Killarney Canoe Trip, May 2009

Although I've done many May long-weekend canoe trips over the years, this one with my 11 year-old son and four more of my friends was fun, memorable, and challenging unlike any others I've completed. It turned out to be an unexpected good test of our mettle, and I'm happy to say we made it through fine to tell the tale!

This interactive Google map shows the route we took. This was a four day/three night base camping trip in Killarney, with the aim of completing several "bush whack" hikes along the beautiful La Cloche peaks. You can click and zoom in on this Google map:

Day 1: Friday May 15th, 2009

Killarney May 2009 - group photo

Devin and I got up around 5am, and drove to Toronto as usual to pick up Jorge. Dan C., Lee and Brian left from Kitchener an hour later, with plans to hook up at the Hungry Bear restaurant for an early lunch. We managed to actually hook up in Barrie at the highway gas station, which was all the better.

(Click any picture to see a larger view)

We planned for three canoes: me and Devin, Jorge and Dan C., and Lee and Brian. In retrospect, which should have gone for three people each in two canoes, given the windy weather that ended up blowing in. Alas... one must always pay respect to Killarney weather, and I suppose we were just a tad complacent after so many easy Spring trips.

The forecast for the long weekend called for COLD weather, but mostly clear. Here's the actual weather data for that weekend (for Parry Sound... Killarney was a bitter colder still):

Day High (C) Low (C) Rain (cm)
Friday 15 18.5 2.5 4.8
16 13.5 7.0 3.8
17 9.0 2.5 0.0
18 14.0 -1.0 0.0
George Lake in May

Most of the rain Friday came in the late evening and overnight, sparing us a soggy setup. In fact, the day was quite clear for the paddle in and setup of camp.

We had hoped to get the awesome island site 29 on OSA Lake, but settled with the very nice island site 32. One of these days I'm going to get both a reservation on OSA, and snag that island site! Killarney in the late Fall and early Spring is quite different than in the summer: the tree line seems so sparse and dead, with only a hint of evidence of budding deciduous trees. But these are also ideal hiking conditions, as long as the bugs are not out in force. And with the cold weather that weekend, the bug jackets stayed packed.

A warm pleasant first night

The first night was fairly warm, and perfect for a fire and marshmallows. Devin, as usual, assumed Master of the Flame duties for the evening. Jorge brought his mini-guitar, on which he, Lee and even Devin took turns serenading the group. The group voted Jorge's Mexican Beatles rendition of "Jesterday" the camp favorite (we didn't asked any neighbors on OSA lake what they thought though).

The trip was primarily planned for a variety of "bush whack" hikes to the tops of neighboring peaks. Two in particular we wanted to achieve were Gulch Hill and "The Crack" from Killarney Lake. We were all looking forward to getting some hikes in over the next few days.

Day 2: Saturday May 16th

Fog over La Cloche

It rained overnight, and continued to drizzle with an overcast sky Saturday morning. But there was not a breath of wind either, so we enjoyed a hearty breakfast of Lee's rehydrated apple turnovers and bacon, and packed lunch for our hike to Gulch Hill along the south shore of OSA, separating it from George Lake. Quiet morning paddle on OSA Lake

We mounted up in our three canoes, and headed out the short 1.5 km to the valley bay separating OSA and George Lake. I had heard that there was a portage here from George to OSA, which the park wardens used as well. Indeed, we found an old aluminum boat cached in the woods once we got to shore, and then stumbled onto the barely visible trail (portage would be an overly generous term for it). All the same, not 10 minutes into our hike up the portage, a couple of guys loaded up were coming down the trail to OSA! We said our Hellos and told then they were not far from the water. The two guys had not used the "shortcut" to OSA before, and I suspect they would not do so again. We hiked mid way up the trail to maximum height point, then cut west along ridgeline with the goal of reaching the peak of Gulch Hill. Having now hiked this shortcut section, I certainly would not opt to portage it in favor of long route around from Freeland and Killarney Lake. It's quite an elevation climb and drop, all for nothing (and no view either).

Hiking to Tear Drop Lake Overlooking OSA from Tear Drop Lake Tear Drop Lake

Around the time we reached the saddle point of the trail and cut west, the sun came out and the drizzle stopped. We continued to head directly west and gain elevation. Around 1:30pm we reached Tear Drop Lake from the south side and looked across to see the obvious tear shape. Once out in the open, a bitter cold wind coming down from the north west was starting to strengthen. We ate lunch, and decided to turn around at this point, out of concern paddling back to camp directly against that wind. Even from that height up, we could see a few white caps starting to churn on OSA.

on the trip back, we took a more direct route along the north ridge facing, which had many beautiful spring streams cascading down the range. Lee and I stopped quite a few times to snap some photos... I guess it's not just blueberries in July that slow me down on hikes!

I mapped our route with my GPS, and entered it into my mapping software to render the following 3D contoured map. We traveled the circle clockwise from OSA.

GPS route to Tear Drop Lake

Spring creek on Gulch Hill

When we finally reached our canoes stashed on the south shore of OSA, the wind had picked up substantially, and seemed to be blowing directly from our camp site less than two kilometers away: it was not going to be an easy paddle back. Full white caps were on the water, it was bitterly cold (but sunny), and around 3pm. We could try and wait out the wind, but certainly did not want to get stuck overnight there with only minimal food and a well stocked first aid kit, when our camp site was so close. We carefully pulled out, hugging the west shore of the bay, avoiding the worst of the wind. But once we rounded the point, there was no way I could hold my 17'6" canoe dead to the wind with only myself and my young son paddling. I returned to the shelter of the bay, only to find everyone else had done the same.

GPS route of a tough into the wind paddle

Jorge came up with the excellent plan of tethering all three canoes together into a barge, to add stability. I had never done that before, but it seemed like a good way to tackle the challenging waves without tipping into the freezing cold water. We loosely tethered the three bows and sterns, and tightly tied together the mid thwarts. And off we went, paddling out past the open point.

While the tethered canoes did add stability, it also made us paddle like a barge. Freezing cold waves crashed over the bow paddlers, and Jorge and I in the stern fought to keep the canoe tight into the wind. After 20 minutes, it was clear we were actually not making forward progress, and only ferrying north (which was ironically captured by my GPS track shown to the side.) Thankfully, the island with site 29 was directly north of us, and we eventually made a semi-circle traverse across to it. Protected from the wind, we disembarked and found an open spot in the sun to regroup. I had never used my emergency blanket before... I was glad to have it for Devin and the others who got soaked. We stayed an hour drying out, eating, and deciding what to do. The temperature was continuing to drop, so staying on the island without proper supplies was not a desirable option. Eventually, the wind abated slightly, and we decided to get back into the canoe barge and complete the remaining one kilometer paddle to camp.

Back at camp

We eventually made it back to camp, after a grueling hour plus paddle, an hour before sunset. First priority was getting everyone dry (note to self... canoe barges are great for stability but terrible for riding waves... I don't think of amusement park flume rides the same way anymore!) Devin, my 11 year-old son, made me very proud that day: he never shed a tear or complained, even though he ended up getting soaked more than most. He's a natural in the outdoors, and I love him all the more for it: this is a special bond that I hope he and I will always share (note to others... start your kids off young! Devin was 7, and my daughter was 5, for their respective first canoe trips).

Around the camp fire after dinner, we were all able to relax and joke about the day. Especially for those in the group who did not heed my advise prior to the trip to bring TWO pairs of warm footwear! I must say though, Lee looked mighty fine with those grocery bags wrapping his feet and flaring out of his wet boots. Hot I say, HOT!

Of course, Mother Nature didn't let us completely relax and forget the experience, as the wind continued to howl throughout the evening, all night long (with rain of course), and all of Sunday following. In fact, it didn't let up until late Sunday evening.

Day 3: Sunday May 17th

A high today of 9C! And, a strong wind to boot. Brrrr....

After a slow and lazy breakfast, Jorge, Lee and Brian decided to go for a hike, while myself, Devin and Dan C. choose to take it easy and just stay in camp by the fire for the afternoon. With the wind still blowing hard and cold, and after yesterday's adventure on the High Seas, the others simply paddled the 10 meters across the narrow channel separating the island from the shore, and hike from there. We waved goodbye, and huddled by the fire and just goofed off for the afternoon.

The hammock was in high demand, although Dan C. was skeptical of his ability to wrestle his tall frame into the flimsy netting. Devin shot this video proving his successful entry, but doubtful comfort level.

Late in the afternoon, the other guys returned from their hike. They had intended to try and get to Gulch Hill, but stopped at the other end of Tear Drop Lake.

After dinner, around sunset, the wind finally died down after almost two days of howling. The sky was clear, and a bunch of us laid out on the rocks and stared up at the stars that night. One nice thing about camping early and late in the season is that you can comfortably stay up and star gaze without being eaten alive by bugs.

Day 4: Monday May 18th

Great view from The Crack

A crisp, cold sunny morning promising a beautiful last day! We decide on the way out after breakfast to stop on Killarney Lake, south of camp site 19, and bush whack our way up to "The Crack." We manage to climb our way up without any problems, connecting with the official trail just before the narrow section between two rock faces (The Crack). The sky was perfectly clear, with only a light breeze. We enjoyed a simple lunch at the peak while taking in the most breath-taking view in all of Killarney.

George Lake from Freeland

The trip to The Crack delayed our return somewhat, but also gave some time for the usual afternoon winds to calm down somewhat for our paddle back to the beach on George Lake. The return leg on George is always difficult, as even the slightest eastbound breeze funnels between the ridges on the north and south shores of George Lake.

We all said our good-byes on the beach at George Lake after packing up, happy with a very challenging but enjoyable trip. I will never tire of the beauty of Killarney... the Crown Jewel of Ontario Parks.