What is a summer holiday in central Ontario without a little backcountry camping? After receiving a rare few days off, my partner and I decided we should load up our packs, borrow whatever supplies we could from friends and family, and head out into the wilderness for a few nights deep in the woods of the Kawartha Highlands. This walkthrough of our trip is not gospel, this is simply the way a guy, a girl, and a dog made their way through three lakes, two portages, and battled torrential downpours, excited puppies, and snakes along the way.
Before embarking on your journey, you will need to invest in a site map, (a map of the park which identifies where campsite’s, lakes and portages are) so you may find your way. While the portage trails and campsites are clearly marked, we found the map to be invaluable.
We started our trip on Anstruther Lake, Anstruther is located in the municipality of North Kawartha just before Apsley along Highway 28. At less than two hours north of Toronto, the Kawartha Highlands is a popular cottager area in the Kawarthas and has easy access to portaging and hiking trails through protected crown land.
When following your site map, it will show a #5 in a red diamond as the Anstruther lake access point. It is important to know that this launch site is part of the Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park and requires a parking permit that varies in price depending on the number of days you will be out on your trip. We however did not get the memo on that until we had already bought a parking permit for the marina which is only about two minutes down the road from the Provincial launch, although it turned out to be lucky, as we discovered that this option was actually a bit cheaper, and also rewarded us with a well-deserved patio lunch after we crawled back ashore after a few days in the bush. Either way, it is fairly inexpensive to park- $30 for two nights including our site map.
Anstruther Lake was the first and longest leg of our journey, however the weather was beautiful, and we were excited to finally be on our way, so we paddled leisurely and enjoyed the scenery. With a very excitable one-year-old black lab in the middle of us on her first camping trip, much of the first leg of our trip was spent ensuring she would not jump out of the canoe for a swim, although with the sun beating down, it was hard to blame her. Still, the last thing we needed was the pup inadvertently tipping our canoe and having our packs sink the 100m to the bottom of Anstruther Lake.
Our final destination would be campsite 211 on North Rathburn Lake. Which meant that we had several kilometers of Anstruther Lake ahead of us, a fairly steep 163m portage to Rathburn Lake, and then another 162m portage that would dump us into North Rathburn. Once we arrived on Rathburn, the buzz of cottagers and their high-powered water toys fell to a low hum through the trees, and after crossing into North Rathburn, the silence was a welcomed escape.
It took us approximately 3.5 hours to finally make it to our site, which meant we landed at about 3pm, and in mid-August that left us plenty of time for setting up camp and doing a little bit of exploring as well. Our campsite was in the furthest most corner of North Rathburn Lake and right across from our site there was a fairly long portage trail stretching just over a kilometer, which we planned to hike the next day. Our campsite included a fire pit made up of salvaged rock neatly placed to include a flat preparation area, benches made of fell trees and stumps, a grate over the fire pit for cooking, and of course, a thunder box up the hill from the site. While there were two other campsites on the lake, we appeared to be alone. Luckily, we were able to take advantage of the solitude and made a point to take deep breaths of the smooth northern air, and push out any worries of our obligations at home in our exhale.
After two relaxing days in the Canadian backcountry, we awoke the third day, refreshed. Although we were awoken by some inclement weather and needed to begin packing up in the pouring rain as the storm wouldn’t let up. The portages back were more like rapids at this point resulting in a slippery terrain, and we found ourselves dodging lightning storms as we paddled so vulnerably through the lake. We made it in about 4 hours, soggy but ultimately unscathed. After making it to shore, the rain began to let up, and we dried ourselves off as best we could before heading to the marina for some lunch and the hour-long drive back home – to reality, and our beds.
For anyone thinking of doing a similar trip through the Kawartha Highlands, making a reservation was very simple through the Ontario Parks page. We found that booking just over two weeks in advance gave us a good choice of campsites even in peak season and payment online made things very smooth.