There are few better ways to explore Ontario’s wilderness than to harness the tranquility of a quintessential Canadian activity, canoeing in Ontario. Traveling by canoe is an act deeply tied to Canadian history. Beginning with the light and maneuverable birch bark canoe and moving eventually to the more sturdy dug out and plank canoes, the experience of canoeing in Ontario’s backcountry should be on your list of things to do. Taking the opportunity to step outside and to enjoy one of Ontario’s many provincial parks and nature reserves can make for an unforgettable and very Canadian activity.
With historical canoe trade routes flowing throughout the province of Ontario, exploring Ontario by canoe will leave you both astonished by its impressive topography and appreciative of its history. Peterborough and the Kawarthas are an area just 2 hours from Toronto and are home to Ontario’s largest nature preserve south of Algonquin. With a variety of different routes for canoe tripping in Ontario, excellent backcountry campgrounds and multiple access points to the provincial park, a visit to Peterborough and the Kawarthas is ideal when considering enjoying the ultra Canadian activity of canoeing in Ontario.
All About Peterborough and the Kawarthas
Peterborough and the Kawarthas are located just 2 hours northeast of Toronto on the Trent-Severn Waterway, in what is considered one of Ontario’s ‘cottage country’ destinations. A chain of lakes in south-central Ontario, this unique area is known as the land between. It marks the boundaries between the populated Golden Horseshoe and the rocky Canadian shield. Sights of agricultural and lakefront properties situated by numerous rivers and lakes, many connected by lock and portage, constitute Peterborough and the Kawarthas. The northern portion of the area is also dedicated to one of Ontario’s newest and largest provincial parks, Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park. With its many access points, lakes, and creeks, this provincial park is one of the reasons Peterborough and the Kawarthas is ideal for Kawartha lakes camping and canoeing in Ontario.
All About Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park
Expanding to 375-square-kilometers in 2003, Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park is Ontario’s largest provincial park south of Algonquin, and one of the provinces newest. This parks statistics alone make it one of the best places to camp in Ontario. In 2011 the park officially became operational as designated campsites with toilet boxes, fire rings, cooking grills, benches and picnic tables along with parking and camping permits opened to the public. There are a number of lakes, rivers, and creeks within the park as well as mapped out Kawartha Highlands canoe routes, complete with portages. With multiple access points and a variety of opportunities for backcountry camping in Ontario, Kawartha Highlands Signature Site Park is a great choice for those interested in exploring and canoeing in Ontario. If a canoe trip to the Kawartha Highlands is on your radar, guided tours are available in the area all year round.
All About The Land: Canadian Adventures
The Land Canadian Adventures is a tour company located in Apsely, Ontario which is dedicated to providing outdoor education and adventures to people of all ages. We were lucky to have the opportunity to spend a few days with The Land Canadian Adventures, and I would do it all again in a blink. The owners, Bretton and Briagh, and their team of outdoor guides lead their backcountry Kawartha camping and canoeing journeys with education at the forefront of their mission. Educated and articulate themselves, I found myself enthralled with their stories. This helped me appreciate the history behind where I was, and what I was seeing. Learning more camp tasks and improving my canoeing abilities as we paddled through the week, before I knew it I was starting fires and had the canoeing basics of J-stroking down pat. The Land Canadian Adventures made my journey to wilderness camping in Ontario seem relaxed.
The equipment provided by The Land Canadian Adventures was of top quality and the food and resources were plentiful. Our guides on the Serpentine Loop cooked us up some gourmet camp foods such as butter chicken, breakfast sandwiches and sushi. Sushi? Yes sushi, read on to find out more below.
What made the difference in traveling with The Land Canadian Adventures was the overall vibe of the group. The feeling of a sort of family style comfort which they provided with their laid back yet positive attitudes. They were accommodating to our needs and incredibly patient. They encouraged an overall tone of togetherness on the trip, educating without being overwhelming. While this was a learning experience, it was mixed in so perfectly with adventure and pleasure that three days in I was wondering…why does it have to end now? I left this tour with a heart three sizes larger, part in partial to The Land Canadian Adventures and their wonderful guides.
My Experience Canoeing in Ontario with The Land Canadian Adventures in Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park
Day 1 – The Serpentine Loop
Anstruther Lake Access to North Rathbun Lake
Thanks to Out With Ryan for taking this cute selfie
I arrived to the Land Canadian Adventures tour office in the morning on the day of our departure. Pulling in, I was met instantly with friendly smiles, hugs, and an absolutely relaxed atmosphere. I had been there for about 5 minutes before I thought to myself, these people feel like family, and I was immediately ready to go family camping in Ontario. Geared up and ready to go, the owner Bretton poured me a coffee to drink while we organized which items to bring in which dry bag. I was having a positive experience almost immediately when they allowed me to bring my hot water bottle as a luxury item! Yes!
As soon as everyone was ready to go, we hopped in cars and made our way to the backcountry access point on Anstruther Lake. Here we launched our canoes for a 2 night 3 day adventure, canoe tripping in Ontario on the Serpentine Loop. Before we entered the water, we joined our guides Andrew and Noah, who were leading us on this adventure, in an information circle to map out the route for the week and plan for the day.
Once in our canoes we began a tough hour long paddle towards our first portage of the day, Anstruther Lake to Rathbun Lake. With the wind blowing and the waves crashing against the sides of our canoes, Anstruther Lake felt pretty big on this day and reaching the yellow portage sign to Rathbun was pretty relieving.
Once we hit the portage to Rathburn Lake, we carefully pulled everything out of the canoes and began to transfer them to the other side. Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park hiking and portage areas are well maintained open paths with signage detailing where the portage and paths lead and how long they are. After my paddling buddy Chris carried our canoe over the 201m portage, we stopped for a quick shore lunch with a Rathbun Lake view. Lunch included wraps with goat cheese, peppers, lettuce, salami and hummus.
Back in the canoe, we began to paddle through much smaller Rathbun Lake. Rathbun Lake is populated with cottages, but even more so, it is populated with aluminium boats. Stocked with trout, Rathbun Lake and is a great place to fish, and the locals obviously know it. The paddle across the lake was pretty easy and before we new it, we were at our second portage of the day; a 164m jaunt to North Rathbun Lake.
Thanks to Kathryn Anywhere for shooting this picture of our portage
North Rathbun Lake was where we would make camp for the night. Once we arrived to our campsite, we got out of our canoes and were ready to turn this little slice of forest paradise into our home for the night. We set up our tents and created our sleeping zones with sleeping pads and bags. We also set up a shade/rain cover over the picnic table which made us a sweet little kitchen area. The campsites at Kawartha Highlands come well equipped with everything and anything one could want from a campsite. We located the toilet box down the path, and got ready to start a fire in the fire ring, which came complete with cooking grill.
Thanks to Kathryn Anywhere for shooting this picture of our sunset chills
While we relaxed by the shore, our guides Noah and Andrew cooked up an absolute feast of butter chicken with chickpeas and rice. Cooking up a meal that good over a fire just absolutely blew my mind. After dinner we cleaned up our camp dishes with biodegradable soap and sat down at the fire to relax before bed. There were also s’mores. Noah brought a guitar and almost lullabied us to sleep with the gentle sounds of Neil Young’s Harvest Moon and Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl. Eventually we turned in for the night, tired and ready to catch some sleep to power us through the next mornings impending 1.5km portage.
Day 2 – The Serpentine Loop
North Rathbun Lake to Copper Lake
The morning came quickly and therefore so did our next portage. We awoke to the sounds of Andrew singing…apparently he likes to wake his campers up with camp songs. Out of the tent and down to the shore. The mist was coming off of the lake just perfectly under the pinkish glow of a Kawartha sunrise. It is moments like these that makes camping in Northern Ontario and camping in Southern Ontario so special…Canada has the best sunrises. The fire was burning, warming us up some freshly percolated coffee, while our guides prepared us a breakfast of yogurt and granola topped with fresh fruit.
Thanks to Kathryn Anywhere for shooting this picture of Chris doing all the work
After breakfast we packed up our camp, tents, kitchen, food and organized ourselves for the next portage. A 1.5km walk doesn’t sound too long in theory, especially for me as a marathoner…but 1.5kms with a canoe on your back and everything you need to live in a camp…feels much longer…it felt like it was the longest hike I have ever been on. Up and down over the rocky path, we carried everything we brought from one side to the next. It would take us two trips. Chris grabbed our canoe while I balanced 8 paddles in my hands.. The poor guy, his shoulders really took a beating. Once we reached the shores of Serpentine Lake, it was back to North Rathbun for trip #2. On the second round of portage, I carried one of the big dry bags and with the willing participation of the whole team…we did not need to go back a third time.
Slipping our canoe into Serpentine Lake, I was relieved to be back paddling and no longer portaging. The sun was shining, the lake was calm, and the canoeing was easy. We paddled through the gorgeous Serpentine Lake, populated by nothing but mother nature herself. This lake exuded a sense of serenity. Meandering through the lake with the warm sun shining down on my face and the sounds of paddles pushing through the calm waters; and all of the sudden it started to make sense as to why people love the Serpentine Loop and consider it such an amazing place.
Eventually we made our way to the next portage, except this one was slightly shorter. Back and forth over 220m, we moved from Serpentine Lake to a small creek. Creek paddles are always entertaining because they are shallow and allow you to get up close and personal with some of the flora in the area. Pickerel weed, wild pepper corns and carnivorous pitcher plants were some of the flora which we were lucky to get to know along the way.
The creek eventually lead to a small 5 meter carry over which opened up into beautiful Copper Lake, the location of the night’s camp. We pulled into our campsite once again…this one was surrounded by water on three sides. Kat, Ryan and I immediately sourced out the best tent pad on the site and began to set up camp. Tents, pads, and sleeping bags out, shorts on, hiking boots traded for Birkenstocks, and we were ready to enjoy the rest of the day by the lake. After a quick lunch of wraps, the majority of the group headed out onto the lake to take in some canoeing basics such as how to flip over a tipped canoe, and how to properly J-stroke. Myself and Ryan however, decided to stay back to enjoy the sunny day at camp.
When the team returned, we sat together and took in a moment watching the sunset before settling into the dinner menu of the night; sushi. Our creative guides Noah and Andrew put together an amazing and interactive meal of camp sushi. We laid out fresh sticky rice on seaweed wraps, followed by an amazing array of different topping options including avocado, mango, crab, and salmon. I actually loved getting involved and making my own sushi! Should I grab the recipe off them for you guys?
After cleaning up from dinner we moved to the campfire to enjoy a box of Sawmill Creek wine and campfire s’mores. The guitar was out and the songs were flowing…eventually flowing into our own team musical lead by Chris and Noah. They made our night. By creatively changing the words of popular tunes into songs such as ‘Brown Eyed Squirrel’, they brought the group together in a whirl of smiles and laughter. This is one of the reasons why backcountry camping is a positive experience. Disconnecting with the outside world and reconnecting with those around us had us forming bonds of friendship closer than ever before. Satisfied and with my heart three times more full, I eventually made my way to the tent to lay my head to rest peacefully for the night…ready for tomorrow’s canoeing adventure.
Day 3 – The Serpentine Loop
Copper Lake to Anstruther Lake
Waking up on our third day of the trip, Copper Lake was perfectly peaceful, save for Andrew’s musical varieties. They urged us to pack up our camp, but the view was just too perfect to rush. We took our time, enjoyed a few cups of coffee and had a breakfast of eggs, peppers, bacon and English muffins. Leisurely packing up our camp and loading our canoes, we headed back out onto the lake for a final day on the Serpentine loop.
Arriving at our first portage of 350m, we traversed a trail that lead us to a shallow winding creek full of vegetation. Looking forward to this paddle, these types of locations are generally only accessible by canoe and kayak and provide great opportunities to interact with the flora and fauna of the area. While slowly paddling through the creek, a beaver splashed us as we moved towards its dam…how is that for Canadian? Arriving at the end of the creek area, after destroying Kat and Kevin in a race, we geared up for the second portage of the day, 214m back to Rathbun Lake.
This was my favourite portage of the trip. The trail followed a stream which eventually led to a pretty cool waterfall. After we completed our portage runs, we changed into our swimsuits and headed back to spend some time joking around in the waterfall. A path led down to the bottom where the waterfall was accessible for splashing around in or climbing up to enjoy from above. After a swim and some snacks, we changed back into our canoe clothes and got on track to paddle to the Rathbun Lake and Anstruther portage.
This 201m portage back to Anstruther Lake would be the last of this journey. Sad but satisfied, we brought our gear from one end to the other as we continued our path to completing one of the best Kawartha Highlands canoe routes, the Serpentine Loop. We took another 45 minute canoe on Anstruther Lake back to the access point, except this time, the lake was much calmer. A calm and quiet day brought us back to land where we met Bretton, one of the owners of The Land Canadian Adventures, who congratulated us on surviving our experience backcountry camping and adventure traveling in the Kawarthas. A quick hug to the team and thank you to the land and mother nature for hosting us and we were on our way to the next leg of our journey. No more wilderness camping in Ontario for us; we were on our way to warm showers and a night at the Viamede Resort.
Moving to a Resort and Day Tripping by Canoe
All About The Viamede Resort
After a few nights spent sleeping under the stars in the forest, we welcomed the opportunity to further decompress in the comfort of a Kawarthas resort. The Viamede Resort is located on the shores of Stoney Lake and offers hotel rooms and waterfront cottages as well as activities and a variety of dining options.
Following a few days of camping in Southern Ontario and enjoying Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park hiking, arriving at the Viamede with access to warm showers, unlimited coffee, and the pending concept of a night’s sleep in a comfortable bed complete with personal fireplace was everything and more.
After checking into our deluxe double room, we headed to the main building which houses the Viamede’s indoor/outdoor swimming pool, fitness centre, sauna, and patio. Also located in this building was a fancy espresso machine that would make lattes, cappuccinos, and espresso on demand…all day long…. I could not have been more pleased. Out to the patio with my coffee to enjoy the view and eventual walk around to the lakefront outdoor swimming pool and various docks.
The Viamede is a resort complex filled with amenities. With kayaks, canoes and paddle boards available for guests, a sandy beach, hiking locations and various recreation programs, the Viamede is a pure source of cottage country entertainment. There are a few different restaurants on the property as well is its very own farm which supplies much of the food used at the Inn at Mount Julian. Hot breakfast was included and so a plate of bacon and eggs with a side of waffles and coffee was the perfect way to start the day. The Viamede is located just 35 minutes from Peterborough and two hours from Toronto. This makes it an excellent cottage country retreat for those looking to escape the city for a vacation.
Dining at the Inn at Mount Julian
While enjoying our stay at the Viamede Resort, we were lucky to have the experience of enjoying a 7 course tasting menu at the Inn at Mount Julian. What a contrast to go from campfire cooking while we were Kawartha Lakes camping to gourmet tastes. This offered a sort of balance to the whole trip.
A small nine tabled restaurant, The Inn at Mount Julian takes its inspiration directly from its history. Built in 1874, this once inn was a well established location for travellers in the area looking to spend the night. As reputable for its food in 1874 as it is today, the Inn at Mount Julian serves dishes which focus specifically on local sources. Forest to table, this restaurant uses the farm at the Viamede as well as the surrounding forest and local agriculture to create an upscale version of outdoorsmen dishes.
Potato and leek soup, homemade bread with herb butter, and watermelon salad were the plates that began our 7 course tasting meal. Served along side each of these dishes was a glass of white wine, all sourced from Canadian, moreover, Prince Edward County wineries. To set the scene, a record player pumping 1920’s jazz and a view of Stoney lake added to the somewhat pioneer feeling of this establishment.
As the meal continued we moved toward red wines which were meant to compliment the bold flavours of the dishes to come. The groups favourite dish came next; home cured bacon from pigs raised on the farm with a side of beet ketchup. A second savoury dish followed; venison and garlic potatoes topped with a quail egg. As you can see the meal is thoughtfully and carefully organized to flow straight into satisfaction. A delectable cheese plate was our palette cleanser, and a chocolate dessert ended the night. Beyond satisfied with the succulent meal, as was expected after the Inn at Mount Julian’s historical reputation. The tasting menu is an experience in and of itself, not to be missed.
For more information on the tasting menu, check out the Inn at Mount Julian here
Day Tripping up Eels Creek to High Falls by Canoe
Waking up from a good night’s sleep in a comfortable warm bed at the Viamede Resort was just what we needed to power us through another day of canoe tripping in Ontario. Except this time, it was only a day trip. We found our way down to the main lodge where we could carb up on a big breakfast of bacon and eggs before meeting Bretton and Briagh, the leaders of this guided canoe trip in Ontario. All geared up with somewhere to be, we headed to the entrance point of Eels Creek with a pending paddle and a shore lunch at High Falls in our future.
After bringing our canoes down from the parking lot (Briagh carrying hers better than any of the guys on our trip), we took a moment on the shore to take in some instruction and information from our articulate guide Bretton. Bretton is a story teller, a captivator. He spoke of the land between, Canadian canoe trip history, and the entities of which the river supplies, with a passion that is just plain influential. His words were motivating…and motivation is exactly what we needed as we were about to paddle upstream.
It look a little time to get used to paddling against the current, but eventually we figured it out…that was until we bumped into a few shallow rapids. I saw up ahead that some of the other canoes had bottomed out and so I warned Chris that he might have to get out of the canoe and pull us up the rapids. Four days of canoeing and I hadn’t gotten my feet wet yet….thankful for my supportive canoe buddy once again (thanks Chris) for helping me stay dry. However, upon approaching the rapids, Briagh mentioned that we might be able to paddle through it as we were a light canoe…and so we tried. We paddled. We paddled as hard as we could. We paddled harder than we paddled when we were racing Kevin and Kat. Success struck! We managed our way through the rapids, arms just a little tired, but successful none-the-less…and suddenly the upstream canoe paddle didn’t feel so bad.
Paddling in fluid motion once more, we passed areas of pickerel weed and wild rice growing close to the shoreline. Another day enjoying nature with the sun shining in our eyes. I won’t lie, Kawartha resort living was great but I was ever so satisfied to be back in the bow of a canoe.
After a few moments of peace I noticed others ahead of us were once again pulling their canoes by hand…walking through rapids. We weren’t going to make it through this one so Chris kindly dropped me off on a rock and proceeded to get his feet wet pulling our canoe up the rapids…thanks again Chris!
Back at it, we paddled for a short time in calmer waters…bottoming out only once (my fault) until we finally met High Falls; a gorgeous waterfall flowing into Eels Creek. A few moments to enjoy the rushing waters and we pulled up on shore, got out of our canoes and carried our lunch barrels to an area near the falls with an already prepared fire pit.
Our guides Bretton and Briagh began to prepare us a delicious lunch made over the fire. Fresh hot coffee, homemade bread and pesto, and goat cheese and salami were the first course of this shore lunch. We snacked over a view of the falls and good conversation before heading back to the fire for a main lunch of Three Sisters Stew. Three Sisters Stew is a mixture of squash, corn, and beans and relates to Native American mythology. Served over wild rice local to the area, this hearty fall meal was perfect for this setting. I mean…is there any setting better than fall camping in Ontario?
After finishing our lunch, we made our way behind the falls for a quick swim. Avoiding the poison ivy, which we learned to identify quickly as it is prevalent in the area. We danced up the path to what Bretton and Briagh consider the Kawartha’s best swimming hole. A pool between waterfalls; you could jump in and enjoy the rushing waters without fearing them. Good swimming spots like this are another reason the Kawarthas are one of the best places to camp in Ontario.
Post swim, it was time to pack up, to head back out on the creek and into town for an eventual dinner at the Canoe and Paddle Pub. The paddle back to our cars was much more laid back as this time we were going with the current. After a quick lesson on three points of contact, we were also able to canoe down straight through the rapids. Learning to canoe down the rapids meant that we did not have to get out of our canoes even once on the journey home. When we pulled onto shore, our last paddle of the trip, I have to admit I was a little disappointed to have to momentarily give up my canoeing life and head back into civilization…The only saving grace were the nachos I was about to eat at the pub.
The Canoe and Paddle Pub – The Best Way to Finish Off a Trip Canoeing in Ontario in the Kawarthas
There is no better way to finish off a four day canoe adventure than to sit down in a lively pub for a few beers and some hearty treats. The appropriately named Canoe and Paddle Pub is located in Lakefield and made for the perfect end to our trip, backcountry camping in Ontario. This lively pub was full of people enjoying good music, good food, and good atmosphere. With TVs playing the latest sporting events, darts available for those who wish to throw, and a beer menu big enough to be a beer lovers dream, the Canoe and Paddle is a top quality pub. The amount of patrons visiting can attest to that. We dove into nachos, deep fried dill pickles, garlic Parmesan wings, burgers and everything you could dream of eating after a few nights and days spent out on the lake.
Peterborough and the Kawarthas provide the ideal city escape for those looking to embrace the outdoors and to spend a little time disconnecting while reconnecting. The Kawarthas are an accessible source of tranquility for those in need, and the folks at The Land Canadian Adventures really know how to harness that tranquility and point you towards it. To take part in a traditional Canadian activity and to get in touch with Ontario’s backcountry is an experience everyone visiting or residing within Canada should have. A trip through one of the Kawartha Highlands canoe routes partnered with a luxurious night at the Viamede provides the ideal balance between active adventure and relaxation. A balance that many of us probably need deep down. Peterborough and the Kawarthas, with their phenomenal provincial park, many amenities and restaurants, with their cottage country vibes, makes for an exemplary place to enjoy canoeing in Ontario. As I said before…it should be on your list.
Disclaimer: I would like to thank the team at Peterborough & the Kawarthas, The Land: Canadian Adventures, and the Viamede Resort for hosting me as media for the week. All of the opinions are my own.