I remember this October 2013 trip for the glowing eyes in the night, the “Amazing Race” adventure, and paddling in strong winds and waves! My friend Cheryl and I had never been to Killarney Provincial Park before, but we had heard great things.
As we drove to the park on a Thursday morning, the sun began to disappear, clouds covered the sky, and we wondered when we would get rained on. We made a quick stop at the French River Provincial Park to eat our lunch, and then we were on our way again. At the Bell Lake access point, more than 400 km from home, we went into the Killarney Outfitters office to get our camping permit. We were immediately asked how we enjoyed our trip! Surely we looked too clean, dry, and chipper to be heading home? Permit in hand, we got the canoe down to the water, loaded everything in, and set out, with me in the stern.
We had chosen the popular Bell Lake/Three Mile Lake/Balsam Lake/David lake/Bell Lake circular route, because it also gave us an opportunity to hike to the highest point around – Silver Peak, part of the La Cloche Mountain Range (which apparently used to be higher than the Rocky Mountains out west). Our first campsite was to be on Little Bell Lake, a very small lake with just one campsite on it, and only a short portage (130 m) from Balsam Lake. We learned quickly that you need eagle eyes to spot the portage and campsite signs at Killarney! The signs are significantly smaller than the ones at other parks. Before we got to Little Bell Lake, we had to portage 40 m from Three Mile Lake into Balsam Lake – the portage was on an old marine railway, which apparently used to be like a moving carpet that you could put your boat on… and watch it portage itself! That little mechanism is no longer in action. At the start of our paddling, the lakes were super smooth, with no wind and awesome reflections in the water. That changed when the light rain started. It then rained off and on for the entire time we were at Killarney.
We arrived at our campsite after 2 hours of paddling (a distance of about 8 1/2 km), and set up the tent and the bear bag to hang our food – we used the “Reg method” for the first time, which is my go to method now. It took 5 minutes, used just 1 bag, 1 long rope, no pulleys or carabiners, and was dead easy to do! Unfortunately it rained while we were cooking our tortilla pizzas (with rehydrated dehydrated veggies and pineapple), but they were delicious. I also discovered – while prepping dinner – that we had failed to pack forks, knives and spoons (the guilty party shall remain nameless)! I did have a Swiss Army Knife, and Cheryl had a knife too, so all was not lost. We also had a big stirring spoon and a spatula. But, we spent the next few days experimenting with sticks as chopsticks, stir spoons, scoops, and knives! Cheryl lit a 1-match fire later, which we would have enjoyed more had it not been so wet out! That night when it was pitch dark out (no moon, no stars), I spotted what I thought was a 5-Lined Skink while I was sitting on the loo, but later at home I realized (with some photo comparisons) that in fact it was an Eastern Red-backed Salamander. It didn’t seem too bothered by my headlamp, or later my camera!
On Friday morning we had an awesome pancake breakfast with rehydrated dehydrated bananas, peaches and kiwi, Chai tea and gatorade. We packed up, and with Cheryl in the stern this time, we headed back to the portage to Balsam Lake, and then paddled our way to David Lake. At the 630 m portage we met 2 girls who were studying at Laurentian College in Sudbury and taking an Outdoor Recreation Management program – or something to that effect. They had to do a 3-night 4-day canoe trip before they could graduate. However, based on the STUFF they had with them, they clearly hadn’t yet learned how to pack lightly. One of the girls did carry one of our paddles and a pelican case, since she had a free hand. Getting under the boat with the canoe pack on was fun, and the portage started straight uphill, but it wasn’t bad. It turns out the girls were also hoping to camp close to the trailhead for the hike to Silver Peak, since they intended to do the hike the next day as well. When we saw the girls the next day near the top of Silver Peak, we found out that they saw a bear just after we left them (sleeping on a rock)!
We paddled David Lake toward the trailhead, getting increasingly concerned as all the campsites were taken (we had a permit to camp on the lake that night, but not on a specific site). We were really hoping that we didn’t get to the far end of the lake only to discover that we had to paddle 4 km back (into the wind!) to find a site. And we knew that the girls would be behind us, also looking for a site. We decided to forego lunch in favour of finding a site, and our determined paddling and race against the clock (we eventually saw their canoe behind us) made us feel like competitors on the Amazing Race! Finally we saw what we thought was a site, but it said that it was NOT a site and we should NOT camp there. We continued, passing a few more occupied sites, until finally we found a free site! We weren’t sure why it didn’t have a campsite sign visible from the water, but we pulled everything out of the boat, put the boat on shore, and breathed a collective sigh of relief! And then… we could see the girls’ boat… and at our site, we saw trail markers… that’s odd, we said… we quickly realized we were on a backpacking site, which we did NOT have a permit for! Survival instincts kicked in. We also felt badly that the girls may not have a site… but not badly enough to not take one ourselves! We quickly debated staying there anyway, or putting everything back in the canoe and heading further down to the lake to the last possible site (which we couldn’t see). Thankfully, the last site was free and we took it. We saw the girls paddling in the other direction (not sure where they were going). We had a site and we were very relieved!!! We put up our tent and bear bag, and then we had our lunch at 5 PM – a yummy carrot raisin pepper peanut salad – eaten with chopsticks, followed by some delicious apple crisp. I used the rehydrating apples (in very hot water) to warm myself up!
We gathered wood, and had a great fire! While Cheryl was filtering water and I was keeping her company at the shore, an otter swam up out of the water about 10 feet from me, stood on its back legs and took a good look at us. Then it ran up the hill away from us. (I had seen what I thought was likely an otter on the first day too, but while we were paddling and it was scampering up a rock on shore.) That night, I was almost at the loo – in the complete dark – when my headlamp caught glowing eyeballs not too far away! Coyote? Wolf? Fox? Bear? Moose? Do I stay to pee?? I did, and the thing clearly saw me, because it moved a bit higher up the hill. I walked back to the campfire very quickly and told Cheryl that I wasn’t going to the bathroom alone again that night!! It was freaky! (And maybe it was just a raccoon! But it seemed higher off the ground…. )
Saturday morning it was quite windy. We had an awesome oatmeal breakfast (with nuts, raisins, and rehydrated dehydrated fruit) with Chai tea and gatorade, and then headed for the trailhead to hike 5.2 km up to Silver Peak. It was a short paddle there, and when we arrived there were 2 other canoes pulled up on shore. The trail was well marked with little signs, but in some places they used big rock piles to mark the route. When we were nearly at the top, a group coming down asked us, “Did you see the bear?” Apparently we were the only group going up who hadn’t seen it. We kept our eyes open, and as we made the final turn up the hill, we heard that group yelling at the bear “Go away bear!” They were loud! A few minutes before meeting that group, we had heard another group (around 15 men and teenage boys) yell something but we figured it was because they reached the top… later we realized it might have been them yelling at the bear. In any case, we got to the top, and as we arrived we met the 2 girls from the day before heading down (being “escorted” by 2 guys they met at the top) – because they too had seen the bear. I forgot to ask them where they found a campsite the night before!! We looked around, took some pictures, accidentally discovered a geocache, and then had our lunch before heading down. Of course the rain started pretty much as we arrived at the top! While eating our lunch 3 women reached the top, one carrying bear spray (Cheryl had some too), one carrying a fog horn, and one a massive knife. The one with the knife said she had no idea what she would do with it, but her husband made her take it!
We started our descent knowing that a bear was in the area, and it didn’t take long before I spotted it! We backed up, talked so the bear knew we were there, Cheryl pulled the bear spray out of its holster, and we waited for the bear to make a move. It was happily eating, but did eventually cross the path back towards the way we had come (uphill). Unfortunately, we lost sight of it, and didn’t want to keep walking because there was a big mound of earth that we couldn’t see over or around… and the bear could be right behind it…. eventually we did proceed, and saw that the bear wasn’t behind the mound – it was sitting or standing with its bum in a little den (at the base of a tree) watching us! The bear really didn’t seem bothered by us, so no bear spray was deployed! Just before arriving back at the canoe we decided to check out Boundary Lake, so we walked about 500 m and had our snack there. It was cold so we didn’t stay long. We walked back to the trailhead and paddled back to our campsite, and on the way passed very close to a man who was slowly – very slowly – going into the water in his white boxers! His friend said that he had intended to get in before we got there! Back at our site we gathered more wood, had rehydrated dehydrated minestrone soup, and fresh baked corn bread for dinner. Later we had chocolate pudding and Baileys. Yum.
On Sunday we awoke to rain, and decided to pack up the tent and put everything under our tarps while we had our no-cook breakfast (homemade bran muffins and dehydrated applesauce – eaten like fruit leather – with gatorade). We had another windy paddle, but not quite as windy as the day before. At the first portage (210 m), Cheryl had a go at portaging the canoe, which left me to carry the huge pack, 3 paddles, and 2 pelican cases. At the 2nd portage (705 m), we were just pulling the boat out of the water when a fleet of canoes arrived – the group of 15 or so hikers from the day before, and I took the opportunity to ask for help to stand up with that huge pack on. Two men quickly ran over – “How long have you been sitting like that?” one said, “3 days?!” – let me tell you, it made standing up EASY! Part way through the portage Cheryl and I switched, so that I took the boat and she got the rest of the stuff. I was hoping that when I got to the end there would be at least one of the big group there and able to help me get the canoe off (I haven’t mastered that part solo yet). I was lucky! I got to the end and asked for help – 2 different guys jumped up, took the boat right off of me (I only asked for help for them to take the weight off one end) and asked where I wanted it – I said anywhere, so they put it right in the water for me! For the rest of the paddle back to the van it was pouring rain, and we were relieved when we arrived, knowing that we would soon be in clean and dry clothes (left in the van)!
All told we paddled/portaged/hiked about 42.2 km. Despite the rain, it was a great trip!
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