Nunikani Lake Loop
Total Distance: 19 km
Duration: 3 days (can easily be done in 2)
No. of Portages: 4
Total Port. Distance:. 1.6 kilometers
Level of Difficulty: Novice (Great introductory trip! Wind on Big Hawk Lake)
Map is courtesy of Jeff's Map -- my route is marked in blue
A week after not catching any trout on my trip into Rathbun Lake in 2019, I decided to try my luck up in the Haliburton Highlands. I had read Kevin Callan's trip in his book Top 60 Canoe Routes of Ontario, and in it, he stated that he and his friends had some luck with both lake trout and brook trout on Nunikani Lake and Wallace Pond respectively.
Our family didn't have much going on for the weekend, so I quickly went on to the Haliburton Highlands Water Trails Online Booking site and was able to book an island campsite on Clear Lake for the Friday night, and one on the southeastern shore of Nunikani Lake for the Saturday. As it was a very impromptu decision, I couldn't arrange a paddling partner and would be paddling solo.
Day 1 - Big Hawk Lake to Clear Lake
Heading straight to the access point from work on Friday evening, I was putting in at the Big Hawk Lake Marina by 5:30 pm. The weather was cloudy and it was drizzling on and off, which, in the second week of May, can lead to some chilly conditions.
I went into the marina to buy a few things and made small talk with the owner. He asked me if there was an event happening because so many canoe trippers had embarked on trips over the day. I said that I wasn't aware of anything, but it was probably because we had had an awful winter and people wanted to get out into the backcountry; and since Algonquin was still iced in, people were coming to Haliburton instead. He said that Big Hawk had had its ice out just a few days prior.
I paddled out of the western outlet of Big Hawk, past the many cottages, east around the point and across the northern expanse of the lake. Despite the gloomy weather, the lake was relatively calm.
Within an hour, I was at the uphill portage into Clear Lake, passing a pretty little waterfall along the way. As expected just after ice-out, the water was very high and voluminous.
I put in at the small bay on the south end of Clear Lake, which is appropriately named since I could see deep into its depths. I had booked Site 35 on the west end of an island just at the mouth of this bay.
Within a half-hour, I had set up camp and was starting a fire for dinner. The sun began peeking through the clouds at the end of the day and I enjoyed my first-night-of-the-trip tradition of having steak and caesar salad with a beer.
There were a couple of cottages and cabins on the lake, but on this night I had the lake to myself. It was a nice, clean site though firewood was scarce, so I didn't stay up too late due to a lack of wood to keep the fire going. It was a chilly sleep, but the next morning, the sun was out and it looked like a fantastic day for paddling.
Day 2 - Clear Lake to Nunikani Lake
It was a beautiful paddle out across Clear Lake. The sun was shining, the water was astonishingly clear, and there wasn't another soul in sight. Even better, the blackflies weren't out either. I slowly poked along the northern shore and eventually found myself at the portage into Red Pine Lake. On the map, there are two portages listed, and to be honest, I wasn't sure which one I was on. It was relatively easy though it climbed a bit at the beginning. It emerged next to a cottage where the owners were opening up for the season. I quickly put in and started paddling north.
Red Pine Lake was a hub of activity for the second week of May, but then again it was a gorgeous day. I spotted a couple of canoes to the east and I saw two more pulled ashore on the site at the western end of the large island at the south of the lake. A group of men were lowering a dock into the lake on the western point. A motorboat was trolling the eastern bay for lakers.
I was so busy taking it all in, and frankly feeling so happy just being out on the water, that I wasn't paying attention to how far I had paddled and missed seeing the outlet leading to the dam -- the way to Nunikani. I was much further east than I thought I was and I started heading up the creek at the northeastern end of the lake. I soon found myself paddling upstream and came up against some swifts. Knowing that Red Pine emptied into Nunikani, I realized I was in the wrong location and paddled out.
Back out onto the lake, I headed west along the north shore and eventually found an inlet and paddled my way between the rows of cottages. The water current picked up some steam and I saw the dam ahead of me.
Just to the right of the dam, a large area had been cleared and some enormous cut logs were dotting the area. A group of men were loading a fishing boat at the dam with some of this wood. They had cottages on the lake and told me that both dams in and out of Red Pine were being worked on. This clear cut was also right at the start of the portage into East Paint Lake, which is supposed to be stocked with brook trout. The 900m portage dissuaded me though and I was anxious to get into Nunikani to get set up and get into Wallace Pond.
The lift over the dam was easy and I rode the current at the bottom of the dam (pictured below) into the eastern end of Nunikani.
The day was starting to cloud over by the time I got to the shallow east bay of Nunikani Lake. I passed a couple of guys fishing in a canoe who said they managed to land a lake trout. Encouraged by this, I quickly made it to my site on the southern shore.
The site was very wet and cold. There was a huge slab of granite at the back of the site that still had quite a bit of ice on it. It served as a giant ice cube, keeping the cold and damp consistently present on the site, but nothing that a good fire couldn't take care of. The fact that the sun decided to hide for the rest of the trip did not help me stay warm though.
I quickly set up camp, made some hot ramen noodles for a late lunch and headed toward Wallace Pond which was just a straight paddle across the lake and around the point on the west side of the lake. There was a group of campers on that point enjoying an early spring trip.
The portage up into Wallace Pond was not fun. It was very wet and not maintained. It went up a hill to the left of a fast-flowing creek. Someone had tied orange flagging tape along the way to mark it. This was fine except when it came to the base of a cliff. The way up the cliff did not look fun with a canoe on my head, and the flagging tape was marked on the opposite side of the creek and into the denser woods.
I precariously hobbled on rocks to get across the fast-moving creek and managed to get my canoe across it. The flagging tape then seemed to be randomly placed here and there through the trees, switched back down the hill somewhat, and then led the way up a steep hill next to a huge mound of granite, moving away from the creek. I stupidly tried to follow it and got my canoe into a position where it was wedged between trees. Cursing, I concluded that this taped trail was either someone's idea of a cruel joke or most likely a hunting trail of some sort. It was not a path for a canoe. Besides, most portages follow a creek from one body of water to the next and it didn't make sense to be moving away from it. Standing my canoe entirely on its end and pivoting it, I managed to get turned around and went back to the base of the cliff on the other side of the creek. There, I backtracked down the hill for a bit and found a steep path up the cliff and finally put in on Wallace Pond. Perseverance won the day, but whew!
On the far side of the pond was another fast-flowing creek emptying into it. I fished along there for a while and managed to get a strike on a cast just to the right of the creek, but wasn't able to hook into anything. After about an hour or so, I made my way back down the muddy, crazy portage and back into Nunikani. Sadly, no brook trout or splake was to be had from Wallace Pond.
By that time, it was around 7 pm. Coming around the western point that had the group camping on it, I passed the sight just as a man was coming down to the lake to fill a pot with water. When I saw who it was, I couldn't believe my eyes. It was THE man himself.
"Hey, is that Kevin Callan?" I found myself asking. The rest of his group back at the firepit burst into laughter and hoots.
"Uhm, yes, I'm Kevin," he sheepishly replied. I immediately regretted calling him out. The poor guy probably gets recognized by every passing canoeist he comes upon and there he was just trying to get some water to wash his dishes on his site. Feeling guilty, I tried to keep the conversation short to let Kevin get back to his friends.
Kevin is the reason I have done many of my trips. I have most of his guide books, have seen most of his Happy Camper videos and have learned a lot about wilderness tripping from this man. He was cordial and polite and we talked fishing for a minute or two.
A week or two after the trip, he put out a Happy Camper video of this Nunikani trip. If anyone reading this hasn't viewed any of Kevin's videos, I highly recommend them. I also recommend Kevin's latest publication Once Around Algonquin which is about his trip completing the Meanest Link in Algonquin in 2013 with his friend, Andy Baxter. It is an absolute must for any backcountry canoe tripper and has loads of anecdotes containing Kevin's humour, history of the park, and concern for the environment.
Getting back to camp, I got a good fire going, dried off and ate a nice meal. It was a chilly, but serene night on the lake. Later, the serenity was broken and I was awoken by eerie sounds in the night. It was a combination of low groaning and loud cracks. It alarmed me at first and then I realized it was all the ice cracking on the rocks behind me. I was cool (pun intended) and freaky at the same time.
On the paddle out the next morning, I saw that the entire southern shore was a long ridge of granite that saw little sun and still had huge curtains of ice on it. It was quite a sight.
The weather looked dreadful in the morning. It was very gloomy and dark clouds were blowing quickly across the sky.
While I was eating my breakfast, Kevin and his group had already broken camp and were paddling south to head back out to Big Hawk Lake. They had also read the writing on the wall and knew that we were in for some weather. I was not looking forward to high winds on Big Hawk, so I wanted to get up and out as soon as possible, as well.
The southern part of Nunikani was pretty. There was a nice site on the northern tip of the island that filled the southern bay. The wind was starting to pick up and was coming in gusts, but that narrow southern part of the lake was fairly protected.
The portage from Nunikani into the creek that leads to Big Hawk is to the right of a large dam and was a steep drop in elevation of about 40 feet. With the water levels high, the flow out of the dam was an absolute torrent. In no way does the picture below do justice to the force, noise and power of that moving water.
I put in at the bottom of that drop. From there, it was a fun paddle riding the current back into Big Hawk Lake. The creek made a hard left and widened before the lake. When I got around that point, the wind slammed into me like a ton of bricks and the fun ended.
Peering ahead out into the bay, the whitecaps looked formidable. The wind was blowing from the southeast and I stayed close to the western shore of the long finger-like bay at the north end of this large lake. Across the finger on the eastern shore were some massive cliffs, which, according to legend, contain gold. I would have loved to paddle over there, hike those rocks and investigate them, but that would have to wait for another day with better weather.
It took me the better part of two hours to paddle Big Hawk, a distance that under normal conditions would have only taken me 45 minutes! I skirted the northern shore of the main bay and had to stop on a few docks to ride out some particularly nasty wind bursts. I'd like to say that I wasn't concerned, but the thought of getting swamped and dumping in 3-degree water was foremost on my mind. Once I got through the narrows and into the western bay that led to the marina, I was able to relax a little more as it was much more protected from the wind and manageable. Spotting my vehicle from the lake, I felt relieved.
Though I got skunked on the fishing (again!) and the weather was poor on the paddle out, I enjoyed the trip. I got to meet Kevin Callan, enjoyed the beautiful scenery, and experienced an early spring solo trip. I will be returning to Nunikani on another trip someday.