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.


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