3 days exploring the Haliburton Highlands Water Trails (Frost Centre Area)
31st of August – 2nd of September 2021

If there’s a place, canoe there.” – Brent Kelly
Anyone who says they like portaging is either a liar or crazy.” – Bill Mason

Map Canoe Trip Canada Summer 21

DAY 1: Kennisis Lake to Rabbit Lake

It’s mid-morning when we load our backpacks and dry bags in the canoe and push off the dock. We quickly fall into a steady paddling rhythm and I’m pleased with the motion. I welcome the unfamiliar feeling of being at ease on the open water. After crossing the lake we unload the canoe, carry it around the dam and relaunch it in the river on the other side. The act of unloading, carrying the bags, then coming back for the canoe, reloading… will become second nature over the course of the trip. The river leads us into Red Pine Lake. Accessible by boat only, it has much fewer cottages on its shores and feels very peaceful. I let the feeling of tranquility sink in. But we quickly reach yet another level of quietude when going over a second dam and paddling into Nunikani Lake. There are no cottages around this lake, only a few scattered campsites and we don’t see anybody.

From here, we have to face our first real portage of the trip. It is quite short but up a steep muddy and rocky trail, crossing several streams. We do a first trip with only our backpacks and dry bags. The last creek crossing is very muddy and my sandals sink in. The feeling of my foot being sucked makes me cringe. But we need to cross again to go back down and get the heavy canoe. Nevin is carrying it on his shoulders while I attempt to guide the nose of the canoe up the trail. This portage leads us into Rabbit Lake, a small lake with a beaver dam at one end. Our campsite for that first night is on the opposite shore. We are completely alone. After setting up the tent, we find a sturdy branch in the trees, away from the campsite, to haul our bag full of food. The aim is to keep it out of reach from rodent and bigger animals (yes, bears…). Sitting on the rocks overlooking the lake, we are treated to two air shows that evening. We’ve noticed a solitary loon, the emblematic aquatic bird of Canada, wandering around on the lake. As it flies out, it has to circle along the edges of the lake for at least two full turns before gaining enough altitude and escaping above the trees. Later on, as we are watching the sunset over a campfire, a bush plane flies above us in the pink and orange sky. The moment is pretty magic.

Bush plane over the campfire
The aluminium canoe
Campsite in the Frost Centre Area

DAY 2: Rabbit Lake to Midway Lake

I spend the night deciphering the noises around the tent: are these rustling leaves the sound of an approaching bear? Did something just touch the tent? The next morning, I’m sleepy and now that the sun has risen, I would love to linger in my warm and comfortable sleeping bag. I’m anxious about going back down the steep muddy portage trail. We have a lot more portages ahead and I’m wondering how we are going to manage with the heavy-duty aluminum canoe. Nevin is a lot more relaxed about the situation and is already up and going, filtering water from the lake and preparing instant coffee and oatmeal. I try to emulate his simple joy of being out here and not overthink what is to come.

Paddling on empty lakes

I’m holding the back of the canoe and I can hardly see where I’m stepping on the uneven trail. Eventually we make it back into Nunikani and quickly to the next portage of a few hundred meters: we have to walk next to the river, as it transforms into rapids with cliffs on both sides. I help Nevin to haul the canoe on his shoulders by trying to keep it balanced. Feeling a bit helpless, I’m grumpy about the portaging situation and the weight of the canoe, but the beauty of the cliffs around Big Hawk Lake and the sun shining on the water lift my spirit up. As we are paddling on Big Hawk, a loon pops out of the water only a few meters from us. It doesn’t seem bothered by the proximity and we spend some time just quietly watching it. It feels pretty special to be allowed so close.

Our campsite the second night is on another small lake, that we access through mostly flat portage trails. We both carry one side of the canoe. It’s slow and we take many breaks, but we finally make it to Midway Lake. The campsite is beautiful and overlooking the lake on a prominent rock, but the spot for the tent is narrow and awkwardly positioned right on the edge of a cliff. I mentally make a note to be careful if I have to step out of the tent during the night. As the light goes dimmer, we sit at the end of the rocks overlooking the lake and we watch the stars appear.

DAY 3: Midway Lake back to Kennisis Lake

After two days of beautiful sunny weather, the last morning we wake up to moody grey skies. Nevin relishes the atmosphere. Even if I’m a fan of the sunny weather, I can understand. There is something special and meditative about crossing mostly untouched lakes surrounded by forest on a day with low light. To finish our loop, we have to go through our longest portage of the trip, which I’m dreading before it even starts. Holding one side of the canoe in an awkward position, my arms get tired super quickly and I’m asking for a break every few meters. In the middle of it, Nevin improvises handles with sticks lying in the forest and loops of ropes. This is much easier. We are crossing a beautiful stretch of old growth forest and I breathe a bit lighter.

When leaving two days before, the forecast didn’t call for too much wind, but when we get back to Red Pine Lake, we actually have to face some wind and small waves. While it doesn’t really affect small lakes, it gets much more problematic when the wind has space to pick up on bigger lakes. Approaching the end of the trip and crossing Kennisis Lake again, but in the other direction, I’m feeling quite drained from the hard paddling to make progress against the wind. I realize that this sudden lack of stamina has probably more to do with two nights of poor sleep, listening to the wild life around our campsites, as well as with the energy spent in trying to make forward progress, holding one side of a very heavy canoe and not seeing where I step. I’m glad to make it back to the cottage and its comfort and I start to think that, really, the paddling is the easiest part of a canoe trip.

The canoe on our campsite
Sunset at the cottage