Number of days: 3
Portages: 6 (round trip)
Access Point: #5 Anstruther Lake
Visited: September 2020
Nestled along the Southern edge of the Canadian Shield, Kawartha Highlands features a rugged landscape of small lakes, ponds, wetlands, forests, and rock barrens. It is the largest provincial park in Southern Ontario after Alongquin. And like Algonquin, it is the perfect place to explore the wilderness by canoe.
Kawartha Highlands is a relatively new park (it was designated as a provincial park in 2005 and became operational in 2011). It has six canoe routes and just over a hundred backcountry campsites. Each campsite comes equipped with a picnic table, fire ring and thunder box. And while we usually visit Algonquin every year, this summer we decided to take a second canoe trip and visit Kawartha Highlands.
Day 1: From Anstruther Lake to Copper Lake
We took the Friday off before the Labour Day long weekend to have an even longer long weekend and to beat the traffic. We left Toronto at 9:30a.m and arrived at our access point at Anstruther Lake just before noon.
We had booked our canoe from Kawartha Adventures and paid a bit more to get it delivered to the access point. I had called a few days prior to find out more details. They told me everything would be waiting down by the water for when we arrived. I thought this seemed a bit strange as they didn’t know our height (for the paddles) or size (for the lifejackets), but just assumed they might have some sort of storage locker there.
About an hour before our arrival, Kawartha Adventures called and asked if we could let them know when we were 30 minutes from the park. But when we arrived at the lake, there was no canoe waiting down by the water for us. And we had no reception. We waited around for another 30 minutes before getting back in the car and driving out of the park until we received a signal. As I was dialling the number, we saw a Kawartha Adventures truck drive by with four canoes, so we decided to just follow it instead.
This turned out to be a good call as one of the canoes was indeed for us. The guy unloaded our canoe, gave us our paddles and lifejackets. We also found out that in order to return our canoes, we need to call in advance to schedule a pick-up time and are required to wait with the canoe until it is picked up. All this information would have been nice to know beforehand. And here we thought paying an extra $100 to get our canoe dropped off by the water was easier. Turns out it was more of a hassle, especially to return it (more on that later).
But whatever, we had our canoe and were eager to hit the water. There’s a small beach area down by the boat launch to put your canoe in. It was windy and the waves were rockin’ and a’rollin’. As an adult, I’ve never worn a life jacket in a canoe (which I know is obviously very dumb and I should), but today I did. So that should tell you something about those waves.
It was quite the struggle to launch our canoe off the beach as the waves kept pushing us parallel to the shore. It also didn’t help that water kept splashing in over the sides. But we saw other paddlers out on the water, so that gave us hope. Getting out of the cove was easily the most challenging part as we were heading directly into the wind and waves. Once we got out of the cove, the direction we needed to travel was parallel to the waves, so we had to do some zigzagging to ensure the front of the canoe bared the brunt of the waves. It also didn’t help that motorboats came speeding by, creating additional waves of their own.
There are private cottages lining the entire shore of Anstruther Lake, which made for a completely different paddling experience compared to Algonquin. At least it gave us something to focus on while paddling for our lives through the wind and waves. And hope of rescue in case we capsized.
It was a gruelling canoe ride across Anstruther Lake. It took us a solid hour of paddling to reach the first of three portages to Rathbun Lake (162m). The portage is located on a small pebble beach between two private docks and is marked the same way as the portages in Algonquin – with a yellow sign and a person carrying a canoe. There is also a sign here to indicate that we were now officially entering Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park.
We unloaded our gear at the beach and it took us two trips to carry our canoe and all our stuff over to the other side (we figured we might as well bring more stuff since it didn’t seem like a particularly challenging route). The portage was well marked with these adorable yellow marks with the same symbol as the portage sign.
The portage markers were the only nice thing about this portage. It was a steady climb uphill the entire way. At the end of the portage there’s a dock to help with entry into Rathbun Lake. There was a group of 8 dudes here loading their canoes up. We chatted with them for a bit. Turns out they were heading to the same lake as us, but luckily were located on the opposite side.
We followed the group of dudes down the lake to the next portage (214m) into the first part of Copper Lake. It was a short paddle to reach the second portage. It was a bit unclear where to take your canoe out, but the dudes in front of us figured it out, so we just followed them. There’s a small cove tucked behind the large rocky overcrop where the portage marker is that has a narrow, but flat beach.
As we were unloading our gear, it started to lightly sprinkle. We didn’t bother packing our rain gear as the forecast didn’t call for rain over the next three days. Thankfully the rain was short-lived and that the portage itself was relatively flat and pretty straight forward. There’s even a nice waterfall along the way, with a short path down to the base of the falls. At the end of the portage, there’s a wide beach, which made it super easy to load our canoe and take off.
We then paddled through the first part of Copper Lake through a marshy area. This was probably the most scenic part of the route. As an added bonus, the wind was at our back, which helped push us along. At the end of the lake, there’s a portage marker for our third and final portage (370m) into the second part of Copper Lake.
This was the most challenging of the three portages. It’s a steady climb uphill for most of the way. The portage then leads to a flat rocky outcrop. There’s also a small private cottage at the entry into the lake here.
The first stretch of the paddle is through a marshy area, which was quite pleasant and sheltered from the wind, before reaching the open water (and the wind). Once we reached deeper waters, we were paddling into the wind again.
Thankfully our site (#234) was the first one on the right. It was a bit tricky getting there as the wind kept pushing us the wrong way. We had to back-paddle a couple of times, but eventually were able to get out and unload our gear. The site itself was really nice and spacious with a great seating area by the fire, but since it’s located on a peninsula (actually an island), it offered zero protection from the wind. And oh was it windy outside.
We arrived at our site around 3:45p.m and were exhausted so we took a break down by the water on the rocks and ate a snack. It started to lightly rain again, so we stood under the trees to stay dry. Darker clouds were on the horizon, so we quickly set up our tent and hopped in to wait for the rain to pass. It cleared up in about 10 minutes.
We then scavenged for firewood and started a fire. The fire pit was pretty full of ash and it was still very windy outside. But we managed to cook our dinner over the grill. After eating we walked around our site. According to the map, we were on a peninsula. But turns out they counted the marshy area near the northern part of the site as land, so in reality we were actually on an island.
We returned to our site and hung around to watch the sunset. We went to bed shortly after at around 8:30p.m since we were exhausted and it was getting cold outside.
Day 2: Exploring Copper Lake
We woke up at 7:30a.m to blue skies and no wind! It was chilly outside though, so we set our chairs up in the sun by the water to warm up. After eating breakfast and drinking some tea, we went out for a canoe ride around Copper Lake.
There are 7 sites on Copper Lake. Along our paddle, we passed by most of them. Two were vacant, so we were able to check them out. We decided to rate each of them, along with our site on a series of key features: the beach, fire pit and seating area, flat spots for tents, location, thunder box, and then an overall rating.
- Beach = 2/5 – Easy to dock your canoe, but the water is super marshy along the shore.
- Fire pit = 3/5 – Nice views of the lake, but the seating area was small.
- Tent Area = 3/5 – Only one decent flat spot for a large tent.
- Location = 3/5 – In a cove, very private and sheltered from the wind, not much space to roam
- Thunder Box = 2/5 – Not very private, located near the fire pit.
- Overall Rating = 3/5
- Beach = 4/5 – Nice flat rocks to go swimming off of and it’s not marshy.
- Fire pit = 3/5 – Nice bench, but kind of far from the fire pit, the fire pit was also backwards, excellent views of the lake.
- Tent Area = 1/5 – Didn’t really see any good spots to pitch a tent as the ground was all uneven.
- Location = 3/5 – Nice views of the lake in all directions, but offers no shelter from the wind and there aren’t many trees for shade coverage, there’s also another site nearby.
- Thunder Box = 3/5 – Super private, but that’s because you have to walk a really long way to find it.
- Overall Rating = 3/5
Site #234 (our site)
- Beach = 4/5 – Nice flat rocks to go swimming off of.
- Fire pit = 3/5 – Decent area for seating, nice views overlooking the water, fire pit was full of debris.
- Tent Area = 4/5 – Two nice flat spots for tents, somewhat slopey.
- Location = 3/5 – Private, lots of room to explore, the site is actually on an island, but offered no protection from the wind.
- Thunder Box = 4/5 – Private, not super far from the site, it’s getting kind of full though.
- Overall Rating = 4/5
We returned to our site around noon and made some lunch. The wind was back, so we took our chairs and walked them over to the opposite side of the site near the marshy area and found an awesome spot that was sheltered from the wind.
There’s also a nice large flat rock here, so we brought a piece of cardboard and deck of cards. We played two rounds of cribbage and two rounds of crazy eights. The only thing missing was a nice glass of wine.
We then returned to the main part of our site to make a fire and eat dinner. Thankfully the wind was starting to die down. We roasted some veggies on the fire, including peppers and corn on the cob, and made burgers. As with yesterday, we watched the sun go down and then hit the hay.
Day 3: Copper Lake to Anstruther Lake
We woke up just before 7:30a.m. The lake was misty, but the sun was out. We initially planned to stay for another night, but the forecast was calling for rain all day Monday. So we decided to come home a day earlier as we have zero interest paddling in the rain. After eating some breakfast, we tore down our tent and packed up. Our game plan was to head out as soon as we could while the water was still calm. We also wanted to ensure that our canoe was picked up on time. We took off from Copper Lake at around 9:30a.m.
There was a slight breeze rolling in, but overall it was a relatively smooth paddle to our first portage (370m) into the second part of Copper Lake. The portage was so much easier going downhill than up. Our packs were also noticeably lighter.
We loaded our gear into the canoe and pushed off into the second part of Copper Lake through a marshy maze. This was easily my favourite stretch along the route. The water was calm and we had the lake all to ourselves. We even spotted a Great Blue Heron.
We were back on dry land in no time. The second portage (214m) is relatively flat and straight forward. This brought us to the entrance of Rathbun Lake. There are four sites on this lake along with a few private cottages. It’s a short paddle to get to the dock to tackle our third and final portage (162m) to Anstruther Lake.
Thankfully it wasn’t very windy today so it was a much smoother paddle to return to the boat launch. Overall it took us 2.5 hours to paddle from our site at Copper Lake to the shores of Anstruther Lake. Now the fun part of returning our canoe.
Remember how we didn’t get reception by the water when we drove up on Friday? There were people parked next to us that had just returned as well and kindly let us use their phone since they had signal. We called Kawartha Adventures to let them know we returned and were ready for our canoe to be picked up. They said they would be there in 30 minutes. They came an hour and a half later. Cool.
Overall we had a wonderful time paddling through Kawartha Highlands. While it’s not nearly as remote and big as Algonquin, it is much closer to Toronto. And it was nice to explore somewhere different. Lessons learned: next time we’re just going to strap the canoe onto our car ourselves.