Black Lake Loop

Total Distance: 25 km

Duration: 3 days 

No. of Portages: 12

Total Port. Distance: 7.3 kilometers (The last 1350-meter portage may be done without gear to retrieve the vehicle.)

Level of Difficulty: Experienced Novice-- portaging accounts for nearly a third of the entire distance of the loop. The route is undulating and navigation among the ATV trails can be difficult.

Maps provided courtesy of Toporama which contains information licensed under the Open Government Licence – Canada. I have marked my route in blue and portages in red. 

The spring of 2024 arrived early in southern Ontario. Some might even say that winter never really happened. It  barely snowed much at all over the winter; I think I only shovelled our driveway two or three times in total. The official ice-out date for Algonquin was April 10th, a good two weeks earlier than the average. 

Normally, I would have already been out on a weekend trip or two under these circumstances, but I was in the middle of renovating the main bathroom in our home, so my evenings and weekends were not free. By the end of April, I was seeing the light at the end of the tunnel on the renos, and I was itching to get out on a trip before the bugs became too nasty. I needed to eschew the stress of work by embarking on a solo adventure away for a few days. 

All my life, I have had a serious case of wanderlust. I like to explore new places and would always prefer to paddle a new route rather than revisit a route that I had previously enjoyed. Unfortunately, a problem for me was that I was running out of viable weekend routes accessible to my home that I hadn't done before. 

The Black Lake Loop just south of the town of Dorset in the western part of the Haliburton Highlands had some mixed reviews, but I thought on this first weekend of May 2024, I might give it a try and see it for myself. It was a doable route in the time frame of a weekend, but the few online trip reports about it that I could find were from over 10 years ago and they stated that navigating some of the portages might be an issue.  And a good many portages this route did have! It truly passed the "get into canoe-tripping shape for the season" test that I often like to subject myself to in May. So, on Thursday, May 2nd, the night prior, I decided it would be my route and I quickly booked a site on the Haliburton Highlands Water Trails site for Saturday night. I didn't need to book the site for my intended destination for the Friday, because it was a crown land site. Then, I  printed off a section of Jeff's Maps (2016 version) that covered this route. It would be my only guide for this trip. 

Though this route could easily be done in either direction, I decided to go counterclockwise to have a little less uphill travel on some of the longer portages at the western end of the loop. Also, with the limited available campsite options, this direction allowed me to split up the route a little more evenly. It would mean going upstream on the Black River, though. This wasn't too much of a concern since all rapids and falls were supposed to have portages past them. 

Day 1 - Shoe Lake to Carcass Lake (7 km) 

On Friday, May 3rd, I departed for the trip directly from work in Peterborough, my vehicle pre-loaded with my canoe and gear the night before. With only a quick energy-boost stop at the Timmie's in Bobcaygeon, I arrived at the Shoe Lake put-in at 5 PM. After unloading my gear, I parked my vehicle in the limited space across from the public put-in and shoved off.

Shoe Lake is a small body of water with a number of cottages on its shores. Many of them appeared to be vacant, most likely due to the poor weather forecast for the weekend. In fact, there was a steady drizzle as I paddled west across the lake. 

I cannot express how magical the feeling is to me when I return to the water for the first time in the spring. It was my first paddle since October and could feel the stresses and worries of my daily life dissipate with each stroke. The smell of the budding trees, the sound of birds, even the swarming black flies, all brought back that comfortable feeling of returning to nature. Coupled with the excitement of embarking on another adventure on my own, the experience is somehow calming and exhilarating all at once. 

I soon arrived at the swampy take-out to the portage to Blue Chalk Lake. West of Raven Lake, the route is considered "unofficial" which means that portages and campsites are not regularly maintained. I was therefore surprised to see that the portage, and every other one en route, was marked with a sign. No distances were marked on these unofficial ones, however. 

I nicknamed that 1200-meter portage "The Road to Everywhere". Allow me to explain why. 

The trail started in a muddy area and met a cottage road after the first 30 meters. I had to head left down that road for 40 meters or so, before another yellow portage sign showed the way west again, away from the road.

There, the trail was a muddy scar through a coniferous forest for a couple of hundred meters. The evergreens gave way to a sparse forest of deciduous trees as it ascended over a ridge. If it weren't for the flagged trees it would have been extremely difficult to follow. The trail was hidden because the forest floor was covered with a dense carpet of fallen leaves from the previous autumn. To make matters worse, the trees were barren of leaves in early May. It just looked like a forest with no trail. The odd pool of stagnant water helped to let me know the trail was there in spots.  It continued like this for the vast majority of the walk, but the flagging tape became less common, making navigation difficult.  

Toward the end, the portage went down a very steep descent at the far end of the ridge to a rough cottage road. The rain was getting harder and I had to tread extremely carefully lest I slide down the entire elevation in the slick conditions. Upon reaching the road, which ran parallel to Blue Chalk Lake, I didn't know if I should go left or right. I could see the lake, about 50 meters away, through the trees, but no discernible trail to the lake could be detected.  I walked a bit in either direction and eventually just bushwhacked to the lake. 

The real trouble began, however, when I went back for my canoe. The rain started coming down quite hard at that point, and I must have been zoning out somewhat approaching the Shoe Lake end because I somehow followed another trail. I was simply following flagging tape and hadn't noticed that I had come to a fork of some sort and followed the wrong trail. I thought that I had been walking for longer than I should have and was seeing landmarks that didn't look familiar. I knew I was off base when I came upon a boarded-up cabin that was emitting smoke from the adjacent smokehouse. I found it a bit creepy to be honest. I hadn't seen it on the way to Blue Chalk so I knew I was off track, and I hightailed past it. 

At that point, I decided to consult the GPS and saw that I had gone quite a distance south of where I was supposed to be. The kicker was that from the cabin I managed to take yet another wrong trail again in my attempt to recover the original trail! There were little trails all over the place I had begrudgingly discovered. 

Using the GPS out in front of my nose, I eventually found my way back to the portage and discovered that I had been virtually back at Shoe Lake, almost at the cottage road, at the spot where I had gone off track originally. Sheesh. 

I grabbed the canoe and hightailed it back to Blue Chalk. All told, I spent two hours double-tripping that portage and it was after 7 PM when I put in on the lake through a thicket of cedar. (Remember? I had to bushwhack the last 50 meters to the lake.) That gave me only a little over an hour to get to my campsite on Carcass Lake before dark and that was two lakes and two portages away. I sincerely hoped the other portages would not be like the one I had just completed.  From the lake, I could not see the proper put-in of the Road to Everywhere. I was glad I didn't spend a long time looking for it.

Blue Chalk Lake was nice enough, but again, a number of cabins and cottages dotted its shores. I startled a pair of beavers when I rounded the bend to enter the southern bay. They slapped their tails aggressively in unison to display their disapproval of my presence. 

I spotted the same cottage road that I had crossed on the previous portage at the south end of the lake and took out there next to a culvert. I snapped the following shot of Blue Chalk Lake behind me.

The 50-meter portage went west on the road for 20 meters and then an ATV trail veered south to the lake through a clearing used as a campsite. I considered making camp there for a minute or two, but really wanted to be away from roads. I had already seen a truck pulling a trailer of ATVs on the previous portage on the road. I was aiming for solitude. 

Red Chalk Lake was even nicer than its predecessor but again, cottages and cabins. This part of the route was still firmly in cottage country, and I was on the hunt for some solitude in the wilderness.  

In the southern bay near the portage to Carcass Lake, there was a trailer, cabin, and a dock on the eastern shore. Though it would have been a more direct line to paddle in front of the dock to reach the portage, I gave that area an extremely wide berth. There were three young boys on the dock, each sporting a BB rifle, firing pellets into the lake. The last thing I needed was a BB in the side of my melon while racing the darkness to my campsite. 

The 500-meter portage to Carcass was muddy. It ascended a rise to the south, veered east down a very steep face, and then turned south again to follow a creek bed to the lake. It was flagged and easy to navigate. Again, there was another creepy-looking shelter of some sort near Carcass Lake. I was thinking how this area would be a good location to film a horror movie. 

Carcass Lake! I was happy. I wanted to make camp. Better yet, there were no cottages or cabins on the lake! It was getting darker but still light enough to set up camp. Even the rain had stopped. Yes, things were looking up! 

My map showed the campsite location to be about halfway across the small lake on the eastern shore. I paddled the shore and could only see extremely dense forest. Uh-oh. Perhaps, I would have to make a bush site after all, but it was not looking viable given the forest conditions. Sometimes, it is possible to camp at the start of a portage if there is enough space. I was hoping that would be the case this time but was feeling somewhat dejected at the thought that my first night out in 2024 would be in a swampy, buggy, bush site. 

Alas, the campsite was at the portage! It was marked at the wrong location on my map. It was a legitimate campsite with a lot of space and nice access to the water. To my delight, it wasn't bad at all.

I immediately pulled my canoe and gear up on the campsite, and changed out of my wet clothes and boots. It felt glorious to put on a dry shirt and a pair of track pants. I then cracked a beer which I sipped on while putting up my hammock. There wasn't a good spot to hang it in the main clearing near the water, but I found a nice little spot in another little clearing off to the side a few meters up the trail. Here is a shot of my hang the following morning when it was light. 

Interestingly, there was some dried scat on top of one of the stumps next to the fire pit. It was white, so I assumed that it was wolf scat because it turns white after it dries out and gets old. I laughed at the picture forming in my mind of a wolf up on a stump on its haunches to leave its mark on display like a sculpture in a museum.  I had already scattered it to the ground before thinking to take a picture of it, but it got me wondering if this is something that wolves do to leave their mark. Some subsequent googling taught me that this is common behaviour in foxes to mark their territory. Hilarious. I learn something new on every single canoe trip!

With some birch bark and dry dead wood found under spruce trees, I got a fire going in no time. I cooked my marinated steak over the fire and had a fantastic meal of steak, salad, and potato chips. I was planning on making instant mashed potatoes but at 9:30 PM I couldn't have bothered. 

I sat by the fire until about 11 PM enjoying a couple of whiskeys and the ambiance of being back out in the wilderness. I had the lake to myself and I couldn't have been happier.