Steel River: Santoy Lake to Steel River Loop (7 days / 160 km)

The Steel River is a 160 km loop with a lot of terrain changes from long lakes, swamps, rocky cliffs and sandy shores. This route is challenging due to remoteness and difficulty. It is the perfect route that includes both lake and river paddling that brings you back to the same start and endpoint so car shuttling is not needed.

Trip Completed: September 2020

Trip Summary

Starting/Ending Point: Santoy Lake

Total Distance: 160 km

Duration: 7 days (recommend 8-10 days)

Difficulty: Advanced

Location

Located in Steel River Provincial Park (non-operating), 20 minutes south of Terrace Bay, Ontario. Roughly 4 km off the Trans Canada Highway down a gravel road. There is alternate access on Kimberly Clark logging road north of Aster lake. 

Maps & Resources

Guidebook: Kevin Callan’s Ontario’s Lost Canoe Routes and Northern Scavenger’s trip report and Youtube video

Map: Topographic Maps Coldwell-042D15, Killala Lake-042E02 and Spider Lake-042E07

Campsite Reservations: N/A – Campsites are first-come-first-serve.

Permits: No, non-operating park with no facilities.

Outfitters & Shuttles

We did not use an outfitter as we have all our own gear. Shuttle is not needed because this route loops back to Santoy Lake, unless you put it at the alternate access.

Trip Report

Day 0: The Drive to Santoy

The first part of the journey starts with the 11.5-hour drive from Barrie, Ontario. Knowing we had a long drive and we would make a couple of stops along the way we decided to get a good night’s rest then head out at 4 am. This gave us a full day of driving and we would arrive at the put-in before dark.

The drive is pretty straight forward so we got the GPS started and began. We stopped a handful of times along the way for gas and to stretch our legs since our dog was stuck in the back with all the gear. Once you start heading into Lake Superior Provincial Park the excitement begins to build because the scenery becomes a lot more beautiful. We pushed our way to Wawa where we decided to get out and take a few photos of the giant goose.

From Wawa it was the home stretch, we knew there were just less than 3 hours left of our drive. It began to rain, damping the mood a little bit until we had a bear cross the road in front of us. We never had much luck on trips to see wildlife so we took this as a sign that maybe this trip would turn out differently. About 25 minutes out from the put-in, is this very nice scenic lookout that is marked on the highway. You can see the train tracks down below and a beautiful view of Lake Superior.

Santoy Lake is roughly 4km off the Trans Canada Highway. We arrived around 6 pm at an empty parking lot. We quickly took the canoe off the roof and organized our gear as we were sleeping in the back of my Ford Escape for the night. We enjoyed the silence and calm after the rain for an hour then crawled into bed for an early night.

Day 1: Santoy Lake to Cairngorm Lake (15 km)

As soon as the sun was peeking above the horizon, we were up and couldn’t wait to get on the water. We ate a quick breakfast then gathered our gear, double-checking we didn’t forget anything. Packing our bags we have down to a science now. For the two of us and our dog, we can pack our 8 days of gear plus extra food into a 70L pack and a 30L food barrel. Fitting everything into the canoe is always easy, giving our dog tons of space to lay down and only needing to one trip most portages. 

Knowing we only had a 7 km paddle to the infamous Diablo Portage (1,110 m), the anticipation was building. This portage, known to be “hell”, was the reason we were so gravitated towards this route. Paddling up to the inlet where Diablo starts, we didn’t notice any portage sign so we continued to paddle closer and then realized that the portage sign was an old STOP sign that lost all its lamination. When we got the canoe up on shore, we peeked in the tree line and noticed right away the portage begins to ascend. Motivated to conquer Diablo as quickly as we could, we decided to make bets on our finish time just to spice it up even more.

The best way to decribe Diablo is in three sections:

Steep incline: Right off the bat you are greeted with an uphill battle. It gets the blood flowing and the legs on fire. It is mostly small switchbacks that take you up and luckily the shortest of the 3 sections.

Fern forest: This section is really quite beautiful, but don’t look around too much and be careful of your footing. Amongst the small basketball-sized boulders, there are crevasses that you can easily roll an ankle in. I took a spill or two from the slippery rocks, so really make sure you can see where you are stepping.

Big boulder garden: You become surrounded by huge boulders you need to climb over and weave your way through. A few sharp turns make it tricky to maneuver the canoe through. 

Overall we enjoyed the portage, a lot actually. We went in expecting that it was going to be rough so we took our time, stopping for breaks to take in the surroundings. Getting to the end was a relief and we were in the absolute joy that we completed it. We checked the time and saw we finished Diablo in 2.5 hours. After a moment of relaxation, we tossed everything into the boat and headed over to the first campsite on Diablo lake that is on the island to have some lunch and have the 2 celebratory beers we had packed with us. 

After lunch we began to slowly paddle across Diablo while casting a few lines and trolling with them as we paddled. Diablo Lake we found we got the most luck fishing, catching a couple of brook trout and a small but absolutely beautiful tiger trout. Once we got to the next portage we packed the rods up knowing we had some small lake hopping to do before making it to Cairngorm Lake. These are your typical small shallow lakes that you paddle across in minutes to reach the next portage. Once we were on Cairngorm we decided it was soon time to find a campsite as it was almost supper time.

Campsite: We stayed at the first campsite you come across on Cairngorm Lake which is about 3 km from the last portage. This is an average site, water access is easy and there is room for 2 tents and if you clear up some brush there could be more. No thunderbox that we found.

Day 2: Cairngorm Lake to Steel Lake (23 km)

Cairngorm is a long lake so we started the day off by paddling for a couple of hours. Leaving the campsite we had beautiful weather but not long after leaving a strong wind started, coming from the NW. This made the paddle up Cairngorm tiring. The north side of Cairngorm has a couple of islands that we paddled behind trying to avoid the wind as much as possible. We debated on calling it a day and staying on the campsite nearest to the portage leaving Cairngorm but when we got there it was way too exposed to the wind. This would be a nice site if the weather cooperates and you don’t have any wind or rain. 

The portage leaving Cairngorm is a tricky take-out because it becomes quite swampy and is a narrow path through the tall grass. The portage looks like a perfect place for bears to hang around. I got a head start down the portage with our dog so I was making as much noise as possible by clapping the paddles together and singing to myself. In the end, you come out to a small pond with a little waterfall on the other side. This is technically where the Steel River starts, although it is not much of a river until you reach Aster Lake and head south. It becomes a small creek with a good amount of downed trees creating a build up of branches that you need to get over or around. It was a slow go down this short section of creek. Once it begins to open up to the lake there are a couple of beaver dams to lift over. 

Exhaustion began to set in as we paddled across a small lake to where the river begins again. From where the lake narrows it isn’t long before your next portage is on the left with an easy take-out. You will come to a logging road with a bridge and the portage continues directly on the other side of the road. At first, we didn’t notice where it continued, but there was a small opening in the tree line with a tiny piece of flagging tape. The rest of this portage is very narrow. Small pine trees take over the pathway, smacking you in the face as you walk through. The river becomes a peaceful winding river. Coming around a bend on the river we heard grass rustling. We quickly grabbed Oliver as he started growling, and sure enough, a huge female moose crossed the river 30 feet in front of us! Both of us in complete shock, it was the perfect thing to lift our spirits and one of the highlights from the trip. 

Now we had one more small portage on the right side, around a beaver dam to get onto Steel Lake. The take-out was completely blocked by a tree that was blown over recently so we had to get creative to figure out a way to get out without potentially sinking waist-deep in mud. After a struggle to get ourselves and the gear out of the water, we couldn’t wait to get to our campsite for the night. We pulled up to the first site on Steel Lake, got out to check it out but it wasn’t anything special. There wasn’t much flat space to set up a tent or even room to walk around. A little bummed out, we decided to find the next spot along the lake. Tired of paddling we chose to pull up to a beach and pitch the tent.

Campsite: This was not an actual site, it was a small pebble beach approximately 2 km from the last portage on Steel Lake – just before the lake began to narrow. We smoothed out a flat spot as far away from water as we could. Not much cover if there was bad weather. Very pretty view of the sunset since it faces south. Turns out the actual site was about 700 m further.

Day 3: Steel Lake to Steel Lake (30 km)

This is a very long day of lake paddling! First thing in the morning we checked the GPS for a weather report so we can plan our day and make any adjustments to where we plan to be. Our goal was to make it at least ⅔ of the way across Steel Lake. The weather wasn’t going to be in our favour today but could have been worse. We got stuck with wild tailwinds causing white caps. It can be pretty risky paddling with waves as bad as they were but we stuck close to shore and tried to use the waves to our advantage. Although they were coming from behind sometimes it felt like they were just slowing us down. Halfway down steel lake with no end in sight, we pulled over into a bay out of the wind to stretch out our legs and have a quick lunch. Something we like to call the ‘trip crazies’ came out. As we were paddling and surfing the waves, Oliver began to howl at the wind and we joined along. It was a good feeling to just let it go and laugh when things were stressful. That’s why we are out here on this trip to begin with.

We came to where we planned to stop for the day but decided we would paddle on, keep pushing further so we could make our next day a “zero” day and take it easy. The rain started making it a very unpleasant paddle but we were too far past the last campsite to turn around. Wanting this day to be over we paddle to where our next portage would be. At this portage, there is also a campsite so it was a convenient place to call it for the day. As we arrived at camp it began to downpour. So we quickly set up the tent and got what we could out of the rain. For the rest of the night, we spent it snuggled up in the tent playing Uno and drinking vodka, getting out during breaks in the rain to stretch our legs.

Campsite: Very last campsite on Steel Lake, at the 200 m portage. The campsite is at the same spot as the portage. A steep climb up from the water to the site but then flattens out with a nice fire pit and beside a small river. Room for 2 to 3 tents.

Day 4: Steel Lake to Aster Lake (2 km)

This is our relaxation day. GPS said it was going to be beautiful weather so we took this chance to have a fun day fishing. We made a little bit of progress today by getting the next 3 small portages out of the way. These portages are around sections of river that in high water and with technical skill can potentially be run. We were here in September so lining them wasn’t even an option. The first 200 m portage was straightforward. At the bottom we spotted 2 otters playing in the rapids. Then there is a short 200 m paddle to the 600 m portage. This portage was a little trickier, it was a very steep start and a couple of high steps from where the sandy dirt had washed away. At the end of it, there is a small pond with a small rocky waterfall where we tossed some cast in and caught a few good-sized pike. The last 140 m portage follows along the last little bit of river that takes you to Aster Lake. If you follow the trail another 25 m past the put-in, it leads you to a campsite.

This is where we decided to hang out for the day so we set up our tent and dried out all our wet gear. It was nice to have time to just lounge in the hammock, let our dog swim and do some fishing. This site was messy and had garbage left so we tried to organize it as much as we could. It was lightly misting on and off all day, so we had a couple of big rainbows to enjoy. It was a nice calm night and we got a good sleep. This is the turning point in the trip. From long lake paddling to heading back down the river.

Campsite: This is a very well used campsite called Camp Chugabrewski. Lots of flat area for tents, and has a picnic table – definitely a well-used group site. The portage ends at this site with easy access to the water.

Day 5: Aster Lake to Rainbow Falls (31 km)

After a day of rest, we were ready to get started on the Steel River. This marks the halfway point of the trip. From the campsite on Aster, you only have about 350 m to paddle before the lake narrows and the swifts start. Heading down the first swift we bumped the bottom of the boat a tiny bit making us very nervous about how low the water levels were going to be.

The river starts off with a handful of swifts and then you get to some apparent CI and CII rapids. With water levels being so low I would consider these all swifts. We tried as best as we could to run as many as we could, but at times it was very challenging. There were plenty of times we would have to get out of the boat and begin to line. This was very anticlimactic for us. Before coming on this trip, low water levels were something I considered but didn’t expect it to be this low. 

About 9km down the river there is the first portage around a CII technical. At this point we knew this would be a long haul and made the decision to just make it as far as we could along this river today. From the portage, the river opens back up to a beautiful cliff face. There is a campsite directly across from it so we pulled over there to make lunch and take a break. This is a beautiful campsite with a sandy beach-I would recommend staying here if it fits into your trip.

Feeling somewhat defeated by the constant in and out of the canoe we continued our paddle along making the best of it. Swift after swift we paddled, getting out and dragging the boat over all the shallow spots. There are a couple of sets of shallow Class 2 rapids that we unfortunately had to line our boat down. The shoreline begins to become sandy and with it getting later in the day we were looking for a campsite for the night. The site just before Rainbow falls did not look all that appealing to us so we decided to stretch it a little further and make it all the way to Rainbow Falls. 

Coming around a bend you can hear the falls getting close. We saw the portage sign on the right shore and felt beyond relieved. This was our home for the night. We set up camp and went for a walk to see the falls. Rainbow Falls was better than we had expected. I would love to see it when the water is high and raging.

Campsite: If you follow the portage about 3/4 of the way you come to a very open forested area which is the campsite at rainbow falls. Lots of room for plenty of tents and a fire pit. This is in the middle of a portage so you need to walk to either end for water access.

Day 6: Rainbow Falls to Santoy Lake (46 km)

At this point, we were 2 days ahead of schedule. From Rainbow Falls there is a couple of swifts before the river turns to sand and is scattered with log jams. Log jams are always changing so any references we had to where they were located we could only use as an estimate. The first while was smooth sailing to the road bridge you paddle under. We decided to have a snack and make a coffee in the canoe and have the current take us.

Once you are past the bridge the log jams start. The terrain drastically changed. The river was lined with sandy banks and became very windy. Along this section of the river we saw a bear along the shoreline and then not too long later around a bend we came across a moose taking a drink.

It wasn’t long before we hit our first big log jam. This wasn’t just a lift over…it continued as far as we could see down the river. Taking out and putting in these log jams was a challenge from the low water, causing very steep banks to climb. The second big log jam has definitely changed in recent years. It seemed to extend longer and the put-in was steep and all clay. While wearing my pack and nearing the water’s edge, I slipped in the clay, almost penguin-sliding right into the river. Luckily there was a bush nearby that I grabbed onto. Now I was covered in clay but couldn’t help but laugh because they could have been much worse. There was one more log jam coming up that I couldn’t wait to get it over with. Portages around them were slow and required bushwacking and creativity. 

We planned to stay at the next campsite along the river but somehow managed to paddle past it without even knowing. Next site; not for another 14kms on Santoy Lake. This was a never-ending winding paddle. We were so cold and tired. Feeling defeated we considered pulling over on a sandy bank for the night. We couldn’t do that to ourselves. The thought of spending our last night on a riverbank made us miserable. Then the second wind hit us. Motivated by the thought of Persian donuts and Taco Time in Thunder Bay if we got out early had us paddling into the dark.

It was about 7 pm and we still had not reached the last portage on the river. We continued to paddle as hard as we could and with dusk fast approaching, reading the shore like was starting to become difficult. We found our last portage along the right side of the river and were ecstatic to be almost there. Our dog was ready for bed and was wondering what we were doing dragging him along for this long. The first thing we did was grab our headlamps out of our pack and start the home stretch to the campsite on Santoy. By the time we got to the other side and began to paddle it was nearly dark. We followed the river banks until it opened right up to find ourselves on Santoy. Knowing the campsite was along the shore to the left, we followed it as closely as we could without getting stuck. The beach extends very shallow a long way out. Paddling right up to shore we got out and began to walk the shoreline looking for a campsite sign or anything to guide us. With luck on our side, we had pulled up directly in front of the campsite without seeing it from the water. Relief. Time for food, stars and sleep. 

Campsite: Most beautiful site on the entire trip. Big sandy beach with shallow water for a good way out. The campsite is tucked into the trees further back. Room for 3 to 4 tents, potentially even more plus lots of shelter from wind and weather.

Day 7: Santoy to the car (11 km)

Waking up this morning was a struggle. After the work we put in the day before all we wanted to do was sleep in, but the thought of food and a cold beer got us moving. It was a beautiful cool morning, so we got the fire going and went for a walk along the beach while we sipped on coffee. The fog was heavy and the water was dead calm, so we decided to enjoy this slow morning knowing we only had an 11 km paddle across Santoy back to the car.

As we were spending some time enjoying the beach and letting our dog swim the fog was lifting from the lake, revealing Santoy lake. There was a moment I was standing there looking out at the water and my eyes filled with tears. I didn’t want this trip to end. Unfortunately, it was time to pack up because we wanted to try to get as far as we could before we would get stuck in a headwind. Less than 2km into the paddle, the wind became strong causing an exhausting headwind to paddle in. A couple of kilometres from the car we spotted another bear along the shore. Making it a nice ending to our trip. 

Back at the car, it was bitter-sweet. We wanted to continue our journey to Thunder Bay after hearing rumours of delicious donuts and tacos. We weren’t ready to make the 11-hour drive back home just yet.

Reflections

This trip had been my favourite trip I have been on yet as it defines Type 2 fun. A few personal bests were accomplished on this trip; longest distance in a day, hardest portage, and most remote. It is a rugged trip not meant for the faint-hearted. Paddling it in September we had the challenge of low water but we didn’t have any issues with bugs. Portages are not well maintained and require some improvising to make them work. We did not see a single person this entire trip, nor did we see any recent signs of anyone around. Not a single day went by that we didn’t come across a challenge to overcome, making it the most rewarding trip we have ever done. One day we would love to try this trip in the Spring with high water to compare the differences.

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Author Bio

Kristen and Corey love venturing out into the backcountry with their dog Oliver. They continue to build their skills and push themselves further each and every trip. They enjoy the solitude of canoe trips, which they find themselves further into the backcountry each time.  Finding the perfect balance between putting in a lot of distance in a day as well as catching lots of fish, is the key to most of their trips. Their blind australian cattle dog Oliver is the perfect trip companion because he loves swimming, chewing on sticks and running through portages.
Instagram: @kristennielsenn