My First Backcountry Camping Trip: Poker Lakes Loop

I had been driving North for hours when I turned off of highway #11 and onto #118.  “Ahead by a Century” by The Tragically Hip came on the radio as I started heading East towards Haliburton.  This song holds a special weight for me as it was popular during that awkward phase of adolescence where I was finding out who I was and my place in the world in front of my eyes.  To have it come on, by chance, while I was closing in on my first backcountry camping trip at Poker Lakes made me realize how far I had come since then and that I still hadn’t given up trying new things and re-finding myself time and time again.  I’m no stranger to canoeing or camping, but this was my first backcountry portaging / camping trip and I was flying solo to boot.

I arrived at the parking area on highway #118 and began unloading my trusty Nova Craft Prospector 16 and all of my camping gear.  The skies above were swirling with black and grey clouds that threatened my trip with rain but I was preoccupied with the nervous feeling in my stomach.  I carried down the short hill into Bentshoe Lake and loaded up my boat.   I remember thinking to myself “this is it, no turning back now” as I paddled across Bentshoe Lake towards my first portage of the day.




I arrived at the Portage from Bentshoe into Poker Lake, the longest of the trip.  Once there I began to rethink my decision to portage a 90lbs canoe when I spotted the nasty hill up into the trail.  I slung my backpack over my back and hiked the trail to Poker Lake, paying special attention to my footing and surroundings to keep myself safe.  I would double carry all the portages as I couldn’t carry my pack and canoe all at once.  Carrying the SP3 (plastic) canoe across the 320 meter portage was a chore and left me gasping for air by the end.  A quick look at my map assured me that the biggest of the portages were behind me and the rest of the trip should be relatively smooth.




A quick paddle across Poker, and a walk across the trail into the next lake, and the rain started.  Just a sprinkle at first but quickly got heavier as I made the next portage.  The heavy rain turned violent and lightning and thunder surrounded me.  The skies turned black and it became a panic to get to the portage trail to Cinder Lake.  I got off onto the portage as lightning was striking down around me.  I wasn’t in the mood to get struck today so I turned my canoe over on the trail and layed under it to wait out the storm.  After about a half an hour the thunder and lightning stopped and the sun began to peek out while the rain still came down.  I figured that this was my chance to make it across to the East Bay of Cinder Lake where my campsite was.  A speedy portage and pack and I was in the water of Cinder.  The rain stopped just as I left the West Bay of the lake and the gentle breeze was beginning to dry me out.  I finally spotted my campsite in the distance, my home for the next two nights.




I setup camp and got a fire going.  I had planned on making spaghetti from ingredients that I had dehydrated myself at home, but was so sheerly exhausted that I elected to boil some water for a freeze-dried lasagna-in-a-bag instead.  By time I had eaten and washed my spoon it was 8:00pm and I would need to hang my food bag (bear country) before dark.  I hiked out into the woods behind my site looking for an inviting branch to toss my paracord and carabiner over.  As I struggled with getting the rope over my perfect branch I noticed that it was getting dark very quickly and the wind had picked up.  I finally got my food bag hung high in the tree then made my way to a cliff overlooking the lake at the side of my site when I spotted the storm coming in from across the lake.

The storm hit hard and fast.  I tied down the canoe and anything else that might blow away before getting into my tent and battening down the hatches just as the pouring rain began.  I sat in the tent peeking through a small crack in the nylon window at the hammering rain.  The sound inside the tent was deafening.  I tried to think of the last time I was stuck in a storm this violent in a tent and remembered the tornado in Port Burwell when I was a kid.  I took off my soaked clothes and layed down on my sleeping mat, hoping that this wind wouldn’t bring a tornado.  Little did I know I’d have other problems to contend with.

I tossed and turned in my sleeping bag with the rain beating down against the thin layer of nylon that was my tent.  I turned on my iPod that I had brought along and listened to some Paddling Adventures Radio podcasts while I began to doze off.  I woke up and checked my watch, 1:30am.  My iPod was still going but my ear buds were buried in my sleeping bag.  As I moved around to fish them out I noticed that my feet felt wet.  “Oh shit” I thought to myself.  I turned on my flashlight to find that my tent had leaked and my sleeping bag was soaked, along with my compression sack with spare clothes.  Puddles collected in the bottom of my cheap 17-year-old tent.  There was nothing I could do and went back to sleep in the soaking wet sleeping bag.

I had enough of the wet tent by 4:00am and put on my wet clothes and wet shoes to head outside.  My campsite had made it through the night unscathed and my canoe was still tied to the tree where I had left it.  I set up some lines and hung my gear to dry, although the misty cool morning wasn’t about to let anything dry up.  I decided to make the best of it and take some photos of the overcast morning.






My sleeping bag and tent were not about to dry out in this cool soggy weather and I was forced to make a tough choice – stay another night in a soaking wet bag and tent or abort the trip a day early (but still completing the Poker Lakes Loop).  I decided to pack it up and head out as I couldn’t do more rain that was in the forecast, especially with a leaking tent.  I broke down camp after some breakfast wraps and loaded my canoe, vowing to return to this lake on day and spend a few nights out.




I paddled slowly across Cinder Lake, taking in the views of the shield rock and black water – something we don’t have where I live on Ontario’s South Coast.   The portage trails went well and the sun even made a brief appearance while on Upper Crane Lake.  I began to think maybe I had made the wrong choice by leaving, but by time I reached Lower Crane the weather had turned again.  The skies drew black once again and the rain began to come down.  I heard rolling thunder in the distance as I came up to the last portage from Lower Crane to Bentshoe Lake.




The rain became fierce as I carried along the trail into Bentshoe.  On my last carry of the day with the canoe on my shoulders, a bolt of lightning struck Bentshoe Lake just a few hundred feet in front of me, pounding my eardrums and making me feel like I had been punched in the chest.  I threw down the canoe and hid underneath while the storm passed for the second time on this trip.  I closed my eyes and rested my head against the upside down carrying yoke of the canoe.  Before I knew it, an hour had passed and the worst of the storm had gone.  I wiggled out of my hiding spot and slid the canoe to the put in on Bentshoe.  I paddled through the rain to the access put-in at highway #118.  I had left a day earlier than planned but had completed the Poker Lakes Loop and my first backcountry camping trip regardless.  I was soaked to the bone but felt on top of the world.  I had completed my first trip, with many more to come.  I realize that my tent is at the end of its life and needs to be replaced with something dryer, but the rest of my surplus store shoestring-budget camping gear did well.  Good gear is worth the money and I will upgrade my kit one piece at a time…. starting with the tent.

Much to everyone’s dismay, I can’t wait to go again.  Even if it’s in the rain.  Here’s to many more canoe trips and a dry night’s sleep.  Thanks for reading along.

Also check out the video of this trip on my YouTube channel here:



3 thoughts on “My First Backcountry Camping Trip: Poker Lakes Loop

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