Killarney Outer Loop Canoe Trip - July 2010

This is a trip report for the annual "Big Canoe Trip" with my sister Nita and her husband Jorge, and myself (Dan). This is an annual tradition for us, going back many years. This year, like last year's trip in Temagami Ontario, we were joined by our friends Lee and Sherri.

Although we've paddled almost every part of Killarney in the past, it is still our favorite canoeing park, so we planned for another "outer loop" trip covering the boundary of the park over eight days:

Nita, Jorge and myself would paddle my 17'6" ultra light Temagami Swift, as we've done many times in the past. Lee and Sherri paddled their beautiful kevlar Langford canoe. This was an eight-day trip in 2010, from July 21st to 28. We planned the trip to start from Johnnie Lake, namely because that provided the most convenient daily travel distances given the lakes we wanted to stay on. Most importantly, we wanted to have two nights on Nellie, the clearest lake in the park. The plan was to use the layover day on Nellie to explore neighboring Grace Lake and hike to locate some Group of Seven painting locations.

Day 1 - Johnnie Lake Access Point to David Lake

  • 13km (p830m, p980m, p200m)
  • As usual, I got up before dawn and headed to Toronto to pick up Nita and Jorge for 7am. Lee and Sherri left an hour behind me from Kitchener as well, so that we would all meet up at the Hungry Bear Restaurant on highway 69 for lunch, before entering the park. The "Big Trip" is always the canoe trip I look most forward to every year. The length of the Big Trip means getting farther into the park, more remote locations, and a peaceful state of mind that is harder to obtain on short duration trips.

    We met up at the Hungry Bear Restaurant around noon, and enjoyed a big lunch at this traditional northern rest stop. The French River Trading Post, home of the big blue bear icon of this restaurant, is an interesting and historic place. It's been there since the 1960s, probably selling moccasins and fudge back then too.

    Fudge. Nothing says highway 69 and Up North than fudge at roadside tourist hut. Strange, but true. And of course, the Hungry Bear has it's homemade fudge for sale as well, although I've never actually tried it. I'll stick to the eggs and bacon.

    The Big Canoe Trip - July 2010

    I headed to the George Lake park office to get our permits, while the rest of the crew started unloading at our start and end point, Johnnie Lake. The weather was perfect... warm, no wind, and sunny. A great way to start the trip!

    Our route took us through Clear Silver Lake, to David. We had hoped to take site 105 at the north end of David, given we were heading to Great Mountain Lake the next day, but unfortunately, it was occupied. As were almost all of the other sites we passed! We ended up paddling a fair distance off our route and took site 94.

    Despite having paddled through almost every lake in Killarney Park, I had never actually camped on David Lake before (I generally stay on Boundary Lake, which is well worth the extra portage.) There are two sets of cottages on islands in the lake, one of which is turning into an urban landscape of hot tubs and out-buildings. Plus, the cottages are supplied by float plane, which land all too frequently on David. These owners retained their land rights when the park was formed. The park maintains an official policy strictly governing these few private properties that pre-date the park's formation, and often the lands are sold back to the park over time. Sadly, the cottages on David Lake do not seem to be going this way, and will remain an eye-sore.

    Lee and Sherri had cooking duty that evening, serving up a tasty chili for dinner. While we normally plan for steaks or other (heavy) food for the first day's meal, we opted out on this trip to save weight and space. Dehydrated all the way, baby!

    In this sort video, Jorge interrogated our boat crew on "Why we Love Killarney Park":

    Day 2 - Howry Lake

  • 15.5 km (p2945m, p375m, p90m, p130m)
  • The perfect weather held over Thursday morning, as we headed off for the portage between David and Great Mountain Lake. I have camped on Great Mountain before, but I reached it from the long set of small portages from Three Narrows Lake. Jorge had done this 3 kilometer portage before though, and said while it was long, it was not as grueling as "The Pig".

    Just another beautiful shoreline in Killarney

    A bit past halfway at a high point in the trail, we paused for a snack. We passed three different groups going the other way to David Lake, including a youth group of young girls. One young guy in a fishing group was quite literally jogging with his canoe, pack, and outgrowth of attached gear. I thought we were pretty ambitious by single tripping all portages, but this guy was another breed altogether! Later, a women came running back to us along the trail, saying one of the girls in the youth group had fallen and done something to her ankle, so she was racing back to get their first aid kit to help (it turned out it was only lightly twisted, nothing trip-ending.) Eventually, the traffic subsided, and we arrived at Fish Lake.

    The paddle from Fish Lake to Murray is directly West, which usually means tough paddling into the predominantly eastward winds of Georgian Bay. Two years earlier when Nita and I completed our Killarney loop trip, the wind had mercifully been at our back the whole way, including this stretch. Our luck continued this day, with almost no wind to contend with (ok... not as good as a wind pushing us, but I'll take it!)

    We arrived at Howry, and took site 151, the same site Nita and I had used two years ago. For this year's trip, I was sporting a new piece of high-tech gear, a Hennesy Hammock. Usually, Nita, Jorge and I share a four man tent for our trips together. But I decided to give them some relief from my constant tossing and turning at night (my back gets very sore at night when camping), and opted for the sleeping hammock. I had tried it at home before leaving, and thought it would be ok. In fact, my back had not hurt at all, so I thought I had solved all my problems!

    Alas, the dream solution was not to be found in the Hennesy hammock. While some people rave about this thing, it simply didn't work well for me. It cramps your shoulders together, and I constantly woke up with different aches and pains. There's no way to get a sleeping pad to stay under you, and your back gets incredibly cold, even with 15-20C weather. There is no comfortable sleeping position, and I just could not get to sleep night after night. And the rain fly is far too small, so even a light rain with wind means getting wet inside. I managed all the same for this trip, but it was no joy. The only good news is that the company was very good about allowing me to return the hammock after the trip.

    Nita and Jorge provided dinner that night, a wonderful traditional Mexican chicken tinga with rice and tortillas. Jorge's Mexican food makes a great canoe trip, a perfect canoe trip.

    Day 3 - Nellie Lake

  • 10.5 km (p465m, p1470m)
  • Grey day on Howry Lake

    We woke up to a gray day, threatening rain, and a bit cool. We took our time getting ready that morning, preparing mentally for the grueling portage from Murray to Nellie. I had done this trek, in this direction before, and it is without any doubt the hardest portage in the park, even though it is not the longest. It's just so steep! Lee and Sherri had not done it before, so I hoped I was not scaring them too much about it. Normally, we single trip portages, each carrying heavy loads, and pausing for breaks every 600-700 meters. I was very concerned about this one, and with the bad looking weather, I wanted us to be cautious and double trip it, which was the topic of conversation that morning.

    Unwelcome canoe guest

    It had drizzled a bit on and off on the paddle to Murray Lake, and continued to threaten rain as we hit the start of the portage to Nellie. We stopped for lunch first, then packed up for the steep vertical climb. After ascending the first steep section, I was chastised for making such a big deal of this portage... of course, just maybe it was not so bad because we so prudently broke up the load! We headed back for the second load, continuing the rest of the portage with our normal single-carry method. It was a tough haul all the same getting to Carmichael Lake, and we were all beat, and ready to relax for a couple days on Nellie. Thankfully, the weather cleared by afternoon and the sun came out.

    Nita and I had camped on Nellie before, so we had talked up the amazing beauty of the lake repeatedly to the group. Thankfully, it did not disappoint... the crazy clear water (30m depth) is thrilling to paddle over as you look down and see bottom. We stayed at site 143, which has to be the most picture-perfect back-country camp site in all of Ontario. The site has a perfect canoe-width drop off and landing rock, the tent pads are perfectly level and plentiful, the thunderbox is pristine, and there's a rock to laze out on in the sun. They should have a heater for the lake though... because the water is clear and the bottom is white rock, it does not absorb much energy from the sun, so it is always freezing for swimming.

    Despite the cold water, we all managed to get in to wash away the sweat and dirt. Jorge had found a pair of abandoned swimming goggles at a prior site. Using them in the clear Nellie water was a thrill! A large beaver dam was located 100m away on the shore, so you could swim over and view the structure clear as day all the way to the bottom. It was amazing to learn that beaver dams are like icebergs... there is 3 times more wood and structure under water than above. This unique experience was well worth braving the cold water.

    That night, I was up for cooking duty, preparing burritos from my own dehydrated string beef and refried beans. You can never get too much Mexican food.

    Day 4 - Nellie Lake (layover)

    Grace Lake

    A day of rest! And we woke to another perfect day, promising sunshine for our day-trek to Grace Lake. Grace is a lake none of us had visited yet, and well known for the paintings of A.J. Jackson and other Group of Seven painters. Sherri had diligently prepared before hand, copying photos, while I had made surveys to guess the possible painting locations. As it turns out, many others have done the same before us, especially Jim and Sue Waddington.

    Nita and Jorge decided to stay back at camp, as my crazy sister had brought some editing work "that just had to get done." So, Sherri, Lee and myself headed off with our painting photocopies, maps and lunch.

    Grace Lake did not disappoint: it is spectacular, very similar to OSA Lake with it's little rock islands scattered throughout. We headed to a small white-rock island at the west end, which we thought was the source of the "Bent Pine" painting by A.J. Jackson. It was moving, imagining this famous painter sitting there in that same spot, taking in the same inspiring scenery.

    We then headed to the north shore, and picked our way up the steep hill to try and get to another painting spot. We knew we had arrived, because others had made a rock cairn at the obvious spot. We enjoyed lunch on the hilltop, enjoying the stunning view East across Grace Lake, and West to Georgian Bay. I will never get tired of the views from the many hilltops of the LaCloche mountain range in Killarney. Thankfully, there's probably still 50 or more hills for me to climb in the coming years!

    Nellie Lake Ridge

    We made our way back to Nellie, reluctantly leaving behind Grace Lake. It was at this point that I vowed I'd return to Grace Lake in the future and camp there for a couple of nights, to explore the area some more.

    Back at camp, Nita and Jorge were itching to get some hiking in too. So, the three of us headed up the hilltop between Nellie and Carmichael Lake, another painting point of the Group of Seven. We were rewarded not only with an amazing view, but also an overflowing patch of ripe blueberries! Past readers of my trip reports will know that Nita and I have a genetic disease, inherited from our northern Quebecois roots, for blueberries. We cannot pass any patch without grazing them. Of course, we had not planned for a blueberry haul, so we had to empty a nalgene and fill it up on the spot.

    Nellie Lake hill view

    On the way back down, less than 200 meters from camp, we found several fresh bear skats. We decided not to tell Lee and Sherri about them that night, lest anything ruin the spectacular setting of Nellie Lake.

    Lee and Sherri prepared a Thai fish stir fry dish, that our friend Brian had invented from a prior canoe trip in Temagami. It was as good now as then, and continues to be my favorite dehydrated camp meal of all time (ok... my camp pizza is a close second.)

    Moon rise

    That night, we were got to enjoy a full moon lighting up the night sky and surrounding hills. We all enjoyed a magical evening down by the rocks, taking in the scenery. The beaver housed in the neighboring lodge even came out to greet us as he crossed the lake. I always thought that Nellie was a "dead lake", harboring no life. But the presence of the beaver, a loon fishing on the water, the bear in the woods, and then a large crayfish at the shore's edge proved that some life can survive in and around the acidified lake. As I leaned over to see the crayfish, I heard a 'ploop' into the water... which was my camera from my coat pocket of course. Despite a quick grab, it filled with water and was useless for the rest of the trip. Ironically, the year before on our Temagami canoe trip, Jorge had accidentally broke this camera's predecessor! I seem to have no luck with cameras on canoe trips. Thankfully, I was able to recover the pictures and video from the memory card, and was able to get it repaired. Lee and Sherri also had a camera, so theirs did double duty from that point onward.

    Day 5 - East Channel

  • 10km (p2525m, p70m, p20m, p19m)
  • Morning on Nellie

    Nellie - clear water

    We woke up to another beautiful day, amazed that we had not been seriously rained on yet. It was time to say goodbye to the magic of Nellie Lake, quite literally the crown jewel of Killarney Park, nestled at what seems like the top of the world. Today would have us cross my least favorite park of Killarney, but necessary to complete any outer loop trip in Killarney: the Georgian Bay East Channel. You have to paddle outside of the park at this point, which makes all the waters accessible by boat. The yachts and party-barges are a jarring shock compared to the pristine isolation of Nellie Lake. Worse, there is no way to really avoid a night's camp in the East Channel, without paddling more than 25km to re-enter the park proper. So, we prepared mentally, and headed off. Thankfully, the transition is not immediate, as you get to travel south through Helen lake, which has some cottages but is still very scenic (and blueberries!)

    East Channel with the yachts

    The wind picked up this day, although it was mostly across our path, not behind us. By the time reached we camp site 136, the sky was looking pretty threatening, so we stopped for the night. We had the pleasure of three yachts anchored across from us, but thankfully they were not party animals, and the noise was minimal.

    All of the camp sites in the East Channel, outside of the park, are terrible. We had stayed at 137 two years prior, and it was in a mosquito marsh, and overgrown. 136 was not much better, and offered no protection from the wind and weather. I hung my hammock between the only two trees available, while the others setup their tents in a small rock valley on the cliff face. When the rain started that night, I had to get out of my hammock and move my large kitchen rain tarp over top of me to keep dry. Another semi-sleepless night... I want my tent back!

    Day 6 - Muriel Lake

  • 18km (p905m, p370m)
  • Portage to Baie Fine

    There are two ways to re-enter the park and get to Muriel Lake from Georgian Bay: a torturous set of small portages up Kirk Creek and then "The Pig" portage, or head out of one's way to Baie Fine and paddle East. The latter is much longer, but avoids the worst of the portages. Previously we had done the former, and it is a tough day's march. Given that a fine sunny day greeted us, and the wind was blowing east, we decided to take the longer route (also, none of us had tried it, so it represented some new ground to cover.)

    We headed off, happy to be leaving the yachts and cottages of Georgian Bay behind us. We had planned to go directly south from camp site 136, and make a final evaluation of the wind before committing to the portage across Blue Ridge to Baie Fine. But I managed to screw up my sense of direction the night before, and we ended up heading directly into the west channel, rather than going south. The night before I had been puzzled why the sun was setting so much in the south... doh! We figured it out after a couple of kilometers, and it turned out to be a fun mistake in the end. We took a channel south between the Sampson Islands, which was quite scenic, and protected us from the wind. With the weather still in our favor, we portaged across Blue Ridge and had lunch on the South side.

    Muriel - such a pretty lake

    Luck was with us, as the wind was directly behind us the whole way, speeding us along Baie Fine. We made record time getting to Muriel. In retrospect, unless you're dealing with a rare westward wind, this route is far easier than taking on "The Pig".

    Muriel is a magical lake, surrounded by hills to the south. We had stayed on site 34 in the past, but chose site 35 this time due to the more plentiful tent pads. As in past trips, Muriel was a great lake to stay on, serenading us with loon calls well into the night.

    Later in the afternoon at camp, Lee was making some tea on the stove and decided that his right foot seemed parched and would enjoy some boiling beverage. Spilling the pot of tea over his boot, a cup of boiling hot tea scorched his ankle and ran down into his sock. It was a feat of accuracy that would impress an Olympic archer! I got out the first kit, and removed his boot. He had suffered a pretty severe burn, with a 2 inch raised heat blister on the side of his foot near the ankle. Thankfully, I carry "Spenso Second Skin" in my kit, for exactly this kind of burn injury. It's weird stuff, but Lee attested that indeed it was a relief to have it on protecting the burn. Lee was not able to put any weight on his right foot that evening, so we discussed what to do the next day. With two days left in the trip, we still had a fair bit of paddling to get back to Johnnie Lake.

    Day 7 - Killarney Lake

  • 6.5km (p595m, p455m)
  • Muriel - swamp where the bear came from

    By morning, when we cleaned and redressed Lee's foot, he was able to hobble along, and we decided to carry on. We lightened Lee's load and carried their canoe, and he managed just fine that day and the next. It was an interesting experience, in that despite canoe tripping for many years, this was the worst injury we had had to deal with. I had treated, and received, many cuts, scrapes and bruises, but nothing potentially trip-ending. It was a useful experience to have, and we all thanked Lee for hurting himself on purpose for our benefit. It was a noble deed.

    After packing up camp, we were all hanging out by the canoes, waiting for Nita to return from a last visit to the thunderbox. Then, we heard shouts of "Bear! Bear!" and Nita racing down the path back to the camp front. While Nita had been finishing off her business, a bear had wandered by about 15 meters off in the bush. We immediately all started grabbing emergency equipment and screaming to frighten off the animal. I grabbed my hunting knife and bear spray, Jorge had his axe, and Lee grabbed my 25 year-old plastic University of Waterloo souvenir coffee mug. The bear was not interested in us and wandered off, no doubt scared to death by Lee's ear-shattering banging of my small plastic mug of the rocks. No one was worse for wear expect for some racing heartbeats, but my poor old mug, which has traveled hundreds of kilometers in the bush with me, alas gave up it's life to protect us from the ravages of nature. With the handle broken and a crack in the side, it was time to say goodbye to my old friend. I wanted to light a Viking funeral pyre, but the others said we should be moving on, with the bear and all, ya know.

    Lazing out on Killarney

    At exactly that instant, two park rangers paddled up and landed on the camp front. With knife and bear spray in hand, I asked, "That was quick! Are you here because of the bear?" To which they looked at us suspiciously, and said, "Umm, no. Can we see your permit?" They asked what the bear did ("it wandered off"), and they casually returned to their business of clearing out the fire pit, after checking our permits. I recognized the leader, a warden I had met a couple years prior on Great Mountain Lake. We all had a good chat, learned a bit more about what it's like to have such a cool job, and then parted ways, leaving Muriel and the bear behind.

    The plan for the day was a short paddle to Killarney Lake, allowing time for some hiking. But after seven days of strenuous paddling, we arrived at camp site 22 ready for a lazy afternoon. Despite Jorge's gentle pleadings, nobody was up for a hike, so we all just ended up hanging around camp, swimming, playing cards and lazing in the hammock. We didn't want to leave Lee and his bum foot alone in camp... ya, that's the ticket!

    Day 8 - Back to Johnnie Lake

  • 13km (p1440m, p940m)
  • End of another great canoe trip

    Eight days in Wonderland, and it's still not enough. Paddling out the last day is always a bit depressing for me. But, I would get to see my wife and kids, and think back fondly of the trip (especially as I write this in the dead of winter 7 months later.) The last day gave us continued nice weather and sunshine, and good breezes at our backs. We arrived back at the access point on Johnnie Lake, packed up, and said our good-byes once again.

    Another amazing trip in Killarney, the most beautiful park in Ontario. I will never get enough of it's white quartzite hills and clear waters. Even packing up the car, I was thinking ahead to 2011's Big Canoe Trip, and the possibility of a loop trip from the remote West entrance across the Van Winkle series of lakes... the very last bodies of water in the park I have not paddled. Until then!