From bush planes to petroglyphs, the ultimate weekend Escape in Ontario


The gusts of wind rattling the windshield of the bush plane should be making me nervous. After all, I am soaring 1,000 feet over Rice Lake at a 1947 Piper Cub aircraft which feels a bit like being inside a horizontal phonenbsp;booth.

But I am too distracted by the 360-degree perspectives to feel any twinges of fear. From the coast, it was tempting to believe Rice Lake was the world’s most peaceful body of water, a mirrored canvas sprinkled with lush islands. But from the air, it seems more like a prehistoric monster with splayednbsp;claws.

“Rice Lake has a rather distinctive geography,” describes pilot Peter Elmhirst, as he banks the aircraft directly. “It is home to North America’s biggest drumlin area, elongated land formations scraped by the ice of retreatingnbsp;glaciers.”

Drumlin fields are also seen in Iceland, Scotland, Ireland and Patagonia, but seeing them so close to home is sudden. Two hours from Toronto and three hours from Ottawa, the Peterborough and the Kawarthas area is the supreme Ontario weekend getaway, offering a satisfying fusion of outdoor adventure, recreation and culture.

My foundation for a weekend of wilderness explorations is Elmhirst’s Resort. Set on 100 hectares of Rice Lake waterfront, this family-owned resort includes a set of housekeeping cottages and a complete slate of outdoor activities from horseback riding and water-skiing to kayaking and windsurfing. Additionally, it is dedicated to sustainable eco-initiatives, like naturalizing the Rice Lake shore and growing food to the dining area’s farm-to-table cuisine.

My interest in aerial “flightseeing” started at the hotel’s Wild Blue Yonder Pub, where I browsed a selection of plane memorabilia, photographs and documents dating back to 1818 when King George IV granted the property to Phillip James Elmhirst as recognition for his service in the Battle of Trafalgar. The faded images of jungle reminded me of my childhood summers spent at the northern mining town of Flin Flon, Man., where we had swat horseflies, gorge ourselves on wild blueberries and capture jackfish in lakes carved out of the Canadiannbsp;Shield.

It was this lure of the untamed spaces that got me up in Elmhirst’s three-seater bush plane. In 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 coastline. It is 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 beyond, I will make out the shape of a green burial mound undulating across the landscape in the form of a serpent, surrounded by smaller, round shapes called serpentnbsp;eggs.

We see a breeding colony of blue herons and the ghostly underwater remains of Rice Lake Bridge, constructed in 1854 and after the longest railroad bridge in Northnbsp;America.

“It only lasted three years until it was destroyed by winter storms,” Elmhirstnbsp;clarifies.

Although I am tempted to charter the floatplane for a trip to Copeway Wilderness Camp, a distant water-access only cottage where Elmhirst guests could spend a day or night at a rustic solar-powered camp, I choose to do some catch-and-release fishing for bass, walleye and muskie right in my cabin’s privatenbsp;dock.

The following morning, I head farther north, driving 45 minutes along a winding road flanked by Canadian Shield and thick pine woods to Petroglyphs Provincial Park, a sacred site that’s the biggest concentration of aboriginal rock carvings innbsp;Canada.

After trekking through the red-pine woods of this winding Nanabush Trail, I enter the park’s interpretive website, home to the petroglyphs. Known in Ojibway as Kinoomaagewaabkong, meaning “the teaching stones,” the 900 carvings were incised into the white marble 600 to 1,100 yearsnbsp;past.

Up close, the carvings are intriguing and show their contours as I walk round the marble outcropping. I can see a snake looking to emerge out of a rock crevasse, a Gitche Manitou stick man and long-legged herons like those roosting at Ricenbsp;Lake.

“Herons are regarded as a totem bird one of the Algonquin people and play an significant role in shamanism,” clarifies the on-sitenbsp;interpreter.

With a renewed appreciation for Canadian geology and cultural heritage, I wrap up my weekend in Mount Julian, a restaurant located in an historic inn near Petroglyphs Park. The seven-course tasting menu created by chef Jay Nutt is a taste of the north, including wild-foraged and locally sourced ingredients such as cattails, duck prosciutto, smoked trout and venison paired with wines from Prince Edwardnbsp;County.

As we retire to our cabin at Elmhirst’s, fireflies flit round the pathway as well as the sounds of the woods connect me with the world and my own past — not bad for a weekendnbsp;off.

The author received a discounted rate at Elmhirst’s Resort. It didn’t examine or approve thisnbsp;post.


Should you go

Elmhirst’s Resort

Open year-round, this cabin hotel with restaurant, bar, spa and airport runway overlooks Rice Lake near the village of Keene. .

Petroglyphs Provincialnbsp;Park

Open daily 10 a.m. to five p.m. until Oct. 9. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays in spring and fall. .

Mount Julian

This nine-table restaurant overlooking Stoney Lake is available evenings and is by reservation only. .

Peterborough and thenbsp;Kawarthas

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Other fast getaways across Canada

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Courtesy: The Globe And Mail

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