Trip Report: Kawartha Highlands

Anstruther to Serpentine Loop
Anstruther, Rathbun, North Rathbun, Serpentine, Copper Lakes
Total Distance:  ~20km
Total Portaging Distance: 2710m
Video log:

I’ll take what I can get this summer when it comes to camping trips.  Because of work commitments, it seems that I’m stuck with simple weekend trips, and I’m more than happy to do them in lieu of one or two big ones.  This weekend took me back to the Kawartha Highlands in search of its northernmost sites and to conquer its longest portage.

Me and my friend Dan headed out of the GTA on a stormy Friday night, heading to my parents cottage in Haliburton.  We got hit very briefly by an intense cell of rain, wind, and hail, but it didn’t last long (a minute or two) and we weren’t phased!  The next morning though, we woke early and got to the put-in as fast as we could and discovered this…

Poor fella, what a bad way to end a trip...

Poor fella, what a bad way to end a trip…

This truck was good and squashed, and the rest of cars in the row were tight behind the trunk.  I definitely parked (and will continue to park) carefully, and very aware of branches and trees that were at risk of falling.  Looking out over the lake made my heart sink a little bit too.  It was windy and Anstruther lake is looonnnnggg.  Nevertheless, we pushed out into the foot and a half swells and headed into the breeze.  Things were a bit tippy with the wind, but our shoulders were strong and we went up the lake to our first portage.

There are a lot of cottages on Anstruther Lake, with pontoon boats and wakeboard boats whipping around.  “Uh-oh” I thought, “I’ve taken us on another trip where we’ll be able to hear trucks, boats, and ATVs,” but once we got through the first couple portages…nothing.  It was almost magical.  After the first portage, we started to lose the motors, and there were only a few cottages.  After the second portage, there was nothing.  I even remarked to Dan, that it felt legitimately remote up in North Rathburn Lake less than 3km from the cottaged lake.  Terrific part of Ontario, accessible from the GTA, and easy to get to.

From North Rathburn Lake, we took the 1411m portage to Serpentine Lake.  This was the longest portage I’ve single carried with a canoe and a pack and I’ve got to say…it wasn’t that bad.  I had to put down the canoe for a few minutes here and there, but we got through really quickly and I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to double carry it.  The wind was going with us on Serpentine, so we drifted lazily to the site and pumped water, refreshing ourselves in the great weather.

Campsite 221.

Campsite 221.

Our site, was, amazing.  It was a rocky little island near the portage to Copper lake, with two ‘levels’ to it.  One where you could pull the canoe out and then up a small hill to the firepit, picnic table, and tent pads.  Being as we were basically right on the Canadian Shield, I couldn’t stake down my tent for the first time (with this tent in particular).  Because the wind remained high we tucked a few rocks into the corners of the tent, which seemed to keep it stable.

We then set about camp, exploring our little slice of paradise.  We cut up wood for the fire, set up out food-hanging system, went for a swim, fished a little…all the fun stuff!  Dinner was rehydrated ground turkey and spaghetti sauce with some vegetables we’d brought thrown in, and I once again failed to bring enough vodka.  I seem to either bring way too much, or not nearly enough.  This time it was enough to make one good stiff drink, but I wish I had another for the fire at night.  Oh well, you live and you learn.

Our wood gathering really paid off.  We had plenty left for the next people coming through, and this fire burnt down entirely.

Our wood gathering really paid off. We had plenty left for the next people coming through, and this fire burnt down entirely.

The next morning we got up and running after dawn, mostly because the full moon obscured when the sun was coming up (which is usually a great alarm clock).  We didn’t hurry around camp, the wind had changed and we didn’t know what that’d do to our return paddle, and the sun was shining bright!  Bacon and eggs with cheese definitely helped bring our spirits even higher.

Once we had packed up and cleaned up the site we’d loved so much, we pushed off across the short paddle to our first portage.  Today we were going over more portages than the first day, but A.) They were all short, and B.) They were all downhill.  After the first portage I was pleasantly surprised by the creeks in and around Copper Lake.  It reminded me of the 5-foot wide streams in Algonquin park.

The creek between Copper and Rathburn lakes.  Nice little paddle.

The creek between Copper and Rathburn lakes. Nice little paddle.

This day was characterized by short paddles, broken up by well-worn portages.  It was really a fun time, and the sense of adventure often absent in these weekend trips was certainly there.  By the time we got back to Anstruther lake, the wind had died down and it was a gorgeous paddle back.  We got everything packed up in the sawdust created by a crew which had cut that poor pickup truck out from under a tree, and headed down the road.

Trip Report: Canoe Lake to Burnt Island Lake

Total Distance: 24km
Number of portages: 6 (1 skipped)
Total portage distance: 1790m
Video Log:

This was another weekend trip to the park, which was a great reprieve from the city, but not quite long enough to get “out there”.  I drove up to a friend’s cottage in Bracebridge the Friday night, and hit the road early on Saturday ready to make the most of my time.

It’s been more than a decade since I’ve been on the Hwy 60 corridor through Algonquin park, and it’s only now that I can appreciate how truly nice it is.  As the sun was burning the fog off the road, I really enjoyed my drive.  I got to the Canoe Lake access point around 6:30 AM, got my canoe/gear in order and was ready when the permit office was just opening up at 7.  By the time my permit was written and my car parked, I hit the water.  It was 7:30, almost perfectly on schedule.

Morning on Canoe Lake

Morning on Canoe Lake

Canoe lake was very calm for such an open body of water.  I had nightmares about getting windbound by 2 foot whitecaps and howling winds (but that’s just my own hangup I suppose).  In reality, there was a gentle breeze at my back, and the camps were just waking up.  It was very calm, and it wasn’t until I rounded Ahmek Bay that I started seeing people.  With that being said, once the first flotilla of canoes from Camp Ahmek started coming around the bend, the lakes turned into the highway that the 60 corridor is known as!

A near-constant stream of kids from all ages started pouring into the portage between Canoe and Joe Lake.  They were all very pleasant and respectful though, restoring my faith in the younger generation of camper.  We even saw a cow moose and her calf as we entered the fork to the portage!  The darkest moment came when a youngster asked if the Ewok on my bow was a panda warrior.  I nearly turned around to go fetch my Laserdisc player wo I could show this kid what’s what.

An easy was for people to know which canoe is mine.

An easy was for people to know which canoe is mine.

All the portages noted here were super VIP.  Wide, graded in areas, flat, the one between Joe and Canoe Lakes even had a composting toilet!  I was blown away.  It was a welcome surprise from the more rugged trails I am used to.
I paddled down Joe lake, flying my Canadian flag so that the group I was meeting would recognize me, and around 10 o`clock I pulled up on the three connecting campsites closest to Little Joe Lake.  My buddy Shane had friends who were getting married there, and they had generously invited me with a ‘more the merrier’ attitude.  I got settled, put on some sunscreen and toasted the happy couple, then me and Shane headed off in a unleaden canoe towards Burnt Island lake for some fishing and exploration.

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Always gotta be ready to go!

According to Jeff’s Map, there are the ruins of an old CNR hotel on Burnt Island Lake, close to where we were, so we headed there first, with the intention of fishing our way back.  Getting there was a joy, the portages were a breeze and the canoe was handling really well.  Also, there used to be a beaver dam on Joe creek, but it has since burst and you can fully skip the 165m portage around it, probably even in the fall (although there are a few big rocks you might have to sqeak by).  We beached approximately where we though the old hotel would have been, and started bushwacking.  Early July is not the time to look for this though.  All that remains of the hotel are 6 or 7 stone chimney’s, and with all the lush vegetation your eyes start identifying every thick tree and cluster as one.  We couldn’t pick out anything in the bush, despite having great bearings between a bike/ski path and a small creek, and decided we’d be better off fishing than getting eatten by bugs.

The wind was picking up as we launched back into Burnt Island, and I didn’t envy anyone who had to paddle across that VERY big lake.  It seemed to stretch on forever, and I couldn’t even see the very end of it!  Of all the lakes we went through, I like Baby Joe the best (you really start losing which one is Joe, Little Joe, Baby Joe, and Lost Joe quickly when you start paddling through them!).  It was a clear, calm lake with one good site on it.  The structure was there for bass too, but we were fishing on it around 2:30-3PM which is the absolute worst time of day for fishing under a beating sun.  We decided to pack it in and head back to camp as the wind picked up.  The wedding ceremony was at 4, and Shane wasn`t feeling too well because of the heat and some bad carrots he`d eatten the night before.

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Paddling Joe Creek

To give him a rest in the shade, I volunteered to carry a 17ft kevlar canoe for a group of women who were staying at Arowhon Lodge and had perhaps bitten off more than they could chew with a day trip.  Apparently they had been all the way to Tom Thomson Lake, making a 15km round trip!  They had struggled getting their heavy kayak over the 1140m portage to Baby Joe, and when they asked how long the portage to Little Joe was I could see their faces sink like stones when I said 435.  So strapped my trusty portage pad to their yoke and carried a truly wonderful canoe over for them, lightening their load a bit. Why won’t people believe me when I say that canoes are far easier to carry than kayaks?!

A big turnout for a wedding in the Park.

A big turnout for a wedding in the Park.

We got back to the site of the wedding with time to spare for a refreshing dip in water to cool off.  The ceremony was short, sweet, and deliciously informal.  From now on, if a wedding I’m at is longer than 10 minutes and doesn’t deploy at least 1 canoe as a reception table, I will consider it a failure.  We spent the rest of the night toasting the happy couple and imbibing drink.  It was another great day in Algonquin Park.

The next morning I slept in very late due to perhaps a bit too much celebrating.  Although slow off the blocks, I managed to clean up my mess, take down the hammock I’d set up, and put everything in my pack.  It wasn’t a pretty packing job, but with only 1 short and luxurious portage, who really cares right?  We were trying to beat the rainclouds out, and even with all our gear haphazardly strewn about and double-carrying the portage, we managed to get to the Portage Store in 2 hours.

Ominous clouds spurn us towards our cars by mid-afternoon.

Ominous clouds spurn us towards our cars by mid-afternoon.

While this trip was a hoot and the people were great company, it wasn’t the usual expedition missions I’m accustomed to.  There were coolers, motorboats, and folding chairs galore.  This was perfect for the wedding, but I can’t help but feel like I was at a car-camping site at times.  With that being said, Algonquin is still Algonquin, and I’m glad I got to see parts of the park I haven’t yet, but I’m probably going to avoid the Hwy 60 access points during the height of the summer for a while.