Recently I’ve been posting a lot of my photos on Flickr and when I got to this one I got a little caught up in describing the photo. So I thought I’d share the story here as well. It’s a brief story explaining what’s going on in the photo, but putting it up there was inspired by another photographer talking about how he rushed to get into the frame within the 10 second timer and how frantic that experience can be. The point I was originally trying to explain was that the urgency of doing that – setting up the camera, running to get into position – can itself make for a great photo.
A Long Day
This self shot was taken at the end of a really, really long day, but the good kind of long day.
I was on a solo trip up through the west entrance to Killarney Provincial Park. In the weeks leading up to the trip, each person in the group that was going to be joining me had dropped out one by one. The weather was bad when I started out, some kind of crazy cold streak had arrived, and I forgot some of my rain gear. In short, I had every excuse to skip this trip. When set out into the park, the outfitter gave me one of those maternal, supportive smiles, telling me that the weather report she heard called for nicer weather tomorrow.
I accepted the cold temperatures, keeping an eye on my slowly blue-turning feet, ignored the drizzling rain coming down in an awkward horizontal direction and concentrated on navigating through the high waves and indecisive but strong winds. My route would be much longer as instead of a straight line, I had to zig-zag along the coast or hide behind islands to get out of the wind. Of course there were some spots where you just had to muscle through.
When I finally made it to camp, an hour or so before sunset, I was exhausted (and even managed to dunk my sleeping bag in the lake, but that’s another story). I cooked up some dinner and went to bed. Cold, tired and a little wet, I went to sleep crossing my fingers for better weather the next day, with the last thought before drifting off was that this had been the short day of the trip (distance wise).
Crossing my fingers worked. I woke to a completely different world outside. It was warm, sunny, with a gentle breeze. But I couldn’t stand around. I had a big day ahead, including a challenging 1700m portage just before another long 2200m. The second wasn’t particularly tough, but had a fun surprise at the end: a beaver dam to walk over like a balance beam, with your legs all rubbery from the long trail.
Great New Day
Now don’t get me wrong, I had a great day. I mentioned the weather, but the scenery I was passing through was fantastic, and I took my time to enjoy it. That’s kind of the point of these things. In fact, at one point, with a pack on my back and canoe on my shoulders, I looked to my right and saw a fantastic site: the top of the white tipped quartzite hills. If trail brought me this close, I just had to drop my gear and climb to the top. The view was amazing from up there. You might call it unnecessary energy spent, but I say it was an opportunity taken.
When I finally got back on the water on the finally stretch, the winds had arrived, and were funneling through the narrow lake, of course, in the wrong direction. All the head down, muscle through paddling distracted me from hitting a sandbar, which was tough to get the canoe back on course. When I got to camp I was once again exhausted, done.
So I found a tree to sit and lean against and made myself a tasty dinner, eating it watching the sun slowly move across the gorgeous surrounding hills. It was the most beautiful spot. Even the winds settled down a bit.
The Best Place I Could Be
I couldn’t even imagine a better place on the planet to be sitting. I was completely at peace, not to mention pretty proud of myself. I had put a lot of effort to get here, but it was worth it. This is when I took this picture. I set the camera on a rock, put the timer on and ran into place, arms raised. I’m not sure whether I had planned to do that gesture (though I repeated it for a couple more just-in-case shots), but it turned out to be my best picture of pure, spontaneous emotion. Running to get into place before the timer when off probably help create that urgency, but maybe only I can tell looking at it.
As you can imagine, this photo has a lot of meaning to me. I wish I had taken it after I bought a better camera, or after I had learned all that I have about taking better pictures since, or even if I had brought a tripod. While all of that might have led to a technically better photograph, it was what I needed to do to be there at that moment that made this picture possible.
A more detailed description of the whole trip, maps and more photos can be found here.
How would you like to spend this Thanksgiving in the Killarney back-country? You’ll experience the cool crisp air, the bright colours, the off-season solitude along with all the benefits that a fall trip offers, and get this: You don’t even have to drive. That’s what I’m doing this Thanksgiving Weekend – taking a ride on the Parkbus up to Killarney on its last trip of the season.
Benefits of Riding the Parkbus
I’ve been allowed to volunteer as a Parkbus Ambassador for the trip. I’ve ridden the Parkbus once before, and it was a great experience, something I think everyone should try. In a nutshell, the Parkbus provides both an eco-friendly way to get to Ontario Parks, and/or an opportunity for those without their own cars to still be able to access a great camping trip. With stops at campgrounds, outfitters and interior access points, you can have the same experience drivers would get, but without the worry of fatigue, traffic or gas bills. (I’ve written about the benefits in more detail here.)
Parkbus began by taking passengers from Toronto into Algonquin Provincial Park, but after a couple of pilot trips, now offers the trips to the Bruce Peninsula (including Bruce Peninsula NP, Lion’s Head Beach Park Campground, Tobermory and the Chi-Cheemaun Ferry that can take you over to Manitoulan Island), and Killarney (with stops at the Grundy Lake PP, French River Supply Post, Bell Lake Access Point, the Town of Killarney, and of course the George Lake campground/access point). Like it did with Algonquin, Parkbus has designed stops to make sure you can access all the activities available in each area, and get you whatever equipment and gear you’d need to take advantage. Take a look at their map of all stops available, including the pickup locations.
Support the Bus
This is a service that I feel very strongly about, and want to support as much as I can, which is why I’ve been trying to volunteer for a while now. Scheduling conflicts prevented me up until just recently, when I reached out in the hopes they needed someone for Thanksgiving. Thankfully, there was a volunteer spot open and I grabbed it. Then I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we could fill this last trip of the season? So that’s why I’m writing this.
Why not join Portageur on a Thanksgiving Day trip to Killarney? What a great way to take advantage of me. I know it’s short notice, but that’s why I’m offering up to anyone with a ticket for the the October 5th-8th Parkbus trip to Killarney any advice and help with planning – at no cost of course – assuming time allows (so take advantage, and do so as early as possible). I can even offer to help with organizing gear and reservations if wanted/necessary at a minimal cost above the price of permits, rentals etc. – but again, only if time allows. In fact, to make this a bit more enticing, I may even offer up some neat extra raffle draw prizes. (If you’re reading this and want to get on board this prize giveaway, please feel free to contact me!)
Also, this will be a 7 hour trip up to the park with a group of campers and canoeists, offering up a great opportunity to chat about our favourite subjects on the way, and share our experiences on the way back. Best of all, I’ll be “on the clock”, working for Parkbus, so you might be able to boss me around a bit. (Note: I’m a very poor singer, and I only dance when the tips are large enough.)
If there’s enough interest, we can even organize some group activities while at the park. We could get together for some paddling, maybe take a hike or see some of Killarney’s sites.
So get your ticket while they’re still available!
How to Join Us
- Figure out your preferred pickup location and time (York Mills, 30 Carlton St or Dufferin and Bloor).
- Get yourself a Parkbus ticket (Choose the October 5th trip, with October 8th for return, then click the “Reserve Ticket” button).
- Join the Facebook event to keep up with the latest information. Please feel free to post questions, comments, or suggestions.
- Figure out what you’d like to do while at the park.
- Get a good night sleep and get ready for a fantastic Thanksgiving weekend!
This should be fun. Hope to see you there!
Last Traveled July 2012
Last year I got the chance to use a great new service that allows people to get to Ontario Parks by bus called, appropriately, “Parkbus“ (you can read more about it here). I may have a car, but for me this was an idea worth supporting. Not only does it allow those without cars to get up and experience places like Algonquin Park, but it’s also quite a great eco-friendly way to do it.
Since riding the Parkbus seemed like such a great environmentally friendly way to get to Algonquin, friends of mine decided try to prove you can have a great back-country portaging trip without the use of a car at all – from beginning to end. Whether your reasoning is because you don’t have a car, or you want to lessen your carbon footprint, you’ll see that it is completely possible, and has some other great advantages as well. Because of the stops that are made within Algonquin Park, it would be very easy to be dropped right at an outfitter to pick up our permits and canoes and set out into the back-country.
However, while Parkbus begins it’s route in Toronto, very close to a transportation hub, I hang my hat in Hamilton, Ontario. I still had a few more things to figure out to make this a completely car-free trip.
What time do I have to get up again?
4:00 AM comes early – I don’t care who you are. We had to be at the Parkbus 1st stop (30 Carlton St.) at 7:30 AM and had a 80km to cover to get there. In order to do this, we had to get to the closest GO bus station for the 5:35 AM bus to Union Station, then take the subway up to Carlton Street. Now I should probably mention that we didn’t complete this trip technically car-free. Sadly, because of how early we had to leave, the Hamilton buses weren’t running yet. However, we made sure to carpool (cab) to our first bus stop. (There was some talk about walking, but we couldn’t risk missing our first bus, and besides, 3:00 AM comes even earlier.)
Did I mention we were lugging all our stuff? Yeah. We decided it would be fun to have the full experience and bring along our own preferred gear. This isn’t necessary – at all. As I mentioned, the Parkbus stops at a few outfitters along highway 60 (Algonquin Outfitters at Lake Opeongo and the Portage Store at Canoe Lake) where you can rent whatever gear you need. If you’d prefer, you can get dropped off at some of the campgrounds and have your stuff delivered as well. Whatever you decide, you can quite easily pack some clothes in a bag and head out.
Not us though. We carried our gear, portaging from the get-go. It was easy on the buses, but it got a little dicey trying to balance on a busy rush-hour subway. Those turnstiles were not meant for barrel packs. The most fun we had was talking to people while making our way through the city. Here we were among the regular commuter crowd, walking down the street fully loaded, packs, paddles and all. A lot of friendly people wanted to know what we were up to. “Where’s your canoe?” and “I don’t know where you’re going, but can I come too?” were the more popular sentiments.
Our ride is here
I was glad to have brought with me two guys who are pros at commuting. Seamlessly, we had made our way up from the subway to the Parkbus stop just a few feet away. In five minutes our guide would arrive – Alex Berlyand one of the two co-founders. Alex was our chaperone for the trip. He was there to make sure everyone got their gear safely stored below the bus and got a seat. Sadly, one passenger failed to show. We waited as long as we could, but after attempts to contact the person and what was an obvious tough decision, we took off for our next stop. (Note: Starting this year Parkbus has a policy not to wait more than 5 minutes past departure time.)
We hit traffic running through the city at 8:00 on a Thursday, so it was slow going for a while driving to the next two stops in the city, but much less so than I expected. Also, our driver was a pro and we were on the highway soon enough. This was when I really started to appreciate going up north by bus. I didn’t have to deal with the traffic, and could just sit back, lean my seat back and enjoy the view. The stress was all taken away by our gentleman bus driver. Did I mention we had the coolest bus driver? His hair was white, with a matching mustache, complete with a British accent. A classier gentleman we could not have chosen.
To sleep, perchance to dream
Knowing we were in good hands, I took the opportunity to take a little nap. I was up early, and I had planned a busy afternoon once we reached the park. This brings me to another great thing about riding the Parkbus: instead of being tired out by a four hour drive to Algonquin, after a quick nap and some scenery watching you’re pretty much good to go. This means you can plan on a half day in the backcountry after your bus ride. If you’re dropped off at the outfitters, you can realistically expect to be on the lake by 2:00PM. Give yourself a bit of a buffer though. You never know about traffic, and if it’s busy at the outfitters it might take a little more time.
Our ride didn’t really experience much traffic. In no time we made our halfway rest stop at Weber’s. This is a perfect location to stop. Not only is it pretty much half the distance, it offers you a chance to use the restroom and grab something to eat at either Weber’s, Subway, Tim Hortons or even New York Fries. Be careful though, Weber’s is clearly the stand out choice for good food, but you have 20 minutes before the bus leaves and when it’s busy summer day, you won’t get out of line that quickly. (Alex did a great job giving us this friendly but effective reminder without sounding like a drill sergeant. That’s hard to do.) Also, everything sold there tends to be a bit sloppy to eat on a moving bus. Be safe and grab a quick sandwich if you need to. Even better, bring a sack lunch. It was a bit early for a big meal when we got there.
After another quick nap, the next thing we knew we were in the park. We dropped off some people at the Wolf’s Den Hostel, then on to the Portage Store at Canoe Lake, then quick stops at Mew Lake and Lake of Two Rivers campgrounds. My friends and I were going to the last stop of the route at Opeongo Lake, where we arrived on a great sunny day ready to hop onto the lake. We easily grabbed our gear, picked up our permits and our canoes from Algonquin Outfitters.
Rested and relaxed, we were able to get a pretty good distance into the back-country. The Parkbus ran from Thursday to Sunday, so I planned a trip trip for 1 half day, 2 full days, then another short day to get back in time to be picked up at noon on the last day. (NOTE: The schedule has changed for 2012; see below.) The great part about our location at Opeongo, was that not only could we pick up a few supplies that we may have forgotten, but on the last day we could grab a shower, a snack and some drinks for the road (Algonquin Outfitters has surprisingly good coffee) while waiting to be picked up by the bus. Canoe Lake offers the same, but a full restaurant at the Portage store as well. If you’re really looking to get far into the interior, there are two outfitters that offer water-taxis from Opeongo, so consider that when planning as well.
The ride back
Our bus home came on time, and the trip back ran just as smoothly. We even stopped at Weber’s again, and at a time of day more appropriate for heavier meals. It’s funny, Weber’s is so popular that they built a bridge over the highway so people wouldn’t try and cross the busy highway to get there. In all the years I’ve passed that bridge, I’ve never once been on it before this trip. Our host Alex, got himself some poutine for the ride home. After 3 days of canoeing I sure was tempted. (But not for poutine. I seem to be the only one who knows this, but cheese is actually quite gross.)
It is at this point where you’ll especially like riding the Parkbus. After a tough weekend portaging, often the last thing I want to do is drive home, dealing with all that end-of-weekend-at-the-cottage traffic. Instead, I left that again to our classy, mustached driver, leaned my seat back and … as you might have guessed … had a nap. There was some heavy traffic (apparently) getting into Toronto, but again our worldly driver came through and (apparently) changed our route to get home more smoothly. (I say “apparently” because again, I as napping.) We were dropped off near the subway station and we were back to our urban portaging again. After a short subway ride, a bus, then finally a carpool, we were all back at home. Take that carbon footprint!
So would I do it again?
I would absolutely do this again. I really appreciated the eco-friendliness of the trip, and I loved the fact that I was able to travel into Algonquin without the stress of driving up there. Another planning tip: You can buy tickets on different weekends. This way you can still take advantage of the Parkbus service for longer trips. Overall the trip took a bit longer, but the trade offs were worth it. It wasn’t all that difficult either, as I think we proved. There are a few things you’d probably have to consider when planning your trip:
- You have to carry everything with you for your whole trip. No leaving stuff in the trunk of the car (like the clean set of clothes for the travel home). Perhaps if Parkbus gets popular, someone will rent out lockers or something. I often have all my gear in the car and choose what to bring right before I leave, which obviously you can’t do with the bus.
- If you do the math, it may appear more expensive for a ticket than to drive yourself (as long as you carpool). But even if that’s true, it’s worth the cost. (Currently a return ticket from Algonquin is $70.76)
- Obviously, you don’t have a car with you. This means your schedule is set, and you won’t have the flexibility to come and go as you please. For the perpetually late among us like me, that means greater concentration about the time. Oh and for campground users, no side road trips into town for breakfast on rainy days.
New for 2012
Last year Parkbus introduced the same service to Killarney Provincial Park, with stops at Grundy Lake Provincial Park, the Bell Lake access point, the George Lake campground and the town of Killarney. I was very excited to hear about this, as I feel that if you haven’t been to Killarney, you really should. This year, they’re doing some trips to the Bruce Peninsula National Park, even stopping at Tobermory where you can pick up the ferry to Manitoulan Island. And as mentioned, the schedule for this year is Friday to Monday (instead of Thursday to Sunday) with a few exceptions.
So not only would I do this again, I am doing it again. I’ve done Algonquin, so this year I’m going to see how the Parkbus rides to Killarney. Not only will I be going as a passenger, but I’m also working on volunteering to chaperone a trip myself. Hopefully on one of these trips, you can ride with me. I’ll let you know as soon as I do, because I’d hate for the bus guided by portageur to be empty. I promise to stay awake – for most of the trip anyway. Oh, and one last thing, check out the Parkbus website and you just might see a couple of recognizable, some might even say handsome, faces.
What about the camping?
Oh, right. Yeah… we actually had a canoe trip between bus rides. Unfortunately my perfect plan was foiled when we lost the daylight never having found a so-called portage. I wanted to prove that you can have a pretty hard-core experience and investigate new trip plans even when entering the park through some of the more popular access points. We can laugh about it now, but after crossing the 3400m portage from Opeongo to Sproule, then down the 1435m to Norway, the park planning map failed us as we couldn’t cross where we were supposed to. With the light disappearing (this was our half day), we had to make our way back over the 1435m and hope there was an open campsite on Sproule. We made it just in time for a moonlit paddle to camp. At least I’m pretty sure my friends can laugh about it now.
This is now better reflected on the Algonquin Online map. I went back a few months later to find where we should have portaged, and even sent my GPS info, so hopefully it’s some help to the online map. We still had a great time though. We hung out on Sproule and spent the day puttering around on a very nice lake, then went exploring Opeongo on the last day. You can see the photos of this part of the trip here.
Nancy wasn’t able to come along this trip. It is probably the only deterrent to riding the bus again. The problem was that I had looked into getting special permission from Parkbus (and Hammond Transportation) to bring her along, but in order to make this trip completely car-free, I’d have to use two other transportation companies (bus + subway) and neither were too happy about Nancy coming along. One would allow her to be in a crate, which not only would Nancy hate that, but I’d be stuck with having to carry it around with me over the portages. But even if I was willing to do that, the subway people made it perfectly clear that there was no way I could bring a dog with me. I can’t tell you how many commuters I’ve spoken to since our trip who have come up with new and unique ideas of sneaking Nancy along next time.
How often in your life do you get to cross a notoriously difficult portage while having a great conversation about portaging, great places to canoe and the adventures in the outdoors with a girl in a bikini? Wait… I should probably start at the beginning.
The Toughest Portage?
On my quest to travel along and rate Ontario’s toughest portages, one portage is constantly being mentioned. It not only has a name – the most consistent way to know a portage is going to be tough – but this name gives you no hint of exaggeration: “The Pig”. Any story I may tell about a tough trip leads someone to reply “Yeah, but have you done ‘The Pig’?” Located in Killarney Provincial park, this route will take you along a path of loose rocks up a steep incline for most of its 1320 grueling metres. In wetter months, this rock bed is a stream making for a wet, slippery ankle-breaking adventure.For us canoe campers, the take out is found after travelling through the south western end of the park to Artist Lake and over to Three Narrows. Keep your eye out for the portage though, as you may, like we did, become distracted by navigating the bogs and pass right on by. (Seeing a makeshift take out further down leads me to believe this is pretty common.)
It’s All About From Where You Came
On the other hand, for the motorized boaters, “The Pig” is just a neat little trail for a half-day hike. Accessible from Georgian bay through Baie Finn, there is a gorgeous cove called “The Pool” where many pleasure cruisers take a scenic tour. (I don’t believe the name=tough rule applies to coves.) Many will often dock to spend a few hours hiking halfway up the trail into one of the park’s hidden gems – Topaz Lake. Its crystal clear waters are legendary, so many people hike up for a scenic swim, others just simply to see the water.
There are also quite a few private cottages on Three Narrows, and no doubt many come from the north end of the trail for the same reason. We also saw ATV tracks on parts of the trail, so we had no illusions of being the only people who’d travel this portage. (Regular readers know just how much I love ATVs.)
The Side Show
We found out just how popular this area was once we started lugging our gear and canoe up the rocks. We made it only a few hundred meters before dropping all our gear to rest, where we were suddenly greeted by casually dressed hikers and bewildered boaters. For us, it may have been a scorching hot day, but for the boaters, it was a beautiful August afternoon, and there were plenty of people out taking advantage of the ideal weather. One couple just starred at us like we were nuts, another wanted to know why we would be taking so much stuff with us, while another took pictures of us like we were putting on a show for the tourists. A man from Alabama was concerned because after having hiked a good portion of the trail and back not seeing any lake, he figured there was no way we were getting to the other side by nightfall.
When we passed the poorly marked side trail to Topaz, we were barely half way up the incline of the portage, but had left the day-hikers behind us. We rested again further along but could still hear people chatting back down the trail. The area is pretty scenic, and while taking these breaks allows for recuperation, they’re also an opportunity to look around at the view you’re normally ignoring while starring at your feet to avoid stumbling.
Smell The Roses
The worst part of a tough portage (or to some – any portage) is the fact that you really don’t appreciate your surroundings. You’re concentrating on all the wrong things. Your thoughts are focused on the effort, the discomfort, getting through it – not to mention on how that jerk convinced you this would be fun. I’ve often complained that with the canoe on my head I can barely see (or hear) anything but my own feet in front of me. I’ve often joked that for all I know there could be anything behind me and I wouldn’t notice – a picturesque moose, a hungry bear, or even a Swedish bikini team.
“The Pig”, for all its steep trails and rough terrain, passes through some lovely shaded forest, with tall, often wide old trees and cliffs on both sides. The trademark feature of Killarney is the white-capped quartzite hills that surround you, and on this trail you get to see the rock face up close. Do take those rests, for the obvious reasons sure, but also to take a look around. It’s gorgeous.
Speaking of gorgeous views…
So on we went, and just as you pass a culvert you begin your short descent down to Three Narrows Lake. Make sure to keep to the right where the trail splits or your portage will last much, much longer, as the hiking trail heads west and away from the water. With friend Brad well ahead of me with the canoe, it was just past this point where I heard someone right behind me ask “Would you like any help carrying some of your stuff to the lake?” I turned to reply when I was shocked to see a nice young lady in a bikini walking directly behind me on the trail. I politely declined, thanking her all the same as my gear was all packed up on my back. She explained that she understood how tough portaging could be, having just come back from a really great trip in Algonquin where she helped guide inner-city youth who normally don’t get a chance to see the wilderness like that. She then talked about some other great hiking and canoeing destinations she’s been, telling me about locations on Georgian Bay that I really must see for myself.
Are You #$&@ing Kidding Me?
So there I was, in what was supposed to be the middle of nowhere, on one of the most notorious portages in the (south of) the province, being escorted down a beautiful trail on a nice day by a bikini clad lady who likes canoeing and portaging and seemed to love the outdoors as much as I do – not to mention offering to help carry my gear! Was I dreaming? Had I run into some kind of rarely seen but legendary woods nymph or forest maiden (which would explain her sudden appearance)? Was I in a beer commercial? Was I about to wake up, jolted back into reality from being passed out, or did Preston finally crack, delirious from one portage too many? No time to answer those questions, just nod your head and smile. Do NOT do anything to scare her off.
We talked for what to me seemed a good while, but realistically was no more than 3 minutes, when suddenly an ATV roared up. Looking directly at my trail companion, the driver blurted out “You lookin’ for Topaz?” She stopped walking to respond. “If you’re looking for Topaz Lake, you missed it,” the ATVer said with almost a sigh, “It’s back up there and to the right.” From the way he spoke obviously this happens a lot. While the trail marker is easy to spot coming from the north, from the way were were heading the side trail is hard to catch as it veers back into a u-turn before it heads west towards Topaz. (Look for a sign that points to Three Narrows. Topaz is behind you if you’re facing the sign to read it.)
Sure enough, that’s where my new companion and her friends were going – of course it was – and they had missed the side trail. Looking back, I saw that they were now getting directions from the ATV guy – that’s right, there were like 5 bikini girls in all – and alas, my new friend turned around to walk back. “See ya,” I called back, waving like some unabashed desperate monkey, “Nice talking to you!” Then they were gone.
Have you ever had that disheartening moment in the middle of a tough portage, exhausted at the effort put forth only to suddenly find out you’re only a tiny fraction of the way? That’s how I suddenly felt, even though I was just a few metres away from the end, going downhill no less.
Yep – One Portage Too Many
Nevertheless, I was quickly struck by how comically absurd this experience truly was. I was laughing when I caught up to Brad at the water, saying “Wasn’t that crazy? Who’d think of all places to be approached by bikini clad women would be on a portage – let alone this one?”
“What?” he asked.
“The girl I was just talking to up there,” I responded, “They were heading to Topaz and missed their turn.”
“What are you talking about? What girl?”
“The girl up right up there… Oh, right. You had the canoe on your head. You probably couldn’t see them. Who did you think I was talking to?”
“Um, I think I heard a voice, but I thought that was just you.”
We debated the existence of the legendary forest maiden for the paddle to find a campsite, and eventually Brad admitted that he saw the ATV, and acquiesced that there was a possibility there could have been someone walking with me.
Um… So What About The Portage?
The campfire chats we had were about the portage, and our perception of it. Was this one truly worthy of all the hype? We ultimately decided that it was, but not the worst portage we’ve ever done. Don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty tough. Brad is an avid cyclist, rock climber and all around fitness junkie (read: nut-bar) and even he felt that it was a rough climb. (I also started to realize I really need to find some lazier friends to make my fitness level seem better.) I kept thinking about just how much tougher this would have been in the spring, with the bugs, mud and water running down those rocks. Wow. Even still, I believe because of its comparatively short distance it was still a (slightly) easier haul than that of the Golden Staircase.
Two days later we’d cross back over a 2,950m portage from Three Narrows to Killarney Lake (I know, we’re gluttons for punishment). It was a little tough at first, but other than the length it was generally a pretty easier carry-over. It’s even more of a gorgeous trail, with quartzite escarpments on either side.
So what did we learn? First, the Pig is a tough portage, though not the toughest, in a beautiful area of a gorgeous park, and well worth checking out. If you go, try and book a night on OSA Lake the night before so that you haven’t exhausted yourself getting there, but also so you have enough time/energy to get far into Three Narrows for the next night’s stay. There are a lot of private cottages to ruin the feeling of being “out there”, and there is a much better view on the North and East side of the lake. (Also, OSA Lake is incredible and well worth staying a little longer).
Second, if you’re riding your ATV down a trail and you see a portageur having a pleasant conversation with some nice lady, mind your own damn business!
Question: How can you go portaging without using a car? If you live in a city far off from a provincial park the answer is that you can’t, not practically anyway. A new service has started that helps solve this problem. It’s called Parkbus, and since its pilot program started in 2010 it has offered a way for those without cars or who are looking for a more eco-friendly transportation to get to Algonquin.
When I was a kid I was absolutely obsessed with cars. I wanted one very, very badly. Other kids I knew with the same obsession started working on cars, taking auto class in school, working on fixing the family vehicle with their dads or just taking engines apart to see how they worked. Not me. I just wanted one. It wasn’t about gears or cubic inches or horsepower, it was about where I could go. The gasp you hear when a 16 year old gets handed a license isn’t the collective horror at yet another novice driver on the road, it’s the sound of the planet suddenly shrinking (okay, maybe it’s both). Oh, the places you’ll go!
Of course, once you actually have a car, the ideal quickly tarnishes – about as quickly as the car will rust if you’re not always throwing money at it. To get to those far off places cost money. Welcome to the conundrum of time and freedom versus economic means. The more you have of one the less you have of the other. Want to go canoeing in Algonquin? You’ll need a car and a good enough job to pay for it – a job that now takes up most of your time from which you’ll have to beg for the vacation time in order to be able to go canoeing at some point.
Car Free Canoe Trips
What if you don’t have a car? Outrageous, I know, but there are a lot of people out there that don’t. For a variety of reasons these people have chosen to spend money on other things. Often this reason is about the impact on the environment. It seems a little ironic that going to a more pristine place where you can appreciate nature, could cause it harm. What if there was a better way?
It was these thoughts that brewed in the heads of a few guys who came up with an idea. They wanted people who otherwise didn’t have the means to get to an Ontario park to still have the opportunity to experience the Canadian outdoors. What if there was a bus that ran from a major city – say Toronto – straight up to Algonquin?
This idea sounds like a lot of really great ones I’ve heard, and maybe even thought of over the years. But the difference between those and the Parkbus idea is that not only did they figure out what they had to do to achieve it, but also – and this is the most important part – they actually went and did it. There first task was to contact MEC and hope the Toronto store would allow them to conduct some market research to figure out whether there was enough people interested in and who would like to use this eco-friendly type of service. Once the surveys were completed, they approached Ontario Parks with their plan partnering with Hammond Transportation. Long story short, in 2010 a pilot project was under way.
What’s even more impressive is that Parkbus is run by a handful of people in their spare time away from their day jobs. They call themselves outdoor enthusiasts, whose ambition is to make the most popular parks in Ontario accessible by bus. After the success of the pilot program last year, they’ve extended the Toronto-Algonquin schedule and have included a trip to Killarney as well. They’re even going to be experimenting with an Ottawa to Algonquin trip if all goes well. Who knows, if this idea takes off, perhaps they’ll be buses from all the major cities taking people up to parks across the province.
How it works
Basically the buses start at 7:30 AM on Thursday mornings from three stops in and around Toronto. Then they drive up to the highway 60 corridor, stopping at six spots where riders can gain access to Algonquin and any required services: Wolf Den Bunkhouse/Hostel, campgrounds at Lake of Two Rivers and Pog Lake, The Portage Store on Canoe Lake and two Algonquin Outfitter locations (Oxtongue Lake and Opeongo). The idea is that you pack whatever gear you may have, get on the bus and be dropped off where you can start your Algonquin adventure. At each location you can rent all the gear you may need and be on your way (canoes are not allowed on the bus, so you’ll have to rent those at the very least). On the following Sunday, the bus will make all the same stops in reverse to pick you up. All of this completely car free. For longer stays, simply book the return trip on a later scheduled return trip (Sundays).
The cost: $34.95 each way – which is actually down from $42 last year. Considering you would spend the about the same on gas anyway, it’s worth a thought. You can buy your tickets directly from the website or by calling (416) 454-5215. I like the idea of sitting back and letting someone else do the driving, being fresh and rested ready to start off once I arrive. And perhaps I’ll be able to take a little nap on the drive home when I’d normally want one the most after a weekend of portaging.
I’m on board
I wound up convincing some friends to try out this service for ourselves – with surprisingly little effort by the way. In July we will be going on a completely car-free trip. We’ll be travelling to Toronto by bus, then up to the Parkbus’ first pickup location by subway. In essence, we’ll be portaging up the wild streets of the Big Smoke – on a weekday no less. It should be something to see, and will probably be where we’ll encounter the most dangerous wildlife of the trip. I’m hoping to have plenty of pictures of this for a write up of our journey shortly after we get back.
I think this is a great idea, and I really wish the Parkbus project a lot of success. As a fellow idealist, I love the idea of giving access to our beautiful northern wilderness to those that this would normally never be an option. If you’re planning on going to Algonquin (or even Killarney) please consider the Parkbus option. At the very least, spread the word.
Oh, and if you’ve still never been portaging, with a bus service available you’re running out of excuses not to go. See you on the bus.
In today’s installment of the 2010 Portageur Awards, I’d like to recognize some of the great “civilized” accommodations that helped me out in my travels in the past year. More often than not, I stay in campgrounds when not in the woods, but every now and then I fancy it up a bit. Sometimes, after spending some time in the bush, it can be refreshing to stay somewhere with a roof, a soft bed and of course a nice warm shower. It can make a long ride back home much more comfortable. But when I do choose a motel, it should fit a few criteria: First and foremost, it has to be pet-friendly for Nancy. After that is should be conveniently located on my way home, a local small business that lets me take in some local culture, and above all else, cheap (that’s Motel). Read more
So you’ve found a place that seems great for paddling. How do you keep it that way? How do you protect an area for paddling?
One method is by raising awareness. Throughout the year there are plenty events on major rivers and waterways to raise awareness and interest in protecting those areas. Basically, the idea is to have a big event where a bunch of people paddle around reminding people of the importance of protecting our waters. They raise funds, get sponsors and hopefully a little media attention. It’s very effective. However, there is a more effective way to protect paddling areas and canoe routes than by these big events: Use them. That’s where Paddling it to Protect it comes in.
The Evolution of an Area’s Purpose
Ever wonder why activities are supported in certain places? How somewhere is seemingly reserved for a specific activity? Here’s how it starts: One person or a few people find an area suited to their activity. They perform said activity. Other people see the area as somewhere suited to the activity, then word spreads until the small group of people turn into a bunch of people. All these people start make accommodations for the activity in the area, improving the ability to use the area. That gets the attention of the local governments, who start building infrastructures to support the activity. Suddenly, that’s what the place is for, and for all anyone remembers, it’s what it’s always been for.
The next step is that – eventually – the area becomes protected development that would hinder the area for the activity. In terms of paddling, think of Algonquin, Killarney, Quetico, Temagami. These are all places that support canoeing. They’re protected areas (for the most part), have established canoe routes, published maps, outfitters, docks, trail markers, maintained portages, and any number of other things to encourage using the area for canoeing. Think also of places like the Grand River in southern Ontario, the Ottawa and Mattawa on the Ontario/Quebec border, the Rideau area. These places are pretty urbanized, but still have a plenty of support for canoeing. They are all used to promote the province’s travel industry, encouraging people to get out there and paddle. What started it all was people paddling in that area – and more importantly – continuing to do so.
Why it works
So why does this work? I’m no expert on the matter, but I’ll give a quick little run down: For one thing, the different levels of government want to encourage people using their land, because that’s how government money gets generated and then spread around. Provincial/state and federal governments trickle money down to the areas that are being used by people, for example to encourage tourism in the area. Municipal governments are also trying to get funds to promote and support the areas for the same reason, but also are a little more focused on economic development – encouraging people and businesses into the area. Again, tourism – for our purposes includes paddling – is good for business, and if protecting and supporting an area for paddling is good for tourism, it means paddling is good for business.
So if you want to protect an area for great activities like canoeing, portaging, camping, hiking, backpacking, the key is to go out and do it. If you want to protect it, paddle it.
The problem – and a big one – is that this concept works for everything, not just paddling. Think of all those places that are littered by cottages. Why can they squeeze so many in some really great places out there? Because people went and built cottages in a great spot (and who can blame them really), and so the local governments felt the economic impact and supported the activity. They built roads out there, then better ones. They re-zone; they build up infrastructure to support it. Then suddenly you get “cottage country”.
Okay, so that’s not a real big deal, I suppose, and in some cases it supports the outdoors (in a way). What about snowmobile and ATV trails? There are a great number of trails scattered throughout Ontario, and more and more of them every season, and with them comes accommodations, stores, outfitters, and guides to help out. It’s great for tourism, and for the most part I support them. Boating is another. When an area is used for it, up comes docks, boat launches and marinas. For all these activities, they support the outdoors, reserving the land within the area from more harmful development, so again it’s good, for the most part.
Of course when it comes to canoeing, often these activities can be in conflict with paddlers. A river filled with cottages leaves little area for public docks, portages and trails. Also, as a paddler I’m not a really big fan of ATV trails. In some ways you can say that it supports portaging, as trails are maintained because they’re being used by ATV enthusiasts – and as an optimist I’ll use the term – for the most part. Unfortunately while the majority of ATVers may be using the trails responsibly, it just takes a few to really do a lot of damage. A great example is a trail used to carry over a series of rapids along the Magnetawan river. It’s a 2.2km trail that is also used by local camps and ATVs. The trail has been turned into a mucky and grooved trail by all the traffic. The vicious circle ensues as the more the trail is abused, the muddier it gets, which makes it more susceptible to ATV abuse, with grinding wheels easily ripping up the wet ground. The worst part is that once it gets bad, people try to drive around the problem areas, widening the trail, only to muck up those areas after that, and so the circle continues.
When I complained about this, the retort I received was: “What do you expect? It’s an ATV trail”. “It’s not,” I replied, “It’s a portage.” According to the local government, they would probably disagree with me. Why? Because people use it as an ATV trail. If more people portaged, they’d agree with me instead. See how that works?
Use it, but use it right
This of course brings up another point: When you use the area, you must make sure to use it responsibly. Practice leaving no trace: Use designated trails and campsites, stay away from ecologically sensitive areas, and bring out everything you brought. If we do it right, paddling in an area will help the conservation of the area as well. This is key. The exception to the use-it-or-lose-it rule is when an activity is harming the area. I don’t see this being a problem with paddlers though. We tend to be more concerned with getting to the untouched lands and want to keep it that way. If you really think about it, paddling an area not only protects it for paddling, but it protects it from a lot of things.
Now think about places that are known for being areas for more ecologically nefarious things. Logging, mining, industrial areas are where they are for obvious reasons, that they accommodate their needs. But how often have you heard the argument that you can’t stop insert-industry-here because that’s a insert-industry-here place – they’ve always insert-industry-here there. If we used those areas for something else, the purpose for that area would be something different. Imagine saying “You can’t log or mine there, it’s a paddling place – they’ve always paddled there.”
So what’s your point?
My point is very simple. If you want to protect an area for paddling, paddle it. Get your friends to paddle it. Refer to it as a place to paddle. Keep the place a good place to paddle. Rinse and repeat.
Tell me about it
Know of an area that’s been protected by paddling? Know of an area that’s been set aside for other activities by people just going and using it, good or bad? I’d really like to hear some stories, so tell me about it in the comments.
As most of the regular readers know, I recently traveled to the west side of Killarney in search for Carmichael’s Rock – the same rock Franklin Carmichael sat on in 1934 (find details here). The problem was that I had planned to do this on the last day of my Labour Day trip, which turned into a solo trip by the time I left. Tired from the last two days of portaging, I woke on the third day to rain and miserable weather. Considering the winds that I had on the first day, I felt that - especially paddling alone - I should really do the safe thing and head out early so as to only have to deal with the rain and not the winds that I would surely be facing head-on the whole way back to the take out.
Turns out, the rain stopped, and the winds didn’t materialize until well into the late afternoon/evening. Who knew? Although I was a little disappointed, I still had a fantastic trip, but I still couldn’t help thinking that I could have searched for the rock after all. I came home and told my wife all about the trip, showing her the pictures. I told her how unreal everything was, and the stories must have sparked something in her photographer’s eye, because the woman who wrote off sleeping on the ground years ago, decided she could do it again to get an opportunity to photograph the place herself. She also sensed how disappointed I was about not being able to go look for that rock, so she figured we could try again together.
We were set to go away for a weekend in October, so I playfully suggested that we could do this instead. She considered it. I told her that instead of the whole trip, we could just reverse my last day into Grace Lake, stay the night then go back the way we came. The one portage was a nice and easy trail that wasn’t much worse than any that we take on weekend strolls with the dogs. The only difference would be that it’s 1745m and we’d have carrying backpacks, and we’d be doing it after about 8km of paddling. She liked the idea, and I have to admit I was a little psyched.
My wife wasn’t thrilled about going in mid October, but I told her it would be fine – though I really had nothing to base that on. (October’s a weird month. It has both periods that are unseasonably warm and then cold.) I made all the arrangements before she could change her mind, but the deal was that if we got up and it was going to rain, we weren’t going through with it. It turned out to be cold, but nothing we couldn’t handle, and there was no rain.
Paddling With My Wife
We set out from Widgawa Lodge along the West River and into Charlton Lake, where we turned south then east into Frood Lake. We were travelling much faster than when I was here last, and it suddenly dawned on me how much I appreciated a paddling partner. I’ve mentioned often what a great a portaging partner Nancy is, but she doesn’t paddle or carry anything. On this trip, we also brought our other dog Norm. He’s not such a great portaging partner. He’s a great dog, a free spirit – a quality that sometimes gets him into a little trouble. And so as he does, he decided that he had had enough of being in the canoe. My wife would spend the rest of the way to the portage keeping him from jumping out of the canoe (he really likes swimming).
Killarney in the Fall
When we arrived at the portage, I started to really appreciate the difference a month and a half had made to the scenery. What was beautiful greens under the white caps of the surrounding La Cloche mountains, were now highlighted by gorgeous colours of fall in Killarney. Vibrant yellows, dark reds and bright orange accented everywhere you looked. The portage was leaf riddled and looked like a fall wonderland. The leaves can hide slippery rocks and mud so can be a bit of a pain, but it’s also a lot of fun swishing your feet through (It’s also a great way of keeping you from sneaking up on the local wildlife). When we reached the end of the portage, I dropped my gear, raised my hand towards the water and in dramatic fashion said “Heather, I give you… Grace Lake”.
The lake was just as I had left it: clear, gorgeous, and surrounded by some amazing scenery (oh, and also grey, but that wouldn’t last). We paddled our way to our campsite on the east side of the lake, and set up camp for the night. Heather spent the rest of the evening taking fancy pictures with her shmancy camera, while I stared off into the hills and Carmichael’s picture trying to figure out where it was taken.
I was given a few hints as to the photo’s location, scouring over anything I could find on the subject, but some left me more confused. There sure were a bunch of photos taken there, but no one had mentioned an exact location. After wandering around to get a better view, I was confident I knew the best place to land and try and hike up. I could spot a location where there was a more gradual incline that wouldn’t require rock climbing. That must be the way up, because I was told that it took a bit of effort to get there, but it wasn’t unreasonable. I even thought that I may have spotted the rock itself with my binoculars (I was very wrong, more on that later). We went to bed with a plan for the next morning, and I was really getting excited to see the place for myself.
Sleeping in the Cold
The night turned out to be a cold one. If you don’t want to wander too far off from the fire pit, the campsite isn’t a great one for soft, flat ground (seemed like it was one or the other), so I’m not really sure how much we slept. To top it off, the dogs weren’t much help. Nancy has a reputation of not being too much of a cuddler, so you can’t expect her to help out with the body heat (I try not to take it too personally). Norm is even worse. He’s a Norwegian Buhund, bred for the colds of Norway winters. One particular camping trip where we expected cold I was comforted by the fact that with him and his fluffy fur sharing a tent with me I’d be perfectly comfortable. As it turns out it actually snowed at one point that night. I woke in the middle of the night absolutely freezing, trying my best to rework my sleeping bag to keep in more heat. Shivering, I looked for Norm. He was sitting in the corner – the furthest he could be from me – sprawled out, lying on his back. He does this when he’s too warm. And so it was again: two shivering humans, two comfortable dogs with no interest in helping out.
We woke to a nice cool crisp autumn morning, ate breakfast in toques and sweaters, and waited for the morning frost to melt. The sun was out and as soon as it warmed it was actually a beautiful day. We packed up and paddled to the spot I had hoped would get us to Carmichael’s rock. The take out was a little rough, a steep landing without much room, so we took out what we could, pulled up the canoe as far as it could go and tied it down. We were able to zig zag up the hill without too much difficulty as we slowly made our way up the hill on a gradual incline. We would compare the picture with the view, and invariably the result was that we needed to be higher. This went on for a while, trying to find a suitable incline that would lead us back and forth, compare the view with the picture, and again we needed to get higher. Then suddenly, we ran out of gradual inclines.
With a decision on whether or not to start actually climbing the white quartzite caps rocks, Heather had decided that she needed a rest. She handed me her fancy camera and told me good luck. There was one 3 foot section, then it flattened, then another. When I looked out to check the view I saw an owl flying below me (I always find that a freaky indication that you are, in fact, quite high up, seeing a bird fly below you). The view was close. I needed to be more to the left. When I got there, the view looked almost perfect. Was I there? Like in the picture, I was on an open section of flat white rocks, and I could see what appeared to be the exact perspective from the picture. This had to be it. Except… there was no rock.
The rock Franklin Carmicheal sat was pretty distinct looking, and there was nothing like it around. I checked the view and decided that I absolutely must be in the right spot… probably. I remembered that Jim and Sue Waddington had also been up here to see the rock gone, and had planned a trip specifically to move it back up. Maybe that happened again? Heather yelled from about 50ft below asking about my progress, “Did you find it?”
“No,” I replied.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes, I think I’m on the spot but the rock’s not here,” I yelled back, but she couldn’t really hear me. There was a lot of “What?”s back and forth, and after a bit of looking around I yelled back that I was coming down. First I would take a few pictures of where I was, then started on my way back down. I went down one ledge and was about to take another picture because I could see a bit more of the view to the south. I checked the picture one more time while I was there. The perspective was better. Was I too high? From where I was the view was almost perfect, except I had to be a little more to my left. The problem was that there was a bunch of trees in my way. Wait… was that a small clearing?
“Are you okay?” my wife yelled.
“Yeah, hang on a sec, I’m just going to check this one spot first.”
A Different Perspective
When I got to the spot the perspective was right, but I was looking for the clearing from the picture. This was almost perfect except for the trees in the way. It even has a rock like the one in the picture… wait.
“I’m here!” I screamed.
“I found it. I found it!” It was the rock. The clearing wasn’t big, but from the perspective of the photo I realized that it was enough.
“Great,” Heather yelled back. “Do you know how to set up the camera’s timer?”
Heather talked me through setting up the camera, and I found a rock to lay it down to take my picture (Nancy was really supposed to be the subject, but she decided to stay with Heather). I took a couple more shots just to make sure and started to climb back down. I met Heather and we made our way slowly and carefully back down. I felt such a huge sense of self accomplishment I probably could have floated down. What we just did was something only a handful of people had done before – admittedly a large handful, but a handful nonetheless. It was also a fantastic connection with Canadian History. I had sat in the same spot that Franklin Carmichael had painted. The same spot he was photographed, the picture itself becoming part of our history.
With a new sense of enthusiasm, we set out across Grace Lake and over the portage on an absolutely fantastic day. The winds that met us on the other side dampened our enthusiasm a bit, as they were pretty heavy and in our faces the whole way back. Once at the outfitters and on the way home we couldn’t stop talking about what we had done – okay, maybe I did most of the talking.
The Exact Location
This is where I would normally add some details on the location of Carmicheal’s Rock – like the exact gps coordinates. You’ll notice that the route does not include it. I really had to think about whether or not to include them in this post. On the one hand, portageur.ca is supposed to be a place to get all the resources you’ll need for a trip like this, which by that logic means I should be including the location. On the other hand though, on doing the research to find the spot, I stumbled on a forum post by Jim Waddington, talking about his own trip to recover the rock. He too had apparently thought about including the location but decided he didn’t want the place to become too popular, to the point where someone might try and roll the rock down the cliff again. He also suggested that it takes away from the fun of it to not find it yourself. When I found the location myself, I really did feel a sense of accomplishment. I believe that this feeling should really be a part of the experience. On top of that, maybe we should leave the location to those that would appreciate the experience enough to seek it out themselves? So if you’re interested enough, grab a copy of the picture and earn your own way there. It will be worth it.
Oh, and no spoilers, please.
Nancy was, like always, a great help. She not only guaranteed we’d not be bothered by any Killarney squirrels, but it was a nice opportunity for Heather to see her in action. She often worries about Nancy out there with me (for some reason) but she was really impressed how well she lead our little pack up the trails, keeping close by. As for Norm, he might need some more seasoning before he becomes a regular on future trips. He does have a reputation for barking, and I definitely believe he enjoyed hearing himself echo through the La Cloche mountains. I’m very glad he had that opportunity to do so during one of the least popular camping weekends in Killarney. I can’t imagine how cute someone else would have found the non stop echoes had they been at the other side of the lake with us.
Both my wife and I checked into the campsite on Grace lake on foursquare. Still the mayor, thank you.
If you’re going to do something, you might as well do it right. When my friends and I planned the latest trip to Killarney there was just so much we wanted to see we decided we would travel through as much as we could. We decided on a sort-of figure eight (more like a 3 then an “E” beside each other) shaped route that would allow us to see as much as we possibly could of the east side of a very beautiful park.
The closest provincial park campground is on George Lake on the southwest end of the park, which means a pretty long double back to get to the put in on Bell Lake. To get there, travel north on highway 69 past the French River and exit onto highway 637. It’s still another 60km from here (another 10km will take you to the town of Killarney). George Lake is a very nice campground with many private campsites among the tall trees. The staff here are very friendly and accommodating. Because I had arrived very late, a park officer met up with us and helped me get my car parked in the right spot after which we had a nice long chat.
The next morning we picked up our permits at the campground office and drove the 21km from George Lake to Bell Lake road, then another 9km down to the lake. Make sure you call home before you leave George Lake because it may be the last time you have cell phone reception for a while.
Heading Out on Bell Lake (Day 1)
The outfitters we chose for this trip, Killarney Kanoes, have offices on several offices on the south side of the park at all the major access points, which means not having to transport the canoes. They have an online reservation form, plenty of different types of canoes (including solo) and their website even has a simple map of the park which I have often used as a quick reference over the years.
We left the cars at the public parking area (which is beside the public put in), and walked the gear over to the outfitter’s private dock to pick up the canoes. I was able to try out a 15′ Souris River solo canoe. Like most solo canoes it was awkward to portage – though light enough that it wasn’t much of a big deal - but this boat handled very well.
The first day was mostly paddling. For 6km, we traveled northeast up Bell Lake until it turns narrows into Three Mile Lake then curves back west. Gazing at the shore, I was taken back by just how tall these trees were. I kept looking up at them trying to figure out whether it was some kind of optical illusion. The other thing is that they all seem to be growing out of places you wouldn’t think they’d grow – the shallow bits of dirt on top of a rock or just straight up out of the rock itself.
Our first portage was a small one (30m) that had a flat concrete path that was used to carry over larger boats into Balsam Lake. “I hope they’re all like this,” someone said. We all laughed, knowing there wasn’t much chance of that. After another 6.3km paddle west across Balsam we’d get a small taste of out what Killarney had in store for us. (Keep south of the big island as the more direct north side was impassable when we were there last.) Balsam turns north and just before the actual lift-over into Deacon Lake, there is some boggy areas that we were able to turn into a bonus lift-over.
Our First Bog
Two friends have a knack for finding shallow spots, and one in particular is constantly showing off his Jesus impression appearing to walk on the water when his canoe needs getting unstuck. This time it was a boggy spot that almost ate one of their shoes. Today, I found the site of someone getting muddy quite funny as they got themselves unstuck, reached into the muck shoulder deep to retrieve the shoe, then raising it up in victory.
Deacon was a beautiful isolated lake, calm and crystal clear, which we traveled across to get to the 210m portage into Fox Lake, also beautiful, isolated and crystal clear, where we would camp for the night. Originally, knowing that Day 2 would be very long, we were hoping to cross over one more lake to Peter on the first day, but according to the official park map as well as the Ontario Parks reservation system, there are no campsites on that lake. However, I found two when we passed through. They’re marked as “CampPossiblePossible” on the downloadable route.
Looking back now, our site on Day 1 wasn’t that impressive, but only because our next campsites would be so much better. It had a nice flat campfire area, and a flat rock with a subtle incline into the water and there was plenty of space to move around. It was here that we received our first turtle visit of the trip, with each hanging out just off shore and being bigger than the last. The site might be a better solo trip site however, as the privy was practically out in the open, just a few yards from the common area. That being said, it’s the only site on Fox.
Starting Off on the Right Foot (Day 2)
We woke to another gorgeous day, well rested and ready for our longest day. Day 2 began with a short 1km paddle across Fox to our first, and toughest portage of the day. It was only 1322m but went up and down and was muddy. Just before the 400m mark we were stopped in our tracks by a marshy stream that needed to be crossed. Boggy and muddy, you needed to keep a steady balance on the thin, unsteady logs that make up the trail at this point. With a heavy pack and a canoe, it’s an even tougher task, that I’d really like to say I was up for. Falling off balance, as if in slow motion, I looked around for a spot to land my foot and chose a brown spot hoping it would hold. Nope. My foot went down into the bog right up to the knee. My canoe was stuck on something and it took all my effort to get it off my head, but now the weight of my pack had me trapped like a turtle on it’s back. Without a friends help I don’t know what I was going to do. We made it across, energy spent getting over the stream, only to find the route go back down into more muck. This seemed to be the theme of the portage: we’d go up an incline then right back down into the muck, then back up again. I probably wouldn’t even notice without a wet stinking leg exhausted from getting unstuck, but there you have it.
The sun beamed down on us paddling the 2km across Peter Lake to our next portage: a relatively easy 460m trail to Lake Panache. Peter is a gorgeous lake, and a sharp breeze was coming from the south so we sat and ate our lunch, and let my leg dry. In another slight misjudgment, I suggested since we’d be moving north then west, the southern wind should help us. What I didn’t think about was that Killarney is a system of rivers zig-zagging in between tall hills. When the wind blows into the park it twists and turns along the rivers making it seem like a strong west wind just suddenly changed directions. And so it was for us as we made our way on the top of the park along Panache Lake.
Lake Panache is a huge, island riddled lake that divides the park’s peninsula from the northern part of the province that would take us west across the top of the park. It’s also mostly outside the park, and riddled even more by cottages. It seemed very odd that we had gone as far North as you could into Killarney, as so seemingly that much farther away from anything, and here were all these people suddenly.
The Top of the Park
Anyway, back to the wind. It was strongly in our faces the whole 7.6km to our next portage – with Archie Bay being particular dicey. After turning south into Taylor Bay, the winds were even stronger, and still blowing in the wrong direction. We stopped to rest at every little bay and cove we passed for temporary relief. If you’re traveling into the area, use the large islands for protection wherever possible. A short portage (119m) took us over a narrow area and back onto Panache (though some maps call it Frank here), but then very quickly we reached the 477m portage into Cat Lake. This one has a very rough take out. It’s extremely steep, and we found ourselves practically crawling up the hill, holding on to our gear otherwise it would just roll back into the lake.
Cat Lake is a short marshy paddle (465m) south to another 315m portage to Harry which is relatively tough considering how short it was. I started to think about how this trip might be better running in the opposite direction than our current counter-clockwise motion, considering the incline, the winds and the shape of some of the portages. That thought popped completely out of my head when I looked south on the tip of Harry Lake and saw the stunning sight of the Silver Peak mountains off in the distance. They were still 8.5km away from that spot but looked absolutely immense on the horizon. As it turned out, going in this direction, was the better option because from Fox lake on, the scenery got better and better the further you traveled. From this point further we’d be looked over by the growing Silver Peaks. It was pretty cool.
Resting on the Island
It was early evening by this point, so the winds were at their peak, and we still had to cross half of Harry Lake (800m) to get to our campsite, which took a lot of effort from a group already done for the day. We made it though, to find an absolutely fantastic island site waiting for us. It was pretty big, had a flat, raised rock for a campfire area with a great view of the sunset over the trees to the west. Further back there is plenty of spots for tents. With the privy so close at the last sight, we found it interesting that it was so far back a little bridge is required to cross to get there.
We sat and rested, then forced ourselves to eat. Days like this can be a little dangerous if you get to the point where you’re too tired to eat, so you really have to make an effort or pay for it the next day. We had great weather again (though windy) and went to bed hoping how long that would last.
Finding the Portage (Day 3)
Sure enough, Day 3 began with yet another beautiful day. A little tired, and deservedly so, we slept in a bit and took our time getting out on the lake. We paddled east to our next portage – a 705m that would take us across to Pike Lake – but had a hard time finding it. Killarney has tiny little plaques to indicate the location of portages, and we must have missed it. When we got to the end of the lake, there was a stream on my map and I thought that maybe it meant that we could get through or even line. Once we realized there was no way, we back-tracked and found a steep rounded rock for a take out. The portage was a nice flat trail, that seemed much easier than paddling across Pike. The lake turns into a narrow river full of bogs and lily pad fields where planning ahead (or watching the first canoe) will save you some effort getting through. Interestingly, the map I had of the area suggests the river is much smaller and perhaps impassable, but then opens up where the 400m portage to Balsam is supposed to be. It makes it look unnecessary, but sure enough we were carrying our canoes.
We turned south at Balsam for 1.6km where we crossed the 665m portage into David Lake. It turned out to be relatively easy and flat, but started with some ankle killer rocks scattered up an incline. At the end of the trail the end of Day 2 repeated itself – another fantastic view of the Silver Peaks and a strong wind to contend with. This time though, the lake we were on opened up then narrowed concentrating a downright heavy wind.
Trouble on David
Our original intention was to get to a campsite the furthest south on David, and assuming that Day 3 would really only be a half day, we would drop our gear and hike up the Silver Peak trail. With the late start and the heavy winds, not to mention the effort from the day before, we weren’t too sure about the side trip up a mountain. What clinched it was one of our canoes losing control in the wind and having to make a break for the protected shore. Turns out they landed at a campsite and we all agreed this would be where we stayed the night. Turned out to be a great site. It was like a hidden, shaded oasis created by well spaced, tall pines with wide branches creating a natural canopy. With lots of space, much of it was flat with a soft padding of pine needles covering the ground.
It was probably best that we rested a bit on Day 3, it gave us a chance to relax and appreciate the beauty of David Lake. The waters are brilliantly blue, and when the stars came it it was another reminder of the benefits of being so far away from the city – which we had yet to really appreciate due to going to bed so early on previous nights.
The Paddle Home (Day 4)
We couldn’t believe our luck as we woke on Day 4 to yet another beautiful day. Our last day would be relatively short because of the travel back home, so we took our time setting out and paddled south down David where we got our best view of the Silver Peaks. It was pretty windy in the middle, but I found myself surrounded by views of hills, and so I stopped paddling and took as many pictures that I could while rolling in the waves. David turned east, finally protected by the wind, leading to a 200m portage then another 745m to get back onto Bell Lake. It’s strange that this area had more rocky cliffs than on the section we paddled on Bell the first day.
This confirmed to me that we went the right direction. Had we gone the other way, our backs would have been to the mountains, for one, but it seemed that the views had a natural progression, climaxed by the view of the Silver Peaks from David Lake.
The moment I got home I started planning the next trip in the area, that would definitely include a hike to the peak. I can’t wait to go back.
Nancy had a fantastic time. She wasn’t a huge fan of the length of the drive out there, but I’m sure she’d say it was worth it. Even with the few people we did see, she made sure to make make some friends. On three separate occasions I recounted her story of coming from Louisiana, being adopted in Hamilton and now running in the northern Ontario woods, each time to a pretty captivated audience. You see a cute dog in a life jacket, you always want to know more about her. I was surprised however, by a group of young ladies who oddly had no time for her when we were packing up at the outfitter’s parking lot. Usually she knows instinctively who is going to fawn all over her and makes a beeline towards them (“She knows her market” as my wife would put it). These ladies didn’t want anything to do with her no matter what Nancy did. It was a little strange, and I have to admit I felt a little empathetically snubbed.
I had a thought that perhaps she wasn’t as personable as I perceived. That thought was quickly lost when we stopped in Parry Sound for dinner. Because it was so hot, I couldn’t leave her in the car while we ate. We found a place with a patio and I put her on her leash with some water in the shade beside the patio. We went inside to eat knowing she was okay, but came back out to find a table full of people on the patio right beside where I left her. She proceeded to jump up and nestle herself up on the feet of these strangers sitting having their meal. When I apologized they all went on about how great she was. We left to a chorus of “Bye Nancy” from her new friends.
Eager to visit the beautiful west side of Killarney, and after doing research on the Group of Seven paintings that were done in the area, I started to plan the perfect route that would cover the area as best I could. I decided on a route that would go through both Grace and Nellie lake because they seemed to be the most painted of all the areas of Killarney. It was on this route that Franklin Carmichael had a family cottage, and A.Y. Jackson took well documented trips. In fact, a secondary purpose of this trip was to find the iconic spot where Franklin Carmichael famous photo from 1936.
There are much less options for outfitters on the west side of Killarney, but I was very happy with Widgawa Lodge. They issue permits on site and offer a parking, “facilities” and a dock on the West River to put in. A short paddle (less than 1km) and you’re out on Carleton Lake and on your way.
To get there, you’ll have to get to highway 6 north of Manitoulan Island. Coming from down south, you have two options: One is to get to highway 17 west of Sudbury, then head south down highway 6 towards Espanola about 19km and turn left on Widgawa road, which will take you right to the outfitters. The other is to take the Chi-Cheemaun ferry from Tobermory to South Baymouth on Manitoulan Island then north on highway 6 about 100km where Widgawa road will obviously be on your right.
I really liked the ferry idea, but I felt that keeping on it’s schedule might make getting to the put in a little awkward knowing I had a a long first day ahead of me, so I decided I would stay another night close by and take the ferry home. They strongly advise making a reservation for the ferry (done here) and you absolutely have to be there at least an hour before departure. Don’t worry, they let you park the car in line and get out and wander around while you wait.
So the plan was to drive up 69 to Grundy Lake Provincial Park, stay the night, then travel the next morning up to highway 17 then down 6 and to the outfitters.
While I managed to make all the reservations without issue, I had a slight problem reserving the interior campsites necessary for the route. I have read in several places that the Grace-Murray loop should be done counter clockwise, but I couldn’t get a site on Grace the first night. I was particularly upset because of the reservation system issues at Ontario Parks for 2010. I had called precisely 5 months before, but was put on a call back list – that of course they didn’t call back. When I finally called back, the two sites were occupied. Luckily, it worked out to reverse the route (hence the name change to Murray Grace). Couldn’t be that different, right?
The second problem I encountered was that the group that was originally going with me all dropped out one by one, so what seemed like a tough trip became a little tougher. I wasn’t alone as long as Nancy was with me, and while she supplies some needed assistance, she din’t paddle or carry anything. The third problem was that we had a unusual cold spell during the time of my trip, with a lot of rain scheduled. I made a pit-stop along hwy 17 and got blasted with the cold fast winds. Wow. This was going to be something.
Windy Wet Ride (Day 1)
The last thing the outfitter said to me was to give me reassurance that today was going to be the worst of the weekend. I hoped he was right while the rain sprinkled down on me paddling through the West River into Carleton Lake. Once out of the protection of the river the northwestern winds blew strongly behind us. I had 15km to get to Murray Lake, so this seemed like a little bit of help, that is until it picked up a bit. I didn’t even notice the wet and cold when I got my first glimpse of the quartzite cliffs that surround the shore. I’m still amazed to see trees growing out of it.
I rode the winds and waves past the big islands on the lake, then paddled behind their protection for the 8km until I reached the calm waters of Howry Creek. Twisting and turning, the river runs 3.4km through a swampy protected area that I imagine would be beautiful on a nice day, but either way is a birders dream. Even with the weather we saw lots of different birds, specifically 5 blue herons. I don’t remember seeing that many in as many days.
Once you reach the 2.6km mark on the river you come to the marked lift-over, a beaver dam with an clear worn take out. Then suddenly, about 100m later you reach the unmarked lift-over. It’s clearly a new beaver dam with an small, awkward area to get around. The real surprise was 350m later where I floated up to the portage marker in the middle of the water. I thought it was a joke. This part of the river was clearly once above the water considering all the now submerged trees and bushes – some still with green leaves. I thought maybe the marker was meant to direct me to the portage, but the route was impassable from over-turned trees. I moved along further thinking maybe the raised water made the portage unnecessary. No luck, unless we were going to climb the waterfall. I found a clearing to the right of the falls that had obviously been used as a take out. I carried a few meters to find the portage trail. Turns out the marker was directing me to the start of the portage, which has been reduced from a 210m to a 108m portage (141m if I started where I was supposed to).
The portage took us to Murray Lake, our destination for Day 1, with a 2.4km paddle to our campsite. The outfitter had suggested that the sites on the south side were the better ones, but a guide we met along the portage asked me if I wouldn’t mind leaving the northern site for her group – apparently it’s bigger. So Nancy and I made our way to the site just past the portage on the south side of the lake. From here we got our first glimpse of the white capped La Cloche mountains to our south. The next day’s portage was located in between two very large mountains peaking at around 600-700ft. “At least we won’t have to carry over that,” I said to Nancy.
It was a pretty good site, but the flat area was a little small – more than enough for just my tent of course. Of course I had to have one last adventure for the day. The site’s take out was on a steep incline, where I found it easier to hold on to the canoe and toss up my gear. Seemed like a good idea until my sleeping bag started rolling back down and into the water. I thought I was going in after it – which the temperature made it a horrible thought – but I managed to pull it back with a paddle. It wasn’t too wet, but it reminded me to invest in a water proof sack at some point.
“Tomorrow is going to be warmer,” I told Nancy, “don’t worry”. She still had no interested in snuggling though.
Sure enough, Day 2 was going to be much warmer. It took me a little while to get out of bed because I was warm there, but when I saw the sunlight I was motivated enough to get out there. I ate breakfast to a slowly rising sun and warmer day. Today was going to be the tough day, so dealing with cold and rain would make it tougher.
A Tall Portage
It was a short paddle to the first of two portages of the day (Murray, in the light of a nice day, was actually a very pretty lake), I organized my gear and got ready to begin the 1470m march to Nellie Lake. Portaging solo has some challenges, one of them being that you have no help carrying anything, the other is that you have to be careful – specifically because they’ll be no one to help carrying anything if you get hurt, including you. So my strategy was the same as always, I would go until I was tired, then take a break going back to get the canoe, then repeat. Except this time I needed to be ultra strict.
The portage starts with a very steep hill that goes up around 50ft over a short period. I knew it wouldn’t be easy because it had a name: “The Notch”. In fact, the portage itself rises around 300ft at it’s peak, and has a 200ft overall difference between lakes. I understand now why it seems better to go in the opposite direction. I remember what I mentioned to Nancy the day before, and as it turns out we practically did have to carry over the mountain. There were steep spots and narrow sections, and areas where you were balancing over a pile of broken rocks, but every corner you turned you saw yet another great view. On either side were the white quartzite hills. I couldn’t stop enough to take pictures. At some point I had looked to my right and saw one of the white caps of the hill to the west. I dropped my gear on the spot and started to climb up and see how far up I could get. I mean, I was here, and pretty exhausted by this point, but when would I get the chance again? We made it up to about 1050ft (above sea level, or 500ft above where we had started on Murray) and the view was spectacular. We climbed down when something spooked Nancy. I figure if she spooked by something, it’s probably a good idea to leave.
We climbed down and continued the portage, which wasn’t very difficult from this point, and happened upon that group of ladies we met on Day 1. They asked me whether I had climbed up the mountain, then asked what was the view like. I told them that it was funny, but not much as it turns out. I had climbed this great big hill and looked to the east and there was another taller mountain there. Unreal. But to the south I got my first view of one of the prettiest lakes in, well, probably the world: Nellie. It’s reputation is well known. Apparently it is so clear that you can see down 28m, and some people suggest the only reason you can’t see further is because that’s the bottom you’re seeing.
The Beauty of Nellie
After a short chat with the ladies, we were off on Nellie. I wanted to take it in, so we slowly floated towards the other shore (okay, I was pretty tired too). It was magnificent. Everywhere you looked was a perfect picture. The lake was clear, surely, but to water colour was unreal. It all depended on the angle, the sunlight and what was underneath, but as you looked around there were a multitude of colours beneath you. I saw it as crystal clear straight down, aqua marine in one direction, bright blue in another, and even purple. Under a shadow close to sure it was a bright amber colour. I didn’t want it to end, but we did eventually float to the take out at the next portage. We sat and ate our lunch starring back at the lake. This view made the last portage totally worth it.
After lunch we set out on the 2085m trail to Grace lake. It was a took some effort but it didn’t seem too rough, which I attributed only to the effort we had already made getting over the last portage. Besides, I was distracted by my fresh memory of the view of Nellie to really think about the current effort. Measurements when I got home suggested this portage has another 50ft difference between lakes, and actually goes up 200ft, but the distance is much more spread out. The only tough spot was about 150m from the end, where you had to cross a narrow, wobbly beaver dam. I had to be very careful because at this point I was pretty done. On my way back for the canoe I carried a few more logs I found lying around and placed them on some of the tougher spots. I figured the beavers wouldn’t mind.
The end of the portage offers one of those truly great moments of the portaging experience. After a long, tough, exhausting portage that questions whether the effort’s worth it, you round the corner as the forest opens to show you a truly remarkable view. Yeah, it was worth it. There is a huge mountain right there welcoming you there. That’s why you do it: for moments like this. Once in the boat we turned the corner to an even better view: another mountain over the lake. Everywhere you looked there was a mountain. The evening winds kept our progress slow for an exhausted paddler, which wasn’t nice.
We got to our campsite and sat down to take it all in. We had a view to the west, with a sun falling slowly between two huge mountains, sparkling the clear waters. (I’m trying my best not to over use the term “crystal”). I just sat there and watched the sunset. I didn’t want to miss a moment.
The campsite was, obviously because of the view, was great. It had a large flat area for sitting around the campfire with red strips of rock stretching into the water. There was even a beach area with very clear water to our north, but it was still a bit cold for swimming. The only problem was the wind making starting a fire and cooking a bit of a task, but there were plenty of flat rocks lying around that I used to shield the flames. We finally had our dinner when the sun was down, went not much later went to bed for a well deserved sleep.
And More Wow
We woke around 3am because both Nancy and I had to go. It was cold, and I didn’t want to go out there, but I knew if I got it over with I’d have a much more comfortable sleep. We got outside and looked up to the stars. I had gone to bed thinking that the view of Grace Lake was over for the day. Up above us was a brilliant colourful sky with the bright strip of the milky way. As cold as it was out there, I had to stay and watch for a bit. I mean, you just have to.
Rainy Day 3
Day 3 wouldn’t be a repeat of Day 2, rather more like Day 1. It was pouring out when I woke (good thing I went last night). I turned over and hoped that the rain would stop soon, or that I could sleep through it, but I couldn’t sleep worrying about my plan for the day. Today I was going to find Carmichael’s Rock. Today would be shorter than the last two, so I had the time. The problem was that if it kept raining we would be soaked all day. I was also worried about the winds we were in on Day 1, except this time they’d be on our backs. In a full blown storm getting home would at least take all day. I decided today wasn’t the day. The smart decision was to get to the outfitters before the afternoon winds came.
We packed up our wet gear and paddled the 1.3km across Grace to our last portage of the trip keeping our eyes on everything around us. Even with the rain and the dark grey skies, the view was still something else. The 1745m trail to Cranberry Bay is a very easy light trail. The rain didn’t ruin the views here either, with a large escarpment on either side of you as you make your way down the portage. At the end, just when you think you’ve seen all that the area has to offer, there’s another mountain waiting for you.
On the 10km paddle back to the outfitters, the clouds whitened, but weren’t prepared to go away yet. On either side we were guided by more of the La Cloche mountain range, but the further you go, the more cottages start to pop up. I can’t remember whether I was upset by cluttering up of such a pretty place, or jealous I didn’t own one of them. When we reached the narrows crossing into Frood Lake, we were met by several motor boats. I thought Nancy hanging out on the side of the canoe was the cutest thing I’ve seen, but we passed a Jack Russel on the bow of a motorboat that certainly compared. No cute life jacket though.
When we got to the turn north, the coast was covered completely by cottages, docks and motorboats. From there it was a slow 3km paddle back up to the West River and to the outfitter. I was tired, sore, cold, and still pretty wet, but I took my time getting back, not really wanting the experience to end, but as with all good things, truly my favourite trip did end.
The Trip Home
The trip home was a fun one. We drove south down highway 6 to just before the town of South Baymouth. We stayed at the Buckhorn Motel, a simple but nice place to stay at a very favourable price. It was run by a really nice couple from my hometown, Hamilton. Neither Nancy nor I stayed up very late, and both were very happy to have a soft bed. In a blink the morning came and we were on the road to take the ferry home. It was a beautiful ride, starring out into Lake Huron, reflecting on what a great trip we had completed. Well, I did anyway. Nancy didn’t really like the ferry at all.
When I got home I couldn’t stop talking about this trip. Which convinced my friends that we should do it again next year. Even better, when I showed my wife the pictures, my normally camp-phobic wife decided she had to go too. Next time, with the extra help, I’m going to try again at getting to Carmichael’s Rock, but even if I don’t it will be worth it to try.
Amazingly, I had cellphone reception, though limited, throughout the trip. Foursquare users have a few venues to check out. I’ll be thinking about a prize of some kind for people who take over my mayorships. Check back for more info.