Kawartha Highlands Traverse

An account of my four-day solo canoe trip through Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park, Ontario from October 26-29th.

Day 1:

               Pulling up to Little Turtle Lake, I step out of the car and take a couple deep breaths of the crisp, fresh air that I would be surrounded by for the next four days. Under a bright sky of mixed clouds, the shoreline of the lake was splotched with the green of the conifers and the yellow, red, and brown of the deciduous trees, already a bit past their peak of autumn colour. After all the difficulties faced over the course of planning the trip, finally all that remains was to toss my bag and barrel in the canoe, and push off. A sense of tranquility comes over me as I slide away from shore; I was pulling away from the scramble of everyday life, and would leave it behind until the end of the trip.

               The banks of the lake scroll by as I paddle along, navigating around a beaver dam to arrive onto Adams Lake. Across Adams was my first portage of the trip, a short, hundred-metre haul over to Sawmill. Paddling over Sawmill brought me to the first significant portage, five-hundred metres to get to Shark Lake, my destination for the night. Taking my bags and paddles first, I manage to set off in the wrong direction almost immediately, following a narrow side path skirting along the actual portage trail. I eventually work my way back over, deposit my load on the banks of Sawmill Lake, and turn back to get my boat. Perhaps not the best suited to solo trips, my sixteen-foot Paluski canoe was no feather weight, a fact exasperated by my failure to properly balance the stern, allowing the boat to try to lean forward as I carried it. I made it through the portage, though not terribly gracefully or comfortably.

Despite the difficulties, I was soon navigating my way along Shark Lake to my campsite. The weather had held nicely, and I set up camp and built a fire as the sun settled low on the far shores of the lake. Over the fire was a pot full of my homemade turkey chilli, heating up nicely and filling the site with a stomach-rumbling smell. Dinner was over far too soon, and I sat reading by the fire for a while before turning in for the night, enjoying the cool night.

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Day 2:

               I awoke to a bright morning with a sky carpeted in grey, foreboding the snow that was soon to fall. It began to sprinkle lightly as I pushed off in my canoe, dusting the ground as I carried my gear from Shark to Vixen Lake. Vixen posed the first (but not last) bit of challenging paddling of the trip. A long narrow lake, I had to quickly learn how to manage the wind that sought to push me off course. On the far end was a short portage to Buzzard Lake, which greeted me with a stiff breeze in my face. The wind strengthened steadily as I paddled up the lake, sometimes trying to push me off into the middle of the lake, sometimes shoving me up against the bank that I was hugging for relative shelter. The snow was coming down harder now, and visibility was shortened significantly. Both factors conspired into making me paddle down the East arm of the lake, instead of forging ahead Northwards towards the portage trail.

               It was a tired paddler with cold feet that finally clambered out of my boat to portage to Long Lake. At the other side, however, my spirits were revived by a snack and the realization that I would now be paddling with the wind, a welcome change. A few lakes, short portages, and beaver dam pull-overs sped by with the wind’s help, and soon I was paddling along the shores of Cox Lake towards my home for the night.

               It was a transformed landscape that stared back at me from my site, every bough and rock blanketed in snow, with more still falling gently and silently. With limited wood to be found in the surrounding woods, and none of it dry, I discarded attempting a fire for the simplicity and efficiency of eating cold. Luckily my menu didn’t require cooking, so it was no major inconvenience. With snow falling and the wind gusting, I turned in early to let the weather run its course.

Day 3:

               Friday morning was bright, but cloudy and cold. The snow had stopped sometime during the night, but everything was still covered in it, reminding me more of past winter camping trips than any canoe excursions. I broke camp swiftly, staying bundled up until I reluctantly changed into my cold, damp paddling gear. I hadn’t been paddling long, only ten minutes or so, when the sky suddenly cleared, and the sun poured its bright rays everywhere. The landscape was transformed instantly from dark and silent to gleaming and fresh. The sun went to my head, and alone in my canoe I laughed aloud for sudden joy.

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               At the far end of Cox Lake was the longest portage of my trip, slightly over thirteen-hundred metres over to Cold Lake. Setting off with my bags, I stopped short about two-hundred metres in to examine some fresh bear prints crossing the trail in the snow. The prints could only have been a couple of hours old, the contours well-defined and the ice underfoot just barely frozen. The rest of the walk went without incident, a pleasant hike through a woods coming alive as the sun burned the snow off the boughs. Coming back with the canoe went much more smoothly than yesterday, the boat properly balanced this time; the portage felt shorter than I was expecting.

               Upon arriving on the shores of Cold Lake, however, I noticed for the first time the wide extent of snow-covered mud flats where there should have been water. A narrow, weed-choked channel of very shallow water was the only open water until the mud gave way some four-hundred metres ahead. Aspiring to keep my feet as dry as I could, I first attempted to lead the loaded canoe along the channel with a rope attached to the bow. This proved ineffective, however, and so I eventually stepped into the boat and poled it, gondola-style, along the diminutive waterway. Even that soon became too narrow and shallow for me to be in the boat. With a sigh, I committed to getting down and dirty with the mud and hopped out. Progress was better then, the snow allowing the canoe to slide easily over the ground. It was still hard work for me, however, pushing the canoe as I stomped along through the knee-deep mud.

               Finally, a full two hours after getting out of my boat on Cox Lake, I felt the ground disappear from under me and my boat began to float freely. Happily, I had very little in the way of additional portages that day, and I was quite content to sit and paddle after my efforts of the morning. Arriving at the junction between Cold and Gold Lakes, I crossed out of the park, and spent the next couple of hours passing by cottages. It was afternoon by the time the shores around me opened up to mark my entrance to Catchacoma Lake, the largest one of my trip. I skirted along the East bank of the lake until I reached a bay leading to a small, man-made dam.

After a short portage around the dam, I found myself back in the Park, paddling my way up Bottle Creek, known for its diversity of riparian vegetation. My intended campsite for the night was on Sucker Lake, two lakes to the Northeast of the creek. When I reached the end of the creek, however, I passed by a couple lovely campsites on its Northern shore. It was still early, but the beauty of the spot as well as the opportunity to dry out my tent and clothes in the sun prompted me to change tack and pull over early. I was rewarded for the decision with dry(er) gear and a gorgeous sunset.

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Day 4:

               I cracked an eye open on Saturday morning to hear the familiar pitter-patter of rain on the fly of my tent. Since I was already very close to my pickup point for later that day, I decided to lie in and read the rain away. I finally hit the water around eleven or so, with no particular goal for the day besides exploring the area before meeting Bretton at four o’clock.

               The rain had abated, leaving a grey sky and trees wrapped in a fuzzy layer of mist. The wind had died too, leaving the surface of Bottle Lake mirror-like. I took the opportunity to break out my camera to take pictures and shoot footage, something I was reluctant to do previously, out of protectiveness for the device. I headed up the lake, paddling as far Northwards as I could, following the ‘S’ shaped channels formed in the vegetation-choked tip. A beaver dam finally pulled me up short, turning me around to slowly float my way back down the lake to the meeting point.

               Getting out of my canoe for the last time, I tried to put the trip into perspective time-wise. On one hand the trip felt short, the days of paddling and portaging had blended together to a certain extent. On the other, though, the distance travelled and the experience gained had me feeling older and more tried than before, making it feel like I had been out for more than those two days. Either way, as I sat in the car home, I decided that it would always end up being too short a time to spend in the woods. With my paddling season likely over for the year, my thoughts now turn to the approaching winter; bring on the snow!

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