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Steel River loop- Cheating the Devil

Just got back from a weekend of moose hunting, nice to have two days to catch up on. If you look at google earth, there are many places where there are basically clear cuts to within 200 meters of the river. There sure seems to be a lot of "improvements" on the river since the last time I was down. I'm assuming there must be some kind of motorized access to that campsite with the picnic table and such. The time I did the loop in 3.5 days, the water level was very similar to what you had, I remember kind of throwing the bow rope over my shoulder and pulling the canoe for quite a few hours.

Your report is bringing back lots of memories!
 
Mem: Glad you're enjoying it. Yes, I think I walked more of the river than I paddled (and I need to get rid of the sharp points on the gunwales! Walking it over those slippery rocks, I kept having visions of doing a Count Dracula impersonation & getting impaled).

As far as I know, the steel table was taken there in pieces by boat and assembled onsite. I'll have to ask if I ever talk to the donor again.

The "improvements" neither bothered nor thrilled me. I guess it's an advantage of doing it for the first time: I don't know how it was before so everything is "normal" as I found it during this trip. I would certainly have used the tables while camping there but I didn't feel that they (nor the portage signs) detracted from the wilderness experience.

PS: Thanks for your work keeping the riparian buffers along the river. It really is a beautiful place (though it could use a bit more water).

Any luck with Bullwinkle?
 
Those logjams are something. Too bad Mem didn't have any dynamite to share.

The coloration of your canoe looks really nice in the wild even though you may see small imperfections. If ever logjammed, it would blend in much better than a plastic or composite canoe.

I donned my last pair of dry socks

This is a piddly comment, but why sacrifice valuable dry socks if you are essentially positive you will have to do a lot of wading?
 
This is a piddly comment, but why sacrifice valuable dry socks if you are essentially positive you will have to do a lot of wading
Patience, my friend, it gets better (if only briefly... and not immediately).

Probably for the same reason that (in my real life) I shower every morning before climbing under a horse... I want to at least start the day comfortable. Whatever happens after that is just something that needs to be dealt with and anything can be dealt with knowing that tomorrow is a fresh start (and will be started as comfortable as is possible given the circumstances).

Just my way of dealing with adversity. (your mileage may vary)
 
Day 5

I awoke to a morning that made it really hard to get out of bed and, in fact, I delayed getting up until the sun was well above the banks and it was clear that it was unlikely to warm up quickly that morning.

I fired up the pocket rocket stoves on the overturned canoe while I broke down camp and was really surprised to find that the sandy mud on the hull was frozen and there was also ice on my tent and the backpack that I use as a ditch kit.

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I’ve never been a huge fan of camping on sand as it gets in everything but I moved the tent off of the dry sand to the wetter sand near the water and that seemed to reduce the amount that stuck to the tent.

Shortly after starting to paddle, I ran across what I believe to be a family of river otters although I couldn’t get close enough to get decent pictures or verify that they were otters instead of mink (honestly, I’ve not seen enough of either to be able to tell the difference). They didn’t seem to be in any particular hurry to get away but, nonetheless, seemed to keep a comfortable distance ahead of me as I worked my way downstream.

I debated paddling like crazy to see if I could sneak closer but the water depth was still only about ½ of the blade and there was just no way to do it quietly. Besides, it was clear that they knew I was there so I doubt I could have gotten any closer regardless of tactics.

Not long afterward, I came across a “mini logjam” where there was a tree set up as a sweeper and some odds and ends of others piled up against it. I tried to duck under it as I’d done elsewhere on my journey but conditions did not allow for that and I did the next best thing… I dragged the fully-loaded canoe across the sand and around it. (needed sanded any way)

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The sunny day really made it clear just how tannic the water here was and also helped finding water that was deep enough to sink a paddle into and I was surprised that the deeper areas were not always on the outside of the bends. I paddled on trying to remain in the deeper, more darkly stained water and made my way toward the "4th" logjam.

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I found it in due time and, as described, it was huge but the portage, being often used by fisherman, was well beaten, clear and easy to follow even without signage. There were even 3 cached boats at the upstream end and the ascent from the river, while steep, had a well-worn trail that made it relatively easy to climb. (It occurred to me that, perhaps this time, the low water level may have worked in my favor as, at higher water levels, getting out of the boat with gear might have been sketchy)

The logjam itself was huge and the portage, while listed at 350 meters (383 yards or 70 rods for the BWCA crowd), was a little tricky to navigate as I kept staring to my left looking at all the piled-up trees and, of course, the tripping hazards were not clearly marked.

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The day was sunny and beautiful and the paddle from the "4th" logjam to Lake Santoy was listed as about an hour but I was surprised to find the landscape opening up before me in only 45 minutes despite my detour into a small side lake to look for a moose.

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I’d initially thought I’d just come to another wide spot in the river but, as I approached, it became clear that there was a lot of water in front of me as well as a lot of wind. The wind was blowing hard and steadily from the south, pushing whitecaps past the shallows and into the mouth of the river.

I paddled into the wind and around the inlet then snuck along the shore until I saw the beach campsite(s).

I beached the canoe, buried my paddle blades in the sand, stretched a clothesline between them and started drying gear. I set up the tent on the sand to dry it as well, wandered the beach awhile and even enjoyed a short nap in the sun.

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As the gear dried out and it became obvious that I would be going no further that day, I shook the sand out of the tent & carried it behind the tree line where I felt it would be warmer after dark if the wind persisted. This turned out to be wise as the wind blew hard until a few hours after dark and I came to understand why there were two rusted barrels sitting between the lake and the fire pit.

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In the late afternoon I saw the first people of the trip, a young man & woman who were fishing far more successfully than I had to that point in the trip. They were too far offshore to talk to them even if the wind wasn’t howling so a wave sufficed and we went about our individual businesses.

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Part of my individual business was to contact Memaquay via the inReach for a 5 day forecast and a better idea of where the “new” portages (that would allow me to avoid the dreaded Diablo portage) might be. I figured that the Steel River had done a pretty fair job of providing a backcountry beatdown and there was no sense adding to the suffering just for the sake of “street cred”. (Hey, I didn’t get old just to continue doing stupid things)

As in every other experience I’d had, Mem went above and beyond. He seemed to have as general an idea as I did as to where the portages would be but said that the 5 day forecast was for warmer temps, little, if any rain but some pretty strong headwinds on the larger lakes.

He then went a step further and offered extraction on Sunday if I wanted to sit tight on Santoy for a day or two. (it’s worth noting that, that would require, probably, 2-2 ½ hrs of driving hauling a boat for him to get to Santoy as the launch is at the southern end of the lake. He would then have to traverse the length of Santoy to rescue me and then return the way he’d come… essentially giving up the better part of a whole day to get a virtual stranger out).

I assured him that I was ok (I still had vacation for 8 more days and food for 12-13 so I wasn’t in a hurry) but that I was not going to allow the Diablo portage to beat me up and I would essentially sneak into the theatre without paying the price of admission. Yes, I would simply cheat the devil and skip it altogether.

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Just a comment about the previous exchange regarding wet socks. Throughout our tripping career, at the beginning the paddling day, Kathleen and I wore neoprene socks (a.k.a. wetsuit booties) to keep our feet warm while sloshing, wading or dragging through cold water. To protect the booties from damage we originally wore inexpensive, oversized tennis shoes over the booties. More recently we have worn sturdy, water-resistant sandals, which last longer. Once on shore, for camp or portaging, we change into dry, wool socks and hiking boots. At the end of the day, we rinse the booties, and dry them, inside out, on top of the overturned canoe. We have been completely satisfied with this approach.
 
Kathleen and I wore neoprene socks (a.k.a. wetsuit booties) to keep our feet warm while sloshing, wading or dragging through cold water.

I wore thin neoprene or Sealkinz socks or just bare skin under soled neoprene booties of various heights and thicknesses, from slipper type to calf-high type, depending on the weather and water temperature. I always kept dry wool socks for camp.

I was not going to allow the Diablo portage to beat me up and I would essentially sneak into the theatre without paying the price of admission. Yes, I would simply cheat the devil and skip it altogether.

I've been unfamiliar with the Diablo Portage theme, so I had to look it up to see why Gamma wants to cheat it.

"After canoeing waterways all over the world, guidebook author Cliff Jacobson says the portage between Santoy and Diabolo [sic] Lakes is tougher than any other he’s found, even in the remote reaches of Nunavut . . . ."

 
Day 6

The Lake Santoy I woke up to was far different than the one I knew the day before. Smooth as glass, there was a light fog lifting from the water as the sun rose and, in hindsight, I should have been underway before that. As it was, I enjoyed the quiet of early morning on the beach as the fog grew thicker, breaking camp & paddling away around 8am.

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The sandbars around the mouth of the Steel River extend quite a ways into Lake Santoy and, in order to maintain a nice depth for paddling, one must swing wide around the inlet. As the fog thickened, I wound up far enough out that I lost sight of the land in the fog and, after paddling far enough that I figured I’d be beyond the mouth, I turned right and paddled back toward the trees… except that there were no trees…

I, wisely, stopped paddling, opened the Earthmate app on my phone, grabbed the compass from my map bag and soon discovered that I was paddling due South right into the heart of Lake Santoy and in the exact opposite of the direction that I wanted to go.

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Laying the compass on the floor of the boat, I focused on the needle, lined the boat up with North and, after 5 minutes of paddling, the trees of the shoreline started to become visible through the fog.

I made my way along the beach stopping twice to walk the tree line looking for signs of a portage and as the beach ended I saw someone moving; doing some yard work at the last camp before the rubble shoreline began.

Not wanting to intrude on his solitude, I was just starting to paddle away when he greeted me and asked about my boat.

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The man’s name is Gerry Boutilier. He’s a retired & rehired steamfitter from “the pulp mill” in Terrace Bay and he bought the camp in 1982.

We spoke for some time and he showed me where the portage officially begins just beyond the edge of his property (Lat: 48.906687, Lon: -86.887934) but the entrance was not marked that I could see and the portage was severely overgrown.

In talking to Gerry a bit, I got the distinct impression that he greets anyone doing the loop in the same manner as he did me; he’s a very likeable guy and I suspect that most (if not all) are invited to use an ATV trail on his property to connect to the portage trail.

(note: he specifically asks that everyone use the actual portage trail if he’s not there. He said that he had cleared the trail last fall [2022] and he would do so again in the Spring of 2024)

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We chatted far too long, he said that more and more people seem to be doing the loop starting in Eaglecrest lately, he was extremely friendly and he invited me to stop in the evening if I ever do the loop again and we’d share a few beers on the porch… an offer I will certainly take him up on if I get back that way again.

As suggested, I used his ATV trail to access the portage and found that the trail became quite distinct above his property (which is what makes me suspect that he invites everyone he sees to use his ATV trail).

It was still not an “easy” portage as it was rolling terrain, a bit swampy in places and I’d estimate it to be about 8 or 9/10ths of a mile (1.5km).

It exits into Pike lake (where Gerry has a cached boat) and the trail was very easy to follow. About 2/3 of the way up, there is a right turn where I took a break on the second carry and I’m reasonably sure I lost a Vortex 8x36 monocular there. It’s black & green so it won’t be easy to see but, if you’re ever that way, take a look. Their lifetime warranty covers anything but “lost” so, even if the Canadian winters destroy it, you’re still in luck by sending it in for replacement.

(note: this was the first, but not the last, indication that the devil might be upset about being cheated)

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Pike lake was gorgeous but I didn’t take time to fish it due to its namesake; I am never thrilled with catching those toothy buggers. Instead, I worked my way to the West where I found the portage out (Lat: 48.914673, Lon: -86.911691).

This portage was also easy to follow and led me to Little Diablo lake. I did try my luck there a bit but I was eager to get to Diablo lake and try for some brook (aka “speckled”) trout in a narrows that Gerry said they fish successfully in the winter.

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In hindsight, it would have been better if I tried a bit harder to fish either of these lakes as, after locating the portage to Diablo in the SE corner of Little Diablo (Lat: 48.910066, Lon: 86.918387) and carrying my pack to Diablo lake, I realized that I hadn’t seen my tackle bag since I put it down at the end of the Santoy-to-Pike lake portage.

Back down the portage I went, paddling back across Little Diablo, portaging back to Pike and paddling back to Gerry’s cached boat and my tackle bag… right where I left it among the rocks. (I’m rethinking having a green bag… maybe neon pink or something like that…)

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Tackle bag in hand, I retraced my steps to Diablo lake and arrived with all gear except the monocular (although I didn’t realize it was missing at the time) around 6:30.

I was really hopeful of catching some brook trout and was fairly tired from the extra portaging so I decided to head for the island campsite at the top of the Diablo portage (after all, I figured, the devil had probably gotten his due with the forgotten tackle box and all the extra portaging, right?)

I paddled down the NE branch of Diablo Lake and came across a campsite that was not shown on my maps just before the narrows where Diablo lake runs up to the portage into Cairngorm (Lat: 48.896060, Lon: -86.922008). I briefly explored it but found it wasn’t very nice. It might work as a backup or if it’s cleared better but it seemed to me to be a recent addition and may be used more if the portages around Diablo are used more.

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I rounded the point, paddled southeast to the island just west of the Diablo portage and settled in for the night. I’m unsure if the trip around Diablo was easier than the portage itself would have been but I felt pretty good for having made it and I wasn’t sorry that I’d avoided falling into ankle twisting holes covered by ferns.

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Great trip report Gamma, I’m enjoying your writing style.
Pike lake was gorgeous but I didn’t take time to fish it due to its namesake; I am never thrilled with catching those toothy buggers
What’s turned you off on pike fishing? They are some of my favorite fish to catch. I know they can be a pain when losing lures targeting other fish without a stout leader, but they are worth targeting themselves due to their aggressive nature and potential size.
 
Glad you're enjoying the story. I really enjoy writing them up.

As for the Pike: I'm usually a bass fisherman (particularly smallmouth) and, while bass can be garbage cans eating anything that moves, it typically takes a little more finesse to catch them than it does pike who seem to pretty much eat anything white &/or shiny. The toothy buggers seem able to bite through line fairly easily (I don't use leaders and often use light line to fool smallies) and I've lost lots of lures to them. Only thing worse are Muskie as you can't even lift them by the gill plate.

Pike are, actually, the most common fish to hit the supper table though... I often take any over 3 feet out of the lake since nothing else is going to eat them and fish that size will eat a lot of young game fish.
 
Sounds like those new ports aren't too bad, I hope to be able to try them one day. I've usually had pretty good luck with Specs fishing right off the island. Did you try any casts? I usually cast to the east, lol.
 
Michael: Yeah, I lose things. One of the reasons I set up the canoe to use paddles as the portage system. I can't imagine keeping track of wingnuts. Oh, (spoiler alert) I ain't done. 🤷‍♂️

Mem: I didn't think the new ports were bad at all although the one was a bit tricky to follow as it skirts the edge of an old beaver pond & took a minute to figure out where to go.

I did cast from the island a few times but wasn't really diligent about it and I fish artificial lures only & never fish for trout locally, so not really the "high percentage" endeavor. (from the landing, I can't imagine casting any other direction.)

If you decide to go, let me know. I could tag along (at higher water and assuming you'd be OK with that) BUT: 1) we ain't doin' it in 3 days!! (more like 10 or 12... think "old man pace"), 2) we're hittin' up Gerry for beers on Santoy (I'm assuming you're totally on board with that) & 3) We need to find a camp in the middle of Steel lake (oh, wait... we haven't gotten there yet...) :rolleyes:
 
Day 7

It had started raining around midnight and I woke to a light rain that seemed to be clearing as the dawn progressed. By 9:30 the rain had stopped and the lake was like glass. I debated paddling to the Diablo portage and walking down it a bit but decided that, if one succeeds in cheating the devil, it’s probably best not to taunt him.

Instead, I turned North and found that the “speckled” trout were biting as I paddled toward Cairngorm Lake. I trolled a large(ish), gold Niti1 spoon as I paddled and caught 4 nice trout, keeping one and releasing the other 3.

I stopped briefly near a cabin on the southern shore and cleaned the trout, put it in the nalgene bottle that had served me so well in that role during my BWCA trip and filled it with lake water. I would drain & refill the bottle several times throughout the day to keep the fish cool and the bottle, once again, proved invaluable for this purpose.

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I found the 800 meter portage out of Diablo lake without any problems and, as usual, it was a mix of rolling terrain with 3 steep spots mixed with a few swampy areas which, for me, weren’t bad. Someone had laid logs in the swampy sections but I avoided these as it had started raining again and the logs were more slippery than the moist ground surrounding them.

On the return trip for the canoe, I noticed a canoe rest that someone had built and I watched for it on my second carry. I slipped on some of the uphill climbs and was in need of a break but I was certain that I’d missed the rest as sight lines are limited with your head inside of a boat.

I finally laid the canoe on the ground to take a break only to see the rest about 30 feet (10 meters) further up the trail.

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The portage ended in a swampy wetland with a cached canoe that someone, according to the sign on a tree, had designated as “Tom’s Pond”. It was extremely shallow and launching was a chore. There was barely enough water to float the loaded canoe and I wound up weaving my way from hummock to hummock, often through the canoe, and pulling the boat along for at least 100 yards (meters) until I reached somewhat deeper water. The hummocks were, for the most part, sufficient to hold my weight and I rarely sank past ankle deep but, especially with the rain, it had been a slog since leaving Diablo. Little did I know, it was about to get worse.

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The portage sign at the exit of “Tom’s quagmire” was hanging by one nail and I thought that winter might remove it altogether so I wrapped a loop of paracord around it in hopes that it would stay until someone could fix it properly, that I could gain a little good karma from the act and that (maybe) Diablo might see it as a form of atonement… (the unappreciative &@$!@^&).

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The portage was listed as 350 meters with launching conditions at the end being dependent upon recent beaver activity. The notes indicated that: “Sometimes you can launch fairly easily, other times it’s an adventure in loon $#!+”.

The day remained warm but overcast although the rain had stopped and I found the portage itself to be reasonably easy but launching was simply not going to happen. Any beaver activity had likely ceased years ago and the pond had nearly disappeared. On the bright side, there wasn’t enough water to entice a loon to visit or relieve itself so the continued adventure was confined to dry(ish) land.

I wondered if Diablo might not yet consider the account squared but the trail through the old pond bed was fairly prominent so I had to conclude that this particular adversity was not to be considered penance for cheating.

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In all, the two portages and short paddle were now one portage of about a mile (1600 meters / 320 rods) and the carry was extended slightly on the Cairngorm end in order to get beyond a more recent beaver dam.

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I arrived on Cairngorm by 2:30, checked out two campsites at the southern end (adequate and lightly used but not spectacular IMO), trolled my brass Niti1 through the lake trying for another trout and made my way back into an inlet hoping that trout and walleyes, like bass, might prowl the inlets looking for food.

I managed to catch a few pike but, hopeful of another trout or a walleye, I released them.

I then made my way back to the main lake to discover that the wind had increased significantly and the open water crossing to the West shore was an adventure. I snuck up the bank, hiding behind points and casting out into the windblown lake and managed to catch 2 more pike. I considered keeping one but released both as I made my way toward a huge gravel and sand beach where the maps showed “one of the nicest campsites of the trip” and “a great place for a rest day”.

The beach made for a nice landing in a wind-sheltered cove and the campsite, just up a small hill above the beach, was as advertised. I cooked supper and read a bit more in my damp but readable book and my only regret was having not kept one of those pike. The trout, while delicious, merely whet my appetite for more.

At this point, I was caught up to my original itinerary as I had hoped to make it to this site on Saturday the 9th and take a layover day on the 10th. I still had plenty of time for that if I decided to, so I left that decision for “morning me” and I turned in. The day ended as it had begun and I fell asleep to the sound of light rain on the tent.

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Seems like a real struggle! I have a friend who once commented on my canoe trip story on the Thelon River: “You say you like wilderness canoeing, but exactly when on that trip were you having fun?”

After a slide show one time a guy came up to me and said, “Great trip. Glad it was you and not me.”

I guess the fun and joy are in the doing, as opposed to in the watching or reading.

Looking forward to the next instalment!
 
Yeah! I forgot about the remembering, which is often the best aspect of a trip.

I remember making specific notes in my journal to remind my future self just how miserable I actually was but when I look back in remembrance I can't help but thinking it wasn't really that bad and it seems like even the misery was maybe even a little enjoyable.

I'm sure my past self is somewhere shaking his fist as me.

Alan
 
It was tough but I enjoyed (most of) it even while in the moment. I definitely agree about remembering though... I am always prone to rosy retrospection.

I wrote this up shortly after finishing, however, so my impressions here aren't quite as clouded by time (but I'd definitely do this loop again... despite what I'm about to post).
 
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