Total Distance: 26 km
Duration: Allow for a full day of paddling (at least 6 hours depending on water levels)
No. of Portages: 2
Total Portage Distance: approximately 800 meters
Level of Difficulty: Experienced Novice
Maps provided courtesy of Toporama which contains information licensed under the Open Government Licence – Canada.
Put in on the Drag River just south of Canning Lake on Haliburton County Road 1 at the bridge.
On the first weekend in November 2022, the weather forecast was calling for some unseasonably warm weather. In fact, it was calling for the temperature to be over 20 degrees Celcius and sunny. With days like that in November, I just had to get out paddling before the snow came.
I had been eyeing the Burnt River between Minden and Haliburton for some time but had yet to work out the logistics. From an online forum, I discovered that if I called the City of Kawartha lakes, they would set me up with a paddling brochure that they had published.
Well, I did just that and the administrative assistant that I spoke with was helpful and, indeed, emailed me the brochure. It was sent with a caveat, however. The following information was contained in the email:
As you will see on the attached map - there is a section on the Burnt River between the town of Kinmount and the town of Burnt River that includes several portages. It is the section with portages #4-10. This section should NOT be paddled at this time as the portages are no longer permitted due to being on private property and they have not been maintained and therefore are very unsafe at this time.
So, we can provide the attached map for you to use as a guide but must stress that the section referenced above is not navigable at this time. Instead we recommend you paddle the upper section of the Burnt River that starts in Haliburton down to Kinmount or that you start in the town of Burnt River and paddle down to Fenelon Falls. There is a park in the town of Burnt River just off Hwy 121 that has parking available where you can launch into Burnt River and take it down to the town of Fenelon Falls.
I might have been wrong at the time, but I read into this warning a little more. I read between the lines of the email and guessed that the property owners did not want to have people portaging across their land. It was curious because this is certainly an established canoe route and it seemed that people have been doing this for ages. Moreover, the Burnt River was historically used as a logging river, so the portages around large rapids and falls have been well-established for many, many years. If this could be proven then under the Ontario Public Lands Act of 1997, the owners most likely do not possess the legal right to prohibit access to the portages. So why is the City of Kawartha Lakes saying that portages are no longer accessible? Was there an injury and the city/owners don't want to be held liable? Have canoeists been disrespectful to the property owners? Have there been people camping on the portages, creating litter and/or noise? Was the property sold and the new owners simply didn't want portagers on their land? I had no idea, but something obviously had changed.
Well, I was discouraged after reading the email. Whether I was in the legal right to access the portage or not, I certainly did not want to have a confrontation on what was supposed to be a relaxing weekend trip. It certainly laid waste to my plan of doing an overnight trip, however. The portages in question are basically right in the middle section of the river. Alas, my wife, Dahee, and I would have to shorten our route to a day trip, so we decided on starting at the Drag River just south of Canning Lake and paddle down into the Burnt River and take out at Kinmount.
We got up early and drove in two vehicles to the town of Kinmount, where we parked one vehicle at a public landing just north of the grocery store. In the other vehicle, we headed north on Highway 121 for almost 8 kilometers and then turned right onto Haliburton County Road 1. From there, it was about 13 kilometers to a bridge that crossed the Drag River just north of Gelert where we parked our second vehicle off on the side of the road and put in by 8:45 AM. Here is a shot of the bridge from the river.
The sun was shining and we were so happy to have amazing weather that late in the year. We immediately hit a set of shallow rapids south of the bridge. We were able to get through it with a combination of running and wading the swifts with a bit of healthy scraping. There were a number of cottages and homes on both sections of the river along that stretch.
After that initial set of shallow rapids, the river widened and we were able to paddle for about ten minutes or so without having to wade anymore. The western shore was lined with cottages there, but soon after that, it narrowed and got shallow once more for a while where we once again had to wade through some shallow rockier bits. On the bright side, the cottages became fewer and farther between and it felt like we were getting into some wilderness.
After that second set of shallow rapids, came an even wilder marshy area where the river became the widest yet. We paddled under a road where some more structures appeared. We were approaching the town of Gelert.
Beyond the bridge was an even wider stretch that felt like a small lake. At the southeast corner, the river continued under what looked like a steel footbridge most likely used by snowmobiles. We could hear some rushing water there and knew we were coming to our first portage marked on the map. We couldn't see the portage until we went to the left bank just above the bridge to scout. From there we spotted the portage sign on river right below a ledge and beaver dam. We ran the ledge and eddied out on the right to access the take-out before being carried further down the rapids.
Before using the portage, we scrambled up to the footbridge and took a picture of the rapids from above. Below those rapids, the river narrowed into a gorge and down a small chute. It looked unrunnable through the chute from afar, but we didn't really bushwhack down to the river at that spot to get a better look. We had already started the portage at that point. Besides, on a day trip, we didn't have a lot of gear to carry.
The portage was about 400 meters, give or take, and was tough to follow in spots. It did not appear to get much use. In fact, I went first with the canoe and crashed through the bush approximately three-quarters of the way through when the trail disappeared. I was able to catch up with it again after the bushwhack, closer to the put-in. Dahee, however, was following somewhat behind me with the paddles and our day bag and got herself turned around after losing sight of the trail and me. With the rapids raging on our left, I couldn't hear her calling out. After not seeing her at the put-in after a spell, I went back to look for her and found her 15 meters west of the portage. She had gone too far to the west and was working her way back toward the river. It just goes to show that it's easy to get lost in the woods even in a relatively small area.
We put in below the last of the rapids and looked behind us upriver at the pretty scenery.
Shortly afterward, we paddled off the Drag River and into the Burnt River as the two waterways merged. Thankfully, we now had more water volume. There were a number of swifts along the way below the confluence, but nothing that would require tremendous skills or the need to portage. It was a pleasant and pretty paddle.
At 11:AM, we had been on the river for over two hours and we thought we would stop to have some chicken wraps that we had made at home the night before. We found a nice gravelly beach on the left bank, where we sat for a bit and soaked up some rare November sun.
Below the confluence of the Drag and Burnt Rivers, there isn't any development for quite a distance, so it surprised us to find a shaky footbridge crossing the river from a lone riverside abode after coming around a bend. On the map, the hamlet of Dutch Line was nearby.
Just before that upriver from that bridge, we had startled a family of deer grazing in the forest near the water. A doe and two of her offspring tore off into the woods upon sensing us.
For the next hour or so, we worked our way downriver and found that stretch to be the nicest. There weren't any homes or cottages and it felt like we were actually on a wild river. The current was apparent but there wasn't any whitewater to speak of, just the odd gentle swift here and there.
The only obstacle before reaching the confluence with the Irondale River is a small ledge that can either be run in highwater or lined in lower water.
By the time we reached the two rivers meeting, the skies had clouded over. I looked upriver at the confluence and took the following photo of the Irondale joining the Burnt River. The Irondale certainly added a lot of water volume.
Almost immediately after that, we spotted the portage sign to get us past the Three Brothers. We could hear them at that point.
After taking out, the trail joined a gravel road that led us past the three sets of falls which were on our right. There were properties both along this road and across the river. Upon seeing the falls, we immediately understood why people had chosen this spot for a cottage or home. The falls were beautiful!
I walked too far on the road past the falls on the portage. The put-in was down a very steep and rocky embankment just below the last set of falls. I had assumed there was an easier spot further down to put in, but soon realized that it was on private property there.
After taking our canoe and paddle down to the put-in, we walked back up and sat for a while atop the last and the largest of the drops.
We had to get just one more photo once we put in below them.
From below the falls it was a little less than an hour to paddle back to Kinmount. That section consisted of a lot of properties and farmland along the river banks. There was an interesting train or footbridge just about ten minutes downriver from Three Brothers.
We encounterd a few fishermen in motor boats as we got closer to Kinmount. The river got a bit swampy in spots there and we enjoyed the ambience of cows on the river's edge. It appeared that a few oxbow lakes and ponds had been formed there over the years, as well. On one section on the right, a high cliff of eroding silt and sand was slowly sliding into the river over time.
We were dragging our canoe ashore at the public launch in Kinmount shortly after 2 PM. It was just in time as the weather had gotten cooler with incoming clouds. It appeared that some rain was on the horizon.
Overall, we had a great day on the river. We only had two portages to contend with and had to wade over just a couple of shallow spots upriver on the Drag. Other than that, it was unimpeded paddling for the duration. The area was quite pretty and there were long stretches of undeveloped wilderness just below where the Drag and the Burnt meet. The Three Brothers are a must-see despite existing among cottages. The unexpected warm and sunny weather also certainly contributed to the positive vibes. Is there a better way to spend a day in November?