Blackcat - Nunikani Loop

Total Distance: 21 km

Duration: 2 days 

No. of Portages: 9

Total Port. Distance: 2.2 kilometers

Level of Difficulty: Novice - this would be a good starter trip to introduce portaging.

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. 

On the last day of September, my wife, Dahee, and I wanted to take an overnight trip to do some leaf peeping. The colours were in full glory and the weather was looking good for the weekend. Due to work constraints, we only had the weekend, so our choice of routes was limited. We were also looking for a bit of privacy and didn't want a trip where we'd be camping on a lake with a lot of other people. Within reason, we didn't mind doing a bit of portaging to get to a quiet and scenic location. Naturally, Algonquin was looking very busy at the usual accessible spots, so we looked at the Haliburton Highlands. I had heard that Blackcat Lake was pretty, and I had really enjoyed my late-season stay on nearby Orley Lake the year prior. What's more, I could revisit Nunikani Lake. It had been about 5 years since I was there and I had never seen it in its fall splendor. A quick check on the Haliburton Highlands Water Trail site revealed that Blackcat Lake had a vacancy for a nice site and the deal was clinched. 

Day 1 - Big Hawk Lake to Blackcat Lake (8 km) 

We had packed and loaded our vehicle the night before and were ready to get an early start on Saturday, Sept. 30th. The put-in on Big Hawk Lake was busy. There was a large hiking group milling about waiting for their remaining companions to arrive. Boats were launching at the marina and others were arriving to fill up with fuel. It seemed like everyone was taking advantage of the unseasonably warm and sunny weather we were having in late September. 

We put in amidst the chaos and had to drive our vehicle a good distance back from the marina to find an available parking spot on the road. We were hoping the lakes and trails wouldn't be as hectic. We were on the water by 10:30 AM. 

Out on the lake, we immediately knew we had made the right decision to pick this weekend for a trip when we got a glimpse of the beautiful colours along the cottage-studded shoreline. 

The water was calm as we crossed the centre of the large open part of the lake and we only had to contend with a couple of wakes from motorboats. In the narrows at the western edge of the lake, the shoreline was much more interesting with rocky cliffs and outcrops. 

We were looking forward to portaging past cottage country and getting into some wilderness. There was even a cottage in the dark and narrow channel leading to the portage into Snowshoe Lake. 

We found the 95-meter trail to the right of a trickling stream. The landing area was a bit squishy and we had to pull up the canoe and rest it on some bouldery rocks. The trail crossed the stream a few meters in. It continued to the left of the log-choked trickle over some rocky ledges and ended at another boggy put-in. 

Snowshoe Lake was nothing more than an oversized pond and the site there was fine, but nothing to write home about. 

The portage from Snowshoe Lake to Midway Lake was also 95 meters in length, however, it was straight uphill. 

It was busy, as well. A man and his son were wandering about just off the portage trail, probably looking for firewood. They were camped at the exposed rocky site at the south end of Midway Lake just to the left of the portage trail. In addition, another solo canoe tripper was using the portage but in the opposite direction. He was on a looping day trip from his campsite somewhere in the area.  

The following is a shot looking back at the campsite from the north end of the lake. 

The 290-meter portage from Midway Lake to Chico Pond seemed shorter than the distance posted. It was also uphill and followed to the left of a stream connecting the two ponds. The put-in was on a slope to the left of a formidable beaver dam. 

There was only a short 70-meter carry to end our morning bout of pond hopping. Although it's tedious unloading and reloading the boat so frequently, I enjoyed the scenery and landscape. The trickling of the bubbling stream was clearly audible with the forest being much quieter at that time of year. The majority of migrating birds had already departed and the lack of insect noises was apparent. It was a lovely time of year to be outside. 

Likewise, there were notably larger trees up in that area, some right along the portage trail. As part of the Clear Lake Conservation Reserve, the area is especially known for its old hemlock trees. 

We put in on Blackcat Lake and it was just a short paddle to our campsite. There was one other campsite across the lake from ours that was occupied by a pair of fellows. Unfortunately, the site was much closer than I had expected it to be and it was a bit of a nuisance having another party so close to us. On the bright side, they were quiet and our tent pad was back in the woods, out of sight which gave us some privacy. After a while, we didn't even really notice them there, and hopefully, they felt the same about us. 

The site itself was small but nice. It was on a rocky outcrop with a nice firepit sporting great views. There was a gorgeous rocky shoreline to the west and an open view of the main part of the lake to the south and the bay to the southwest. 

The water was incredibly clear. Blackcat Lake is a meromictic lake which means that the lake has layers that do not mix, ever. Therefore, the bottom layer of the lake is usually hypoxic, meaning that there is little to no oxygen in the water. Only anaerobic organisms can live in these conditions. 

We set up camp and made some lunch. Despite the water being quite chilly on the last day of September, we simply could not resist going for a swim in the crystal clear water to wash off the grime of four portages. The sun warmed us in a hurry afterward. 

The rest of the day was spent relaxing at camp and paddling around the lake. We read our books for a while, had a glorious late afternoon nap, and investigated different corners of the lake. It was the last day of trout fishing season, and I tried my luck to no avail for 30 minutes or so. 

After collecting a good amount of firewood, we got a healthy fire going and grilled some steak and potatoes, accompanied by Caesar salad and wine. It was a fantastic evening. 

Day 2 - Blackcat Lake to Big Hawk Lake (13 km) 

We both had a good night's sleep. We got up around 8 AM and while Dahee packed away our sleeping gear, I got a fire going and cooked us some bacon and egg wraps. 

The morning was generally overcast, but some open skies were trying to work their way in.  By 9:30 AM we had the boat loaded and were back on the water. I snapped the following shot of our site as we departed. 

The 520-meter portage to Clear Lake was well-groomed with a  boardwalk landing making it easier to unload the boat.

There was a steep hill in the middle and we were happy to be going in the downhill direction. Again, there were some notably large trees en route. The put-in was in a quiet back bay at the southeastern corner of the lake away from cottages. 

It was a relatively short paddle across Clear Lake, where we saw a large group of campers with kids occupying the site on the point at the south end of the lake. Nearly 2 kilometers away up on Blackcat Lake, we had heard some loud campers in the night and now we understood where the noise had come from. 

There were some lovely dramatic cliffs at the lake's eastern edge. 

There are two portages into Red Pine Lake from Clear Lake and we chose the one to the west. It was 210 meters in length and again was well-used and maintained. It was good to see the township putting the camping fees to good use. 

The trail was mostly flat until the last 40 meters where it rose to meet Red Pine Lake. 

Paddling across Red Pine Lake was nice. It is a large lake dotted with many cottages at its western and northern shores, but the wind was down, the lake was glass, the forest was afire with colour, no motor boats leaving wakes, and the sun was beginning to emerge. Fantastic! 

Shortly after 11 AM, we were paddling the shallow channel that would take us past a dam and eventually into Nunikani Lake. 

Coming up to the dam, I became a bit concerned. The last time I was there, it was early spring and I simply lifted over the dam and rode a series of small rapids and swifts into Nunikani Lake. No such luck this time. The dam was being reconstructed and it looked to be quite the undertaking. There was a large fenced-off swath of construction equipment blocking access to the dam. We took out on a rickety dock on the right and portaged deep into the woods around the enclosed area. 

We then came to a trail that forked, one path to the north to take canoeists to East Paint Lake, and the other with a sign informing us that the portage back to the river to Nunikani was now 750 meters in length! Grrrr. 

Needless to say, a 30-meter liftover being converted to a longish portage did not sit well with me at the time. I was not mentally prepared for it and refused to accept it, so I told myself that I would bushwhack down to the river below the dam and run the river into Nunikani. Big mistake. 

We found a trail down to the water and put in tenuously off of a log. We paddled and waded for about 100 meters in very shallow water before I could spot a formidable drop in the river ahead through a series of rocks. Furthermore, I could make out that there were sweepers below the drop. Clearly, these were not the same river conditions that I had experienced 5 years earlier. 

Whether it was late season water levels, the dam flow, or a combination of the two, the river was unrunnable.  We managed to get back to the right bank and onshore in the middle of a swift before it carried us into that sweeper. We scrambled up the steep shore and bushwhacked our way back to the portage trail. Needless to say, we ended up doing more work and taking more time than simply portaging the trail from start to finish. For the umpteenth time on my many canoe trips, I was reminded that portages most often exist for a valid reason. 

Putting in at the end of the portage, we got a good look upriver what we would have come down had we not got off the river in time. That fresh, large sweeper across the run would have been trouble, indeed!  

We paddled out and into the eastern section of Nunikani Lake. We could easily notice how low the water levels were on the lake, probably down 6 to 8 feet. 

I would have liked to drop a line to get at some of Nunikani's lake trout, but it was the first day of being out of season. I didn't mind too much though; the clouds had dissipated, the lake was calm, and the shoreline was extraordinary in its autumn colours. 

We took our time paddling the length of the lake, enjoying the scenery and the day. By the time we reached the most southern campsite, near the dam outflow of the lake, it was 12:30 PM and we were hungry. We stopped at the site to make ourselves some peanut butter and honey wraps. 

Again, in the following photo of the site, you can see how low the water levels were. 

It was nice having those wraps in the hot sun on the first day of October. What a treat! 

Better yet, we seemed to have the entire lake to ourselves -- that is until we got onto the site and found that we had a visitor joining us for lunch. His name was Stumpy, and although he was a pleasant sort of fellow, he talked a lot. I told him that his bark was much worse than his bite. As you can see in the photo, he didn't look happy about that. 

We paddled to the portage that would take us past a dam and Crab Falls. Our map showed a 650-meter portage, however, we did it in one shorter portage, a paddle down some swifts, and another 30-meter liftover over a ledge. The landing area at the top of the dam was a bit tricky in the low-water conditions as it was cluttered with driftwood and rocks. 

Here is a shot of Crab Falls from the dam. 

The portage was only about 150 meters long before we could put in below the rocks at the base of the falls. 

From that point, we rode downstream for 400 meters or so before getting out again on the right to liftover the final ledge. This was much easier than the full 650-meter portage. Here is a shot of the ledge from below it. We carried our canoe and gear over the rocks that are seen at the left of the photo. 

From there it was a straightforward paddle through a mind-blowing array of colour to reach Big Hawk Lake. 

Emerging on Big Hawk Lake, we got a nice glimpse of the large cliff on the eastern shore of that channel. Rumour has it that there is gold in those cliffs. Let's hope that it won't befall the same fate as Wolf Lake or Côté Lake. 

We paddled back across Big Hawk Lake and had our car loaded by 2:30 PM. 

It was a terrific weekend. We couldn't have asked for better weather for a late-season overnighter and felt like we caught the leaf peeping colours at pretty much the peak time. Our site was great, and we got the silence and privacy that we were after for the most part --  all of this only about an hour and a half away from our driveway. Have I mentioned how lucky we are to live in a place like Ontario? 

Until the next trip...