4 min

Totem-pole carving in Ontario’s Haliburton Highlands

A weeklong retreat on the shores of the Kawarthas

Mapping out a day at The Lodge. Credit: Kyle Burton

When I announced on Facebook that my partner, Miguel, and I would be taking a totem-pole-carving course, my friend Alex commented, "you spelled ‘scrotum’ wrong." But to his disbelief and for our love of wood, Miguel and I had booked a weeklong retreat to butch it up at the Haliburton School of the Arts.

The college is located on the outskirts of Haliburton Village, a quaint town nestled on the shores of Head Lake in the majestic Haliburton Highlands in Ontario. Similar to Toronto's gay village, the Haliburton Village was founded by wood, and it was the lumbermen who brought business to this economy in the early days of settlement. The town was founded in 1864, during which time a sawmill was erected — and the tools of hardworking lumbermen stimulated early economic growth.

Today, the village is buzzing with an eclectic mix of cozy restaurants, Kawartha ice-cream shops and unique furniture and antique stores. Hampered by a lifelong coffee addiction, I immediately panicked when I discovered that there is no Starbucks or Tim Hortons. Luckily, a great brew can be found in one of the many charming shops that line Highland Street.

Our accommodations were opposite the village at a charismatic waterfront log cabin called The Lodge. The property is situated on the north side of Head Lake and is all part of the Great Lakes basin. It’s an ideal location for outdoor enthusiasts to observe wildlife in action.

The Lodge has themed rooms (check out the photo gallery above) that include the hunt-camp common area, decked out with local antiques and mounted wild animals; the ’50s room, equipped with a pinball machine and vintage memorabilia display; and the cowboy room, decorated with horseshoes and boot spurs, where we spent our cool summer nights staying warm.

The Lodge is a short hike to the college, which means the 9am classes are easy to make on time. Our course instructor, Wayne Hill, is an award-winning carver who taught us the art of sculpting a four-foot Haida totem pole out of fresh basswood.

A variety of timber was up for grabs in our first class, and Miguel and I chose logs with a medium-sized girth so that they would be easy to handle. We assembled our workmates, and the carving began. I chose a “raven over beaver” design and Miguel went with the “eagle over bear with salmon” West Coast–style design. We asked our instructor if we could stack the poles on top of each other to create an eight-foot totem, and he suggested that we mount Miguel’s pole on top because of its shape and design.

For me, one of the most challenging parts was carving the back of the pole with what Wayne called a West Coast stipple, which is a texture achieved by scooping the wood to create a pattern for the base of the pole. I was digging too deep and unfortunately lost points for "chewing" the wood. I also lost points for placing my right hand in front of the chisel, and I almost lost my thumb after accidentally pushing the chisel through it, just missing my ligament.

A two-hour trip to the ER and 12 stitches later, I was back in the workshop chipping away with one hand. If your love for wood runs as deep as mine, you are not going to let a gash in your thumb stop you from carving. Haliburton’s motto is "Confidently yet cautiously." This motto became my mantra, and I made sure to wear leather gloves and to keep both hands behind the chisel.

When you are not making holes in your hand, woodcarving can be a very therapeutic experience — hours can feel like minutes and days like hours. The time passes slowly in Haliburton, and its close proximity to nature offers a taste of ease and tranquility. Wildlife is in abundance in this neck of the woods, and if you’re near a shoreline, you’ll surely hear the meditative sound of the loon call or catch sight of a blue heron moving gracefully over calm waters. Studio 23 Bed and Breakfast on Maple Avenue is a great place to observe wildlife in action.

Upon arrival in Haliburton, the first place to visit is the local information centre, located in a fruit-punch-coloured caboose in the heart of the village. The friendly staff will set you up with a local map and provide you with a wealth of information about events around town during your stay. 

The gluttonous satisfaction of having a deep-fried dinner and indulgent dessert all in one place made the Baked and Battered Cottage Bakery and Fish Fry (128 Highland St) our favourite place to pig out. Gay owners Colby and Craig offer a wide variety of deep-fried dinner options, like coconut shrimp, fried scallops and clams, or the popular halibut dinner (gluten-free available!). The bakery offers some decadent desserts, including the spice-chai loaf, lemoncello bar or the whisky-walnut brownies.

If you want to bring a piece of Haliburton home with you, The Forest Store (171 Highland St) is a great place to find one-of-a-kind handcrafted wood products made from locally harvested trees from a sustainable 80,000 acre forest. The store is located in the centre of the village and hosts weekly events, including the astronomy outing and the public Wolf Howl, where a “wolf whisperer” attempts to howl up the resident pack.

The totem-pole-carving course is offered year-round, with the next taking place Mon, Oct 21-Fri, Oct 25.

Local summer attractions and adventures

Haliburton Tourism