Solo on the Steel, Northern Ontario

Feb 1, 2013
For those of you who know me from other sites, I run a high school wilderness canoe club in Northern Ontario. We try to maintain a series of routes, as well as opening up a new one every summer. I posted this on MYccr this summer, so some of you may have seen it. It's an account of running the Steel solo last summer.

It’s been a few years since I did the entire Steel Loop, so I decided to make it my solo this year. Ten years ago when I was 40, I did it in 4 days. At 50, my goal was to do it in five days. I can guarantee I won’t be wanting to do it in six days when I’m 60.

The entrance for the north end of the loop is only about an hour drive from my house. It’s on Sun Rd South, about 50 k down the Catlonite road out of Longlac. The first small bridge on Sun Road S has an excellent parking lot, and the creek leads into Eaglecrest Lake.


I’ve parked here countless times, and although it’s in the middle of nowhere, I’ve always felt safe leaving the car there.


I just finished re-varnishing the Raven. It was pretty sparkling – that wasn’t going to last long. I am fairly fond of the Raven for a big tripping solo, and I over built this one so it could take the kind of punishment the next five days would give it.


The creek is one of those cedar clogged things. I went down to Eaglecrest with my new 20 footer and the family last weekend, and chainsawed a few blockers out. It’s a good warm up for slow technical skills.


Eaglecrest is a beautiful cliff-lined lake, with one of the nicest campsites in N. Ontario.


This is the first and the last port of the trip. I was a lot happier to see this end of it on the last day.


This is how I transport the beast. It’s actually quite heavy, probably 55 to 60 pounds.


I can’t remember if it was on Myccr or solo tripping that there was a big discussion on attaching a carrying thwart on a solo canoe. This is how I do mine, noth’n fancy, wing nuts. I always carry a few spares, although I didn’t lose any on this trip.


This is the campsite at the turn around, where the river starts proper. It’s 8 k and one port from the Eaglecrest start. A few years ago, when the water was spectacularly high, someone on CCR was camped at this site when the giant landslide in the background let go. They said the waves from the landslide crashed right into their site.

Here’s a closer view of the landslide. There are quite a few along the stretch from Eaglecrest to this site. Many of them have streams running down them now. (local hint – when the water is flowing from the landslides, the fishing is spectacular)


This is the end of the first set of rapids coming down the Steel. Unimpressive, to say the least. The water is low. In the dozen times I’ve run the river, I’ve only seen it lower once. I didn’t have to walk any parts of the river, but I did quite a bit of banging and bumping.


I was approaching the next big set (usually) of rapids, when I saw someone moving in the bush. Wow, I had never seen anyone else on the Steel with the exception of a certain famous American canoeist guiding a party of soloists. There were four guys fishing at the bottom of the rapids. They said they thought they had “trampled” Diablo down enough for someone to get through. This gave me some cause for worry. I had cleared the ports on the river side in 2010 when Siren and Kingfisher ran it with me. However, I hadn’t cleared the lakeside since around 2007. Anyway, I said goodbye and bumped my way down some more swifts to this beautiful campsite. Thought about staying there, but it was only 3:30, and daylight was burn’n.


I ended up paddling 35k, and ported twice before I stopped. This site is about 6 k from the big falls on the Steel. It’s a small site, but I like it better than the falls, easier access to water, and seldom used. The moon came out full and lit up the inside of my tent all night.


This is the site that greeted me when I got up around 6:30 on day two.. It doesn’t get much better.


The Raven is ready for another day. We hit the water around 7 or so.


The first site of interest today is Rainbow Falls. It’s a pretty big deal, if by some bizarre mistake you managed to go over it, the mistake would probably be fatal. If the logs you see happen to be right above you, the end of everything is near. The port is actually much before this, on river right.


I’ve seen it really roaring, but even at low water, it’s still a big set of falls.


I’m below the Deadhorse Bridge now. See that hill ahead? You’re gonna see it for about the next eight hours as you wind your way through countless meanders.


Geese? Come on, everyone knows that geese don’t nest around here. What are they doing here? When I lived on the reserve, during April geese season, the people used to get me to stand out in front of the blinds with a big bag of popcorn. They figured that all these geese were being fed by white folks down south, and that I would be a natural attractant. People in Toronto – stop feeding the damn geese! They are developing odd breeding habits.


Ok, let’s find Where’s Waldo, or in this case, Find the Hooter. A pair of owls followed me down the river for quite ways, damn geese probably told them I had popcorn.


Here’s the owl in mid flight. Can any of you birdy type people tell me what kind of owl it is? This was about a half hour after the bridge. If you camp in this section, you will hear hooting all night long.


Shortly after the owls, I saw this guy swimming across the river. He crawled up on the bank and was quite happy, until he saw me and took off with his back end looking like two pigs fighting under a blanket.


Here’s the first log jam of the day. These ports are in pretty good shape, since I cut them two years ago. However, there is no getting around the steep entrances and exits.


This is pretty typical, with climbs and clambers between six and ten feet . There are the four major jams right now, with no surprises. There are one or two small jams, but they can be crawled under or worked around without porting.


I wanted to make it all the way to Santoy today, but after four ports and 40 k of paddling, I was feeling a bit tired. I started looking for a big sand spit.


I found this one, it was nice and large, with lots of bear and moose tracks. I was pooped though, didn’t care if a bear wanted company or not, figured the snoring would keep any animal away.


This was home for the night, around 8 k from the port into Santoy.

Day three was a very challenging day, and I only got a couple of pics. Rain and wind started shortly after I got up at six. I paddled and ported to Santoy in about an hour and a half, and when I arrived there, the wind was howling from the south. Santoy was whitecapping, and it looked very dirty through the rain. I set up a tarp off my canoe and took cover for about an hour, but I’m not one for waiting. Around ten o ‘clock, I couldn’t take it anymore and set off for Diablo. I hadn’t put the Raven into waves this big before, and I was really impressed with how it handled them. I weighted it a bit bow heavy, and it weather veined just fine. However, it took me an hour and a half to paddle the four of five k to Diablo port. By the time I got there at 11:30, my arms were feeling pretty leaden.

The pic above shows the ferns and beauty of Diablo. It doesn’t show the suffering. I’ve done Diablo eight or nine times, and I’m pretty sure this is the last time. I had forgotten how long that first climb is, and it damn near killed me. I had to resort to three carries because the rocks were so wet and slick that carrying a heavy load was a death wish. By the time I worked the canoe up to the Devil’s Den, my quads were cramping and I was seriously doubting if I could make it. Anyway, I prevailed, although it took me 4.5 hours. When I did this trip solo ten years ago, I one-timed canoe and pack through in less than an hour. Guess I gotta quit drinking and smoking and eating and find a time machine...I know at one point I found myself bargaining with God, someone I haven’t talked to since I was twelve. Diablo does crap like that to you.

I paddled over to the little island, set up my tent and retreated with my tail between my legs. I had intended to carry on to Cairngorm Lake this day, but after a grand total of 15 k of travel, I was beaten.


This is a strange rock in the Devil’s Den that my High School kids call the “De-Nut-inizer”. The reason they call it this is because if you have short legs {like me}, the only way across is to straddle it, and take your full weight, along with the packs you are carrying, onto the groin section of the body. One of the lesser demons in Diablo.


OK, day four was going to be better. I had suddenly remembered last night that it was my girlfriend’s birthday on day five. I had to notch it up a bit here, stop whining, and act like a man, damn it! This is the view of Diablo Lake at around 6:30 AM on day four. Yes, the wind was against me again, and it was raining.


I ported the three ports out of Diablo in about two hours. I had my Mojo back. Then I saw the wind blowing down Cairngorm….oh well, the waves were a lot smaller that they had been on Santoy, so I took off. Three hours later I was in the north end of Cairngorm. It had been such a beautiful place before the fire, I wanted to live there. Now it’s a collection of stumps and re-growth, with one or two small islands that didn’t get burned.


There were three of these weird signs hanging around the lake. They were all part of one sign. It was kind of Blair Witchy, had me kind of creeped out. Anyone know anything about these?


There are three ports out of Cairngorm to Steel lake, and I was going to finish them. This is the end of the first one, a bushy little thing of about 700 meters. Normally that little falls is pumping out a picturesque volume of water. Today it was a trickle. Something didn’t add up though.


The little stream that flows into the next lake is low at the best of times. I expected it to be non-existant. However, it was in full flood, higher than I had ever seen it. Must be a busy beaver somewhere!


Sure enough, a beaver had built a colossal dam at the end of the creek, right up to the lake. The dam stretched for a couple of hundred feet. As I paddled through to the next port, there were two more dams. I’ve been doing this route since 1995, and there have never been beavers on this stretch. Global warming? Zombie beavers? Or a Beaver Conspiracy? I’ll google it tomorrow and find out.


The last port of the day was a short one around a small chute that I have shot in high water. The final dam of the river was stretched right across the river. It was bizarre to see the dried up rapid bed in front of me.


It was even stranger to look at from below. Bone dry. Anyway, it had been a long day. I paddled to the first narrows on the lake with a tiny stretch of sand and pitched my tent. Ihad come 32 K today, with six ports. It looked like one good day would get me out.


I got up at five and got on the water by six. There was no wind. Hoorah! As I padded the thirty or so K to the end of Steel Lake, a moderate tail wind came up, and I could see that the Gods really wanted me to get home for the birthday. It took me about five hours to get to the end of Steel.


The Steel has had about three different fires on it in the last 15 years. This is one of the newer ones.

As I pulled into the port out of Steel, I met two nice guys from Toronto who were doing the loop. We chatted for a while, but I had to get going. I must say, the second long port out of Steel had me cursing, my legs had just about had it, reminding me of Diablo. However, I pushed on, and waded/lined the last little port around the corner. It was then only an 8 k paddled, plus one port to get back to my car. I arrived at the parking lot at 3:30. I paddled about 43 k today and did three ports. I was glad the trip was over, don’t think I could have kept that pace up for much longer.

A couple of notes. I GPS’d the entire route and will produce new maps this year if anyone wants them. I’ll try to digitize them too. Also, I haven’t cut the Lake side for five or six years, and it doesn’t look like anyone else has either. I’ve been concentrating on quite a few northern routes the last few years, so if someone doesn’t cut those ports soon, they will be pretty hairy.
Feb 1, 2013
I remember seeing this thread over on myccr. Great trip report and photos. Seems like last year was a low water record virtually everywhere in the province. Hoping next season won't be as dry and bony.

Like your bear deterrent strategy of relying on snoring to keep them away...has worked for me so far too...:)
Feb 13, 2013
Gunflint Trail MN
Hello Rob

I remember being quite confused by those signs at the end of Cairngorm when we paddled the Steel. I was hoping you'd know what they were. No falling on balloons? Nice trip report, makes me want to do all of it but diablo again.
Feb 1, 2013
If I leave it running all day long, I get about a day and a half out of it. So I think for a five day trip I used bout six batteries.
Mar 19, 2013
Wow! Great trip report and excellent photos. I've always wanted to do the's on my bucket list.



I had not considered your starting point. That way you get to do the big P up after a few days rather than after a few days of sitting in a car or in your case at home. Absolutely great pics and an inspiring description.


Good report and good spot. I even like the name "Steel River". But Wow! What a grunt at your pace.

To answer your question about the owls: from the flight picture they come off as Short-eared owls; long wings and dark wrist marks.

Smaller than a crow?
Feb 1, 2013
Around the same size as a crow...I'm convinced they are Barred Owls now. I googles them and listened to some "hoots" on-line, and the Barred owl was the same noise I would hear all night when camped on that part of the river.


It's a good bet that you bumped into both barred and short-eared owls.

That is almost certainly a short ear in the flight picture. Maybe out of place because they like open country. There might be an explanation for that.

Barred owls are talky.

SEs are almost silent unless you are an intimate.
Feb 1, 2013
If I camp on that stretch of the river, the owls talk all night long. It's a strange and wonderful experience, almost as good as a wolf pack.


I like them too.

Wolves have not yet made it back here,although I think that red wolves are resident in NC, to the SE.

But our coyotes make a great try at filling the gap with their free-form improvisations.

A night sound that I liked but don't hear anymore is the whip-poor-will call. Don't know what has happened to them.

Screech owls are a favorite.

Camping close to noisy creeks and lake shores is not a favorite. Hard to hear what's going on as I fall asleep.