The ultimate weekend getaway in Ontario
From bush planes to sacred petroglyphs, Peterborough and the Kawarthas offer a fusion of adventure, recreation and culture
The gusts of wind rattling the windshield of our bush plane should be making me nervous. After all, I'm soaring 1,000 feet above Rice Lake in a 1947 Piper Cub aircraft that feels a bit like being inside a horizontal phone booth.
But I'm too distracted by the 360-degree views to feel any twinges of fear. From the shore, it was tempting to think Rice Lake was the world's most peaceful body of water, a mirrored canvas dotted with verdant islands. But from the air, it appears more like a prehistoric beast with splayed claws.
"Rice Lake has a very unique geography," explains pilot Peter Elmhirst, as he banks the aircraft right. "It's home to North America's largest drumlin field, elongated land formations scraped by the ice of retreating glaciers."
Drumlin fields can also be seen in Iceland, Scotland, Ireland and Patagonia, but seeing them so close to home is unexpected. Just two hours from Toronto and three hours from Ottawa, the Peterborough and the Kawarthas region is the ultimate Ontario weekend getaway, offering a satisfying fusion of outdoor adventure, recreation and culture.
My base for a weekend of wilderness explorations is Elmhirst's Resort. Set on 100 hectares of Rice Lake waterfront, this family-owned resort features a series of housekeeping cottages and a full slate of outdoor activities from horseback riding and water-skiing to kayaking and windsurfing. It's also committed to sustainable eco-initiatives, such as naturalizing the Rice Lake shoreline and growing food for the dining room's farm-to-table cuisine.
My interest in aerial "flightseeing" began at the resort's Wild Blue Yonder Pub, where I browsed a collection of airplane memorabilia, photos and records dating back to 1818 when King George IV granted the land to Phillip James Elmhirst as recognition for his service in the Battle of Trafalgar. The faded images of vast wilderness reminded me of my own childhood summers spent in the northern mining town of Flin Flon, Man., where we'd swat horseflies, gorge ourselves on wild blueberries and catch jackfish in lakes carved from the Canadian Shield.
It was this lure of the untamed spaces that got me up in Elmhirst's three-seater bush plane. At 32 kilometres long and five kilometres wide, Rice Lake is vast. The Ojibwa named it Pemedashkotayang (Lake of the Burning Plains) and planted wild rice along its shoreline. It's home to Serpent Mounds National Historic Site of Canada, a sacred site stewarded by the Hiawatha First Nation, with a history spanning 2,000 years. As we fly past, I can make out the shape of a green burial mound undulating across the landscape in the shape of a serpent, surrounded by smaller, round shapes known as serpent eggs.
Next, we see a breeding colony of blue herons and then the ghostly underwater remains of Rice Lake Bridge, built in 1854 and once the longest railway bridge in North America.
"It only lasted three years before it was destroyed by winter ice storms," Elmhirst explains.
Although I'm tempted to charter the floatplane for a journey to Copeway Wilderness Camp, a remote water-access only cabin where Elmhirst guests can spend a day or night in a rustic solar-powered camp, I opt to do some catch-and-release fishing for bass, walleye and muskie right from my cottage's private dock.
The next morning, I head further north, driving 45 minutes along a winding road flanked by Canadian Shield and thick pine forests to Petroglyphs Provincial Park, a sacred site that is the largest concentration of aboriginal rock carvings in Canada.
After hiking through the red-pine forest of the meandering Nanabush Trail, I enter the park's interpretive site, home to the petroglyphs. Known in Ojibway as Kinoomaagewaabkong, meaning "the teaching rocks," the 900 carvings were incised into the soft white marble 600 to 1,100 years ago.
Up close, the carvings are fascinating and reveal their shapes as I walk around the marble outcropping. I can see a snake appearing to emerge from a rock crevasse, a Gitche Manitou stick man and long-legged herons similar to those roosting at Rice Lake.
"Herons are considered a totem bird among the Algonquin people and play an important role in shamanism," explains the on-site interpreter.
With a renewed appreciation for Canadian geology and cultural history, I wrap up my weekend at Mount Julian, a restaurant located within a historic inn near Petroglyphs Park. The seven-course tasting menu created by chef Jay Nutt is a taste of the north, featuring wild-foraged and locally sourced ingredients such as cattails, duck prosciutto, smoked trout and venison paired with wines from Prince Edward County.
As we retire to our cottage at Elmhirst's, fireflies flit around the pathway and the sounds of the forest connect me with the planet and my own past – not bad for a weekend away.
The writer received a discounted rate at Elmhirst's Resort. It did not review or approve this article.
If you go
Open year-round, this cottage resort with restaurant, pub, spa and airport runway overlooks Rice Lake near the village of Keene. elmhirst.ca.
Petroglyphs Provincial Park
Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. until Oct. 9. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays in spring and fall. ontarioparks.com/park/petroglyphs.
This nine-table restaurant overlooking Stoney Lake is open evenings and is by reservation only. viamede.com/2015/09/04/mount-julian-menu.
Peterborough and the Kawarthas