Quiet water and ancient forests.
- Land: The Haliburton Highlands Water Trails are on the traditional territory of Huron-Wendat, Anishnabek, and Odawa people.
- Transit: You’ll need your own vehicle to get to the Kennisis Lake Dam access point, where you’ll set out across Red Pine Lake in some kind of water craft.
- Cost: Low.
- Crowds: Red Pine Lake was not busy at all on the tail end of a summer weekend. Sampson Pond was all ours.
- Attractions: Camping, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, swimming, photography, solitude, hiking, peace and quiet, exploring.
- Accessibility: You’ll have to be able to get in and out of, and operate, a canoe or kayak.
- Environmental Impact: As always, stay on trails and official campsites. It’s a miracle that the old-growth hemlock forest here was spared the axe for the past few centuries. Please don’t trample!
- Red Pine Lake mapped. The adjacent Sampson Pond doesn’t show up on Google Maps.
- The Haliburton Highlands Water Trails reservation system is available here.
The gut-deep feeling of worry doesn’t go away on the whole ride up. After all the planning, booking time off work, the excitement, after everything else coming together, the forecast calls for rain. Worse: It could be a sprinkle, or it could be a downpour. There could be a gentle breeze, or the wind could be strong enough to make the canoe trip an arm-killer.
After much angsting we decide we’re prepared for the worst – and we get ready for all weather. After all, when going backcountry camping, one should always be ready for all weather. To do otherwise would be dangerous. We’re headed across Red Pine Lake in the heart of cottage country, through a portage and into Sampson Pond, in the heart of an ancient forest.
The sky above us is still blue when we arrive at the Kennisis Lake Dam, our launch point into the narrows to Red Pine Lake. But the clouds have been building in the west, where the wind is coming from. Something’s on it’s way, but we’re all hopeful it’ll be minor.
The paddle through the narrows is beautiful. Trees stretch out over the quiet water. We see turtles, water lilies, and fewer and fewer people.
On Red Pine Lake there are a handful of other canoes exploring, one looking for good swimming on an empty, windblown campsite. A few fishing boats are out, but I’m sure they’re more plentiful at the beginning and end of the day.
The wind begins to pick up. It knocks off my hat, which inexplicably sinks beneath the waves. Was it woven of stone?
By the time we reach the portage to Sampson Pond the sky has clouded over. It’s only light grey, but it has nevertheless arrived. Mosquitoes come out as we approach the wetlands the portage route skirts. They keep us moving.
The portage is beautiful, an introduction to the area’s ancient forest. The floor is ruddy with pine and hemlock needles of years past; it makes the green stand out all the stronger. Roots wrap around errant rocks. Mushrooms grow in the muted light beneath the canopy far above.
The hemlocks, in particular, grow tall here. Our necks have to hinge back for us to see the tops of them. Their thinness compared to their height gives each a unique, slightly wistful quality.
Arriving at our campsite just as a gentle rain begins, we see one of a few majestic old white pines we’ll be acquainted with on this trip. Many of them were logged out of this area, but some remain. We put our tent on a flat space under this one, sure that it’ll help keep the rain off us. Still, we string up a tarp at an odd angle to catch the rain and let it run off downhill.
The sound of the errant drops hitting the forest canopy and our tarp is soothing in a way that smooths over the disappointment of not having a sunny, hot evening. It sounds peaceful, smells beautiful, and surrounds us entirely. Our rain gear keeps us dry and warm enough to appreciate it.
I start cooking dinner in the fire pit, cradled in a dip in the Canadian Shield shoreline of our campsite. Starting camp fires has become a mindful practice. Start well. Have everything ready, everything in its place; begin the fire, let it breathe, nurture it instead of forcing it. The glow of the fire, the smell of our food, and the impossibly gentle sound of the rain on the pond is like a massage for my soul.
It’s not all wonderful – the dampness has set into my shoes and the bottoms of my pants. My hair and scalp are a little dewy. I’d rather be hot and dry, but this feels like the price for the beauty of this moment. And I’m willing to pay it.
The drizzle breaks after dinner, and we set off on a paddle around Sampson Pond. In this light, and after a fresh shower, the green of the forest is astonishing. With only the faintest breath of wind passing by, mist billows straight up from the canopy.
The pond is lined with walls of trees rising suddenly from the shore. It’s hard to tell where that’s because of hidden cliff faces, and where it’s because of the enormity of the forest itself. It’s easy to feel tiny here. And young.
A loon joins us, fishing silently. Before it leaves it treats us with a song.
Then the rain truly comes. And it pours. Thunder rumbles and lightning becomes brighter than the daylight that filters down to us.
We stay in our tent, play cards, catch up, talk about the world, the future, ridiculous things that make us laugh. We hear the rain outside, and yet we are warm and dry.
I get into the sleeping bag I share with my husband smiling, grateful for our tent and our planning. We usually have sunny weather when we camp. This trip, while not what I had envisaged, will be remembered for being unique.
The lightning grows closer. Wind gusts high above, but the forest canopy seems to absorb it all and on the ground, where we are, all is calm.
The next day is completely different, and exactly what I had hoped for.
The rocky shoreline is drying in the heat and, soaking up the sun like solar cells, we eat breakfast there. In pits in the rock a thin soil has settled. Pitcher plants and others grow there. Where there’s no soil, mosses and lichens flourish.
The shore may look like barren rock from a distance, but up close it’s alive.
Just offshore I watch en entire ecosystem within the water. Minnows and plants, insects and more live on and under the surface.
It seems to me that this is what happens when people leave a place to its own devices.
We go for a leisurely swim, careful to leave the floor of the pond alone. Further out the fish are bigger, the water clearer, too deep for plants to reach the surface.
We canoe across the pond to a portage point we noticed the day before.
We hike up and up and up amid moss-covered roots and rocks, increasingly humbled by the magnificent forest.
I crouch to the ground with the widest-angle lens I have on my camera, and can still only get a part of these sentinel trees in frame. My favourite forest guide tells me that they can be up to 400 years old here.
Meanwhile, amid the leaf litter, baby sugar maples begin their ascent to the sun. They can live for ages here in the shade, waiting for a hole in the canopy so they can spring up to the sky. Mature hemlocks and sugar maples are a sure sign of stable old-growth forest in this area, while the old oaks and pines suggest a healthy enough turn-over in the canopy and variety in the topography to promote an even greater abundance of life here.
We head back with fair winds and sunny skies. The portage to Red Pine Lake feels shorter, as the way back often does.
As we leave the portage point we notice an old white cedar trunk leaning down to the water. The top covered in moss and wispy greens, with a knot hole just where the eye would be, it has me imagining an old dragon coming to the shore for a drink.
There’s a parade of life across that dragon’s back. I’m reminded that nothing truly dies in the forest. The current generation of apex trees here may be hundreds of years old, but just how ancient could the forest itself be?
I smile, and we paddle away.