Mid-September can be cool but more often than not Ontario gets a last hot rinse before the final wringing out of summer. This year the entire month felt like summer but better. Hot days and comfortably cool nights, no blackflies, mosquitoes, deer flies or horse flies, lakes still warm enough for a swim and fewer tourists all combined to make September a perfect time to explore Ontario’s near north. A four day canoe trip near Killarney was a fitting end to the paddling season.
Killarney Provincial Park, a 485 square kilometre wilderness park, is a gem. It sits in the ancient La Cloche mountain range, now just a range of big hills. At 3.5 billion years old it is one of the oldest mountain ranges on earth and is thought to once have been higher than the Rocky Mountains. The white quartzite hills are spectacular on a sunny day against the backdrop of green trees and blue lakes and sky. The waters are crystal clear, partly an artefact of the low buffering capacity of the quartzite in the face of decades of acid rain.
Although kayaking is how I spent the summer, a canoe is much easier to load, unload and portage. It was a logical choice for exploring two particularly beautiful lakes in the interior of the park, Killarney Lake and O.S.A Lake. High up on the ridge of hills around these lakes runs the 100 km Silhouette hiking trail. It is remote which means carrying all your supplies including your tent or sleeping hammock. Although popular with many, it seems to me that a boat is a far more efficient way to move one’s gear.
While it would be nice to claim to have walked the 100 km loop, I confess that I’m an imposter. I only pretend to be a hardcore outdoor enthusiast. In reality, freeze-dried bag dinners, bad coffee and endless lunches of trail mix do not make it onto my wilderness trip shopping lists. Oh yes, I have bought freeze-dried food which no doubt impressed the cashier at the checkout counter. But I have them still – five years later. They keep don’t they? Perhaps I’ll need them should I choose to venture into space.
Further evidence that I am a fraud can be found in my actions on arriving at the park. Instead of madly packing the canoe and immediately striking off, a pre-trip nosh-up of fish and chips in the town of the Killarney seemed a good idea. Knowing that we would be cooking on my tiny Whisperlight stove and an open fire for the next three days, three pieces of fish, a massive plate of chips and coleslaw seemed about right. Given that I only weigh 112 lbs I am not sure this was the right decision. I waddled out of the restaurant vaguely wondering what the waiting time for heart bypass surgery might be. Never mind, it was time to canoe.
On the way back to the park, however, I heard Killarney Outfitters calling my name. Quite rightly I heeded the call and stopped to shop for yet more ultra lightweight, space efficient camping gear. Outwardly, at least, I appear as a wilderness camping purist. Inwardly though, I fear my equipment obsession might be more closely linked to the extra space for food that results than any uber camping adventure tendencies.
It was mid-afternoon when we set out to find a campsite at the far end of George Lake for the first night. It was not a difficult paddle, the wind was at our backs and the sun was low on the horizon. Regardless, I used it to justify the marinated steak, potatoes and fresh vegetables we made for supper. Aware that my argument was somewhat lacking, I suggested that protein-loading for tomorrow’s paddle was necessary.
The next morning blueberry pancakes, maple syrup and bacon with decent coffee and real milk seemed the right way to start the day. Surely carb-loading was necessary to give us the extra energy we might need for the long paddle and strenuous portaging of our heavy food.
Just like real back country adventurers, we tore down camp early, eager to make the most of the day. Others had the same idea and we met a number of groups going in both directions on each of our portages. We passed some genuine outdoorsmen. They were in a hurry and completed the portage so quickly they were back in their canoes and on the horizon before we finished the first of multiple trips across the portage. They were ripped young men. I convinced myself they must be in a race. Somehow this helped relieve my guilt over being a poser.
We spoke to two others also out for four days. I examined the contents of their canoes closely as they unloaded. Clearly, we had more stuff. Perhaps the variety of cheeses, olives, Mediterranean watermelon salad, smoked sardines, marinated cherry tomatoes, crackers, pate and wine for lunch were a bit over the top. I made a note to self: drop the olives next time. Paddling and portaging for the rest of the day took us past beaver dams, beautiful wetlands and windy headlands to a lovely spot on one of only five campsites on O.S.A Lake.
O.S.A Lake was originally named Trout Lake until Group of Seven artist A.Y Jackson successfully lobbied the provincial government to protect the Eastern White Pines in the area from logging by the Spanish River Lumber Company. The iconic works of the Group of Seven are known to millions of Canadians and windswept white pines feature in many of the paintings. Frank Carmichael, Arthur Lismer and A.J Casson all painted in this area.
Jackson’s letter writing campaign resulted in the creation of the Trout Lake Forest Reserve and in 1933 the lake was renamed O.S.A in recognition of the efforts of the Ontario Society of Artists. In 1959, the protected area was expanded to the Killarney Wilderness Preserve and in 1964, Killarney Provincial Park came into being. In 1972, on A.Y Jackson’s 90th birthday, a lake in the park was named after this man responsible for teaching Canadians to see beauty in their own land. That night I saw beauty in the chicken curry, mango chutney and naan bread that I consumed in this lovely setting.
The next morning, after yet more pancakes and bacon, we paddled to another gourmet lunch and with more portaging and paddling we eventually arrived at our destination: a spaghetti and meatballs dinner.
Our Killarney Lake campsite was high up on the headland of an island with a 270° panoramic view of the lake. Squirrels ran all around us up and down the trees knocking cones and acorns to the ground and then collecting them up for winter. It felt good to be one with nature, except that these were extreme squirrels that seemingly needed no sleep. The noise of nuts raining down onto the tent became, in the end, quite annoying. The site was otherwise void of wildlife. Word must be out that I am very protective of my food.
Another quiet early morning paddle with the loons and more portages brought us back to George Lake for one more night before returning home. Another successful survival-in-the-wilderness experience came to an end which was probably a good thing. I needed to lose some weight and get some exercise so that my lightweight, quick drying, bacteria-resistant, no tear, water-repelling extreme clothing fits properly again. One must keep up appearances after all.