Backwoods camping with most of the comforts of home
I’m a big fan of camping in backwoods Ontario. For example, my wife and I spent our first anniversary on a 100+ km canoe trip into the center of Algonquin Provincial Park. However, now that we’ve welcomed our first-born into the family, we were faced with the conundrum of anyone who is looking for a family-friendly option for a camping adventure: canoe with a child who doesn’t understand the concept of “sit still!”, baby carrier a 25-pound deadweight whose favourite word is “ba-bab-ba!”, or find something more kid-friendly. Thankfully, my wife opted for the latter, and discovered the Rain Lake ranger cabin. The cabin has a stove/oven, fridge, and lights (all propane-powered), as well as two bedrooms and a lake-view. Sold!
When she said “it’s an hour north of Huntsville”, I got the impression that this was an hour of highway driving. I was very wrong. Although it is approximately 30 minutes north of Huntsville along Highway 11, this only takes you to the community centre of Kearney. After you’ve made your reservation through the Ontario Parks website or phone line (reservations are mandatory), this is where you’ll pick up your key, garbage bag, fire starter, and cabin instructions.
Tip: Bring a large container (preferably 10-20 L) and fill up at the centre’s tap. This is the last source of guaranteed drinkable water.
Once you’re ready to hit the (logging) road, the park staff will direct you towards the Park’s entrance and your cabin. Don’t get too excited, because it’s still a 25–30 minute drive to the cabin. My wife had warned me that the cabin was “remote”, although I hadn’t really asked what that meant. Translation: 25-km of logging roads leads you from Kearney to the ranger cabin. If you’ve never driven on a logging road is, check out Google images; these are fairly accurate. Meeting a moose is not out of the question; bucket list task achieved (mental note: don’t pack the good camera in the trunk)!
When you arrive, the single-story cabin itself is unimposing and “rustic”, although it is also surprisingly cozy and inviting. The cabin features a relatively secluded location, although there are 3 nearby campsites as jumping-off points for canoeist, as well as a boat launch. Don’t be put off by the location, as we only saw people (for <15 minutes) on 2 of the 5 days that we stayed there.
The cabin has two entrances, both leading into the same “common (living/dining) room” (albeit different sides of the room). Each entrance features a screen and solid door, which is a blessing in disguise if you’re trying to unpack a weeks-worth of supplies during bug season. The common room has a large table that faces a big bay window, which has looks out onto the lake. Once we’ve unpacked the car, we take some time to “explore” the cabin, which takes all of about 5 minutes. The cabin does have a fully-furnished kitchen (appliance only; bring your own cutlery and dishes), and two bedrooms, although there are no doors to separate the rooms, so be prepared to be cozy with your cabin mates! The four beds each come with a single-sized plastic-covered mattress, so I’d suggest bringing a coversheet or blanket to avoid sliding around at night. The cabin does not have its own toilet, although the nearby composting toilets are the most luxurious versions I’ve ever seen.
Tip: Once you arrive, check that the carbon monoxide detector on the fridge has a battery and is functioning. If the detector doesn’t have a battery, the fridge doesn’t function; this led to an unplanned trip into town to fill our cooler with ice. Also, be careful with locking the door to the cabin, as my wife almost locked the keys in the cabin twice. My personal suggestion is to simply leave the cabin key in your vehicle.
The cabin features an enclosed and (mainly) bug-proof porch, which allowed my wife and I to enjoy early morning coffee and take in the view. My breakfast when I’m camping is typically oatmeal and a multivitamin, and so access to a stove and oven was a game changer. Eggs and sausages, omelettes, pancakes; if you’ve brought a pan and groceries, you can eat like a king. My wife even discovered a recipe for making cinnamon buns with Pillsbury crescent rolls. Score!
The only downside is that the only source of water is the lake, so be prepared and bring water purification tablets (or boil the water). If you enjoy cooking over an open fire, the cabin has a large fire pit with a solid grill and a picnic table; there are also picnic tables in the cabin and inside the porch if bugs and/or rain are an issue.
I think my favourite part of our trip to the Rain Lake ranger cabin was the feeling of isolation. Although you have access to most of the creature comforts of car camping, a cellphone signal is non-existent, which makes “un-plugging” a necessity. The nearby area is fairly interesting too explore, with cool changes in the topography and geography if you are interested in hiking and orienteering. The cabin also features its own boat launch, so bring (or rent) a canoe and explore Rain Lake; it is a lot longer than it looks. At the end of Rain Lake there is a ~300-meter portage to Sawyer Lake, which apparently has excellent fishing.
Tip: You can rent canoes from the outfitters in Kearney and ask them to drop it off at the cabin if you don’t feel like having a 16-foot boat rattling around on your vehicle as you drive along the logging road.
If you’re not the adventurous type, there is a small beach at the boat launch, and the quickly flowing water has ensured that no algae or weeds have built up. The dock reaches out far enough to accommodate a good cannon ball, although I’d advise against diving. If the bugs are bad, or if it’s raining, some thoughtful folks have left several decks of cards and magazines in the cabin, and the table is large enough to fit even the most expansive board game. I was surprised to find seven or eight paintings that were hung on the wall by previous visitors, which oddly complimented the 6 × 4 foot park map that is mounted on the dining room wall.
When evening comes, the propane lights are a nice touch, as the warm light is fantastic to read by. However, this comes with a trade-off, as they emit a fair amount of heat as well, so be prepared to crack a few windows (or a few cold ones from the refrigerator!). If it gets too warm inside, bring a couple candles out to the porch and cool off to the loons calling across the lake. Handy with a pocket knife? Previous visitors have left numerous carved paddles with their names and dates in a handy little bin, so feel free to add your memento. We’ll look for it next summer when we book our next trip!
By Patrick Mott, a professional medical writer/editor, and a part-time gear and adrenaline junky who loves to pack light and push boundaries in the backwoods.