Hike, paddle and overnight off-grid in Haliburton Highlands
Owners of Winterdance Dogsled Tours, Tanya McCready and Hank DeBruin and their family have created a new backcountry retreat on 850+ hectares of wilderness that borders Algonquin Provincial Park.
Deep in the forest, a clutch of tiny log cabins is nestled among the tall pines overlooking a remote lake untouched by humans for decades. It’s the perfect spot to spend much-needed quality time in nature with a small group of friends or family.
At a glance:
Winterdance Cabin Experience: 2 days, 1 night, 4 meals, guided hiking, self-guided canoeing
Hike-in through the forest
Your adventure begins at the trailhead behind the Winterdance main building, just east of Fort Irwin, and about 25 minutes north of the town of Haliburton off Highway 19.
Meet your guide, who in our case was Dustyn, Hank and Tanya’s son, and prepare to hike in while staff collect your luggage which will be transported separately to camp.
You’ll need good hiking boots and a refillable water bottle.
The trail snakes for roughly seven kilometres through the mixed forest of maple, birch, ash, wild cherry and evergreens. Some stands of old growth forest are home to giant maple and hemlocks that are aged well over a century.
Hike across grassy clearings, bubbling brooks and past generously sized ponds thanks to industrious beavers. Of note is an old logging site that still bears remnants of the bygone industry.
Because the land is privately owned, you’ll experience the ultimate luxury of being the only humans for miles around.
However, you are not alone! Keep conversation low as the area is home to a diverse population of wildlife, the quieter you are the greater chance of a sighting. Look out for graceful blue herons on Barnhardt Lake and see if you can identify moose, bear or deer tracks on the trail. Dustyn pointed out where a lynx had been recently spotted. The hilly topography, which lends itself splendidly for dogsledding in the winter, makes for an invigorating and picturesque summer hike, as sunlight filters through the leafy canopy. Dressed in fall colour, this hike will be nothing short of magnificent in the autumn months.
Picnic at the sugar shack
Break for a picnic lunch and maple syrup sampling at Winterdance’s sugar shack. Your guide will show you the large wood-fired evaporator where the magic of maple syrup production takes place each spring.
The operation is strategically set in a valley so the sap from 2000+ tapped trees can be collected via gravity fed pipelines down the 90 metre slope.
Cozy tiny cabins at camp
Eventually the trail leads around a wide bend to reveal an intimate clearing in the forest with four Insta-worthy tiny wooden cabins in a semi-circle facing a fire pit.
Each raised-platform cabin features a front deck, main floor sleeping quarters (love the decadently comfortable mattress) and staircase leading to a second floor loft with a pull-out couch and table.
To top it off, a private balcony off the back of the loft with seating for two overlooks the lake through the trees, fulfilling all your childhood treehouse fantasies.
Upon arrival you’ll be welcomed with fruit, cheese and crackers on a maple leaf shaped charcuterie board in your cabin. Red and black chequered curtains, cozy wildlife patterned linens, faux antique electric lanterns, bear and wolf shaped cast iron hooks and the scent of pine complete the rustic Canadiana cottage charm.
Camp facilities include an open air communal pavilion with BBQ and dining area and comfortable outhouse. There’s also a corral onsite in preparation for horseback riding tours soon to be added to the experience.
Paddle on your own private lake
Grab life jackets, paddles and a bailing bucket and wind down the path to the dock where three canoes await. Hollow Lake is approximately one kilometre long and almost as wide, so perfect for exploring by canoe.
Bowed trees and gnarly branches arch over the shoreline, while the water mirrors the clouds and treeline creating a surreal effect.
Listen for the distinctively haunting calls of the resident loons, cheerful songbird melodies, woodpeckers hard at work on the snags and stumps and the chorus of bullfrogs. You may catch a dainty painted or grizzled snapping turtle sunning on a log. Or even see an otter ducking and diving.
There’ll be time to get out on the lake before dinner, as well as an early morning paddle before breakfast. While it may be a struggle to climb out of your snug bed, you won’t regret waking up before dawn to witness the mist rising from the lake as the day’s first sun rays break the sky. Plus, dawn and dusk are prime moose spotting time.
Dine al fresco and enjoy fireside s'mores
Dinner and breakfast are both served in the pavilion. Meals are catered to your dietary preferences or restrictions, with an emphasis on fresh, local and seasonal ingredients, including Winterdance’s very own pure, natural maple syrup. You’re invited to bring a bottle of your favourite wine for dinner.
Following dessert, settle around the campfire and roast marshmallows under the stars.
If you’re lucky you may even be treated to incredible anecdotes from Tanya and Hank, from their life in the Haliburton wilderness to their experience of Hank and his team of Siberian huskies running the Iditarod in Alaska and the 1,600 km (1,000 mile) Yukon Quest.
After a restful sleep, enjoy a hearty breakfast. Then it’s time to hit the trails again on an unhurried hike back to civilization.
Book your off-grid getaway
The Winterdance Cabin Experience is available from early summer through to mid-October and can accommodate a maximum of 6 adults (2 per cabin) on each tour. Note: your guide will stay in the fourth cabin. Kids 12 and up are also welcome, just ask for more details. Haliburton Highlands is approximately a 3 hour drive north of Toronto and over 3.5 hours west of Ottawa.
In addition to your personal luggage, consider bringing binoculars, bug spray, sunblock, headlamp, hat, slippers and an extra pair of socks. And don’t forget to pick up your own supply of Winterdance maple syrup at the trailhead shop at the end of your trip.
Last updated: September 13, 2023