You can’t launch yourself into a life of canoe tripping without knowing Killarney Park.
Ontario’s tiny perfect park. It’s a bit far from many places that aren’t Sudbury but it is worth the drive.
So it seemed the perfect destination for the third annual Chris and Mallory trip, second COVID edition.
I have been a few times but (a) I could never tire of the place and (b) there are some (many) parts of it I have never seen.
So it was decided. There remained but to get there.
Backcountry reservations are competitive at the best of times but during this travel-restricted summer it’s bonkers.
Normally you book something close to what you want then go back to the reservation system a few times to pick up the sites you actually want as people cancel. But no one was cancelling.
So as go date was approaching I was still facing a stupid out-and-back on day 4 to get us to the only site available within striking distance of the take-out. Which would have meant about 16km of travel and then a six hour drive home.
There was nothing for it but to get in the car and drive.
Day 1: Saturday August 21, Carlyle-Terry, Site #55
The tiny waterfall site.
Mallory and I packed and loaded the car yesterday and were up and underway by 5:30am. It’s early for my adolescent daughter but she knows when something is necessary and she didn’t complain.
We have a new car which has a built in roof rack and great hook points (almost like it’s on purpose) for the v-straps. But it’s a gas hog I am ashamed to say.
We got to the George Lake access point a bit after 11am. Unlike last year Ontario Parks access points are open and there are humans issuing permits.
Which meant the last minute change gambit was a ‘go’ again. And we lucked out. The ranger had a site on George Lake for our last night. It meant rejigging the route a bit. Day four will be longer and day five will be trivial. But I think that will work in our favour.
We were on the water a bit before noon. George Lake, lined with red granite cliffs and surrounded by white quartzite hills is gorgeous but it’s a bit like Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park, insofar as there is a car campground and a fleet of rental canoes nearby. So on your average summer weekend the place is swarming with car campers trying their luck at paddling.
If you seek solitude, you will not find it here.
I have a new GPS this year. My old one has developed a quirk Garmin won’t fix and my partner had been asking about SOS beacons. So I got a Montana 750i. I am growing to like it despite its battery-hungry, heavy self. However it does not do selfies well. So it was actually good that there were a lot of people around because one was willing to do pre-trip photography duty.
We set out and I immediately noticed Mallory has got a lot stronger. Both paddling and carrying. And when we landed at the portage to Freeland she got right into the one touch portage routine. Wordlessly.
Her pack — at 23kg — is a bit of a beast so she wanted help getting it on, but we plucked it out of the canoe, on her back it went and she was walking. She carried pack and canoe across one of the portages this trip.
Freeland is a bit reedy but very navigable. The portage into Killarney Lake is easy and easily found. And busy. I get the feeling that it’s a major day trip destination.
On the other hand, I got us lost trying to find the portage from Killarney to Kakakise Lake. Again. I had the same problem in 2001. Only back then I did not have a GPS. Which is a bit embarrassing. I have gotten used to plotting routes overlaid on Jeff’s Maps which makes marking portage locations a no-brainer.
But there is no Unlostify digital map for Killarney. Only a big, non-geocalibrated JPEG. So I made my route with the paper map in my lap and the topo map on my screen. And I got it wrong. The delay cost us about 35 minutes and three extra kilometres of paddling.
We found our way to the portage and walked it. It’s harsh. A hint of what was to come. The packs were first day heavy and it was hot and sunny.
At the end of the portage, we shed our burdens and hopped on the trail to The Crack. I have never been, despite walking past the trailhead at least four times on previous trips.
So it was a must-do for us. As it was for a lot of people. You can (and I suspect most people do) hike to the Crack direct from the Highway 637. There is a parking lot and everything.
The trail is steep and the last few hundred metres have some technical bits. We saw some people hiking it in flip flops and Birkenstocks but I wouldn’t recommend that. I had water shoes and would have preferred sturdy-soled trail runners.
Park staff have added a 600m hook to the trail to avoid a damaged area. Not sure If this is permanent but give yourself a bit more time.
All-in, the hike from the Kakakise portage and back was about 3km for us.
We got to the top, soaked in the scenery, aired out our soaked shirts and headed down around 3pm. We loaded up and paddled down Kakakise and did the portage into Carlyle-Terry.
And — merciful God — the little waterfall site was free. I prefer the one on the point opposite, but that was taken. The site is dusty and doesn’t have a kitchen. But I set up the stove on some flat dirt and that was fine.
After our experience with Killarney-Kaka, we decided on meals by weight. The ancient mantra “Eat it or carry it” running through at least my brain. So we went with the gnocchi. This is a Laurie Ann March recipe that I probably scuffed but we liked it. Though I should write once and for ever more — as if by typing it I shall etch it permanently in my brain — one pack is enough. Not two. Not one and a half. One.
Fortunately I have a bottomless stomach that acts as the family garborator on trip and at home.
The mosquitos came out for their evening shift around 8:30 and drove us into the tent. Mallory entertained me with stories from her just-finished time at camp and I kept telling her how much tougher we had it when I was young. She’s quite tolerant of me. So far.
Sunday August 22, 5pm. David Lake, Site #103
Up at 6am today we were on the water just after 8am. Sunny and hot again and likely to remain so all trip. How do I know this? The Montana 750i has InReach weather and I got me a forecast while sitting on the thunder box this morning. Judge me if you will ye old school purists. It’s not like I’m unprepared for rain.
Speaking of preparations, I had not prepared us for the heat yesterday. We ran out of water and my filter was buried in the pack. Today it rides in the lunch bag.
Carlyle-Terry and Johnnie are contiguous, joined by a reedy stretch. I had forgotten how cottage-y this stretch is. Mallory finds the cottages reassuring because each is a potential saviour for us if things were to go wrong. I had also forgotten that you can hear motorboats and the highway from Carlyle-Terry. Doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful. It is. But if remote is your thing, push on to Balsam or further in for your first night.
We took the Clearsilver route to David. The portages are a bit longer but there are fewer and they are more straight forward. We arrived on David just before noon. Again we lucked out and one of the sites on the west shore, near the Silver Peak trailhead was open.
We grabbed it, set up camp, had lunch and prepared to hike. It had been cloudy and hot all morning and just as we were putting up the tent we felt some drops. I set up the tarp which banished all clouds immediately as per custom. We fought off the urge to just sit and soak up the sun all afternoon. We got in the empty canoe to paddle the hundred or so metres to the trailhead, which is just past a disused campsite.
And we started walking around 1:30. The trail is less technical than The Crack, but it’s quite a bit longer — 10km there and back from David Lake including 520m of elevation. There was a fair bit of traffic on the trail but we had the summit entirely to ourselves. Which I found unusual. It was fun to have the GPS to identify which lakes we were looking at. We could see Georgian Bay, Copper Cliff.
Like the rest of the trip, it was a real treat to share this with my daughter.
We were back at our campsite around 4:45.
Dinner was an experiment. A version of butter tofu. Tetrapak tofu with a concentrated, add-water sauce. Rice and naan. Fine. We ate it all but the tofu texture was slimy and almost like jello and the sauce was at once hot and watery. Not a repeater I don’t think.
We had eggels and begs this morning, a traditional first morning breakfast at Mallory’s camp. It was good. The bagels were still fresh and the eggs did not poison us despite being out of the fridge since Friday evening.
I should have kept some butter back from last night’s dessert. We could have used it this morning. Instead it all got spent on these pan brownies that were classic camp baking disaster. Burnt on the bottom, raw on top. We ended up burying most of it because it just tasted like hot chocolate powder. And charcoal briquettes.
Again the bugs came out in earnest around 8:30pm and we headed into the tent to swap more camp stories before nodding off to sleep. A blissful day.
Monday August 23, 6:20pm, Site #48 Three Narrows Lake
This was our hardest day. I hadn’t planned it that way, but because we now need to get back to George Lake for our last night, we decided to push as far along the route down Three Narrows as we could get. Which, as it turns out, is quite far. This despite there being a number of challenges to overcome.
We had granola and powdered milk for breakfast. Which was surprisingly good. I’d bought our favourite granola, which helped, but was unable to find UHT milk. So powdered had to do. Mallory is more used to it from camp than I am. So she was unphased by this.
We were on the water about the same time as yesterday. We knew this was going to be something of a tough day. But we did have all day to make our distance — there was no side trip hike today.
It started with the 2780m from David to Great Mountain. In addition to being quite long, there are some nasty ups and downs on this one. The trail follows a creek that widens out to a marsh and pond. The climbs are mostly where the water has made passage impossible down low. So up you go. Apart from a stretch across some white quartzite, the trail is easily followed. So there’s that.
And it gets you to Great Mountain Lake. Which is a beautiful lake indeed. With the occasional cottage or lodge on it. We passed a two-canoe party that were headed our way but kitted out like day trippers — empty canoes, ill-suited clothing — but we could not figure out where they were coming from. A lodge on the lake maybe? But then, how did they get in? Great Mountain has no water access to Georgian Bay and as far as I can see no road access. A fly-in? Did they really come in all the way from the marina on Panache lake?
I didn’t want to seem nosey by asking. And we were moving faster than them so we just pushed on to Little Mountain Lake. Which, while little, is also very blue. Almost as blue as Nellie.
Our long-way-round route to the south part of the park took us through Kirk Creek via two 900m portages, separated by a puddle. This puddle – being basically a beaver-widened blip in the creek — is of varying water content. When we got there this time, the water was on the high end, which is actually bad. Because it meant that the last 30 or 40m of the portage into the puddle had too much water to walk and too little water to float.
Oddly, though, there seemed to be a sort of canoe-width canal excavated in an arc around the original trail, joining the last bit of solid ground to the edge of the pond. We backtracked, put the canoe into the canal and half dragged, half paddled to the pond. Looking back we had a good yuk at the portage marker, placed to demarcate the pool of a bygone era.
The other 900m into Kirk Creek wasn’t nearly as eventful. The creek is fairly easy paddling punctuated by several short portages and beaver dams. We encountered a team of park rangers who were coming in the opposite direction, clearing overgrowth and removing deadfall that blocked the creek.
We thanked them profusely and soldiered on. We had much more distance to make.
We got to Three Narrows around 1pm after eating lunch at a liftover just before the lake itself. The lake is… well, it’s a series of narrows isn’t it. They make a sort of square. So you can either paddle around three sides of the square or you can try to walk the fourth side to go from side 1 to the end of side 3. It’s a perfect spot for a portage and I reckon it would save you about an hour of paddling time.
Only the portage is unmarked, unused and — to us — unfindable. We looked for a bit. We got out where Unlostify says it starts (as interpreted by me anyway) stomped around in the woods a bit, and, finding nothing, decided to paddle the long way. The forest had a lot of undergrowth, it was blisteringly hot and we reckoned we had time.
Does anyone have an accurate path or waypoint for where it starts? I’d love to know.
The good news is the roundabout way through Three Narrows is beautiful. You’re treated to a lovely view of tree-dotted quartzite cliffs and granite boulders the entire way. There’s some settlement (looks like island cottages and lodges that predated the creation of the park) but it’s the epitome of Killarney’s beauty.
For about 8km. Which can feel a bit onerous if you’re on a 30km day. Which we were.
Nevertheless we made it round the bump and started following the lake south and west toward the portage to The Pool/Artist Lake when a funny thing happened. People. We hadn’t seen a lot of people since the morning, but here it was late afternoon and we saw campsites taken and canoes on the water.
Because there is a shorter route to Three Narrows, from the north end of Killarney Lake. It does involve a 3km portage. But people are willing to do that to get to see this lovely lake.
So once again a little anxiety bubbled up in my boiling brain as we made our way toward our planned stopping point. What if someone had got there first? How far back would we have to paddle?
We chatted briefly to a couple (he fishing, she watching him fish) who seemed a tad dismayed at how far along Three Narrows they’d had to paddle to find a site. They hadn’t seen the site we were aiming for so couldn’t tell us if we should keep going. But we kinda had to.
Mallory and I picked up the pace a bit. We were relieved to see #48 unoccupied and hit shore around 5pm. There’s something to be said, I suppose, for going far and being early on the water. It would have really sucked to have had to paddle back to the only other empty site we saw some 90 minutes earlier.
It’s not a bad site. Not much for a kitchen. Moss and shallow dirt covering rocks and a slight tilt on the tent pads. Good swimming. Usable thunderbox.
Mallory saw a bear on the shore opposite as we were paddling up to the site, so there was a bit of anxiety around the campsite as we put up the tent and arranged the food hang etc. In the end we had no contact with the animal.
Dinner was Laurie Ann March’s couscous pilaf which I think we both agreed was the best meal of the trip. Laurie Ann March tasty but Chris simple. I add feta cheese — an extravagance I know — but if you buy a hermetically sealed block of the stuff, it will last for several days in the food bag.
Another observation: if you dip and sip in the middle of a big lake you might not die. We’d burned through our water by around noon, the sun was beating down on us and we felt we were in a hurry. So despite packing the filter up top and accessible, I filled my bottle with unfiltered lake water and drank it. And here I am writing these words — yea publishing them some weeks later. I would not do this near shore, on a river or where I couldn’t see 500m in all directions. Your mileage may vary so to both my readers I say ‘filter your water’.
Mallory’s become Map Grrl™. She’s kept it up front and consults it often. I have the GPS so I can still stay on target but I think it helps her gauge progress. I like that she’s taking an interest in where we’re going. (This will become important tomorrow). Of course, it’s also an excuse to pause a bit.
Tuesday August 24, 4:15pm Site #4 George Lake
We woke at 6am to an unmolested food bag. Morning greeted us with clear skies and rising temperatures. But last night was the first time I made use of my sleeping bag. Hitherto the liner I use has been sufficient. But no way am I ever not taking a sleeping bag on a canoe trip.
Chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast. One cup of all-in mix plus between 125 and 250g of chocolate chips made for good quantities. We dutifully drained the 125ml goo tube of maple syrup.
Properly fuelled, we headed out onto the water by around 8:30, to face The Pig.
When I first planned this trip. I was expecting our fourth night to be on Baie Fine, just the other side of The Pig. We were to have stopped sooner on Three Narrows, and today was going to be a short day. Really just The Pig and the yachts in the Pool and on Baie Fine to contend with.
But now that we were on George tonight, we were here for The Pig, but it wasn’t our whole day. We had to get most of the way back to the car too. So it was good we hit it early.
There’s a significant lodge on an island just off shore from the Three Narrows end of the portage. There are a bunch of ATVs and an old pickup that seems to have been sitting disused since before I was born.
From the outset it’s a long, rough, cobbled climb. The first hill nets you 90m or so of elevation. And then it just keeps going. The rocks are big. I’m surprised the ATVs can handle them. But then you could fit what I know about ATVing under my pinky fingernail without causing any discomfort.
So up the rocky hill you go. Then it gets worse as you ridge hop for a bit, climbing the quartzite where hundreds of thousands of years have exposed it. By the time our boat was back in the water we’d climbed 121m.
The thing that challenged us most, though, was staying on the trail. Most portages in most Ontario Provincial Parks are marked unequivocally and the trails pronounced and noticeable enough that they imbue confidence in the walker so that, no matter how far and hilly, you take each stride with the certainty that you are on the true path.
The Pig shares path with the La Cloche Silhouette hiking trail. Which is a provincial, if not national, treasure. But with its own purposes and destinations that align sometimes with those of the canoe tripper. And sometimes not. And sometimes the trail markers suggest they do when they don’t.
So that’s what happened to us. We thought we were on the portage trail but we were actually on a side trail that led to the hiking campsites on Topaz Lake. My GPS — with only the roughest indication of where the portage trail went — basically: ‘starts here, ends there, straight line connecting the two’ — was not as helpful as it could have been. A sanity check more than an actual guide.
The hikers whose breakfast we interrupted were really considerate and helpful. One of them offered us their extra copy of the Unlostify map. I smiled bravely and waved ours at him. Then we glanced nervously at the pink line on the Montana and marched off toward it through the bush.
Only you can’t really walk a straight line in the woods of Killarney. We climbed, we descended, we skirted hillsides. And all this direction-changing-to-avoid-obstacles had us do a lovely circle, Mallory discovered.
“We’ve been here before,” she said.
“Naw. I’m not a betting man but I’d put $20 on this being the trail we’ve found. I’ll check the GPS.”
[Taps button. Looks at lovely aqua-coloured lollipop shape of track record]
“Oh. You’re right.”
“I’m always right.”
She was right again a few minutes later when she spotted a well-worn trail through a valley beneath the ridge we were descending. She’s got a good sense of the land and knows how to walk in the woods. And she’s pretty unflappable.
According to the track were were lost for about 45 minutes. So not bad. But any extra time you spend wearing a canoe and/or a portage pack is not welcomed.
The trail splits taking you either to Artist Lake or Baie Fine, but happily that intersection is marked (albeit facing away from us).
“Oh look! A sign with actual words on it!” Mallory exclaimed.
And so we strode confidently on to Artist Lake. This is a lovely stretch of the park. Hard to reserve on. The subject matter of many Group of Seven paintings.
The portage from Artist to Muriel is on the south shore of the river. You can get through on the north side but you may get wet.
Muriel has campsites. Both were empty when we passed through. I tried to calm the campsite consumer rage building in me. “There could be lots of explanations, Chris. Last night’s occupants could have moved on (you’re supposed to be gone by 10am after all) and tonight’s occupants could be on their way now.”
We were into OSA and across just before noon. Same thing. I saw only one boat. Rage building. We had lunch at the start of the portage. It’s a gravel beach with a lovely view.
We paused a bit to marvel at the beauty of this unbookable lake. Some day before I die I hope to get lucky.
On the other side of the OSA-Killarney portage we had signs that tonight’s guests were indeed arriving. Flotillas of rental canoes and the sonorous, bellowing thump of a canoe being dropped. “Yes, the gorbies have made landfall.”
On Killarney Lake things started to get busy. A steady stream of boats coming in and out of the twisty narrows that leads to the Freeland portage. Again that Campsite FOMO™ feeling, rising in my throat. Someone else among this horde has got to be thinking that George Lake is a great destination for the night.
Mallory had the same feeling and our wake rose a little higher as we pulled toward the portage into Freeland. I sized up the gaps between paused canoes and planned how to load up without waiting for the people who splay all their stuff about the put-in to get out of the way.
We managed it and found enough space at the other end to pass through. A day trip out from George to Killarney and back would be a neat little low key adventure for a family with young kids or grandparents.
We on the other hand were on a mission. Yes. We were booked tonight on George and had the permit to prove it. But finding all the sites full and having to paddle site to site to find the miscreants and then conduct a citizen’s eviction was not my idea of fun.
So we paddled at guide speed down Freeland, did the 50m into George (Mallory eschewed use of the dock) and set off toward site 6 on George, which someone we’d talked to on Killarney said was the best.
Nope. Taken. Five then. Guide speed! Nope. Also taken. Hard left turn! Guide speed! Four. Empty! We’re taking it.
It wasn’t awesome. The thunderbox was far away and the tent pads had a bit of a tilt to them. But we could improvise a kitchen and there was good swimming and a reasonable perch for filling the water sink.
After paddling all morning and into the early afternoon in 28C and sun we were pretty glad of that.
While Mallory had a wilderness trip floating spa session, I watched a steady stream of day trippers in vary states of control of their boats paddle back and forth, taking in the sights at a leisurely pace.
George is a beautiful lake and the car campground affords lots of people the opportunity to take it in.
We got in early which means I have too much time to write. I’ve been watching warblers and sparrows flitting back and forth. You don’t see these things if you’re always moving. So I keep telling myself that this idle time is also making good use of the trip days.
Still I can’t seem to settle and just try to even out my cyclist tan. I have to move or do something. Hence the writing.
My feet ache from the bushwhacking and rock hopping portages today. I trip in these water shoes that dry fairly quickly and have flexible soles that fit well under seats in a canoe. But that suppleness is not an advantage on rough trails as my feet are forever flexing in interesting and exciting ways. And they’re used to being boa-cinched into rigid carbon soles for hours on end.
Aside from that, the bruised toe from a bad canoe roll-down, raspberries from bush whacking and some unscheduled contact with the ground, both of us have come through unscathed.
We didn’t forget anything, didn’t lose or break anything.
But we’re 1.5km from the car. So there’s still time.
I have to figure out the recharging system for the GPS. It uses an interchangeable bespoke LI battery. It seems to go through about 75 per cent of a charge during a day. Two batteries would get me through three days. So some kind of recharger is needed. I have this old solar panel that’s about as big as a CD box set (dating myself here) which seems to take forever to charge. The simplest thing seems to be just bring a fully-charged battery pack with a lot of mAh.
Dinner tonight was tortellini. Fine. A bit boring. At Mallory’s suggestion we made the bannock cinnamon rollsthis evening. We had one each for dessert and saved the rest for breakfast. So the kitchen was packed and ready to load into the canoe for tomorrow morning.
Wednesday, August 25, Ottawa
We were on the water by 7:15 and paddled the 1.5km to George Lake on smooth water. The campground was quiet and we loaded the car and were on the road by around 9:00. There’s no shortcut to the 6 hour drive back to Ottawa and no good way to really time it. But the sooner you get there the more time you have to deal with the post trip chaos.
We stopped in North Bay for lunch. Burger World has an unmemorable veggie burger and Mallory had KFC. Nothing has replaced the Laurentian Dairy in Deep River. Sigh. We stopped in Cobden to get gas and got home without incident.
The camera on the Montana 750i is really hard to make work well. It’s designed to take pictures of things to mark them on the map. It’s not designed to make art. No backlight control or exposure compensation. It’s slow and hard to predict when it’s actually going to record the image. Do not make it the only camera on your bucket list trip.
If you need more detail you can download the collated GPX file.
Portage count: 24
Portage distance: 24,581m
Average Speed: 4.8km/h
Moving time: 21:52:42