Map is courtesy of Jeff's Map - my route is marked in blue
My dad and his wife, Gail, got a great deal on a used Swift Mattawa canoe and had already been on a couple of day trips. Gail had never done a backcountry trip before and felt she was ready for an overnighter. I thought of an easy one close to home, but Kawartha Highlands was all booked out for the last weekend of July. Then I remembered reading that McEwen Lake, only a couple of short portages away from the put in on Maragaret Lake, was nice and that the site on the west shore was highly recommended. A quick check on the Haliburton Highlands Water Trails booking site, and we were booked for the weekend.
The access road into Margaret Lake was in good shape and parking was made available close to the sandy beach put in -- my father and Gail in their Swift Mattawa, and my youngest daughter, Erin, and I in my Scott Wilderness. The shallow, weedy front bay of Margaret goes through a very narrow channel and opens up to the main part of the lake, which is saturated with cottages on all sides. Hugging the southeastern shore, we were at the portage into Dan Lake within minutes.
The portage into Dan was an easy carry. It crosses a cottage road at the put in, where one could drive and start the trip there, skipping the paddle on Margaret and the portage, but parking looked limited; partially blocking access to someone's cottage might result in facing the wrath of the locals.
The paddle into Dan starts by crossing a swampy little bay where someone had built birdhouses on long stilts. Here we were fortunate to see Purple Martins darting in and out of the houses. Out into Dan, we passed a campsite on the western shore. Dan is a small lake that didn't take long to get through and seeing the high water levels on the creek into McEwen, we got through,skipping the portage.
McEwen Lake is pretty with a lovely thick growth of forest on all sides and its shoreline interspersed with rocky outcrops. Paddling three-quarters of the way up the lake, we got to our site and were delighted with what we found -- a large site up on a high rock face in a grove of pines. The westfacing view overlooked a little tree-dotted island reminiscent of a Group of Seven painting from Algonquin park. In fact, Gail, a very talented painter herself, immediately went to work with some water colours when we woke up the next morning to capture the scene. She got my daughter, Erin, in on the action as well. The crystal clear waters of McEwen suggested that the lake would not be very good for bass, so I tried my luck going a little deeper after some splake, which it was supposed to have been stocked with, but unfortunately didn't have any. My quest to land my first splake continues -- tips, anyone?.
After a relaxing morning, while Gail continued working on her masterpiece, Erin, my father and I went exploring. Looking at the map, we wanted to see what the Black River system looked like north of McEwen and investigate either or both sets of falls east and west of the portage from Horse Lake. The portage into Horse was short and relatively flat. Horse Lake is a nice, small lake with a large island on the southwestern shore that had a site on it, but it seemed rarely used. The site at the north end of the lake had a nice rock face with deep water, but looked relatively small and on a steep descent to the lake. The portage to the Black River was just to the right of it. It was short but contained a steep hill heading down toward the river. Emerging from the portage we understood why the area was labelled "Lower Marsh" on the map. It was shallow, swampy and buggy and would have involved wading through muck and mud to reach water that was conducive for paddling in either direction. We could hear the falls to the west that emptied into Black Lake, but none of us felt like tackling the muck to get there, so we returned back up the portage and back into Horse Lake. Upon returning to McEwen we passed by the site at the northern end of the lake and discovered we had neighbours on the site there. They had been there the night before but were so quiet we didn't even notice. Getting back to our site, we relaxed and got ready for dinner.
After another fantastic evening of whiskey, wine, and bannock around the campfire, we called it a night around 11pm. Waking up the next morning and after another great breakfast of pancakes and bacon, we discovered we had a visitor. We had noticed the snapping turtle the day before just to the south of our site but on this morning he was a lot more curious. We had spent the prior two days swimming off the rocks in front of our site, not knowing how brazen this fellow was. Perhaps, after 3 days of us splashing around in his home and distrubing his peace, he had had enough. Needless to say we didn't do any more swimming while he was on the prowl! He swam and observed us from the water the entire time we packed up to break camp.
Shortly before noon we had loaded our canoes and were back on the water for the easy paddle back to our cars. McEwen Lake is a great introduction to backcountry canoeing with minimal paddling and portaging to get there, yet far enough to escape crowds of people. I was lucky enough to come back with a momento from the trip. Gail gave me her watercolour of the island (below) across from our site as a wonderful souvenir and it now sits proudly on a shelf in my office.