at what we thought was the Diablo Lake portage location but were actually 60 meters south, down the shore, from the portage trail-head. At this early point in the trip we were unaware if and how the portage trails were marked so we set out with our first load up a steep rock scree slope under the south canyon cliff. In a narrow portion having made it 300 feet above Santoy Lake we actually saw the proper trail and re-oriented us. This rock-climbing variation cost us an extra hour-and-a-half in time.

The Diablo Lake portage trail is marked at the Santoy Lake's edge by blue and orange nylon surveyor ribbon. In fact virtually every portage take-out and put-in along this route is marked this way. Some of the take-outs are also marked with a white plastic-covered sign that was put up by a group in the summer of 2000.

The Diablo portage trail goes from Santoy Lake to 300 feet in elevation in a scant 200 meters of horizontal distance which makes the first part of this carry very steep and very difficult. As a result, we had to make three trips in total to complete this 1673-meter portage. The overall trail is rough and treacherous because of the many holes in the rocks that underlay the route.

About 500 meters from the end of the trail at Diablo Lake there is a very difficult section which some past jokester appropriately named "The Devil's Den" (there is actually a sign nailed to a tree as you enter this area). This stretch is about 250 meters long and goes over and around boulders that range in size from one meter to five meters in diameter. This was especially difficult to carry the canoe through.

It was 9:00 PM when I finally got through the Devil's Den with the canoe and there was virtually no light left as the sun had set. We reached the put-in at Diablo Lake at 9:30 PM and canoed 400 meters due west to an island that we could still faintly see. There was an unmarked campsite on this island and by 10:30 PM we had the tent up with our sleeping gear inside. We ate dinner (FD meals) that night at 11:00 PM with both our mosquito head-nets and our headlights on.

We had been on the Diablo Lake portage for 7 hours. If you could do this portage in two trips and if you don't do the scree slope variation (as we did), it could be completed in 4 hours.

Day Two (Sunday, August 10) 6.8 Km

Being so tired from the day before and moving fairly slow, we departed our island camp at 10:30 AM, covered the remaining 2 Km of Diablo Lake and came to the first of three portages that connect through two beaver ponds and into Cairngorm Lake.

The first portage is marked with the surveyor ribbon and the white sign. It was 755 meters and very tough. It had swampy sections and rocky sections and three up-hill sections, one of which was quite rocky. In the swampy sections walking through the black muck was unavoidable, especially when hauling the canoe. There were also a fair number of mosquitoes along this route so long pants, long sleeves and head-nets were necessary. We ate lunch at the end of this trail before crossing the first beaver pond.

The second portage was the only trail we encountered on this trip that was not marked in any way. However, it was easy to spot on the right side at the northwest end of the kidney-shaped pond once you got within 30 meters of it. This trail was also rough and overgrown and I caught the ends of the canoe a number of times but it was only 262 meters in length.

Crossing the second beaver pond, the third portage trail was marked and seemed that it was either easier than the first two or else I was just getting used to the personality of this route. The trail was 189 meters in length.

It had taken us nearly five hours to cover the 3.9 Km from Camp One but most of this had been portage trails and we had still not yet reached our tripping pace. We started up Cairngorm Lake from the southeasterly tip and as the lake bent to it's northerly orientation, the wind began to intensify. It was blowing straight out of the north, down the lake, and it was getting harder to paddle into it.

From the put-in to Cairngorm we only went another 2.9 Km and at 4:30 PM we saw a stone fire ring up on top of a rock bluff and we stopped for the day (UTM 5419550N/503300E). This bluff was on the eastern shore of the lake and had one good tent site and a couple of other fair sites. The take-out for the canoes was tricky, though. The brothers pulled their canoe up a steep bank behind the site, while we pulled ours up a sloping rock face in front of the site. I had to tie my canoe, both bow and stern, to a couple of trees so that it wouldn't slide back into the water.

By 6:00 PM, the wind was blowing at 25 mph (we had a hand-held anemometer) as the northern high pressure system roared in. The north wind was fairly cold but we took a swim to clean up before we settled in to making dinner. This was the only time that we broke out the fleece pullovers and windbreakers. Because of the strong wind and the exposed site, we did not build a fire. The combination of bright afternoon sun and strong wind did dry out our wet socks and towels before the sun set.

In our tent that night we brought in our small short-wave radio and listened to the world news through the perspective of Radio Havana (broadcast in English).

Day Three (Monday, August 11) 22.9 Km

We departed Camp Two at 9:30 AM into a diminishing north wind still blowing about 6 to 12 mph. The morning temperature was around 13C and we were still wearing our fleece and my son was even wearing his neoprene paddling gloves. It was a perfectly clear, dry day as you would expect from a large northern high-pressure weather system.

There had been a recent forest fire (August of 2002) and about mid way up the lake we crossed into the burn-over region (UTM 5425000N).

The scenery through this area is pretty bleak and the only wildlife we saw were loons. About 1.5 Km up the lake from where the burn began we passed a marked campsite on the west shore but we didn't paddle over to check it's condition (UTM 5426270N).

When we got within 3.5 Km of the end of Cairngorm lake the wind had completely died out. At the top of the lake it opens up into an area about 1.5 Km by 1.5 Km and is studded with islands. Most of the islands were also burned out but a few smaller ones were far enough offshore to be spared.

We arrived at the end of the lake at 3:00 PM and the entrance to the small stream, which is called the Steel River on the map, only to find it completely choked and not navigable. We searched up and down the shore for a trail and finding none we looked again at the map and realized our mistake, immediately. The first portage out of Cairngorm Lake is found at the end of a long, narrow bay, about 1.3 Km long, which runs north on the eastern-most side of the lake. After our initial detour, we arrived at the marked portage trail (UTM 5432960N) for the 590-meter portage into the stream, now called Steel River. It was now 4:00 PM.

The trail started off by going through a dense section of black muck that had been spared by the fire. This section was about 120 meters and the trail then went up to higher ground and into the burn. The destruction of this area was very complete with gray ash covering the ground and a forest of charred stumps and trees that looked like burned spikes. It was very dirty and dusty walking through this area but the trail was good and there were no mosquitoes. In the bright sunlight of the afternoon it was also very hot. Friends of this route had cut out most of the deadfall in order to keep the trail relatively open.

The put-in was in a small pond across from a scenic cascade where the Steel River tumbled over rocks. Although our shore looked like a lunar landscape this small cascade had also been spared the wrath of the fire.

The Steel River at this point is a very twisty, log-choked creek that runs about 700 meters into Moose Lake (unnamed on the topographic map). Arriving at this moose pond we turned northwest and paddled to the end picking up the twisty little creek once more. Paddling about one kilometer downstream we came to a cascade over bedrock and logs and the second portage.

This marked portage is 167 meters and goes up over a small ridge then down to the river beyond the cascade. It was also dirty and dusty and quite burned out.

From here it is a two-kilometer paddle to the last portage at the entrance to Steel Lake. This trail is only 118 meters and circumvents a rock garden that we decided to wade/line through. Judging by all the paint on the rocks, this is what most paddlers have done instead of the portage.

It was about 6:30 PM when we paddled out onto Steel Lake. About half-a-kilometer into the lake, up on the eastern shore at the north end of a narrow bay, there was a campsite which was occupied by what looked like a single red canoe. This camp was in a heavily burnt out area and would not have looked all that inviting to us had it even been available.

About 1.5 Km beyond this camp, we could see a light colored strip at the water's edge that we knew would be a beach. At 7:15 PM we grounded ashore on this sand and gravel beach and set about the tasks of building the camp (UTM 5438850N). The beach was about 5 meters deep and 40 meters long and there was a ready supply of firewood in the form of sun-bleached, washed up trees. We put up the tent, pumped water, went for a swim, built a fire and made dinner, in that order, before retiring to the confines of the tent at 10:00 PM.

Day Four (Tuesday, August 12) 29.6 Km

Brian and I were up at 6:30 AM and at 7:00 AM the occupants of the campsite we had passed the night before, quietly slid past us in what looked like a red Wenonah Sundowner on their way up the lake. We nodded to each other but no words were exchanged. They either could really break camp quickly or they had gotten up before dawn to be underway at that early hour.

Between this time and our departure we could faintly hear the occasional vehicle traveling on the road that ran between Terrace Bay and Longlac. In straight-line distance this road was about 17 Km west of us.

We departed Camp Three at 9:45 AM and started the long paddle up Steel Lake. It was another clear day with no humidity and no wind.

About one kilometer north of our camp on the same eastern shore there was another even bigger beach and a kilometer beyond that there was a third smaller beach on the same shore. These were the last campsite possibilities we saw along Steel Lake until we got within 600 meters from the end.

About 5.5 kilometers up the lake from the southern tip, we pass into an old burn-over area that covers both sides of Steel Lake. This burn occurred in 1996 or 1997 and there is a lot of new growth low to the ground with thousands of spikes of barren trees protruding above. This old burn continues all the way up to the end of the lake.

As in Cairngorm, we didn't see any wildlife except loons and an occasional hawk. The paddle up Steel Lake was uneventful and we stopped for lunch at a small island with a very rocky shore at 1:30 PM (UTM 5454100N).

As we paddled through the narrows that led into the final pond-like northeastern end of Steel Lake, we passed a roomy and comfortable-looking beach on the north shore. Passing this we went the final 600 meters to the take-out and there was a pretty campsite up the steep bank from where we landed. The portage trail goes right through the middle of this campsite and the tent-sites were lumpy but we decided to stay. It was 4:00 PM and we had made good time up the longest of the lakes on this route.

Brian and I portaged our canoes down the 234-meter trail so we wouldn't have to do it in the morning. We had finished the day with everything dry because I had laid out our bathing suits, socks and towels on top of our packs for the all-day run up Steel Lake.

After the tent was up and the water pumped we went for a swim to clean up before dinner. As we were preparing dinner, a couple of gray squirrels were chasing each other near our clearing when a Goshawk swooped silently in and nearly grabbed one of them. The squirrels ran for the protection of the trees and never came into the open again.

The old burn ended within 50 meters of our campsite and we hoped we would be leaving these scars behind for the rest of the trip.

Day Five (Wednesday, August 13) 16.8 Km

We departed Camp Four at 9:45 AM humping our gear down the 234-meter portage trail. This was not a very tough trail and it ran gradually downhill. We put in and paddled about 400 meters to a collection of boulders and logs, blocking the river, and even wading the boats was not possible. This day was like the four days that had preceded it: dry and clear with temperatures in the upper 20'sC.

The take-out was very steep and required some mutual assistance to get up the bank to the trail. This was supposed to be a 509-meter trail but we all felt it was more in the range of 750 meters. I believe at one time this trail followed the course of the river but, since the old burn-over, there was so much deadfall down along the river that the trail had to go all the way to the top of the hill to get around it. This was a rough trail and the only thing that made it a little easier was that it was so exposed that there were no mosquitoes.

The put-in was fairly easy with a small beach and a lot of rocks. We paddled the 200 meters of the small pond into the last 200 meters of the creek that flows into Aster Lake, the headwaters of the main branch of the Steel River (Aster Lake is unnamed on the topographic map).

There is a 139-meter portage that goes around a rock garden at the junction of the creek with the lake. This portage also goes through a large marked campsite right at the junction. The guys in the red Wenonah were camped here and their camp had a look of permanence like they were going to stay a couple days.

We chose to wade/line the boats through the rock garden instead of taking this last portage. It was 11:45 AM when we turned south and entered the headwaters of the main branch of the Steel River.

Having left the lakes, we also left the burn-overs and there were no more of these for the duration of the trip.

The first eight kilometers of the river has a swift personality with only three ponds where the water flattens out. This stretch would be a lot of fun early in the season and would probably require some advanced white-water paddling skills. In August, however, these stretches were mostly swifts with a couple of Class I's but the water level was so low that we dragged bottom in nearly every one. A number of times we had to get out and wade the boats over the rocks but we never had to make a portage.

It was in this upper part of the river, the brothers who were about 300 meters ahead of us came to a quick stop and were intently staring at something. Mike and I drifted noiselessly down to where they were sitting in mid-stream but when we got there whatever they were looking at was gone. It had been a Lynx standing in a branch overhanging the river. The brothers had a stare-down with the elusive cat until it saw us slide in and it took off into the woods.

Following the upper eight kilometers, the river opens up into a series of narrow, flat-water lakes connected by short stream sections. Each of these stream sections had a swift or a simple rapid but, as before, we dragged bottom on virtually every one.

About 16.7 Km downstream from the Aster Lake put-in we came to a very well groomed MNR campsite and decided to stop for the night. It was 4:15 PM when we nosed up to the beach (UTM 5450580N). This camp had multiple tent sites and a steel cooking table. It was very tidy and comfortable and considering the sharp drop-off at the beach it was probably also a fly-in destination for hunters and fishermen. The river, at this point, was one of the narrow flat-water lakes and long enough for a floatplane to take off.

As I pumped water from the back of my semi-beached canoe I noticed a large leech working his away along the bottom parallel to shore. This didn't keep us from having our usual evening swim though we did check each other for leeches when we came out.

As we ate our dinner, a mink was pacing back and forth just inside the shadows of the trees and we figured he was hoping for some scraps. Our dinner consisted entirely of FD meals and we didn't share anything with the mink.

This was our last relaxing day of this trip. We studied the map and realized we would have to make an early start the next day because we had about 61 kilometers of river ahead of us, much of that heavily meandering and we knew there were also logjams but we had no information on them.

Day Six (Thursday, August 14) 41.9 Km

We rolled out of the tent at 6:30 AM and after eating a hasty breakfast we packed up and departed Camp Five at 8:00 AM. The weather continued its trend and was unchanged from what it had been every day previous.

The first five kilometers were like the day before: a series of narrow, flat-water lakes connected by short, swift stream sections. Four kilometers south of Camp Five, the topo map shows the symbol for rapids about 100 meters apart (UTM 5446200/300N). This turned out to be a big disappointment because it was only a mild swift. About 200 meters below this there was a Class I rapid but, as usual, we dragged bottom.

There was a two kilometer section of swift but shallow stream then the river jogged to the southwest reverting back to it's personality of narrow, flat-water lakes with short stream sections leading up to Rainbow Falls, which is unnamed on the topo map. There is a symbol for a waterfall on the map at this point and we had covered 15.7 Km since leaving our last camp. It was 11:30 AM when we pulled the boats up the steep take-out for the portage around the falls. The falls and it's take-out is very obvious and it would be difficult to miss but just below the put-in I saw a piece of canoe so it looks like someone missed the take-out.

The portage around the falls was about 400 meters and at the 350-meter mark there is a large MNR campsite sitting back about 50 meters from the falls. On this day, two people occupied the campsite and although we weren't planning on stopping, if we had decided that this would be a stopping point we would've had to negotiate with the occupants because there just wasn't anyplace else to set up a tent.

The run down the five kilometers after the falls put-in was some of the best on the river. It was swifter and we didn't drag bottom as much. However, after this fun little stretch, the river began to slow down and meander. About 12 Km below the put-in at Rainbow Falls we passed under a very heavily built logging- road bridge (UTM 5431900N). Neither this bridge nor the road that crosses it is shown on the topo map.

Approximately 2.6 Km below the bridge we came to a small logjam between the river-right shore and a large gravel bar (UTM 5430900N). It was about 1:30 PM so we stopped here for lunch before carrying the boats over the gravel bar. We had taken about 45 minutes for lunch and the river began to seriously meander after this small obstacle.

Another 3.5 Km and we came upon another logjam but were able to follow a narrow channel on river-left around a small, grassy island and we successfully circumvented it (UTM 5428500N). At some point in the future this will probably start to choke up and a portage trail will have to be cut around it.

The river was now meandering back on itself so tightly that the GPS kept jumping back and forth between waypoints. As a result, I am not confident in the odometer on the GPS and I have laid out the distance manually using thin chain directly on the map.

About 6 Km below the potential logjam at the small island, we encountered the first serious logjam (UTM 5426300N). The logs were piled up as far as the eye could see around a right turning bend and we could see no marked take-out so we, first, scouted the river-left shore than finding nothing we scouted the river-right shore and found a trail.

The take-out was up a very steep bank 4.5 to 6 meters in height and we had to go 150 meters to find the telltale surveyor ribbon. The problem is that as the logjam adds additional logs back upstream each spring, new take-outs have to be found. The portage trail was rough and slightly overgrown at the edges and it was not an easy portage. We estimate the trail to be about 550 meters with an equally steep put-in at its end.

It was about 6:30 PM when we completed the portage and we agreed that we would take the next available spot that could accommodate our 6-man tent. We found that virtually every inside bend had a beach and about 70% of these beaches could handle a tent. A little less than one kilometer below the big logjam, we found a beach that we could make into a campsite (UTM 56425830N).

We pulled out at 7:15 PM and we had to spend 15 minutes leveling the spot for our tent with our canoe paddles. After setting up camp we rushed through the swim and dinner ritual and on this night there was altocumulus (undulatus) cloud cover threatening incoming low pressure with precipitation and it was more humid. This brought out the mosquitoes a little earlier and we retired to the tent at 9:30 PM.

Once inside we realized that we had left the little short-wave radio in the pack and we didn't want to exit the tent and let in more mosquitoes. If we had brought in the radio we would've heard about the electrical blackout that covered the eastern third of North America. Oblivious to the problems of the outside world we fell asleep.

Day Seven (Friday, August 15) 29.5 Km

We awoke, again, at 6:30 AM and it was still humid with a little morning haze. As we did the day before, we ate a hasty breakfast, packed up, departed Camp Six and were on the river by 8:00 AM.

With the increased humidity, the mosquitoes followed us downstream and at one point we put our head-nets back on. Generally, once out on the river you leave the bugs behind but that wasn't the case on this morning.

We had only gone about 400 meters from our camp around two bends when we came upon the second major logjam. The portage was up the usual steep embankment on river-left. This logjam turned out to look worse than it actually was because the trail was only about 150 meters and cut off the horseshoe bend that was packed in with logs.

Mike and I had gotten into the lead after this portage and about 4 Km further downstream we rounded a tight bend and startled a juvenile black bear that had been drinking on the river-right shore. In two bounds this young bear was up the 6-meter bank and we could hear it crashing through the underbrush. We listened and watched very intently as we glided by the spot in case there was a mother bear nearby but we saw nothing else.

Along this stretch, the river is surrounded by 400-foot cliffs and quite spectacular to see. In some spots these cliffs come right to the river's edge. This would be a tough area to hike out of if, for some reason, you lost the canoe.

Approximately 9.3 Km from the second major logjam is the third major logjam (UTM 5420550N). This logjam had a river-right take-out up another steep bank and Brian grabbed his pack and disappeared and when we followed a few minutes later we started down a path, which led into a marshy area. This didn't look right so while Keith and Mike waited I dropped my pack and went scouting and found the proper trail following alongside the river. I called the other two and we set out with our gear. The proper trail was marked in places with the customary surveyor ribbon and we never did know if the false trail was human or animal made. This portage trail was estimated at 350 meters.

The river was still tightly meandering and my GPS was still jumping all over and we went another 6.6 Km downstream knowing we were about to run out of river and thinking we had seen the last of the logjams when we came upon the fourth and final logjam.

We were so close to the head of Santoy Lake that this was a little disheartening. The usual steep take-out was on river-right and the trail was in the best shape of any we had been on so far. Along the trail, there was a rowboat and some other items that looked like they might be the cache of a resident trapper. We estimated this trail to be about 420 meters and, like logjam number two, it cut off the horseshoe bend and the put-in was at a small beach.

From the put-in it was only 1.7 Km to the river's mouth at the head of Santoy Lake and we arrived in a fresh wind that was blowing up from the south. It was 1:30 PM when pulled up onto the large beach at the head of the lake. We ate a quick lunch and half an hour later we set out into the wind to paddle down Santoy Lake to the take-out and our truck.

The distance from the beach to the take-out was 10.6 Km and the wind was coming right out of the south, the direction we needed to go. The wind was 12 to 15 gusting to 20 mph and there was also the cloud formation of a low-pressure frontal system moving in from the southwest.

We set out down the lake at 2:00 PM and we both boats agreed we would hug the shore to try and get some small protection from the wind. Mike and I went to the west shore while Brian and Keith went toward the east shore. In hindsight, we should not have split up like that. We were paddling hard into the wind and we began to hear the rumbles of thunder and the sky behind us was getting darker. This gave us inspiration to paddle all the harder and by the time we had come adjacent to Windigo Wigwam Point the whole upper part of the lake was shrouded in very dark sky complete with lightning strikes, thunder and rain.

We were beginning to think that we might be spared this bad weather when the south wind died entirely and the lake, which had been quite choppy, became flat and calm. We were really paddling hard now and, according to the GPS, were going about 10 Km/hr. I knew this storm was going to catch us so we stayed in the shadow of the shore (about 15 meters) to protect us from lightning and just kept going hard.

When we were about 1.5 Km from the take-out we passed a cabin on the west shore and the owner was out on his dock buttoning up his fishing boat and he invited us in to take refuge from the storm. We were so close that I felt we still might just make it before the storm hit and I thanked him but we kept paddling hard for the take-out.

The one tactical mistake we made was not to pull into his dock and pull out our rain gear. When we were a kilometer out and getting ready to round the bend for the final run to the take-out, the storm front hit us from behind. The wind was very strong but dead astern so it actually helped to push us but then the rain hit and it was heavy and it was cold.

When we were within 500 meters with the boat ramp in view, we heard a motorboat coming up behind us and when they passed, someone yelled out and there was Brian and Keith with their canoe tied alongside a 20-foot fishing boat. They also had failed to put on their raingear and were as drenched and cold as us but at least we had all arrived at the same time. It was 5:00 PM when we arrived at the take-out.

We loaded all the wet gear, secured the canoes on the roof rack and then we all changed clothes quickly while the rain continued to fall. We threw our wet things in the back of the truck and with the heater on full blast; we departed Santoy Lake for Highway 17 and points south.

Trip Journal No.2

Saturday, August 25/90 Arrived at Santoy Lake late in the evening. The drive up, took almost 16 hours.
We had heavy thunderstorms from the Sault, all the way north to Marathon, which slowed us down.
Picked up a speeding ticket along the way. It was so foggy we had a hell of a time finding the access road into Santoy. Spent the better part of an hour looking for the road.
We quickly packed the boats, and paddled just around the bend from the parking lot, and set up camp on a
nice sandy beach. Supper consisted of pork chops and noodles. The weather has been very wet, steady light
rain and fog. Early to bed tonight. Going to need a good nights sleep, the first portage is a KILLER.

Sunday, 26th The morning dawns dark and dreary. Heavy fog shrouds the hills, reducing visibility to less than 100 feet. A steady warm drizzle is falling. Quick breakfast of oatmeal. Packed up by 9am, and paddled north up Santoy. About half way up is the portage to Diablo Lake. It was a bit tricky to find the beginning of the portage, it`s a little used path. We finally found it at the base of a 400` cliff.

Santoy-Diablo Portage...(1673m) ---Wow! "am I beat".......what a portage! The first part is a 400` cliff, over a path that winds up through the trees. I tried to carry the pack and the canoe as planned. I didn`t get very far. In a few spots we needed two guys on each canoe, both holding on to trees for support while hoisting the canoe up the hill. It`s just too steep to walk right up! The trail continues on, relatively flat all the way to Diablo.
But it`s the rockiest damn trail I`ve ever seen. It weaves through house sized boulders, down a ravine.
I honestly think this part was worse than coming up the cliff..........toughest portage I have ever been on.

Diablo Lake looks beautiful.....but then any lake would right now.. There are a few nice campsites on Diablo. This is a small scenic lake, and it looks very fishy! Rumor has it that there are "Brook Trout" in here. May be great sure is hard to get to. We quickly crossed Diablo, and easily found the three portages (755m, 262m, 189m) which link a chain of beaver ponds, leading eventually into "Cairngorm Lake".

Cairngorm Lake. Funny name, but a truly beautiful lake. Cairngorm, is 13 km. long, running north-south.
It`s very narrow, no more than a kilometre wide in most spots. The lake is the usual northern Ontario stuff,
rocky outcrops, cliffs, pines, loons....ahhhh..
We chose the first campsite on the east side, after the narrows at the south end.
It sits on a high granite point, with a commanding view, north up the lake. Supper that night consisted of sirloin steak, and scalloped potatoes. The skies cleared, and we were treated to an amazing northern sunset.
These are the moments that I canoe for. I love nothing on this earth as much as night-time in the wilderness.
Sitting by a wilderness lake as night slowly falls, the sounds come alive, the scenery fades to gray, the loons call
to each other...then, if your blessed, the "Northern Lights" will dance for you. You simply can`t get this experience, without some hard work. But then, that`s a large part of why its so special.

Monday , 27th The skies clouded over last night, so it was quite warm. We`re packed up and on the water by
about 9:30. Taking too long to get packed in the am. ..will have to do better, these are going to be 9 hour days
if we want to make it to Superior by Friday. We plan to make it all the way up Cairngorm, and through a small chain of lakes, into the south end of "Steel Lake" by tonight.
I caught a six pound Lake Trout, while doing a really fast troll right up the middle of the lake. The fish, which
was black as coal, hit a blue, "Walleye Diver". Finding a campsite on Cairngorm would not be a problem.
There are many campsites all the way up the lake, some might be a little rough, but many are quite nice.
The lake opens up at the north end, into an island studded paradise. I am kicking myself for not allowing about
an extra week for this trip. Seven days just isn`t much fun!!
This lake looks so fishy, I vow to come back and stay a while!
The route heads north out of Cairngorm, over a flat portage (590m) into a creek, which leads into a small unnamed lake, at the start of the Steel River. This looks like another fishy spot. We found several outfitters boats cached here. The water level in the river, despite my pre-trip concerns was not a problem at all. A portage marked on the map(167m), as being right on the shore of this little lake, was in fact about a kilometre down the river. This twisty little stream takes an hour to paddle before reaching Steel Lake. There is a small hop over some boulders (118m) before Steel Lake. An approaching thunderstorm shortened our day. We pulled out at the first site up the lake, on the east side. The evening was spent fishing, and exploring the bays and shoreline cliffs.

Tuesday, 28th Steel Lake, is much like Cairngorm. Very long and narrow, heading straight north. Steel Lake is 30 kilometres long. Plan to make a day of it. There are few campsites once you`re into the top half of the lake. A sand beach on the very north end, as well as a nice site at the portage leading out of the lake, are the best spots for a camp. We chose to press on over 3 short, but rough trails, (234m, 509m, 139m). At the end lies Aster Lake.
We stopped for the night at a nice large site (79k), just at the end of the 139 metre portage, situated on a point,
right at the outflow of the Steel River itself. There was a great deal of garbage on the site however. That night
the northern lights put on an incredible display. There is a great feeling at this point in the trip, that all the hard work is over... ..its all down stream from here!

Aster Lake is the turn around point of the trip. From here you head south, down the Steel River. The lake portion of the trip took our group just 3 days. I strongly suggest that you take twice that long. These are beautiful, secluded lakes that deserve to be enjoyed, to the fullest. At the time we were all strong young men, in peak physical condition. We paddled 7-8 hours per day, with only a few short breaks for lunch and munchies.

Wednesday, 29th Everyone woke early this morning, despite celebrating Steve Thompsons birthday last night. There was a great feeling of anticipation this morning. At last we would get to run the river! We had another very long day planned. The run all the way down to the falls, about 28 kilometres, would take at least 10 hours.

The upper 10 kilometres of the Steel River is absolute heaven in a canoe. The river is a combination of fast chutes, short easy whitewater runs, tight turns, and numerous "sweepers" (downed trees which stick out into the river). The river opens up into many small lakes, which are joined by short stretches of fast water...what a blast!!
It`s a fast roller coaster ride...The scenery is fabulous, with many cliffs, beautiful deep pools, and amazingly clean, clear water. There are many potential campsites along the upper river. We stopped for lunch on one particularly nice site, 12k down the river. It`s situated on a point on the west side, adjacent to a cliff face.
We were having so much fun that I forgot to take any pictures of this section of the river...oops!

The upper river is a continuous run all the way down to the falls. There are no portages to slow you down. Most of the rapids only require a quick scouting. This is not a big volume river that`s gonna chew you up! The river stretches are usually no wider than a city street. In low water you may have to line the canoe through some of the shallower spots (68k), but they are few.

We finally made it to "the falls" by 6pm. WOW! They are magnificent. The water cascades over a 50 ft. staircase drop. There is a nice, large campsite near the falls. It`s a little removed from the river however.
After a quick supper, the evening was spent perched atop the falls, listening to the song. This has been the best day that I can remember spending in the wilderness. The upper Steel River, is truly magnificent...The weather was hot and sunny all day, great scenery, hard work, whitewater.......gotta go back soon!

Thursday, 30th More great weather today, warm and sunny all day. Another long day coming up.
The lower river, all the way down to Santoy Lake, from the falls. A distance of about 22k on the map, but in
reality is much more. The lower river twists and turns back on itself in a seemingly endless serpentine course. The current is very fast for the first 10k below the falls, with many very tight turns. There are 4 very short portages around truly monstrous log jams. These log jams are worth seeing all by themselves. Some of them had to be 100 meters long, 20 feet high, and 80 feet across....amazing! It was at one of these portages that we heard a wolf pack howl, during mid day. Sent chills down my spine.
The lower river gets very tedious. You think that you`ve gone great distances, only to realize that you`re pretty much back where you started from. Eventually it comes to an end, at the nicest beach this side of Daytona!

"Santoy" is a large, majestic lake. It`s a little more than 10 kilometres long, trending north-south. The southern end of the lake is quite flat, with a nice sandy beach. Cliffs dominate the narrow middle part of the lake. There are few campsites until you get all the way up to the north end, where you find "Daytona Beach". The Steel River deposits huge amounts of sand into Santoy, making for a magnificent beach stretching almost 2 kilometers around the top of the lake.
We camped on the beach at the mouth of the Steel. The entire evening was spent gathering firewood for a huge bonfire. We were treated to another clear and warm night, with an emerald display of northern lights! Everyone crashed early again tonight, all the fresh air and paddling sure takes its toll.

Friday, August 31/1990 We awoke the next morning to a wind, howling straight up the lake from the south. It was a long paddle back to the car. Under calm conditions it would be an easy three hour paddle. At this point you have the option of ending your trip at the south end of Santoy Lake, or continuing on down the river to Lake Superior. We chose to paddle down to Superior . There are many easy rapids, as well as some flat water. Once again you must be able to handle a canoe in some very twisty water. There is a 2 kilometre long "rock garden" that requires a good deal of "lining" to get through. This stretch would make an excellent spring day trip! Take a tough ABS canoe, and go rock banging....Yahoo!
We spent our last night on the shore of Lake Superior. We set up camp in an old abandoned shack, not far from
the mouth of the Steel, under a driving rain. It seems that a trip down the Steel just wouldn`t be complete without paddling to Lake Superior.

The Steel River is a wonderful trip. It has all the ingredients that go into making a canoe route stand out from the rest. I plan to go back this summer, I`ve been away too long.

Maps Required
Topo Maps (1:50,000): 
42D/15 42E/2 42E/7
Special Comments: 

A few things to note.....the first portage out of Santoy Lake is a real challenge!
The portage goes up and over a cliff, gaining over 400` in altitude, and then continues for a kilometre and a half, over and through a boulder strewn trail. It is without a doubt, a tough portage. Like any great portage, the reward lies at the end. You will in all likelihood have the place to yourself!

Parts of Steel Lake were burned in a forest fire a few years back.
While this hasn`t impacted the lake in any negative way, it has made the portages at the north end of the lake a good deal tougher. Blown down trees choke the portages after each windstorm.

The portages around the logjams on the lower river are always changing in number and character.
Recent reports show that at least one of the logjams have disappeared. You paddle throught the remains of it, so the number of portages on the loop is not a definate total.

This trip can be very dependant on water levels. A dry summer could slow you down a great deal.

Weather: Very dry high pressure system with temperatures in the low to mid 20'sC for the first six days then low pressure and more humid weather moved in from the southwest and in mid-afternoon of the 7th and last day we were overrun by a powerful storm front with thunder, lightning and heavy rain.
There was no fire ban in effect.

Camping: Many campsite possibilities throughout the route with the exception of most of Steel Lake. On this lake, there were several spots in the south end and two spots in the northern tip but we saw nothing in between. The river has multiple campsites from the source to the mouth. Some of these are marked and groomed but many are nothing more than beaches on the inside of the bends but they are persistent along the entire river portion of the route.

Portage: In general, the trails are very rough with many rocks, roots, sharp turns and steep hills. Four of the portages were especially difficult: The 1673 M portage from Santoy to Diablo Lakes; the first 755 M portage out of Diablo Lake; the second 750 M portage between Steel and Aster Lakes and the first major logjam 550 M portage. The trails were all marked with surveyor ribbon and occasional signs with the exception of the second portage between Diablo and Cairngorm Lakes, which we easily spotted. The logjam portages were also marked with surveyor ribbon but because additional logs pushed the take-out further back upstream it was often hard to spot the surveyor ribbon and scouting was required. The important thing to know about the logjam portages is that the trails are there. You just have to find them.

Skill Level: Wilderness skills and the ability to make tough portages are a necessity but in August, recreational paddling skills are all that is necessary. It's mostly flat-water paddling and the swifts and rapids we did encounter were all very shallow and we dragged bottom on nearly all of them. This time of year, knowledge of ferries and eddy-turns were unnecessary but the ability to paddle in windy lake conditions became very necessary.

Remoteness: I would class this a wilderness area but not remote wilderness. We encountered people on our first, third, fifth, sixth and seventh days. It was the same two people on the third and fifth days and on the first and seventh days we were in Santoy Lake, which has cottages and fishermen. On the sixth day we passed canoeists camped at Rainbow Falls. Although this route is canoed regularly, I don't believe it is ever a busy route so wilderness gear and skills are a necessity.

Navigation: Key locations are given in Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) coordinates. The UTM grid faintly overlays the topographic maps and is composed of multiple squares, each representing one square kilometer. The Northing coordinates are read off the left and right margins of the map and the Easting coordinates are read off the top and bottom margins. Position interpolation within a one-kilometer grid was accomplished using a scaled rule. Since this route is primarily a north/south route, most of the UTM locations are given in Northing coordinates, only.


Post date: Sun, 05/13/2012 - 14:43


i am goin on a trip from eaglecrest lake down to sandtoy and was wondering if u hvae or no of any trip journals for that route?

Post date: Thu, 06/26/2008 - 16:43


I am the author of this route description and an inaccuracy has been brought to my attention. Please note that in the fifth paragraph all references to Aster Lake should be removed. Aster Lake is part of Aster Creek which runs about 500 meters east and parallel to Steel River but is not a part of it. I apologize for the confusion.

Post date: Sat, 01/01/2000 - 07:00


Just a note to let everyone know that a fire has been burning from carrigoram lake up to steel lake over to owl lake.It is presently being held.