“Which campsite are you staying at tonight?” a fellow backpacker asked us as we hiked along the trail. When told that we were going all the way to George Lake, he replied, “No seriously, which campsite?” “Seriously,” Rebecca replied. And then the next morning, more than 24 hours into our hike, a woman in a group of four backpackers asked us, “So what campsite did you come from?” “Well, we started hiking at 6:38 yesterday morning and we’re going all the way to the end without stopping.” They looked at us incredulously. We wished each other well and parted ways.
The idea of hiking the entire 80 km La Cloche Silhouette Trail at Killarney Provincial Park without stopping to sleep came to me as I considered different ways to train for Wilderness Traverse, a 24-hour adventure race. I have friends who had done the hike in one go before, and knew that it would provide an opportunity to practice exercising for a long period of time, to work out nutrition strategies, and to see how our team dynamics fared. We chose early October for our hike, and set about planning what we would carry with us, including food. I also got tips from my equally crazy friends, which helped us to settle on a counter-clockwise route (easier ending). I knew what kind of terrain to expect because I had previously hiked the entire trail (in 8 days going clockwise). The Friends of Killarney Park’s La Cloche Silhouette Trail Guide is a great resource, as is the park’s Backcountry Hiking and Canoe Route Map.
While my friend and adventure racing teammate Rebecca and I would be hiking (we are team “Define Lost”), our friend and support crew Jen would stay at base camp at George Lake. I would be carrying my Garmin InReach (satellite communicator) to allow our friends and family to follow our progress, and to get help if needed.
We decided to start hiking approximately one hour before sunrise. Our alarms went off at 5 AM, and after oatmeal for breakfast and final preparations, we grabbed the last few snacks from the cooler and at 6:38 AM with headlamps on, we started walking! It was Tuesday, October 5. The temperature was supposed to reach around 17 degrees Celsius, and fall to around 12 C feeling like 11 C overnight. There was no rain in the forecast, and it hadn’t rained since we arrived on the Sunday. We were fortunate to have dry, cool conditions! The trail can be treacherous when wet.
Killarney Ridge Section
Right off the bat we had to climb a hill – of course! The La Cloche Silhouette Trail goes up and down and up and down and up some more! We opted to wear our trail running shoes and to use hiking poles – I can’t imagine doing the trail without them. We carried 40 litre packs with 3 litre water bladders, plus a 600 ml squishable water bottle each with a filter that we used to refill our bladders. We had intended to use water purifying droplets but didn’t use them in the end. See below for a full packing list.
Our goal was to eat approximately 150-200 calories every hour. I had packed all of my snacks into individual portions, some sweet, some salty, and some other things. See below for a spreadsheet showing all the food I brought, and for info on what I ate – and didn’t! After hiking for hours and hours, some things became less and less appealing. We were reasonably successful at eating on schedule – at least earlier in the hike!
We learned early in the hike that our friends and family were not able to see our progress on the map as intended, however the update messages I sent were automatically accompanied by our location, so Jen was able to follow along with her Killarney map. In addition, each time I sent a message I noted how far we had walked and where we were (e.g. campsite number). It wasn’t until I came home that I realized my error – I had set my account to only share map data after November 1 instead of October 1! Lesson learned.
The last part of this first section of the trail is the climb up The Crack, probably the most technically challenging part of the trail, as you have to scramble up rocks, including big boulders with no easy steps. We encountered a few people in this area. By the time we reached the top, we had covered 9.5 km. Unfortunately we had to walk through cigarette smoke as we crested the top, but then we were rewarded with beautiful views.
The next time we checked the InReach to see how far we had gone, it was only 12.5 km, which was rather demoralizing. We realized then that our loose goal of 30 hours was likely unattainable. From that point on we checked the InReach infrequently, so as not to be disappointed too frequently (but enough to share our progress with friends and family).
Using the data from my InReach, you will see that I was able to piece together a comprehensive picture of our progress along the trail.
Killarney Ridge Section Summary:
- 6:38 AM – Left George Lake campsite #53
- 6:53 AM – Eastern terminus of the La Cloche Silhouette Trail/Started Killarney Ridge Section
- 7:02 AM – Sign to H54 (A. Y. Jackson Lake)
- 7:13 AM – H53 (Little Sheguiandah Lake)
- 7:36 AM – Sunrise
- 7:44 AM – H52/H51 (Wagon Road Lake)
- 8:32 AM – H50 (Sealey Lake)
- 9:32 AM – The Crack
Silver Peak Section
Along the trail we saw an incredible variety of fungi. I didn’t want to slow us down by continually stopping to take pictures, but I did take a few. There was one kind of mushroom in particular that looked as if it had been coated with shellac – it was so shiny!
We saw a few people as we approached the trail to Silver Peak, but we had already planned to skip this climb (and the gorgeous views).
We knew that before too long we would be hiking in the dark. Mentally, it was hard to see tents set up at H38 and to know that we had to keep walking. Oh how nice it would have been to curl up in a cozy sleeping bag!
Silver Peak Section Summary:
- 10:52 AM – Started Silver Peak Section
- 11:32 AM – Sign to H49 (Little Superior Lake)/H48 (Proulx Lake)
- 1:18 PM – H47 (Heaven Lake)
- 2:04 PM – Sign to H46/H45 (Bunnyrabbit Lake)
- 3:55 PM – Sign to H38/H37 (Silver Lake)
- 4:55 PM – Intersection with trail to Silver Peak
Hansen Township Section
As darkness approached and we prepared to climb and then walk up high along the ridge for a while, we made sure to stop for water at David Lake so that we didn’t run out without access to more. I don’t remember how many times we filled our bladders during the hike, but I do know that we used lakes and fast-flowing creeks to do so. Our water stops were slightly longer than our other stops. When we didn’t need water, we stopped for 10-15 minutes to go to the bathroom, get more food from our packs to put into the accessible pockets at our hips, look at the map, rest our backs, and ask – again – why we ever thought this was a good idea.
After we left David Lake, we walked in anticipation of climbing and coming upon a long section of exposed quartzite rock. This is clearly what I was remembering from my previous hike along this part of the trail. In the darkness, navigation became more challenging. Our goal for hiking overnight was to make as much forward progress as possible and to not get lost! We followed the blue trail markers (only a few were reflective) and the rock cairns. A few times, we lost the trail and had to backtrack, but never very far! At one point in the night the trail started to seem less like a trail, and then there was a tree right in front of me that I had to push through to continue. At this point, despite being tired from lack of sleep, we realized we must have missed a turn and retraced our steps. Sure enough, we went down at one point instead of up. What were we thinking – of course we should have CLIMBED again!
We walked and walked and walked, and it seemed like we would never reach the quartzite ridge that I was expecting. We walked on quartzite, but then we went into the forest again, and then out onto the rock, and then into the forest – and repeat. It wasn’t as I remembered it. We kept walking. We didn’t check the map frequently in this section. At one point, we stopped for a quick break, looked at the map, and were overjoyed to discover that we had finished the Hansen Township Section! This called for high fives!! We were further along than we expected, and we got a massive mental boost!
At one point overnight I got cold during a rest break, so I dug out my blue puffy jacket, which did the trick! Otherwise I wore just a t-shirt and shorts for the entire hike, except for the very beginning when I had pant legs on as well.
Hansen Township Section Summary:
- 4:55 PM – Started Hansen Township Section
- 6:16 PM – David Lake water stop
- 6:26 PM – Signs to H35 (Boundary Lake)/H34 (David Lake)
- 6:56 PM – Sunset
- 9:06 PM – Sign to H33 (Little Mountain Lake)
- 10:16 PM – Sign to H32/H31 (Shigaug Lake)
Sadly, the high from discovering that we were further along than expected didn’t last too long! It seemed we had been walking for quite some time, so long that I was sure we must have just missed the sign to H21. So when we eventually reached a campsite, we looked at the sign with trepidation… only to discover it said H21. So disheartening!
While I thought it might be scary to walk for 12 hours in the pitch dark, imagining all the creatures big and small that we might encounter, in fact I didn’t find it scary at all! And we saw some pretty cool creatures in the night. Low to the ground I kept seeing very small lights, which I knew weren’t fireflies. I wondered if they were just water droplets, and then I got close to one – it was a spider! Actually, it was the spider’s eyes that were reflecting the light from our headlamps! Once I knew what they were, I saw them everywhere!! One small plant had 3 spiders within a very small space. In the night we also saw 2 salamanders within a foot of each other right on the trail, as well as toads and a mouse. During the day, we saw (and heard!) countless ruffed grouse (one scared the heck out of me!), a pileated woodpecker, a bird that was likely an owl, a frog, lots of chipmunks and squirrels, nuthatches and a dragonfly. I also walked through many cobwebs! The only bear we saw was very close to the George Lake campground office the day before we started our hike!
At one of our overnight rest stops, we turned off our headlamps and looked up at the stars – wow! What a view! Not too much later, both of our headlamps gave warning flashes that the batteries were dying. We put new ones in and were back in business!
At one point, we had to descend a waterfall in the dark. The step down was too big for either of us to actually be able to take a step, so we had to bum scoot down. I thought my footing was solid, but my foot slipped on the wet rock, and I ended up on my butt in the water! Thankfully, it didn’t take too long for my shorts and underwear to dry!
It’s hard to describe what it was like to walk for 12 hours in the dark. It was long. It was tiring. I was counting down the hours until the sun would rise!
I was hoping that the sunrise would give us a big mental boost, but after the initial joy of seeing the sun coming up, it became overcast and there wasn’t much sun to celebrate!
However, the sun was up and I was grateful! Our new goal was to finish before it set again (really!).
Threenarrows Section Summary:
- 12:36 AM – Started Threenarrows Section
- 12:43 AM – Sign to H23 (no lake)
- 1:18 AM – Sign to H22 (unnamed lake)
- 2:13 AM – Waterfall descent
- 3:41 AM – Sign to H21 (Threenarrows Lake)
- 5:12 AM – Signs to H20 (unnamed Lake) and H59 (Bodina Lake)
- 6:47 AM – Sign to H19 (Threenarrows Lake)
- 7:02 AM – Sign to H18 (Threenarrows Lake)
- 7:38 AM – Sunrise
- 8:02 AM – Sign to H17 (Threenarrows Lake)
- 10:02 AM – H16 (Threenarrows Lake)/water stop
- 11:06 AM – Sign to H8 (Threenarrows Lake)/start of long walk around the dam
Baie Fine Section
I mentioned the hills – the neverending hills – but I haven’t yet mentioned the mud! We each carried with us a 2nd pair of trail running shoes, with the intent that we would keep one pair dry. Before starting our hike, I envisioned changing into my spare pair for any necessary water crossings. However, within the first few km of the trail, our feet were already wet. There were so many creek crossings, and so many unavoidable puddles, that we never changed our shoes, and instead had wet feet the entire time. This, as you can imagine, is not ideal. But in case we got stuck on the trail for much longer than expected (e.g. if one of us got injured), I wanted to have dry shoes!
At some point, Rebecca started getting hot spots on her feet, which she treated with blister stuff. For me, the last 20 km were excruciating on my feet as I had developed blisters on the outsides of my baby toes. Downhills were the worst. I tried treating them (at which point Rebecca very briefly fell asleep while laying on her back with her backpack on!) but given that my feet were sweating and I continued to step in puddles and mud, nothing stuck!
Another thing that we both experienced during this hike was hearing and seeing things that weren’t there. So many times Rebecca or I would think we heard people talking. At one point (during the day, once we had hiked past the dam), I thought I saw someone in an orange jacket sitting along the shore in a chair. I looked again and only saw leaves. Just before we reached the Pig, I pointed out a backpack to Rebecca, which was sitting on the trail with no person in sight. But as we got closer, I realized it was a fallen tree. Other times I saw bear-like shapes (in bark, in trees). The mind sure does play tricks in times of sleep deprivation!
While the Baie Fine section of the trail was the flattest, it seemed to stretch forever!
We kept thinking that we were getting close to George Lake and the bridge that marks the end of the trail (“Look! A clearing in the forest!”), but the trail just kept on going. And then finally, unbelievably, we saw the bridge! We stopped for a quick picture, then headed up the hill to the park road. Once we hit the road, wow! We had the strangest feeling in our feet. First, the road felt like it was moving, and second, the road was so incredibly hard on our feet!
We made our way to our campsite, where Jen was jumping up and down excitedly! It was so awesome to have a support crew waiting for us! She had cooked homemade macaroni and cheese for us, chopped up a whack load of vegetables, and offered to do anything we needed – get dry shoes and socks, get cold drinks, get clothes, anything! We plunked ourselves down in our chairs for a few minutes and had cold drinks. We removed our shoes, and hobbled to the comfort station for showers (me wearing Jen’s flip flops because I couldn’t tolerate shoes anymore on my blisters)! I even used a hair dryer (for the first time ever while camping), since I didn’t want to go to bed with wet hair. We sat at the roaring campfire for a few minutes telling Jen about our adventures before sleep called our names! Shoutout to Killarney Outfitters for having dry firewood! We bought lots after a disappointing campfire our first night in the park trying to get the wet park wood to burn!
Thank you Jen for being the best ever support crew, and Rebecca for always being up for an adventure, no matter how ridiculous.
Baie Fine Section Summary:
- 1:06 PM – Started Baie Fine Section
- 1:16 PM – The Pig (steepest portage in the park)
- 2:57 PM – Sign to H6 (Cave Lake)
- 3:02 PM – Sign to H5 (Cave Lake)
- 4:27 PM – Signs to H4/H3 (Acid Lake)
- 4:57 PM – Sign to H2 (Lumsden Lake)
- 5:17 PM – Sign to H1 (Lumsden Lake)
- 6:15 PM – Western terminus of the La Cloche Silhouette Trail/Finished Baie Fine Section
- 6:24 PM – Arrived at George Lake campsite (35 hours and 46 minutes after starting)
As my friend Heidi said, “You are so ready for this but don’t underestimate the challenge.” She was right! While the trail is physically demanding, the hardest part for sure was the mental battle. The further we got into our hike, the more frequent our short breaks became, and the harder it was to get going again (physically and mentally)!
I wouldn’t recommend a thru-hike as a way to see the sights and appreciate the beauty of the trail, but it definitely gave us experience exercising for a long period of time, and taught us what foods we do – and don’t! – want to face after hours and hours of exercise. We also got a chance to test out our team dynamics over a much longer period of time than our longest race to date so far – approximately 14 hours.
What an experience!!
In planning our hike, we estimated that it would take us approximately 30 hours (a pace of 2.7 km/h). However, we wanted to bring extra food in case it took longer. Based on previous experiences racing, plus research we had done (including advice from friends who had done this before), we planned to eat 150-200 calories per hour. I brought 37 different snacks with me, a total of 41 servings. Near the beginning of the hike, I suggested that we play a game and try to remember the order in which we ate our snacks. I thought it might help keep us awake during the long night! But after eggs, bar, muffin, something, I stopped trying!
I ate the eggs first since they were not going to stay cold for long. My favourite snacks were the pickle, olives, moon cheese and dill chips! I also loved the lemon square. The further and further we got into our hike, the dryer and dryer I found some of the foods to be – for example, I had to wash down chickpeas, my PB&honey sandwich, and the Pro bar PB chocolate chip with water to be able to swallow them. And as we spent more and more time on the trail, sweet things appealed less and less to me. I could never face the chocolate bar, boiled sweet potatoes, Endurance Tap, and most of my homemade bars and energy balls.
While in the end I had too much food, I don’t regret bringing all of it. If one of us had been injured and we had been forced to stop on the trail, we would have needed it! I did learn, however, that I need more salty snacks and less sweet snacks.
At the suggestion of my friend Barb, Rebecca and I had each packed “mystery” snacks, to pull out when we deemed appropriate! Mine was so sweet that by the time we talked about it, neither of us wanted one! Rebecca had brought Goldschläger (Swiss cinnamon schnapps), which she thought could be helpful in the night if we were cold! We didn’t have that either.
Note: I am not sponsored by any companies. I bought all of the items that I used.
- Gregory Zulu 40 litre backpack
- Topo Athletic Mtn Racer Trail Running Shoes 6
- T-shirt, pants with lots of pockets and detachable legs, underwear, bra, compression socks
- Tubbs hiking poles
- Garmin InReach
- Map in waterproof pouch
- Bear spray (Rebecca also carried a horn)
- Bear bell
- 3 litre water bladder
- Katadyn BeFree Microfilter with Hydrapak 0.6 litre flask
- Water treatment tablets
- Sun screen
- First aid kit
- Petzl Actik core headlamp
- AAA batteries
- Lightweight emergency bivy bag
- Cell phone
- Flint and fire starter
- Swiss army knife
- Contact lenses and solution
- Toilet paper
- Feminine hygiene products
- Altra Lone Peak 5 trail running shoes
- Running socks (2 pairs)
- Hat – lightweight/squishy baseball
- Hat – lightweight running
- Hat – winter
- Running gloves
- Long john pants and long sleeve top
- Blue puffy compressible jacket
- Rain coat and pants
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