Haliburton Highlands: Blackcat-Nunikani Loop (22 km / 3 days)

Beautiful view of Sunrise in Algonquin Blackcat Lake

This loop is a slightly extended version of Kevin Callan’s Nunikani Loop in his book, Top 60 Canoe Routes of Ontario. The route follows basically the same path, but with a detour through a series of small lakes and ponds into Blackcat Lake; a meromictic lake located in the Clear Lake Conservation Reserve; a world heritage site.

Many of the lakes on this route are stocked with brook trout and splake. You can also find lake trout, small and largemouth bass and other native species. The best time to fish for trout is after ice-out in the spring or late fall when water temps begin to drop again.

This route is well suited for beginners or first-time solo canoe trippers. Big Hawk, Clear, and Red Pine Lakes are cottage lakes, so help is never far away should an emergency arise. This route also has very good cell coverage.

Trip Completed: June 2022

Trip Summary

Starting Point: Big Hawk Lake Marina

Ending Point: Big Hawk Lake Marina

Total Distance: 22km

Duration: 3 days

Difficulty: Beginner


Haliburton Highlands Water Trails, Frost Centre Region

Traditional Territory: This route takes place on the traditional territory of the Anishinabewaki ᐊᓂᔑᓈᐯᐗᑭ 

Maps & Resources

Guidebook: Top 60 Canoe Routes of Ontario, Kevin Callan

Map: The Adventure Maps – Frost Centre

Campsite Reservations: Required. Can be booked starting early January for the entire year online through Algonquin Highland Trails. Select “Frost Center” for the park and “Big Hawk Lake” as the access point. From there, you can choose specific campsites (in this trip report it was #54 and #112).

Permits: Not required to be picked up. Print or save a digital copy of your reservation before departing.

Know Before You Go

Season: Can be paddled all season. Portage trails could be wet in spring and black flies/mosquitos will be out at their usual times. 

This area is dam controlled and water levels can vary greatly depending on the season. There are dams at either end of Nunikani Lake that were both open after the spring thaw.

Many lakes in the HHWT are stocked with brook trout and splake. Mid to late May just after ice-out would be the best time to fish (a mid-May heat wave killed off almost all black flies this year and the bite was off). Fish can also be caught in fall. Check regulations for the area at Fish ON-Line (gov.on.ca)

Cell Reception: Good service throughout the route. Did experience dropped calls on Nunikani Lake, however, data service did work (Bell Network).

Water: Lots of water. Water should be boiled or treated/filtered.

Wildlife: Bear, Moose (did not see, but are present in the area), did see a porcupine, loons, and otters. 

Waste: Thunderboxes are present at all sites. Pack out garbage. Did not see garbage receptacles at the launch site.

Outfitters & Shuttles

Outfitter: Canoes can be rented at the HHWT Frost Centre access point. The nearest full-service outfitter is Algonquin Outfitters in Minden.

Shuttle: No shuttle needed.

Trip Report

Day 1: Big Hawk Lake Marina to Blackcat Lake (7 km)

Total distance travelled: 8.43km (w/ double carries on each portage)

Total travel time: 4h 55m (2h 2m stopped) 

My original plan was to set out at first light, however, the weather had different plans. A large storm cell was passing through the area so I delayed my departure till about 9 am. By then the worst of the weather had passed and only a light misting remained.

I set off from the public boat launch at Big Hawk Marina and made my way across Big Hawk Lake towards my first portage into Snowshoe Lake (70 m) trolling for trout along the way. About midway through the large open stretch of Big Hawk, I snagged a Laker. I shook it off before having to land it. Little did I know this would be my only trout encounter of the trip. 

Approaching the portage, I came to a narrow section of water with a small cliff face on the right-hand side. The portage is located right at the end of this narrow section, to the right of a small cottage. The portage is short but looks poorly maintained and has not travelled often. Due to the recent storm, it was quite wet and I sunk in knee-deep pulling my canoe up. The mosquitos were horrendous. Getting the canoe back in the water on the other side of the portage was equally as difficult. 

Snowshoe Lake had some potential for brook trout, but the cloud of mosquitos chasing me out of the bush and the rumble of thunder in the distance had me racing for the next portage from Snowshoe Lake into Midway Lake (97 m). This portage was just a bit longer, and equally as buggy. It was a little drier and putting the boat back in on the other side was easy, with a flat open spot to launch from. There was also a campsite on a rocky point at the end of the portage that looked like a good spot for lunch and some reprieve from the mosquitos. The next portage would be the longest of the day, so it seemed like a good time for a break.

At the far end of Midway Lake was the crux of the day, a 292 m portage that follows Blackcat Creek into a small pond on the other side. The creek wasn’t much more than a trickle, but it made for a mucky crossing as the trail passes over and follows the creek at several points. The start of the portage was quite steep with little space to squeeze the canoe through the trees, directly followed by some stream hopping. The other end of the portage was swampy which made getting back in the boat quite difficult.

Not more than a couple of paddle strokes, and I was back out of the water on the last portage of the day, an easy 70 m portage into Blackcat Lake followed by a short paddle to home for the night on a beautiful point.

Blackcat Lake is a meromictic lake located in the Clear Lake Conservation Reserve. This type of lake is quite rare (only 12 are known in Canada). The water is incredibly clear and is turquoise coloured under the right light conditions. Unfortunately, during my stay, it was a bit too overcast.

After setting up camp and laying out wet gear to dry it was time for some dinner and R&R. There was a great spot to stretch my hammock right by the water and I spent the rest of the evening there watching the stars come out. 


Site Number: 54 Capacity: 6 Thunderbox: YES Firepit: YES Firewood: SCARCE

Beautiful site on a point. Excellent sunrise views. Two smaller tent pads, both on a bit of a slope. Room to set up a tarp or bug shelter. Nice spot to set up a hammock right on the water. Flat rock sloping gently into the water for a trouble-free launch. Enough wind to keep the bugs away.

Day 2: Blackcat Lake to Nunikani Lake (7.5 km)

Total distance travelled: 10 km (w/ double carries)

Total travel time: 5h 6m (1h 54m stopped)

I woke at 5 am (I’m an early riser) to a remarkable sunrise. This meant moving the sleeping bag out to the hammock and firing up the camp stove for coffee. I knew the day was starting right out of the gate with what I believed would be the longest portage of the trip (more on that later), so I decided to enjoy the hammock view just a little longer than normal.

The portage was only a few minutes from the site. Finding the sign was a little difficult. To be honest, I found that a lot of the portage signs on the route were poorly placed. The portage between Blackcat and Clear Lake was 520 m of torture full of blow-downs, muddy sections from the previous day’s storm, and the last leg of the portage was a fairly uneven downhill slope (did I mention my canoe is a 65lbs R-Lite Royalex Nova Craft?). The first carryover wasn’t bad as I had my main canoe pack and daypack along with paddles, fishing rod and net. On the walk back, I made a point to clear some of the blow-down and memorize the trail. This is something I do to prepare for the more cumbersome canoe carry on the second run. 

Heading back over with my food barrel and canoe was a bit of a challenge, but after several stops to put the boat down and dragging it for part of the downhill section, all my gear was on the other side of the portage.

The portage from Clear Lake into Red Pine Lake (210 m) started at a sandy beach. I decided it was a good spot for a break and decided to rest briefly before making the portage. The portage was a breeze with wooden boardwalks spanning most of the trail.

The crossing on Red Pine Lake was quite long. I decide to head for an island point with a campsite on it, then shoot a compass bearing to locate the mouth of the creek I’d be travelling down, as it was hard to tell where it was from that distance. I did this more for compass practice than anything, but it proved effective. 

As I entered the creek heading to Nunikani Lake, I was greeted with a construction sign. I had been warned a few weeks prior by someone who had paddled this section that the Red Pine Lake Dam was under construction and that the short lift-over right at the dam was closed to paddlers. I was hoping by the time of my arrival that the construction project would be complete. It was not. This meant taking the portage marked for East Paint Lake (750 m) which has a left fork that bypasses the construction site and ends downstream…750 m downstream. As luck would have it, I came across an unmarked path down to the water just down from the dam. I made my way to the water, launched and rode the swift down through the narrow creek. The current was running at a good clip till the creek started to widen as I got closer to Nunikani.

Until this point, I was fortunate enough that the wind had been non-existent, but as I entered Nunikani, it had picked up a bit and slowed travel. Not enough to be worrisome, just enough be a minor nuisance at the tail end of the day when you’re already worn out.

When I reached camp, I slid into my normal routine of setting up, eating, and watching the stars come out. My original plan was to spend the next day on the same site, but with the fish not biting I decided I was going to push on and complete the trip one day early, paddling out the next morning.


Site Number: 112 Capacity: 10 Thunderbox: YES Firepit: YES Firewood: AVERAGE

This site appeared used and abused. Very large with lots of options for pitching a tent (all fairly level). The site was littered with chainsawed logs from what looked like a past blowdown. Excellent sunrise views. Limited options for hammocks unless you have extra-long rigging. Would recommend avoiding this site for its appearance alone unless the space is needed for a larger group. 

Day 3: Nunikani Lake to Big Hawk Lake Marina (7 km)

The final leg of the route was straightforward with only one 250 m portage around the Nunikani Dam. Approaching the dam, you could hear the roar of the turbulent water ahead and smell it in the air. The portage was very well travelled, with no obstruction and a bit of a downhill slope. Walking along it, you could see the rapids below. I had read that this stretch of water is runnable at high water levels, but from what I saw, although the volume seemed quite high, there were too many rocks and drops to navigate a boat through, so I had to walk the entire portage and catch a swift back out into the creek as it widens towards Big Hawk Lake.

The creek broadens quite rapidly after the rapids at Nunikani Dam and the current disappears almost immediately as it meanders its way towards Big Hawk. As soon as I entered the lake, I was greeted with a cliff face on the opposite shore. As I approached it, I learned how the lake got its name as above the cliff there were several hawks soaring.

I had to fight a strong headwind most of the way back to the marina, which stalled my forward progress significantly as I soloed my 16’ lunker of the canoe. When I finally reached the landing, I had nothing left. 

It’s become a ritual of mine to have a cooler jammed with ice and a couple of cold drinks as a reward waiting for me upon my return to celebrate a successful trip. There’s always the wonder if it will actually still be cold when you get back, especially if it’s been sitting in a closed-up car for a week in the scorching summer sun. Although this trip was only 3 days, I still had that wonder. It’s a lingering thought in the back of your head the entire trip, will my “cold beverage” still be cold when I return? Will my reward still be rewarding? It’s a moment of truth when you crack the cooler open. Wonder, anticipation, you’re salivating just thinking about it after you’ve punished your body for days on end. Then you open the cooler…and there it is!


This was my very first solo trip. It was something that I’ve wanted to try for some time now. The route I travelled was ideal for my first time out alone as it was not too remote and cell coverage was good, in case I got into trouble. However, I found myself bored by the second night with no company and the prospect of a non-travel day looming over me had me reconsidering the solo experience. In the future, I think I would only solo if I couldn’t find a tripping partner and if I did, I would likely not plan for a rest day.

As for the route, itself, the detour I made from Kevin Callan’s Nunikani loop was maybe a poor decision on my part. The hopscotching series of ponds and portages into Blackcat seemed lightly travelled and because of this, the portages weren’t in the best shape. I believe most people enter and exit Blackcat via the 520m portage from Clear Lake, also not ideal. However, Blackcat truly is a gem of a lake that you likely won’t be sharing with anyone (especially in early June), so pick your poison on how you get in there if you want to get in there!

Author Bio

Bill has been in a canoe since before he could walk. So, the legend goes that when he did learn to walk, he thought it would be good to do so in the canoe as well, much to his fathers’ chagrin, and almost got tossed over the side on Canoe Lake in Algonquin. It wasn’t till his early 20’s that he caught the backcountry bug and took the family camping trips of his childhood to the next level. Twenty years later (with a bit of a hiatus to start a family) he is bringing his children into the backcountry to carry on the tradition and introduce the next generation of explorers to wilderness travel.

Instagram: @thunderboxdiaries

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