It’s a good thing we brought our bug jackets and 16’ Eureka Backpacker VCS Shelter System (tarp and mesh room) because I’m not sure I would have made it out of the Poker Lakes Loop alive.
The access point to the Poker Lakes Loop is 30 minutes from my doorstep, and it only took us an additional 30 minutes to paddle, portage and paddle again to our first campsite on Poker Lake Friday evening from Bentshoe Lake. It was a beauty day and the heat brought the blackflies out in hordes. I managed to keep myself sane until we reached our site and my husband put the shelter system up. In there, we spent a good couple of hours listening to the beasts fly into the tarp (which sounded like the pitter patter of rain) and in the distance a steady hum in the forest.
Finally able to relax in shelter away from swatting, grumbling and swearing at those little $%!#s; I was able to really appreciate the opportunity to be on a canoe trip during the first weekend in May. I had been anxious wanting to spend a good couple of days outside breathing in fresh air, using my hands to create calluses for the paddling season ahead, and being present in the wilderness during spring. Spring is an incredible time of year to watch nature come alive after a long winter of stillness.
It cooled down significantly Friday night and once we could no longer hear the pitter patter on the tarp or the hum in the forest, but instead the piercing sound of thousands of spring peepers, we broke out of the shelter and started a fire. We listened to barred owls causing a ruckus in the trees and loons calling from the lakes in the distance. It was an incredible first night and both my husband and I kept discussing how lucky we are to finally be living in Muskoka, and only an hour away from a backcountry campsite in the Haliburton Highlands. It’s why we moved up here. It truly is a dream come true.
We’ve had Kevin Callan’s Paddler’s Guide to Ontario’s Cottage Country book for awhile. It was given to us by Kevin’s friend Andy, and we have been wanting to explore other areas (not just provincial parks) for quite some time.
I had a great sleep. We woke up with the sun and cool morning temperatures. I love unzipping the tent door in the morning to be presented with the beauty of nature. Did I say Poker Lake is beautiful?
I always pack up the innards of the tent before I get up in the morning while my husband makes breakfast and coffee. Morning at camp was glorious. The sky was cloudless, birds were singing in the trees, and my husband called in 2 Canada geese. I watched these two birds interact with my husband’s calls for a few minutes until they flew off again.
With camp packed up, we loaded the canoe and set off for our first portage of the day. It was a 50m portage into Ooze Lake with a good take-out and put-in. There was a nice short paddle across the lake to the 150m into Quirt Lake. Jeff’s Map says with low water there is a portage around the lake, but with the beaver dam, I’m sure it would be fine. However, the put-in on Quirt Lake was a different story. There is a good 15-20 feet of deep muck. We had to cut through the bush to find a better put-in spot on the west side where we wouldn’t sink knee deep into mud.
Quirt is another beautiful lake. We made our way to the northwest part of the lake looking for the portage and noticed the water was very shallow with a lot of logs. We were able to paddle through, but in summer I’m not sure that you’d be able to paddle into this little bay to reach the portage. The take-out was again 15-20 feet of muck and we had a hard time trying to land the canoe and get out stepping on logs and such. Add to this, my husband forgot his PFD at the put-in, so we had to paddle back and attempt this take-out again. Once you’re safe on land, there is a 100m portage into Cinder Lake. The put-in was fine.
Haliburton Highlands Water Trails have set up their reservation system with restrictions when booking sites in terms of party size. There are a few group sites that I don’t think I was able to book. Kevin Callan mentioned a site at the southern tip of the big island on Cinder, but I wasn’t able to book it. Instead I booked site 71 on the east side of the island. We paddled to it and it didn’t look like a nice site at all. It was treed in (not good for blackfly season) and the firepit was on slope. We figured that no one else would be doing this loop so went back to site 70 (the site Kevin stayed on) because it was completely open and would help with my sanity/keeping the bugs down.
We had a few gusts of wind throughout the day but we still had to wear our bug jackets while doing chores around camp. We anticipated rain in the afternoon so took advantage of the sun. We even went for a quick dip in the lake! I can say that May 7th is my new record for first swim of the year.
Out in the distance, my husband saw a deer swimming across the lake to our island. I don’t know what it is with large swimming mammals and us. So far we have seen a deer, 2 moose (cow and calf) and bear swimming. I no longer believe that you can be less diligent when it comes to being bear wise on an island. All the same checks need to be in place as if you were staying on a mainland site.
The rain came and it poured for a few hours. We had a few bush martinis in the shelter system. Around 6pm it stopped raining so we took advantage and started a fire. The lake was still and 2 more Canada geese came by and a couple of resident loons. It started to pour around 9pm so we called it a night.
Cinder Lake is stunning.
Up again around 7am, we opened the tent door to another cloudless sky. It was a beautiful (but damp) morning. We had breakfast and packed up camp by 8:45 and paddled across the lake to our first portage of 185m into Muck Lake. There isn’t a very good landing at the take-out here but we managed. The portage follows a cascade and then up a steep hill and back down to Muck Lake.
Muck Lake is beautiful too; a real beaver pond. It was named Muck Lake for good reason. The take-out on the other side of the lake was challenging. It looked like there was a tree down through the bog mounds so we paddled up and down the end of the lake trying to find another option. We found one, but it was tricky when trying to balance on slimy logs and falling through rotten stumps. The indicated take-out is not very convenient. We bushwhacked to the portage trail making this a 250m instead of 190m. The trail was fine, but the put-in at Poker Lake was challenging again.
We had initially planned to paddle the complete loop and portage into Upper Crane and try our hand at catching a splake in Upper and Lower Crane. But it was windy, cold and started to drizzle. We decided to paddle down Poker Lake to the 320m portage that brought us into the lake on Friday night. We ran into some more trouble at the narrows. It is completely log jammed and with lower water later in the season it would be worse. We had to land in mud and walk up an incline that was all mud. On the top of the hill we could see a hunting camp so I’m not sure if it was private property or not. We bushwhacked around the logjam to an area where we could put our canoe in. It was tricky but we managed.
We passed our first campsite from Friday night and landed at the portage back into Bentshoe Lake. When we returned to the access point it had taken us 2 hours from Cinder Lake.
Kevin is right; it is a 2-day trip. It only took us 1.5 hours to get from Poker Lake to Cinder Lake on Saturday morning and that was backtracking on Quirt Lake and extra paddling on Cinder between campsite 70 and 71. I would suggest it could be a one nighter. You could launch on Saturday morning and paddle to Cinder Lake for the night and paddle back on Sunday (which is what Kevin suggests). Or if you like a more leisurely pace, it would be perfect for 2 nights. Although with low water I’m not sure how navigable this route would be. We definitely plan on finding out with plans to return in the fall. We’ll paddle through Crane Lake next time for more exploring.