Killarney East Loop

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The PlanEast Killarney View

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 BogKillarney Park's clean marshes

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.

Muddy shoe from a portage in Killarney Provincial Park

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 IslandEvening in Killarney Provincial Park

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 DavidReady for the winds of David Lake in Killarney Provincial Park

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 Postscript:Relaxing as the sun sets in Killarney Provincial Park

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.

Murray Grace Loop

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The PlanGrace Lake campsite in Killarney Provincial Park

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.

Reservation Issues

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)

Flooded portage to Murray Lake in Killarney Provincial Park

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.

Altered Portage

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).

Portage to Nellie Lake in Killarney Provincial Park

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.

Murray Lake

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 PortageRough portage to Nellie Lake in Killarney Provincial Park

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.

Hills above Nellie Lake in Killarney Provincial Park

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.

Nellie Lake Killarney Provincial Park

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.

More Wow

Grace Lake Campsite in Killarney Provincial Park

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.

Sun setting over Grace Lake in Killarney Provincial Park

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.Misty mountains over Cranberry Bay in Killarney Provincial Park

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.

Technology Postscript:

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.

Grace LakeMurray Lake

Rain McCraney Loop

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The Plan

Taking beginners into the wilderness has its own set of challenges. Do they know what they’re getting themselves into? How much will they enjoy themselves? Are they expecting a Survivorman experience or more akin to sipping tea in a remote cottage? On the other hand, there are some really great rewards to introducing the beauty of the outdoors to someone. I imagine it’s very similar to the rewards of a teacher seeing a child finally get enthusiastic about learning. Usually you get at least one of these moments per trip, but you have to watch for them because it can be very subtle.

This summer I took a small corporate group out on a portage trip, which they hoped if all went well would become an annual event. First, I decided on travelling through Algonquin, mainly because of its fame – they could tell stories about their “Trip to Algonquin” with most people being able to relate. Second, Algonquin offers a lot of options for different levels of portaging experience, and has all the amenities of a provincial park (i.e. privies). I looked for a route that would give a nice authentic experience.

Of course there was also the selfish aspect, in that I generally like to cover as much new ground as possible. So I began starring at a map of Algonquin Provincial Park trying to figure out a 3-day route that wouldn’t be too difficult, but was challenging enough, and that I haven’t been (at least recently). I read somewhere, that in a season and a half ago the park had done cleared some normally unmaintained portages going into McCraney Lake from Islet, which must have been in the back of my mind while I searched for a starting point that wasn’t too far in which to travel. They decided on a 3-day trip, and I didn’t want to waste too much time travelling back and forth from the put in. Perfect. This would be a great way to travel a pretty unique route without too much trouble, and being on the south western side of Algonquin, we wouldn’t have to travel far to get there. Of course, as with any unmaintained portage, I really didn’t know what I was leading us into.

Heading Out

Rain Lake

So as not to waste too much of the 3 days on travel, we left right from the office at quitting time the night before our trip to Arrowhead Provincial Park to stay the night (hwy 11 just north of hwy 60). From there it was a 40 minute drive into the town of Kearney to get our permits and meet the outfitter. To get there, travel north from Huntsville on hwy 11 until just before the town of Novar, exit onto hwy 518 which will twist and turn until you reach Kearney. Turning right on Main Street, the permit office is immediately on the left, and the outfitter, Trailside Adventure Co., is a block down the street.

I can’t say enough good about this outfitter. He took care of us very well, was very personable and no-nonsense. He rented us brand new Souris River Le Tigre canoes that had never been used before. I felt the need to explain to the group how rare that was, and how great these canoes were, so that they’re not too disappointed when they don’t get the same when next they rent a canoe. The outfitter even talked one of the group out of buying a sleeping pad, instead suggesting to rent one and if they still wanted to buy it, he would sell it to him less the rental cost.

From the outfitters, it’s still another 45 minute drive to Rain Lake. However, if you’re interested in one last meal before living off astronaut food and trail mix, you have got to stop by the Bayside Bistro. It’s just a little place – nothing fancy – further down Main street, but you’ll be thankful that you did. In fact, on the weekend we went, the Toronto Star had featured them in the weekend edition (I’d include a link to the article, but I couldn’t find it online).

Once you’re filled, head up Rain Lake road and it will take you right to the put in. The road slowly gets rougher as you get closer to the park, but once there you’ll find a nice little beach for a put in – equipped with a little dock – with plenty of room to drop your gear and a lot further back with plenty of room to park.

The Trip begins (Day 1)

Because this was the first time portaging for most of the group – in two cases the first time in a canoe – I had planned to give a little instructional demo, but the enthusiasm of it all had them all jump in their canoes and off by the time I had parked my car. It was a good sign. You never know how well people would enjoy this type of activity until they’re out there doing it.

We made our way east along Rain Lake towards our first portage in a great looking day. It’s about 5km of paddling through what appears to be a wide river rather than a lake. Our group consisted of myself and Nancy in one boat, two athletic types in another who were consistently ahead of the rest of us, and a couple in the third canoe. These two had never been in a canoe before and were going through a voluntary trial by fire method of learning to paddle. I’ve heard – often – the expression that if you wanted to convince a couple to divorce, have them learn to paddle a canoe together, and for the first little while I thought I was seeing that in action.

Like a lot of beginners, they weren’t really comfortable at first, thinking even the slightest movement would send them overboard. They were also getting a little frustrated with each other over their roles in steering, navigating and controlling the canoe – not to mention which side each of them should paddle – all the while zig-zagging along the water. This is very common. As we paddled along together I tried my best at sneaking in a few bits of advice – the most important being a reminder that they were on vacation, and we had plenty of time to get where we were going. Thinking I was helping, I even demonstrated how (relatively) difficult it actually is to tip the canoe by rocking my canoe back and forth. Unfortunately that just seemed to freak them out more than it helped. Nevertheless, by the time we got to the portage everyone was a lot more comfortable and ready for our next challenge.

The First Portage

The portage into Hot Lake is a relatively easy 700m trail with a steep first and last sections. Everyone was eager to carry as much as they could across, and as we walked I really started to get a sense that everyone was enjoying themselves. It’s funny because anyone who hasn’t portaged goes through different stages. At first they’re eager when planning the trip, then as the trip gets closer – especially as the portage itself gets closer – they worry about having to lug all that stuff across. Often they get their packs on their backs and really think they’ve made some huge mistake in agreeing to the trip. After a few meters, they might think about how long the portage is and confirm that they had. But as you start moving along and the surrounding nature gets a hold of them, they start thinking about how this really isn’t so bad, that they can do it. Once you see the water on the other side you get a surge of energy knowing that it’s just about done. The best part is the moment you get to the end of the portage and see the lake at which you’ve arrived. Once the pack is set down and you have a little rest, that’s when the sense of accomplishment sets in. And so it was with this group as they eagerly got into the canoes without a complaint among them, ready for the next portage.

Hot Lake is a 500m or so before you get to the next portage, a short 495m trail that rises and falls 50ft in that short distance, but is otherwise an easy well travelled trail. In no time you’re on Lake Islet, a nice sized, crystal clear lake surrounded by tall pines, with plenty of secluded campsites. The one we were looking for was an island site right in the middle of the lake. I prefer the island sites, probably for the same reason kids build forts and tree-houses: it’s a fun little exotic space you can call your very own. This site was a nice one with plenty of room for tents and a nice big flat area for the campfire. The group unpacked and began to relax around the campfire. What was setting in was both the untouched beauty of the area and the feeling of just how far you were from “civilization”, and everyone expressed how cool that was in their own way. Everyone seemed to be having a great time.

The problem at this point was the upcoming weather. Nothing will suck the enthusiasm away from you than a little cold and rain. The weather report suggested that it was going to get really wet overnight, and into the next morning – at least. Everything’s easier when it’s sunny out, and people’s moods reflect that, whereas the exact opposite is true when the weather turns. I crossed my fingers going to bed that the rain would come and go, and if not, everyone would deal with it well.

And then the rains came

I woke the next morning to the sounds of really heavy rain bouncing off the tent, (Doh!) where I stayed until it began to let up a bit. (One of the great camping dilemma always surfaces in this moment. I don’t want to go out there and get wet, but the sound of all that rain sure makes me want to go!) The group gathered around the campfire and set up a tarp while we ate breakfast. The sky was ugly looking with no signs of better weather ahead, and I didn’t know how that would affect the group’s attitude. Surprisingly, there was no talk about going home, or trying to stay here for the day or any other negative ideas. I wouldn’t say everyone was enthusiastic exactly, but we packed up as planned and headed out for the day ready for whatever adventure the day had in store.

Travelling in the Rain (Day 2)

Day 2 began with a wet 1km paddle south down Islet Lake to a very short 45m portage into Weed Lake, where it stopped raining after we crossed. The beauty of a rainy day can often be overshadowed by the weather, but Weed still offered a great view of the untouched forest on a very calm lake as we paddled southeast along the 1.6km distance of lake.

The 635m portage to cross over into Way marked the spot where we would enter into the “unmaintained” area of the park. What this means is that while the park acknowledges the trails, they do not routinely clear and maintain the portages and so they are “use at your own risk”. The normally yellow portage markers even turn white to express the t

hought. Especially now with the dark skies and potential rains, the group’s enthusiasm might be put to a real test. A bad sign was the water bushes we needed to cross through slowly and carefully getting to the portage start.

Unmaintained Portages

Unmaintained Portages

The portage was a little rough, with some steep parts with very slippery rocks hidden under leaves, and a few logs we had to climb over or under, but all told it was a pretty standard portage if you watched your step. Once across into Wee lake it’s a very short paddle (165m) to the next portage into Way.

Shorter than the one before (570m), this portage was very similar, but it becomes clear that your travelling downhill on this route as the steep end of the portage requires a little bit of attention so as not to slip. Once at Way Lake – yeah, we just travelled from Weed to Wee to Way like an adventure in a fairy tale – it’s another short lake (200m) to the next portage. These short breaks between portages can often be a little disheartening. I often feel that way when you can clearly see the next portage marker from the last. These beginners did not feel that way at all knowing this portage crossing into McCraney Lake would be short (65m) and the last for the day.

McCraney Lake

We entered McCraney Lake into a small protected bay and the skies were still pretty dark. We would have to hug the shore as best as we could to be safe from a quick turn in the weather. When we turned south at the widening of McCraney Lake we all had one of my favourite experiences: The horizon opened up to reveal a huge island – our destination – in the distance. This feels like a typical scene in many movies and books where the heroes travel a great distance, undergoing adventures along the way only to get a first sight of their destination in the distance – usually some huge castle or mountain where their journey will come to an end. Okay, so our adventure wasn’t as dramatic (no wizards, rings or knights), but it’s still pretty cool.

McCraney Lake

Again we stayed on another island, a choice that would add a few kilometers to our trip but it was worth it. This island was much bigger than the last offering a wide variety of soft, flat tent spots, a huge campfire area, and a view to the west and the sunset. We were lucky that the weather had held up, and were hoping the skies would clear somewhat for a nice sunset view. Slowly, they did clear for a beautiful evening – with some nice pink skies to hopefully tell us a nice day would follow.

It was at this time that I got one of moments I mentioned earlier. Staring out into the clearing sky, overlooking the rocks and trees in the distance, a member of the group looked at me and said “Two years. Two years you have to take me and my kids out here. They should be old enough then, and this is just too cool not to share with them”. I agreed.

What’s in a number? (Day 3)

Sure enough Day 3 began very clear and beautiful, with loons greeting the morning sun. With all our gear now dried, breakfast talk was about today’s challenge: a 1700m portage that would take us back home. I have said many times that portages always travel over the easiest path from one lake to the other. This means that if they’re longer than it seems they should be, it’s because it’s the easier path (flatter, less obstacles etc.). The group seemed to be comforted by this thought, but what I didn’t mention was that “easiest” is of course a relative turn – sometimes they’re long because it’s the only way across a lake. I did read before the trip that this portage was very flat, but again that too is a relative term. And besides, the portage didn’t have a name, a sure sign that it wasn’t tough. I guess  what I’m saying here is that having never had crossed this portage, I didn’t know what lay ahead, but didn’t want to worry everyone about a big number all morning.

We set out for Day 3 on a beautiful morning with a slight breeze. It was just over a 4km paddle to our first and only portage of the day, but at around the 3km mark we hit a lift-over – a small beaver dam dividing the narrow section of the lake. This is where I had another one of those moments.

The Lift Over

Lift Over

“What is this? A beaver dam?” said a member of the group, “Are we going to cross over this? How cool is that! Who would ever had expected to be on top of a beaver dam in the middle of the afternoon.” The group made sure we took several proud pictures of everyone standing on the dam. “This,” another member of the group said, “is hardcore”. I smiled to myself thinking about how well that experience went, and also how unusual a reaction that was to what is normally considered a surprise nuisance.

The long portage

When we got to the portage their was a lot of talk about strategy. Having experienced portages of the last couple of days, the common thought about one-timing a long portage (thinking that would be easier) was dropped quickly. The group would go as far as we could comfortably, then turn around and get the rest of the gear. As the portage began it looked like it would be a much more mild trail than those on the last days, but still seemed daunting because of the distance. However at about the 200m mark the portage turned suddenly into a a well groomed path like one you’d see in a city park. It turned out to be one of the easiest portages I have ever done. It was a beautiful walk under some really tall pines. When we reached the end I watched the group set out like pros, all agreeing how easy that portage was.

The Paddle Home

McCraney to Rain portage trail

The weather remained great as we paddled the 2km or so back to the trip’s put in. It was a great trip, and it was pretty clear how much fun everyone had, with a great memory to share and maybe even motivate them to get back out there next year. More to the point they had a great story to tell. The time they went portaging in a lesser used area of Algonquin, along some rough unmaintained portages, getting rained on and having to do a 1.7km portage to get back home. A definitively Canadian experience.

I was told a few weeks later that the couple had become inspired by the trip and while not particularly eager to canoe by themselves, are regularly spending their afternoons hiking in different parks and have started on a plan to walk the entire Bruce Trail – so I suppose I had at least three of those moments on this trip.

Nancy Postscript:
Nancy isn’t a big fan of water, whether it’s being immersed or it raining down on her, so she wasn’t the happiest I’ve seen her on Day 2, but once she dried she was back to her usual self keeping us squirrel free. One paddler didn’t take too quickly to Nancy at first, but somehow bonded with her along the way enough that on the last night was specifically cooking up the remaining hot dogs for her – even cutting them into little pieces in a little bowl and blowing on them so that they’d cool quicker.