My friend Cheryl and I headed to Killarney Provincial Park at the end of September with high hopes for our 8-day canoe trip starting at the George Lake access point, where we would paddle a route that included many new-to-me lakes. Cheryl and I had previously started a trip at this access point, but that was our 8-day, 90k hike of the entire La Cloche Silhouette Trail – we had never paddled in George Lake!
Day 1: George Lake to Freeland Lake to Killarney Lake
We were on the water by 2:30 PM, on a day that was rainy, foggy, and cool (high of 15C?). Nevertheless, the scenery was beautiful. We started out with Cheryl in the stern of her canoe, and me in the bow, but we would change that up over the course of the trip, sharing the power and steering responsibilities. We also shared the navigation, with me using my new Unlostify map, and Cheryl using the official park map.
Our first portage of the trip was a very short 50m into Freeland Lake, so we decided to carry the packs, and then go back for the canoe. However, our goal for the trip was to single carry (i.e. carry everything at once) all portages except for the tiniest ones, something we had never managed to do on a trip together before. In fact, I had never single carried on any canoe trip, but with a 3km portage on this one, it was a necessity!!
We paddled through Freeland Lake and then portaged 430m into Killarney Lake, where we would stay the night. We didn’t have our eyes on a specific site, but we hoped to be fairly close to the portage to Threenarrows Lake, which we would tackle the next morning. As it turned out, we passed 2 unoccupied sites and then several occupied ones, which made us wonder whether we should backtrack to one of the empty ones we had seen, or go further and hope that there was a site available and we wouldn’t have to paddle all the way back later. We pushed on, paddling against the wind, and were relieved to find that site #24 was free! Phew. It had been raining all day long, and our wildlife sightings for the day included only a single frog!
We set up our campsite, putting up a 2-man tent, a small tarp for a dining shelter, and throwing a rope over a tree branch for our bear bag. This would be our routine when we reached each campsite. Then we boiled water for hot chocolate, added Baileys to it, and enjoyed a yummy energy square alongside it. Later we ate “Thanksgiving on the Trail” (essentially dehydrated chicken, with stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberries and gravy) before climbing into the tent for the night.
Overnight, there were thunderstorms for more than 4 hours, but we were fortunate in that the thunder and lightning never came close (though the rain did!).
Distance paddled: 7.96 km
Distance portaged: 50m + 430m
Day 2: Killarney Lake to Threenarrows Lake
After a cup of gatorade, mug of tea, and bowl of hot cereal, we packed up our campsite and set off for the 3k portage to Threenarrows Lake. We had no idea how eventful our day would be!
It was a short 700m paddle to get to the portage. According to the time estimates on my Unlostify map, the portage would take us 2 hours if we single carried (we assumed that we were “typical” paddlers, not “relaxing” or “speedy” ones). This would mean that the person carrying the canoe would take the lighter pack, and the other person would take the heavier one (an uncomfortable, non-ergonomic canoe pack) plus the paddles and my camelbak.
Getting ready for 3k portage.
Taking a break on the 3k portage.
Cheryl took the canoe and her backpack, knowing that I was willing to switch part way if need be. We had already decided before we started walking that we would definitely be taking a few breaks along the way! This portage starts with a steep uphill, but then isn’t too bad really. It had streams, rocks, hills, slippery sections, creek crossings and tree obstacles to navigate. And there was rain at times. And thunder. We stopped two times for a few minutes to free ourselves from the packs and boat, and then continued on our way. At one point, Cheryl slipped and fell on a wet rock, but thankfully, she was not injured (she even managed to hold onto the boat). At the end of the portage, there is a short paddle across a small lake before another 430m portage! But once we were done the second one, we were into Killarney Lake…and facing a paddle into the wind…and whitecaps!
At this point, I was in the stern. We approached a narrowing of the lake and felt the wind increase in strength. The waves were big, and the wind was pushing the bow to the right. We had hoped to go through the channel and head left. We paddled as hard as we could, but we could not turn the bow dead straight or to the left. The waves were hitting us broadside and the canoe was rocking. I briefly considered letting us get blown to the right shore where there was a bit of an eddy, and trying again to go through the channel. Instead, we allowed ourselves to float backwards, and decided to paddle hard (from a spot with less wind/waves) back to the left and into an eddy there, where we could regroup and decide on our next steps. We did not want to flip!! One idea was to make the little peninsula our campsite for the night (we wondered if it might even be the campsite we were looking for). Cheryl got out of the boat and scouted out the peninsula. She proposed that we portage our stuff over it to the other side, where there was a calm area for us to get back into the canoe and paddle around the left corner to the campsite (she had found it – but it wasn’t on the peninsula). We agreed that if we couldn’t paddle around the corner to the left (into the wind), we would instead turn the boat and ride the waves to another campsite on the other side (a different part of the lake).
Thankfully, we had no trouble paddling around the point (we weren’t trying to fight our way through a narrow channel), and so we landed the canoe at the campsite and were grateful to be done paddling for the day. I’ve never been defeated by wind and waves before! We later saw three guys in a canoe make it through the channel, none of them wearing lifejackets!
After setting up our campsite and hanging some things to dry, we sat down to have a snack, and were amazed at all the little bits of vegetation that were being pelted at us by the wind! Small boughs were flying, as were little bits like twigs. The wind was something else! We kept our eyes peeled for trees about to fall. Thankfully, none did at our site. Later in the trip, we saw many huge trees freshly fallen, both on campsites and on portages. It wasn’t until our trip was done and we were back at the George Lake office that we heard from a Park Ranger about a tornado in Ottawa that same day!!
We “swam” to feel somewhat clean again, but the water was cold and air temperature not really conducive to warming up post-swim, so we just went in part way and splashed ourselves!
The first time I opened the thunderbox lid, a salamander ran across the seat and fell inside! I apologized and hoped I wasn’t peeing on it.
At some point, Cheryl spotted a glove sticking up from the ground, and was very relieved to not find a body with it!
Distance paddled: 1.35 km
Distance portaged: 3110m + 400m
Day 3: Threenarrows Lake
We had planned to stay 3 nights on Threenarrows Lake, but hadn’t decided before the trip began whether we would change campsites every night, or stay put. Based on weather forecasts from my Garmin InReach (which communicates using satellites – no cell signal required), it looked like Day 3 would be a better weather day than Day 4, so we decided to travel on Day 3 to a different campsite – and get ourselves closer to the west end of the lake, so that we would have less distance to travel when we started moving again. This turned out to be our sunniest day of the whole trip.
We slept in, and weren’t on the water until 11:30 AM. We headed west for site 45, then paddled in an upside down U shape, finally reaching site 46, which we briefly considered taking. But we decided to continue paddling against the wind (the majority of the trip, we paddled against the wind!), and to hopefully be able to stay on site 47 or 48. We were in luck! Both were empty, so we took site 48, the closest one to “the Pig” – the steepest portage in the park, which we would tackle on Day 5. We decided that Day 4 would be a “stay put” day.
But before we reached our campsite for the night, we had an interesting encounter with a float plane! We were in the water near site H21 (a backpacking site) having a snack when Cheryl noted that a float plane seemed to be coming straight for us. In fact it did land in the lake, and proceeded to zoom past us through a narrow channel that we would soon be paddling in. Once we got around the corner, we saw that it was at a cabin – it had either dropped people or stuff (or both) off. We watched it take off again (safely out of its way) before we started paddling.
Before setting up our campsite, we ate lunch on the rocks by the shore, and tried to warm our feet in the sun at the same time! Then we set the campsite up, and gathered wood for a fire.
I used my stick stove to boil water for hot chocolate, and then we built a fire to make pizzas. They were delicious, with pepperoni, bacon, cheese, pineapple, peppers, broccoli, mushrooms and onions. YUM!
We saw a beaver swim by our site while we were sitting at the water’s edge, but didn’t see any people all day long!
After getting ready for bed, I climbed into the tent. Cheryl was part-way to the thunderbox when I heard a screech, a howl, and then the unmistakeable sound of a Barred Owl. I yelled to Cheryl, “You okay out there?” She was. We still don’t know what happened – had it been me, I would not have continued on to the bathroom on my own! We heard Barred Owls again multiple times that evening and overnight, but it never sounded as close as it did the first time.
Distance paddled: 8.73 km
Distance portaged: 0 km
Day 4: Threenarrows Lake
Since we weren’t changing campsites on Day 4, and it was quite cool out (down to 3C with the windchill according to my InReach!), we decided to go for a walk after breakfast to stay warm. We stuck close to the shore and headed in the direction of the Pig. We picked a path through the woods, climbing over branches, under tree limbs, around bushes etc. for about a kilometre. Then we turned back. Just before reaching our campsite I spotted a jaw bone on the forest floor. I’m not sure what animal it belonged to.
We had a snack, then started a fire to try to warm up. It was too cold to just stand around. Unfortunately, it was too windy to get much heat from the fire. We couldn’t sit too close to it for fear of embers burning our clothes – unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened to me. I felt something burning my leg, and brushed the ember off my rain pants, but not before a small hole was burned into them. My pants underneath didn’t get burned, but now sport a small white patch.
We had mugs of hot water to drink (I was rationing the hot chocolate, and didn’t feel like tea), and then went into the woods to have lunch, where it was a little more sheltered from the wind. We sat against big trees for backrests, facing the thunderbox just a few metres away. Not exactly scenic.
We then climbed into the tent to try to get warm. Despite being inside my sleeping bag and wearing a winter hat and gloves, I was still cold! I wondered if I would be cold in the night (I had packed my summer sleeping bag, not realizing the temperature was going to drop so much).
It was in the tent that we first started talking about the possibility of shortening our trip, because the weather forecast looked bleak – 80% chance of heavy rain for the last couple of days of our trip, and continuing cool temperatures. We studied our maps and tried to figure out how we could change our route. We didn’t want to stay on lakes that we hadn’t reserved, because that may mean someone with a reservation wouldn’t be able to find a site. This is more of a problem on small lakes – on large lakes, provincial parks often leave a few sites unreserved. Thankfully, I had my InReach, so what ensued was a 4 hour+ confusing text conversation with my husband, to see if he could change our route. Messages were being sent or received out of order, so it was funny at times (and frustrating). I learned my lesson: start each text with a time stamp! The Ontario Parks reservation line told Alasdair that once we started our trip we couldn’t change our route, but when he called the park directly, the Park Ranger was very helpful and got us the lakes we wanted!
At some point during this conversation we forced ourselves out of the tent to make dinner (as Cheryl would say, the answer to the question, “Should we go in the tent?” is always no… because if you do go in, you never want to leave!). After dinner, we climbed back into the tent for the night! Once we knew that our reservation had been changed, we could go to sleep!
Distance portaged: 0 km
Distance hiked: 1.95 km
Day 5: Threenarrows Lake to Artist Lake to Muriel Lake to O.S.A. Lake
After packing up our campsite, we set out for the Pig, a short paddle away. We had walked this portage before, when we hiked the full length of the La Cloche Silhouette Trail, but I’m pretty sure at that time we were glad we weren’t carrying a canoe!
We decided that I would wear Cheryl’s pack and carry the canoe, but as soon as I got the canoe up, I realized there was a problem – I couldn’t tilt the canoe back, which meant I could only see the ground immediately in front of my feet. I walked for a short time like that, then realized it just wouldn’t work! Turns out with our slight height difference, or maybe just how the pack sits on me, it was too high, preventing the canoe from pivoting. Cheryl removed everything from the top of the pack, put it into hers, and bingo! I could walk and tilt the canoe and see in front of me! Kind of important if you don’t want to walk into big rocks, trees (!) or people.
When walking this portage, you essentially climb the first half, then descend the second half. The ground is rocky – small and large rocks – uneven, wet in places, and very steep! The pictures don’t quite do it justice. I took a break part-way down, and then stopped again before reaching the end and turning to start the 650m portage to Artist Lake!
We paddled through Artist Lake, where we reached a small waterfall at the other end. We decided to carry the packs first (140m), then return for the canoe. But we didn’t walk far before we realized that we couldn’t possibly be on the portage, despite having walked on a well worn path. It ended, and we were forced to cross the creek. We continued along the other bank, but it too seemed like a very weird portage. And the end was a steep climb up a bank. We wondered how we’d manage with the canoe. We realized that we must have missed the portage, and in fact, we did. We found the portage sign at the end and it directed us a different way. We hadn’t seen a portage sign when we arrived at the waterfall, but we weren’t surprised – not all portages seemed to be marked.
From here we paddled a very short distance to another short portage, which would take us into Muriel Lake.
We paddled through Muriel Lake, did yet another portage, and then found ourselves on the shore of O.S.A. Lake – the sun had come out, but so had the wind! And you guessed it, we would be paddling against the wind as we tried to find a campsite. There were 4 campsites on the west side of the lake (where we were), and only 1 on the east side. We wanted to stay at the east side if we could, because then we’d have less distance to travel the next day, but we also didn’t want to paddle the entire way across the lake only to find that the site was taken! We stopped at one of the island sites and almost decided to stay – there were whitecaps on the lake and we were pretty much done with fighting wind for the day. But, we checked the weather, and the winds were expected to be the same in the morning, plus rain, so we decided to go for it and hope that the site across the lake was empty! As we paddled across, the whitecaps continued and a couple of times the waves broke over the bow of the boat. As we got closer to the site, we saw something that looked like a canoe… we hoped that it wasn’t. Eventually, we could see that it was a rock. Phew. We arrived at the site, couldn’t see a canoe, tent, or person, and said, “Hello?” No response. We had a site!
This was our most scenic site of the trip, with a view of the mountains across the lake. It also had 2 private beaches, one on either side of the site. After setting up I made us some Baileys hot chocolate, and then we sat on the rocks at the shore planning future Killarney canoe trips! We made really yummy egg wraps for dinner, which also had tons of veggies, bacon, cheese, and salsa. As we were eating, the wind was blowing dark clouds in, so we made sure we were ready for the oncoming rain. We had already made ourselves an awesome kitchen shelter, complete with backrests!
It turns out we were in the tent for the night before the rain came.
Day 6: O.S.A. Lake to Killarney Lake to Freeland Lake to George Lake
We awoke to more rain on our last day. We cooked our breakfast and ate it under our kitchen shelter, then packed as much as we could under the tarp. Then it was time to finish packing the tent and tarp, and set out for the last time.
We had two options for portaging into Killarney Lake, and we chose the one with a shorter portage plus a beaver dam lift-over (rather than the one with the longer portage).
We encountered a few canoes as we headed out, and then a large group of about 10 canoes of students near the end. We had two portages to tackle on our last day, one into Freeland Lake and then one into George Lake. We were travelling at a similar pace of two men that we had met a few days earlier, so we chatted with them for a bit at one of the portages. They made me want to go paddle in Alaska! While we had very few wildlife encounters this trip, they saw 2 wolves, a bear, moose, otters and some kind of weasel! They highly recommended that we paddle the more northerly parts of the park.
It rained off and on while we paddled, but when we arrived at the George Lake access point, it had stopped. It wasn’t the weather or trip we had hoped for, but we still enjoyed ourselves!
After the canoe was back on the vehicle and all our stuff was packed away, we headed to the park office to get a refund for the nights we wouldn’t stay at Killarney. That’s when we heard about the crazy wind storm that blew through the campground the same day we were being pelted in the face with tree bits. Apparently the campground and office lost power for 60 hours, and downed trees in campsites meant that park staff had to cut them so that cars could be freed from campsites.
Once we left the park, we headed to the town of Killarney for fish and chips at Herberts Fisheries. I had never been to the town, but Cheryl had. We walked into the building and who did we see but Mike Ranta, a modern day canoe explorer (he has paddled across the country by canoe – with his dog Spitzy). He plans to do it again to raise awareness for Canadian vets. We enjoyed our fish and chips, then headed home.
Killarney, we’ll be back!