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Steel River loop- Cheating the Devil

(Apologies for some pics being slightly out of focus... Due to conditions, I was working kind of fast on the photography at times)

Day 8

I took a brief morning paddle to see if I could catch a fish or two for breakfast while fully expecting that I may, indeed, be taking a layover day but Cairngorm lake seemed petulant about my scorning the pike offerings of the day before and would give up none of her fish. Meanwhile, a strong north wind blew me steadily down the shoreline.

I returned to the camp, made breakfast, pulled up a weather forecast on the inReach and saw no rain and nice temperatures but strong winds for the next couple of days. Reasoning that, if the wind beat me up too badly, I could always layover tomorrow in Steel, I packed up and paddled north on a beautifully sunny morning.

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When I met him that morning on Santoy, Gerry had advised me to troll the brass Niti1 while on Cairngorm as there were lake trout there that might really go for it but, with the headwind, I found that pretty difficult to do. Even casting would often get me started turning perpendicular to the wind and I felt sure that an extended battle with a fish would likely have me in a precarious position long before the fish could be landed.

I did, however, try casting around windblown points as I was often sneaking along the shoreline to avoid the headwind but Cairngorm lake remained frugal with her fish and steadfastly refused to give up any more of them.

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There were several places where I had no choice but to do open water crossings and the headwind on those was absolutely brutal. It was, however, warm, dry and sunny and the scenery was fantastic!

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The map notations described Cairngorm as being “once beautiful” but “fairly desolate” due to fires a few years prior to Memaquay’s last trip through the area in 2011. I hope that he finds happiness as he reads this that the area is recovering nicely and, although evidence of the burnover is still easy to see, the landscape is once more stunning.

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As I neared the North end of the lake, I varied from the route shown on the map slightly so that I could hide behind some of the islands and avoid the brunt of the wind. This worked well, I did not run into anything so shallow as to be impassable and nearly 4 ½ hours after breaking camp, I arrived at the portage out where I promptly sank into calf-deep mud while getting everything ashore.

After that, the portage itself went smoothly although, as I neared the end, I noticed what appeared to be another trail leading off to the right. Curious, I followed it up over a small hill and back to the water just below a beaver dam that I would have had to cross if I’d launched at the actual portage sign.

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Like the lakes of the BWCA, this lake (often called Moose Lake), benefits greatly from beaver activity. I paddled about ½ of it and counted no fewer than 4 beaver huts which, interestingly, seemed to always be built against the shore rather than completely surrounded by water as they often are at home. I had to assume that, with winters being longer here, the beavers are forced to forage on land by the end of winter and they build their homes accordingly.

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It was an easy paddle to the next portage which goes around a set of rapids and past a small bridge that was put in during one of the fires. The maps warned of a very messy landing at the upstream end but someone had laid a dead tree on the mud which served nicely as a dock.
There was also an enormous rowboat cached at this location so I suspect that the fire road may be used by fishermen to access the beaver-enhanced lake.

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The beaver activity continued as I worked my way north and I next encountered a large beaver dam and one of the sketchiest portages of the trip. The marker was actually on the breast of the dam (or the dam had been extended to reach the marker… either way…) and the portage trail beyond was swampy even at this time of the year.

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The low water levels again came into play at the exit of this portage as the stream was very rocky and there was not enough water escaping the beaver dam to allow paddling. Like the swampy entrance of “Tom’s pond” a couple of days earlier, I hopped from rock to rock, often navigating through the canoe, and pulled the canoe through to the open water beyond.

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As I entered the southern end of Steel Lake, I was, again, assaulted by headwinds and the shallow water allowed little of the paddle blade to catch so I was essentially poling my way north from a seated position.

I paddled for about an hour to the 1st campsite shown on the maps (about 1 ½ miles / 2.4km from the last portage) from which I thought I could see the second site but it was another mile and a half into the headwind and it was nearly 8pm.

I fished briefly around the point, scored a decent pike and returned to the beach campsite for the night.

While setting up camp, I found a piece of plywood laying upon a downed Cedar and I carried it onto the beach for use as a windbreak for the firepit. It worked really well, the campsite was more than adequate for one person and I slept well knowing the I had not snubbed my nose at the pike offered up by Steel lake.

Since my journal had gotten wet on the 2nd day I’d been using a voice recorder app on my smartphone. I sat on the beach that night marveling at all of the other apps on the phone that were completely useless here due to lack of service and I felt utterly at peace with the silence of the woods and the serenity of the sky above me. (though, truthfully, I could have done without the angry beaver who kept slapping his tail at me)

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I'm glad you're enjoying it. My favorite writer was probably Pat McManus (followed closely by Mark Twain) and I try to find entertainment value in every aspect of life. If that comes through in my writing, that is ideal (it's also why I try to include fun links within the stories should anyone care to follow them)

As for the name... As I explained here: (which I found to be a fascinating thread)

My screen name goes back to college days... "Gamma" as in the 3rd chapter of my fraternity (nationally) and I was the 1214th member to be initiated into that chapter. I've used it pretty much universally on anything "internet" (until I started my website) and, as a screen name, it has never been already taken.

I've sometimes regretted not just using my given name & I've thought about changing it (for branding purposes) since starting the website but I keep coming back to "screw it, the interactions here are for fun... not everything has to be branded".

Feel free to call me whatever you wish, I assure you that, regardless of your choice... I've been called worse.
 
My maps list Steel Lake as being 30 kilometers (18 miles) long and “usually friendly with winds” but further state that “it never hurts to tackle it early in the morning”.

I also knew that Mem said he typically paddles the entirety of Steel Lake in a day and, looking at the maps, topography around the lake and other online sources, I’d seen no indication of established campsites (or many good camping prospects) except the established sites near the southern end or the one on the portage out at the North end.

Given all of these factors, I was up early, skipped the fire & made breakfast on the backpacking stoves. I packed up and was on the water just after 8am. There was already a headwind but not as bad as the night before and I was optimistic that, maybe, it was just about finished.

The sky was clear and it was warming up nicely as I stopped briefly to check out the campsite that I’d not been able to reach the night before. It was much larger than where I had camped, would have been better sheltered from the wind and had better tent pads but I felt that I’d made the right decision the night before as it would not have been worth the effort if I’d not been able to reach it before dark.

I checked the inReach and found that I’d been paddling about 3.4 miles (about 5.5 km) per hour despite the headwind and felt pretty good about the prospects of reaching the portage out shortly after lunchtime.

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Leaving the campsite, I re-entered the wind which seemed to build steadily as the morning wore on. As you may have noticed, my reports tend to be picture-heavy and, while the day was perfect for photos, the conditions were not and every picture came at a cost.

The second that I stopped paddling, I stopped moving and, by the time I’d taken a picture or two, I was already moving backwards at about the maximum speed I was able to achieve while paddling.

For this reason, I took few mid-lake pictures and settled for the majority being taken from behind a point where I could hide from the wind.

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Despite the adverse conditions, I found Steel to be truly beautiful and, like Cairngorm, the evidence of previous fires wasn’t hard to find but the resilience with which the trees rebounded and the abundance of new growth was breathtaking. Also impressive were the rock cliffs that often lined both sides of the lake.

Confirming my preliminary evaluation, I saw few good camping options on the way North although, around 3pm, I passed a large island (approx location: Lat: 49.243008, Lon: -86.833470) that seemed to have possibilities (I had just spent 10 minutes resting behind an outcropping and would have had to paddle straight across the wind to investigate or I might have checked it out better. The only alternative was to paddle past, quarter the wind back to the island and quarter the open water crossing to return and that was not, at all, an attractive option)

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I continued on as my progress often slowed to less than 2 miles (3.2km) per hour and I tried to keep open water crossings to a minimum as progress in those situations was agonizingly slow.

In the morning, I’d thought that I might have to decide between Camp Chugabrewski or Eaglecrest that night but, by 4:30 I was just going to be happy if I could get to the portage off of Steel.

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Around 4pm, as I passed through an area that had an “emergency bug hole site” camping possibility listed (bugs were not a problem at any point on this trip), I ran across something that I found very intriguing… I’d seen many cached boats throughout the loop but there was one cached here on an island. I’m not sure how they get to it except by boat yet that seems strangely redundant…

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At around 5:30, I flipped to the last map of the day and, with the "end in sight", I decided I’d do a little trolling to see if I could catch supper.

No sooner had I cast out and begun paddling than, despite the inReach’s 0% chance of rain forecast; it started raining. I quickly stashed the camera and phone, donned rain gear and grumbled.

I paddled on until, around 7pm, I reached the sandy NE shore of Steel Lake. The map said that the portage out began at a rock face but there were no rocks… just sandy, grassy shoreline… with an inch or so of water… and more water beyond! I walked the canoe through the shallows and into the final bay where there was (thankfully) a portage sign clearly visible

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By the time I’d arrived at the portage, I was wet, cold and hungry. My back was aching, my arms were sore and, to top it all off, I had a beaver slapping his tail at me.

Now I’m a pretty easy-going guy but, honestly, if he’d been closer, I might have slapped him with a paddle… I was in that kind of a mood.

I had been on the move for over 11 hrs, paddling for 7 ½ of that and, with all of the weaving to avoid direct winds, I’d covered 19.3 miles (31Km) into a non-stop headwind. I carried boat and gear to the campsite above the takeout and collapsed.

I messaged Memaquay after supper to see about meeting to return the bear bangers and he said he’d be in Longlac around 4:30 but could possibly make it at 3:30 if need be. I assured him that I’d gladly sleep late, wander and fish my way back to my truck and, hopefully, see him late afternoon.

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Day10

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As planned, I slept in a bit, dawdled through breakfast and broke camp around 11am. The first portage went well and ended in a pond that was so small that I could almost see the take-out from the put-in. As I sat my gear pack down, my GoPro with a head harness fell into the water and I set it on the rocks beside my pack.

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I went back for the canoe, paddled across the pond & began a much tougher portage climbing steeply to the top of an old burn area and skirting some parts of the trail where it had washed out pretty badly. During the canoe carry, I lost my footing on a root, went down hard and the canoe went down even harder. By the time I’d reached the end of the portage, I was glad that portaging was nearly over and I also noticed that the fall had taken a chunk out of the stern gunwale.

(I was more disappointed in my lack of epoxy penetration than I was that the gunwale broke. I really felt that, had the joint been fully saturated, the Cherry would have held. Oh well, it needed sanded anyway, right?)

Throughout this second portage, I kept reminding myself of two things: the amount of regrowth since the burnover was phenomenal and… it sure beat paddling 19 miles into a headwind.

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The final portage skirted a set of rapids that my maps said might be lined at low water and, initially, I looked at trying this. The current water level, however, rendered this rapid as much more of a boulder garden than I cared to scrape my way through and I returned upstream to portage around.

The 160 meter (175 yard / 32 rod) portage ended at the “Camp Chugabrewski” site and I fished a little (unsuccessfully) below the rapids before starting to retrace my path toward Eaglecrest Lake.

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The weather was perfect and I was making great time… almost like the devil had finally decided the account was squared and / or was now trying to lure me back. I paddled into the early afternoon sun and soon came upon a couple of canoes filled with fishermen.

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Al, Ian, Jim & Irwin seemed more than a little surprised to see me; seemed very interested in the strip canoe I was paddling and were very willing to chat and share a beer. After I gratefully accepted, they realized that I was from the states and one of them (I'm not sure which) apologized for not having a “light beer” for me. (sigh... imagine eye-roll emoji here).

One of them was filming with a GoPro and I remembered having dropped mine in the water that morning and laying it on the rocks... As you may suspect, it is probably still there. It wasn’t a huge loss as the sd card was my backup and only had footage of the Steel Lake debacle so I decided not to spend an extra day to retrieve it. It’s waterproof so maybe it will survive the winter; it is certainly more likely to be found than the monocular that I lost around Pike Lake.

As it turns out, the foursome from Toronto have been taking canoe trips together since they were young and, now in the mid-late 60s, still liked to get a post-labor day trip in. They also credited Memaquay with having given them the maps and indicated that they had stayed at “Camp Chugabrewski” last night and were fishing their way to Eaglecrest that night.

I believe it was Irwin who announced that if I beat them there, I should expect company and the rest quickly invited me to stay as long as I didn’t catch more “pickerel” than they did. (no danger there… I’d just spent 9 days on the loop and hadn’t managed a single “pickerel” (aka walleye) yet.

We talked about access and Al indicated that they’d taken the portage into Eaglecrest rather than paddling the inlet stream. I should have paid more attention to exactly where the portage was but I thought I could spot it when I got close and we parted ways amid one last request to hang out and help them reduce the amount of beer that they’d have to transport home. (Although I, typically, prefer to be solo, it was tempting, believe me)

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In all, I probably spent an hour or more talking to them and enjoying the easy camaraderie of the group. We met again, briefly, at the portage into Eaglecrest Lake and then I was again paddling solo for the inlet.

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I looked all around the inlet for the portage while wishing I’d listened more carefully and then, unable to find it, started paddling upstream and pulling over all the obstructions that I’d pulled over so many days ago. The only difference was that the bow of the canoe seemed to have even more of an affinity for current than the stern and it was nearly impossible to paddle it upstream so I wound up wading & dragging back to the truck.

Perhaps it was the enthusiasm of starting a trip vs the lethargy of the denouement but I didn’t remember the stream being so long and it took me well over an hour to reach the parking area. At that point, I realized that the time I’d spent looking for the portage had been wasted as their truck was not parked in the same place as mine. I suspect they’d parked at the “emergency campsite / road access” spot that was marked on my map but I had neither the time nor the inclination to check it out.

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By that time, Mem was finished in Longlac and headed back toward his home in Geraldton. He said not to worry about the bear bangers as he had plenty and I loaded everything in the Ranger, fired it up & returned up Catlonite road (this time dodging speeding log trucks) for a sandwich and coffee at Robin’s Donuts.

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I skipped the sketchy gravel road that the GPS had led me in on, filled up the fuel tank and took route 11 East to route 631 instead. With the fuel gauge nearing ½ tank, I stopped at a gas station in Homepayne. It was closed but a tow truck driver said there was fuel in White River and cautioned me to be careful of moose.

I still hadn’t seen a moose and certainly didn’t want to see one crashing through the windshield of the Ranger so I assured him that the theoretical speed limit was not in much danger of being broken that night.

I reached White River around 11pm and decided to call it a night, grabbed a room at the Continental Motel & Dining Lounge, showered and turned in.

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That boat on Steel Lake is certainly a mystery. I'm thinking it must have gotten sunk at some point and rescued. There are a few camping sites on the lake but once you get past the Bug Hole site, its about 2 hours of nothing but rock. I remember those guys you met, they were pretty good fellas, actually so pleased with my suggestion that they go there that they sent me something in the mail. I can't quite remember what it was, think it might have been a gift card to the beer store, lol.

I'm not sure i will ever find the time, or actually be able to complete that loop again, thanks for the report, it was nice to see again!
 
On the topic of photographing waves, they don't show well in pictures. I've been on a ship at sea in 30' waves, they still show flat in pictures unless you get the shot of them breaking over the bow. Even on LI Sound in a sailboat, I don't always realize how much sea is running until I see another boat bashing into it.
I enjoyed the writing and pictures, thank you.
 
That was a nice tr, thanks for taking the time to put it all down on paper. If you ever get the chance, the Marshall Lake Circuit is well worth the trip back up there to the land of Memaquay. There are walleye in every pool at the bottom of the many rapids.
Thanks Again.
 
Thanks for brining us along on an interesting trip. It was nice to see a stripper getting treated like a regular canoe with plenty of dragging, scratching, and the occasional drop.

Alan
 
I'm pretty sure we've all been disappointed with the size of waves in pictures. I think the key is a telephoto lens for compression and something like another boat in the frame for a size reference. Easier said than done on a solo canoe trip.

Alan
 
Robin: Marshall Lakes is certainly on my radar. Both my Outdoor card and my Ontario fishing license are good until the end of 2025 so I'll likely get there. Quirke Lake / Whiskey River & the Allanwater Bridge / Wendell Beckwith trip in Wabakimi are also possible (but I'll have to get a stripper that handles moving water better for the last one).

OK, time to wrap this up:

Return to the grind

I left White River about 7:30am on Thursday, Sept 14th and ran hard down the Trans Canadian Highway passing everything but gas stations while I listened on Bluetooth to all the voicemails (mostly spam) that had collected while I was off grid. I returned the few legitimate calls (yeah, most were work-related and I was on vacation but what else did I have to do for 12+ hours of driving, right?)

A little South of Wawa, I noticed more hardwoods showing up (Maples and such) and the leaves were already changing along the shores of Lake Superior.

I crossed the border and continued running hard through Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania all the while passing quite a few police cars. The officers within these vehicles all seemed inclined to tolerate my interpretation of traffic law and none stopped me to ask for an autograph. (though I WAS properly strapped into any impending wreckage… like Diablo, I thought it best not to taunt them)

Between traffic, gas stops, road construction delays and people riding the left lane who were unwilling to break traffic laws for real, I arrived home around 10:30 that night.

My friend Cathy was already there watching the house and cats while I was away and she seemed pleased that the cats piled all around me the moment that I walked in.

Over the next 2 days, I would air out and dry the tent, tarp, etc, wash the merino wool, sleeping bag, etc for the next trip and return the canoe to the upstairs canoe shop for repairs. I downloaded over 800 pictures from the cameras, many of which would have been better without water droplets on the lens and most of which would have showed off the gorgeous scenery better if the weather had been more cooperative (lots of pictures of gray, gloomy skies).

Looking back, even though I’d “cheated Diablo” and skipped the toughest portage, the Steel River loop was tough. Even though I’d run into some really rough weather, it was remarkably beautiful and, although evidence of humans was omnipresent, it was remote enough that I went 4 days without seeing other humans... twice!

I would not hesitate to do the loop again although I think I’d plan it as a 10 or 12 day trip. 4 days on the river seems right even with better flow and there WAS a nice spot (I think) between the "2nd" & "3rd" logjams.

I'd see about that beer on Gerry’s porch, take a rest day at the beach site on Cairngorm and find something in the middle of Steel to break it up and allow some fishing time…

If I return, I’ll have to spend more time fishing. I still need to figure out the Walleye and, obviously, that’s going to be more difficult than just dragging a spoon along while I paddle. Good things come to those who work for them and I suppose tasty fish are no different.

Which reminds me… I would definitely cheat by skipping the Diablo portage although I’d make sure I had everything loaded before paddling away on Pike (and every other lake).

I’ll have to replace the monocular I lost before hunting season (I’ve never liked putting the rifle scope on anything I wasn’t sure I might shoot) but the GoPro… maybe not. I never get around to editing the video anyway and I rarely get the head-mounted camera pointed at a reasonable angle (I take lots of footage of the sky).

I wouldn’t hesitate to take the trip solo but I think I would do it in mid-July or early August. A few more bugs for a lot more water seems like a trade that I can live with but we’ll see…

In the meantime, I’ll build another boat, with a bit more rocker, in hope that it handles moving water better, I’ll look a bit more into unique wilderness trips (I’d still like to get dropped off by train) and I’ll return to work to renew vacation time, restore the savings account and to fully appreciate the time that I spend alone in the forest.

Oh yeah, I really should look in the Ranger for that ticket too… I’d better take care of that before I get pulled over in Ohio again... After all, given the varying outlooks regarding some legal concepts... it’s probably just a matter of time...

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I was wondering if the report was over when you were moteled in White River, or whether you were going to lose your truck there.

Thanks so much for this trip report. Both the trip and the report manifest a lot of good planning, attention to detail, and hard work.

Since we've known this canoe since it was a bundle of sticks, I'm curious to know a little more detail as to how you found its performance as a tripping canoe in lake, river and wind, as well as its toughness against rocks, sand and other hard places.
 
Glenn: I like a little "summary" at the end and consider the drives to & fro to be part of the trip so I include them in the TRs. Besides, interesting stuff sometimes happens then and you might even get a good opportunity to reference Pirates of the Caribbean. :)

As for the boat: I really like how the canoe performed on lakes and in the wind / waves. If I were to go to the BWCA again, this might very well be the canoe I would take. I was less impressed with handling in moving water, however as the stern seemed to catch the current and, unless I left the rapid / swift aligned well with the flow, the current would catch the boat & I'd spin out, often being pushed it into the bank. Additionally, as noted in the TR, the bow was so fond of the current that it was nearly impossible to paddle upstream. Again, great boat for lakes but (at least in my experience) not a great choice for rivers / moving water.

I was very pleased with how durable the canoe was with the notable exception of the broken gunwale. Admittedly, both the canoe & I went down pretty hard but, examining the broken section, it's obvious that I didn't have complete epoxy penetration between the hull & the gunwale so the breakage (I think) is more due to builder error than the severity of the impact.

I had used s-glass on the football when I built it because I knew I'd sometimes be using it in bony water and It held up very well to the abuse to which it was subjected. There are certainly scratches but nothing appears to have gotten to the weave much less into it.

Incidentally, as you are aware, the seat was set well behind the typical location for a solo canoe as I prefer to sit closer to the stern and I like the aesthetics of the gear in front of me. The only time seat position became somewhat of an issue was on Steel lake. The wind & waves were pretty bad on one of the open water crossings and I went to kneeling thinking I'd have better control. The gear in front made it a bit too bow heavy and I actually had more control of the canoe from the seated position (to which I quickly retreated).


Memaquay: I'm really pleased that you enjoyed the report and you're quite welcome if it helped you relive some pleasant memories. I really appreciate the help both prior to and during the trip. If I can help facilitate a trip for you, let me know. I'd paddle with you (as long as you don't try to knock it out in 4-5 days) Might even be able to see if Gerry can have a case waiting for us on Santoy.

BTW: for a "you won't see anybody" trip, I sure saw a lot of people! (I'm not complaining, they were all great folks and made for a better story. :))

Odyssey: The only ports that I found challenging were the "2nd" logjam (1st one that was actually there) and the 2nd out of Steel where I dropped the canoe. I know you said the logjam ports had you concerned about doing the loop but I didn't find them bad and would take the trip again in a heartbeat. If you go, Mem has some great maps and don't forget to write a TR. :)
 
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