I had the best swim of my life on Rathbun Lake. I was swimming out into the mist, with no land in sight; it was still, quiet, magical and I felt like I could swim forever.
It took me years to be convinced that a morning swim was a great thing. Now I can’t imagine crawling out of the tent without heading to the lake for a swim – well right after taking a few pictures and a trip to the KYBO.
I found that it’s best if you get yourself in the water before you wake up enough to realize just how cold it is. If you’re at all stiff from sleeping on the ground, a morning swim will take away any aches and pains. I have also discovered that it is the best thing you can do if you want to get rid of a headache – think about it as a big giant ice pack – OK that may not be a good analogy. But seriously – it is really a great way to clear the cobwebs and start your day awake and refreshed.
Headache note: I would always wake up with a headache on the first day of a trip, but I since discovered that it was dehydration from not drinking enough water on the first day of paddling.
Planning our Trip
Why don’t we value the things in our own backyard? Kawartha Highlands is only an hour away from our house, yet when we plan a long trip we don’t consider it an option. Maybe because we have been going there for weekend trips for such a long time we don’t see it as a “big trip park”. But this year we decided to go for 13 days.
It was strange arriving at the parking-lot in under an hour. Once we were on the water we stopped thinking about just how close we were to home.
We wanted a nice laid-back trip, spending several days on different lakes just relaxing and exploring. We wanted to avoid long portages too. This was a bit of a challenge in the Kawartha Highlands, where the portages tend to be longer, than say, Massasauga Provincial Park.
Something we did notice – this park does not seem as busy as some of the other parks. Perhaps because it is relatively new. It makes trip planning easier and we were able to book all of the sites on our wish list.
Site 200 – 3 Nights
We put in at Anstruther Lake at the designated parking lot just off Anstruther Lake Road, a short drive from Highway 28.
We started our trip on Monday to avoid boat and portage traffic. It was a warm and sunny day and Anstruther Lake was calm and boat-free – a perfect way to start our trip. I always have trouble navigating on big lakes, so even though I have done this paddle many times, I still needed to keep checking the map and watching for landmarks. We thought we knew it well enough to leave our GPS at home. We managed just fine.
The take-out at the portage is easy and there is lots of space for putting packs off to the side if you are doing it in more than one trip across. We discovered that even though it was mid-day Monday the portage was pretty busy and unfortunately everyone had off leash dogs. Our dog isn’t very friendly, so he was on leash (which is actually a park rule). Anyway … the “off leash” dog owners were very annoyed that our on-leash dog wasn’t friendly, making it inconvenient for them. Don’t get me started… I will likely write a post about dogs and camping sometime in the future.
The portage is pretty short, only 201 meters, but it is very steep and rocky. They don’t call it the “Highlands” for nothing. I have never done this portage in the rain, but it looks like it could be slippery.
There is a very pretty creek that runs next to this portage. If you have time – walk over to take a look. There is also a jumping rock at the Rathbun side of the portage, which is usually very busy with teenagers. Near the jumping rock, there is a new dock. So it’s much easier for loading and unloading than it was in the old days. However, it is always tricky getting in and out of a canoe off a dock.
When we got back in the water it was a very short paddle to our site – Site 200. Site 200 is a very nice site. It was very easy to unload the canoes. It’s flat and wide open with lots of rock. The tent site options are numerous, but make sure you ask yourself “what will this tent site be like in a torrential downpour”. More about that to follow….
If you’re from Apsley, you call Rathbun Lake, Rathburn Lake. It has taken me a very long time to learn to leave the “r” out.
The swimming was excellent on this site. However, it is more of a walk-in than a jump in swimming site. It would be perfect for young kids. This site also had a new Thunderbox – NICE.
This site is very private because it is in a bay, behind a couple of islands, however, there are cottages all along the right side of the bay and we saw a fair number of fishing boats. One night there was a party at one of the cottages and the music was loud until about 2 am, but it wasn’t really a problem. At $14 a night we were paying far less than the taxes being paid on that cottage – so no complaints from us.
When we started out on this trip there was a fire ban across southern Ontario, including all Provincial Parks. It hadn’t rained in months. We had a plan in place to deal with 13 days of garbage – but we were not looking forward to implementing this stinky plan! When we arrived at the site, we found the fire-pit was full of garbage – including batteries. We had to pack this garbage into a bag and hang it high in a tree, because we couldn’t burn it off and if we left it in the fire-pit we would have been at risk of having unwanted animals arriving (that is code for Bears).
When we woke to the first full day of our trip, we had rain. So how is that for luck – 4 months of drought and we get rain on the first day of our trip. Not only did it rain – it poured and the wind howled. It rained hard for 15 hours. It was a very, very wet day. Luckily, we had a tarp over the picnic table and used a second tarp to build a wall. A few trenches to carry the water away and we were able to stay dry enough to hang out, cook and eat.
The next day, the sun came out so things dried pretty quickly. We kept a close eye on the park website waiting for the fire ban to be lifted. There was a big celebration when we read that we would be able to have a campfire that night. We only had rain one other evening and about an hour on one morning later in our trip, which made for a very nice 13 day trip.
While on Rathbun Lake we hiked the portage into North Rathbun Lake and found yet another creek running along the portage – it was beautiful also. Rathbun is a lake worth exploring.
Site 236 – 3 Nights
It was soon time to move on. When we arrived at the portage leading out of Rathbun toward Copper, we paddled around the point from the portage sign in order to shorten the portage a bit. It was mucky and a bit harder to unload, but it is well used so we know we are not the only ones happy to shorten the portage.
The portage is only 214 metres. It was not as steep as the portage into Rathbun, but it did start out with a bit of a climb before it leveled out. It was a bit slippery after the rain, but so beautiful. About half way we passed a waterfall. This waterfall is included in the Ontario Parks list of Waterfalls.
The put-in at the other end of the portage was pretty easy – shallow and just a bit mucky. We all enjoyed the slow, meandering paddle through the marsh – totally amazing. There was so much to look at – beaver activity, fish, flowers, driftwood ….
When we arrived at the 370 meter portage into Copper Lake we were a bit taken back – it went straight up – for a very, very long way. We planned our trip to avoid the long 1415 metre portage from North Rathbun Lake to Serpentine Lake, but going from Rathbun Lake to Copper Lake meant that every portage on the first half of the trip was uphill – and this was REALLY uphill. It was hot, the portage was wet and our food barrels were heavy. Suddenly the remaining 9 liters of wine seemed extravagant (OK not really).
On this portage you need to watch for the portage signs because there are ATV and snowmobile trails as well. Although it is steep, there is really only one risky “step”. The rest is just a slog.
We met a couple doing the entire loop in a day, by kayak. Anstruther > Rathbun > North Rathbun > Serpentine > Copper > Rathbun > Anstruther. A long but do-able trip in a day especially without gear. However, caring kayaks on a long portage is challenging. They said they were getting very tired and were looking forward to a hot shower and a soft bed. When they learned we were on the third day of a 13 day trip they said “you guys are our heroes”. It has been years since anyone said I was their hero – it was nice. We didn’t really feel like we were doing anything that would warrant the hero label, our trip was actually pretty relaxed. However, when I stop to think, it does actually amaze me that we do these trips when our group ranges in age from 54 to 72 – pretty rare. However, if the kayakers had seen us the next day drinking wine, eating Pringles and reading, while swinging in our hammocks, they may have revoked our hero status.
After the portage we paddled the long channel out into Copper Lake and then across the lake to site 236.
This site was also very rocky and even higher than our last site. However, the take out behind the little island in front of the site was low and very easy. The view from this site was fantastic, several deep swimming spots, lots of tent sites (there is a very large flat area on the way to the Thunderbox). This site is actually on a point so there are lots of trails to walk and explore. We found tons of cranberries on this site as well, too bad they were not ripe yet.
We were glad that the fire ban was lifted, because we arrived to find another fire-pit full of garbage. This time we could burn it. It was the same type of garbage and the cans were opened the same way as the cans at the previous site, so we knew it was the same group. Apparently they forgot to pack a can opener AND they ate very uninspired food – tuna, canned beans and P.C. Mac&Cheese.
Luckly we had the whole lake to ourselves that first night. It was so quiet and peaceful. We also had the most fantastic view of the full moon coming up over the trees, right in front of the site.
We spent two days exploring the lake, including the marsh area near site 231. We also paddled to the portage into Serpentine Lake. Because the water levels were so low due to the lack of rain we decided to check out the route to Serpentine – just to make sure it was still navigable. We heard one of the “exits” out of Copper was dried up. Turns out the problem was the route east to Anderson Lake.
We had beautiful weather and a great time on Copper. The only negative part of our stay was a group of very noisy young campers. They spent two nights on site 233 just across the lake from us. One of the campers decided to go for a midnight paddle, so someone in our group sat up and watched to make sure they didn’t dump the canoe. I won’t go into all the details here, but in addition to the noise, we later learned they had cut down 13 live trees. I am so glad Ontario Parks has a process in place for dealing with that type of thing. It has been years since we experienced noisy and disrespectful campers like this.
Site 221 – 3 Nights
The trip into Serpentine Lake was short. There is a lift-over, a marsh and a pretty flat 200 metre portage. The only complication was a hornet’s nest in the ground at the start of the portage. Luckily someone left a sign in a tree.
Once we got to Serpentine, the put-in was excellent and our site was only about 15 paddle strokes from the portage.
I hadn’t been to the site on the island in Serpentine Lake in about 17 years. It has changed a lot. It has definitely been well used, but it is in pretty good shape.
It is a very steep site, so it was a bit of a climb between the water and the main part of the site, but it is amazing how quickly you get use to it. It was a great workout! In the picture you can see the fire-pit at the top of the island site – and you can see the distance to the water – for perspective.
Even though this site is very close to the portage, the canoe traffic was minimal. One group of paddlers passed us when we were all sitting by the shore, lounging in chairs and hammocks reading and sipping wine. On the way past, one of the paddlers said “don’t get up”. That still makes me laugh.
One night someone in our group heard people at the portage at 2:30 am – very weird. We thought perhaps it was an emergency – but they didn’t seem to be in a hurry – they stopped to eat a pack of Skittles at the take-out. He heard them drop their canoe about half way through the portage, having tripped over a large rock. (We saw the paint on the rock the following day.) Unfortunately, we think someone found the hornet’s nest too – based on the screaming. I can’t even begin to imagine doing a rocky portage in the dark, let alone stepping on a hornet’s nest.
The island site is large, so there were lots of places to walk, and the shoreline is different at various points on the island. The view up the lake is breathtaking especially in the morning.
We spent several hours exploring the lake, paddling past a hunting camp that I had visited by snowmobile when I was about 10 years old.
We heard owls and wolves in the night, which was nice although always a bit eerie. The fishing was pretty good too! Something we noticed on this trip; we heard very few loons. We missed hearing that particular eerie sound in the night.
Again, we had the entire lake to ourselves for a night. This has never happened in any of the other Provincial Parks we’ve visited – or even when camping on Crown Land.
At this island site, the swimming was excellent, the hammock options endless and the star gazing was amazing. Because the main part of the site is at a high point and very treed, it was a bit chilly in the mornings, but that was OK because we knew the day was going to be warm. No rain on Serpentine.
We all agreed that this was our favorite site on the entire trip.
The day we were scheduled to return to Copper Lake was very windy, so we were all glad we didn’t have far to go – especially the solo paddler in our group. We didn’t meet anyone on the portage or in the marsh between the portage and Copper. We paddled slowly, enjoying the flowers and the sounds. We did the little lift-over into Copper and were all happy to find that the wind was at our back, which made the paddle to our new site pretty quick.
Site 234- 2 Nights
Because we were avoiding the long portage out of Serpentine Lake, we had to retrace our steps. This meant we were staying a couple of extra nights on both Copper Lake and Rathbun Lake. To keep things interesting, we booked different sites for the return trip.
On Copper we booked site 234. When I first saw the site I didn’t think I would like it. It was completely different than any of the other sites on this trip. This site is flat, almost at water level. It didn’t seem well used, and the forest had a lot of undergrowth.
The tent sites were great, but there is only one ‘tent area’. Some of the people in our group snore, so we like to be spread out. But we were only here for two nights, so it wasn’t really a problem. It turned out that it was nice being camped close to the water.
The best part about this site was the sunsets. We usually pick sites with a southern exposure, which means we don’t always get to see the sunset. Luckily we had this site for two beautiful evenings.
On the first night, one other site on the lake was occupied and the next night we had the lake to ourselves again – amazing.
The most unique thing about this site were the minks fighting in the night. What a terrifying sound. Our dog sat up in the tent listening intently, then barked once when the fight was over. The next night we could hear them around our tent and at one point they were actually shaking off water, right outside the tent. We know someone who has a small dog and the poor thing had a bad experience with a mink on a camping trip; he was injured but OK. We were cautious, since we were clearly invading their space.
The swimming wasn’t too bad at the site. The best spot was a rock a bit further up the shoreline, towards the point.
The wood was plentiful, but the berry bushes were scratchy, so long pants were a must on wood-collecting trips.
I always find it takes me a few hours to settle into a site and start to appreciate it’s uniqueness. I did start to enjoy this site, however, I must admit I prefer sites that are up a bit from the water, have better sight lines into the forest and have a more rock. This site was nice because it was different and of course it’s nice to have variety, but unfortunately this site earned the “least preferred” site award on this trip. Keep in mind that the other sites were amazing, which made the competition pretty stiff.
Site 202 – Final 2 Nights
It was time to head back out to Rathbun Lake for the final two nights of our 13 night trip.
The portages were much easier because we had a lot less food and wine in our barrels – and we were going downhill. We felt sorry for a group we met getting ready to head up the “super steep” portage. They had purchased a trailer so they could pull their canoe, only to find that all the portages are too rocky for a trailer to be useful. Their canoe weighed 90 lbs. Yikes. They were here from the US and only going to Serpentine Lake for a few days to fish.
On the second portage, we met two couples with several young children. They were such amazing parents. They were teaching the kids portage etiquette; explaining to the kids that when they meet people with a canoe or backpack, they need to move out of the way. NICE.
This time on Rathbun Lake we stayed on site 202. This site sat on top of a rock. We all really liked this site as well. It was farther away from the cottages, so a bit more of a private site. It was on the “paddle path” to the portage to North Rathbun Lake, so there was some canoe traffic, but it was still pretty quiet. Also, we saw some fishing boats in the bay.
The swimming at this site was good, again it was walk-in swimming, but no muck and minimal rock. There were a number of flat tent sites and the fire-pit was in the perfect position. There was a great view up the lake and the star gazing was good too.
One day we decided to paddle back to the waterfall at the portage to see it up close. It was a bit of a challenge getting to the base because of a beaver dam and the low water level. I think we could have walked down from the portage, but the path would have been very steep.
Once we arrived at the base, we decided to have a “shower” and stood under the water. It was cold and a little smelly because it was flowing out of a marsh, but it felt amazing – we tried not to think about where the water was coming from and we tried not to laugh too hard – we didn’t want to take in any water.
After our “shower” we paddled back to our site for Sangria. What a perfect day!
It is always interesting on the last few days of a trip how the conversation changes. We start to talk about the to-do lists waiting for us back home. We talk about the things that happened on the trip and try to get that book finished. We also become a bit more contemplative. Of course, we also do our best to eat all the leftover food and snacks and of course, drink the remaining wine so we are not carrying it out. We also start talking about next year, which always includes a plan to stay longer. Next year – 14 nights.
The paddle out is always a mix of emotions; sad to be leaving, but looking forward to a hot shower. We also go to a restaurant for dinner, so we start fantasizing about what we are going to have – fish and chips is often the number one choice.
One of the reasons for extending our trip next year is to avoid the busy times. We were paddling out on a Sunday so the portage from Rathbun Lake to Anstruther Lake was very busy.
One of our pet peeves is people who put their canoes in the water then head back across the portage to get the rest of their things. This makes it impossible for anyone else to come or go at the portage. There is always room off to the side for canoes and gear. Apparently, I am really starting to turn into a winey old camper. For more portage stories check out the post “Portaging“.
The paddle out was great although the waves were pretty choppy near the parking lot. The parking lot was a busy spot, but we were not long loading up and heading back to our “real” lives.
I am forever grateful to have this great group to camp with. People often ask us how we manage to spend 13 days with family; it is never a problem. Lots of stories and lots of laughs. I think the key is that we enjoy doing things together. but we are equally willing to give people space to do their own thing.
Rating: Excellent trip. Very nice sites, great lakes. It was a good pace for us “mature” folks wanting to spend time relaxing, reading, exploring and enjoying nature. Not a lot of paddling from site-to-site, but lots of opportunities to explore the lakes.
Lakes: Anstruther > Rathbun (3 nights) > Copper (3 nights) > Serpentine (3 nights) > Copper (2 nights) > Rathbun (2 nights) > Anstruther.
Map: Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park https://www.ontarioparks.com/park/kawarthahighlands/map