Killarney Lake Loop
Total Distance: 37 km
Duration: 4 days
Number of Portages: 8
Total Portage Distance: 5.7 km (This can be considerably less if done in high water)
Level of Difficulty: Experienced Novice (Some long portages and wind on Killarney Lake)
Map is courtesy of Jeff's Maps -- our route is marked in blue.
What can I say about these lakes that has not already been said a thousand times before? The campsites on these lakes are not some of the most sought-after backcountry reservations in the province for no reason. After doing this trip, the first thing I can simply say about it is, "Wow!"
Wow, indeed! The only other trip in the province that might be more visually appealing would be doing the same trip in the autumn during leaf-peeping season.
At midnight on January 26, 2020, shortly before the world could imagine an imminent global pandemic, I logged onto the newly revamped Ontario Parks Reservation system and managed to book O.S.A Lake. Did you read that correctly? I managed to book O.S.A. Lake, something that I had been trying to do for a few years to no avail. It's true what they say -- if at first you don't succeed...
Day 1 - George Lake
Fast forward to the early evening of the last Friday in June and my eldest daughter, Tanya, and I were heading up Highway 69 and looking for the Killarney turn-off. After listening to me gush about the beauty of this trip, I had been able to convince her to book the weekend off from her part-time job and join me. We had enjoyed our time together on a nice 2-day paddle down the Oxtongue River the previous autumn and I had found her to be quite a capable paddler.
It was the last day of the school year and it was an incredible feeling. We'd been cooped up in the house with the Covid nightmare and now we felt free: no school, no cold weather, no social distancing when you are in the backcountry.
We arrived at the George Lake campground late. I had booked our first night on George, knowing that we would be leaving Peterborough later in the day and arriving late. After checking in at the park office, getting our permits and putting in, we were paddling through the southern narrows of George Lake just after 7 pm.
Already, even before we could get a good glimpse of those gleaming white quartzite Killarney mountains, we knew this area would be special just by the granite rock formations at the southern end of the lake.
Getting out of the southern narrows and into the main part of the lake, we were happy to find that it wasn't too windy. George Lake was interesting. The southern shore was granite and the northern shore was quartzite. It certainly was spectacular.
We headed east but soon discovered that the sites at this end were already occupied as I suspected they would be by this late hour. So, we paddled back to the most western site at the end of the lake.
The site was on a narrow, rocky beach just below a thick canopy of trees with a mountain as a backdrop immediately behind it. It had nice views down the lake with a good glimpse of the granite dominating the southern shoreline.
Knowing it was going to get buggy, we put up the bug shelter to eat our dinner unscathed. It's a good thing we did because it started spitting a bit and, yes, the mosquitos were out in droves. They got to be a bit much and the weather was hit or miss, so we retired to the tent early after grilling some nice steaks.
Day 2 - George Lake to O.S.A. Lake
I woke up earlier than Tanya and went out for a quick fish in the bay in front of our site. Most of the lakes in this area are windex lakes and don't support much life. Of the lakes on our trip, only George and Kakakise allowed for any fishing. I'm guessing that there may only be fish in the southern areas of George, away from the quartzite on the northern shore, so I didn't get so much as a nibble.
I paddled back to our site, feeling the call of nature. Now, the thunderbox situation on this site was special. God forbid that anyone staying there has a case of the trots because the thunderbox was literally on a mountain top. With toilet roll in hand, I followed the little blue washroom sign behind the campsite that directed campers to the boom box.
I climbed past the sign and then kept climbing...and then climbed some more. At one point I thought that perhaps someone had absconded with the thunderbox as a cruel joke. I kept climbing the path that was now engaging in switchbacks up the mountain.
Eventually, I came across it like a shining beacon in the woods, high on a ridge. I walked to the ledge of the mountain just near it and took a picture of the lake just to show the view from the most elevated thunderbox in Killarney.
Following my mountaintop adventure, we broke camp and got on the water after a quick coffee and oatmeal breakfast. The sky was a bit overcast, but the temperature was perfect for paddling.
We had thought about taking the unofficial portage over the mountain from George to O.S.A. directly but were told at the park office upon registering that we weren't allowed to take it. They said it was dangerous. There was a sign at the take-out stating that it was off-limits. We obeyed the rules and made for the east end of George. Lake instead. We were looking forward to the lovely scenery at the southern part of Killarney Lake anyway. From what I've read, the portage isn't dangerous other than being steep in places. I'm not sure what the real reason is for the park to dissuade people from using this link.
We soon found ourselves at a dock on the take-out to Freeland lake. You have got to love paddling routes that are so well-used that docks are installed for canoeists. It sat next to a pretty little chute.
Freeland Lake is a shallow and weedy lake that only serves as a travel route between Killarney and George Lakes. It got very shallow and muddy just before the take-out and involved some standing and poling to get to a spot where we could stand on solid ground to start the portage.
The 410m portage in Killarney ascends to the left of a beautiful little waterfall.
Originally, our plan for the day was to leave our canoe and gear at the take-out on the portage to Kakakise lake on the eastern shore and hike up to The Crack before paddling into O.S.A. However, on this 410m portage into Killarney Lake, we passed a couple travelling in the opposite direction. I asked them if they were heading out and they said that they were. I found out that they had just paddled from the island site on O.S.A., which I had earlier read was the best site on the lake. Knowing it was vacant, we decided to postpone our hike to the Crack and make a beeline for that site. In these heavily travelled areas, you need to be quick to get the best sites!
Excited by the possibility of a fantastic campsite on a gorgeous lake, we quickly finished the portage.
At the put-in on Killarney, the first thing you notice is how incredibly clear the water is on this lake.
The paddle from the south part of this lake was amazing. The dramatic white mountains on the north shore of Killarney Lake were hidden by islands and points -- and then they suddenly came into view as we rounded a corner. It was breathtaking.
Tanya and I were so involved with taking in our surroundings that we both forgot to take any photos at this moment.
We made our way around the points and into the main part of the lake, passing several occupied campsites along the way. We rounded the bend and found ourselves heading south again, making our way for the shorter 120m portage. There, in a narrow and shallow bay laden with deadheads, we spotted a fawn on the northern shore that was tentatively spying us from the reeds.
To get to the portage, we needed to get into a small bay at the southwestern part of the lake. The narrow channel to this bay was blocked by a small beaver dam that we had to lift over. A loon was hanging out on the other side of it and, like some sort of avian sentry; it seemed to be guarding the channel. It eventually acquiesced and retreated underwater as we made our way through.
We made our way through the 120m portage into O.S.A. lake and gasped at how clear the water was at the put-in.
The wind began to pick up slightly as we paddled our way to the island site.
Indeed, it was vacant and we happily began setting up camp. The fire pit was nestled nicely in some trees and there was a nice point facing east across the expanse of the lake with amazing views of the La Cloche mountains.
The wind was up for most of the day, so we were reluctant to venture too far from camp. We had plenty to see and do though.
The rest of the day was spent exploring the island, swimming in the turquoise waters in a little back bay behind our site and snorkelling over a sunken rowboat in a little bay near the put-in to the unofficial portage to George Lake.
Later in the afternoon, as some dark clouds were forming on the eastern horizon, we were treated to a view of a rainbow over the lake!
O.S.A. Lake was named as such to honour the Ontario Society of Artists. This was because the members of the Group of Seven were responsible for the protection of this area from logging and other interests that would be harmful to the environment. Those conservation efforts eventually led to the formation of the provincial park in the 60s. Killarney Provincial Park is now considered the "Crown Jewel" of the Ontario park system.
We ended this fantastic day with grilled pork chops and rice at the campfire. After dinner, we spotted a pair of canoes coming our way from the eastern end of the lake. Soon after, they were upon us. A man called out to us, introducing himself as John, and asked us how long we would be staying at the site. I told him we would be leaving the next day. He then asked us if he could bring over a bag early in the morning to "hold" the site until we left! I was dumbfounded. I wasn't sure what to say to this; I just shrugged my shoulders.
As he parted and paddled away with a "God bless you, friend!", I began to feel a little unsettled by this intrusion. My daughter and I had had an idyllic day that was somewhat marred by the thought of strangers dumping their bags on our site the following morning while we would be having our morning coffee. In my humble opinion, this has to violate some sort of camping code or backcountry etiquette. I should have told him we would be occupying the site for two weeks!
Day 3 - O.S.A. Lake to Norway Lake
We woke up to another sunny morning but the wind was still up somewhat, however, it was now coming in from the east, unlike the previous day. We had a relaxing morning with our coffee and breakfast that was, thankfully, not interrupted by the invasive John and his paddling partners.
We were back on the water by 10:30 am and wanted to explore the island in front of the 450m portage back into Killarney Lake. This island was supposed to have the ruins of an old trapper's cabin.
Beaching the canoe on the western side of the island, we made our way up to the cabin and took a few photos. It was interesting.
However, when we walked around to the back of the cabin, we were dismayed to see that people had used the area to bush camp and had left it a mess. There were fresh oranges and bananas dumped all over the place.
Not only was this just gross, it was an animal attractant. Research has shown that a bear can smell a food source from up to two miles away.
The fact that it was on an island was irrelevant. In 1991, two campers met their gruesome demise by a predatory bear on an island in the middle of Algonquin's largest lake. Though predatory bears are extremely rare, habituated bears are more common. When a bear begins to associate people with food, encounters happen, which can lead to people getting injured or worse. The bears, in these cases, usually end up having to be destroyed.
These irresponsible, fruit-littering campers weren't the only ones to use the island as a makeshift campsite. Less than a week after we were there, I subsequently learned that other boneheaded campers used the island and didn't fully extinguish their campfire properly. The island caught fire; fire rangers had to camp on the island while fighting it. Floatplanes were used to drop water bombs on the island. Sigh.
Leaving the island, we paddled to the 450m portage and made our way back into Killarney Lake.
Rounding the bend and getting into the open expanse of the lake, we were hit with a very steady headwind coming from the east. We crossed the bay and hugged the southern shore as we made our way northeast across the lake.
I was very impressed with my daughter's strength in paddling during this crossing. It wasn't easy, especially across the large rounded bay at the south end of the lake. We had a rest at the base of some impressive cliffs after making this crossing.
Entering the narrower eastern end of the lake, which contains a couple of pretty quartzite islands, the wind was much more manageable.
We made our way to the end of the lake and decided to take our chances paddling up the creek rather than opting for the long 1375m portage. The water seemed high enough and we only had to lift over a couple of beaver dams. We stopped to have a lunch of cheese wraps at the first dam lift-over and what a large dam it was!
The creek itself was fine to paddle through, and with the La Cloche mountains in the background, it was very picturesque.
With about 200 meters or so before Norway Lake, we ran out of water. We dragged the canoe over to the left side of the creek and couldn't spot a path up to the portage. I bushwhacked into the woods for about 25 meters and found the path easily enough. From there it was only a short carry to the put-in on Norway Lake. We were happy that we turned a 1375m portage into about 180 meters.
The put-in on Norway Lake was in a narrow bay directly behind an island. We paddled around to the east end of the island and found the vacant campsite sitting high on a rock overlooking the bay and the northern expanse of the La Cloche range.
It was a nice site and we happily set up camp. The other campsite across the bay was vacant, so we had this entire northern section of the lake to ourselves. The site even came equipped with an outhouse!
The rest of the day was spent swimming, exploring the lake and relaxing at the site.
After a lovely pasta dinner, a loon floated past. I thought I'd pull out my loon call that I learnt to do as a kid and, low and behold, it actually worked! The loon turned around and started swimming toward our site. It swam in circles a bit before realizing something was "Rotten in Denmark", or in this case, "Rotten in Norway", and dived into the depths of the lake. My daughter happened to get some of it on video.
We had a nice night by the campfire discussing my daughter's future. She was going into her final year of high school during a pandemic and there was a lot of uncertainty in her life. Decisions needed to be made.
Not only are backcountry canoe trips an excellent escape from the trappings of modern living, but they are also a great place to step outside of one's day-to-day life and invite in some introspection and contemplation.
Day 4 - Norway Lake to George Lake
We didn't know it when we woke up that morning, but this would be our last day of the trip -- and what a long busy day it would be!
Our original plan was to do the long portage from Norway into Kakakise, pausing to hike up to Heaven Lake halfway along and stay our last night on one of the two sites on Kakakise to do a bit of fishing. It was to be a relatively short day, so we took our time in the morning and didn't leave the site until shortly after 10 am. We turned around to take one last shot of our campsite before leaving.
We paddled around the bend and into the southern bay of Norway Lake, passing another campsite along the way that was occupied.
The take-out to the 1425m portage was on a beach which made the process of getting out of the canoe easy. After the first 100 meters, the portage met up with the Silhouette Trail. From there, there was a steep increase in elevation for a few hundred meters that got the heart racing somewhat.
At the height of land, the trail split in two. To the left, the Silhouette Trail continued its way up the mountain and on to Heaven and Whiskeyjack Lakes; to the right, the portage made a long gradual descent into Kakakise Lake. There, we left our canoe and gear off to the side of the trail and we made a quick side trip up to Heaven Lake where we had read there was a nice view over the park. The trail scrambled over some rocks for a bit crossed a rocky meadow and emerged at Heaven Lake, which was not much bigger than a pond.
Just to the left of the lake, the trees opened up and indeed there were fantastic southwestern views over Killarney Park and Georgian Bay. Except for Silver Peak, this location is among the highest in the park. In the photo below, the ridge on the horizon in the distance is Manitoulin Island -- the world's largest freshwater island!
After a short rest at this scenic location, we started back down the trail to the portage and our gear. We were accompanied by a solo hiker who was completing the entire Silhouette Trail in 7 days. He was nearing the end of his trip and we chatted a bit about our various hiking and canoeing adventures.
The longest hike I have done was a four-day hike in Nepal in 2013. It was a section of the Annapurna Circuit in the Himalayas. This was relatively easy because our family hired porters; we did it when our children were still quite young. I also did a 3-day hill tribe trek on the Thailand/Burmese border back in the mid-90s. No doubt, these are once-in-a-lifetime experiences, but If I had to choose between hiking or canoeing, I'd choose the latter. For me, hiking is a portage that doesn't end, but after learning a little more about the Silhouette Trail, it has now been added to my bucket list. It seems to be an amazing experience.
Back on the portage, we gathered our belongings and finished the carry in two trips. It wasn't too bad and was well-maintained. It even had a little bridge built on it to cross a creek.
We were paddling out on Kakakise, the lake we had booked for the night, by 12:30 pm and passed by the vacant site on the eastern end of the lake. It looked a little bushy and at the end of June would have been quite buggy at dusk. So, we decided to take our chances to see if the other site further up the lake would be available.
Kakakise was long and narrow. The northern shore was dominated by a high ridge that blocked any views further afield. A large island filled the centre of the lake. There was a private cottage on the eastern end of that island near the other site on the southern shore. When we passed it, there was a generator running that was making quite a bit of noise.
The site there was also in a dense stand of trees. We knew there would be very little air moving through the site as it was near the island and in a narrow spot on the lake -- again, a mosquito haven. Hmmm, more mosquitos and the hum of a generator -- not ideal.
Neither of the sites on Kakakise were appealing to us. Perhaps, we'd been spoiled by the amazing views and sites we'd had the previous three nights.
It was at that point that we decided that we would hike up to the Crack and paddle back to our car by the end of the day. The only thing that we were concerned about was the long 1765m portage from Kakakise into Freeland. It meant our day would consist of the 1425m portage, the hike up to Heaven Lake that we had already completed, the 3-hour return hike up to the Crack, another 1765m portage AND the paddle back through Freeland and George Lakes. Whew! On the bright side, we had a lot of daylight left at the end of June. We were just hoping our energy would last!
We paddled to the end of Kakakise and found the portage into Killarney Lake. From there, the trail continued northeast and up to the Crack. We ate lunch, filtered some water and started up the trail.
It was quite steep, and as we got closer to the summit it involved scrambling over some massive boulders. Before that, we needed to pass through a narrow crevice, thus giving the hike its name. It was also VERY hot out and we found ourselves going through our water at a rapid rate. It was crowded along the route and at the summit, but after experiencing the views at the top, it was easy to understand why.
It was about 4:30 pm by the time we had returned to our canoe, had filtered some more water and were paddling west into Kakakise Creek. We came to a bridge and ran into a couple that was finishing the Silhouette Trail. We had met them at the Crack and had hiked down the mountain together.
The water levels looked fairly high and having luck the previous day on the creek into Norway, we'd thought we'd try heading into Kakakise creek rather than taking the 1765m portage. It was a bit of a gamble because if we got toward the end and couldn't get through, we'd be going all the way back through the creek again and then taking the portage and would probably run out of daylight.
It was pretty clear sailing through the creek until we came to a massive beaver dam about three-quarters of the way along. Below this, it was a slog. We could see the eastern end of Freeland and knew we were close, but there was a lot of mud in between.
The creek got too low to paddle, so we got out on the bank and I tied a rope to the canoe and started lining it. It started fine and I was bragging to Tanya how we had made the right choice as I demonstrated how to line a canoe. No sooner had I just uttered those words, when I sank hip-deep into the muck. Tanya howled in laughter, as did I when I eventually pried myself out. Never get too confident on a canoe trip!
The ground at that point was too soft on either side of the creek to line or wade. We had one option left. We got into the canoe, both standing up, and poled our way through, using our paddles as poles. It was quite a balancing act with both of us standing, but in the end, it worked! We made our way into Freeland without dumping into the muck and portaged into GeorgeLake. We arrived at the George Lake Campground at 7 pm. I'd take a short mud bath over a gruelling 1765m portage any day of the week! Tanya took a quick photo of my muddy, bottom half at the portage into George.
Though our trip was shortened by a day, we felt good at the end. We were very tired and hungry after the long day, but it was a rewarding feeling.
We had a quick swim at the George Lake campground to wash the mud off us, loaded into the car and headed out on the road. Just as we were about to pull out, our hiking friends from the Crack passed by our car. We laughed as we greeted each other for the third time that day.
From the highway, we phoned ahead to the Pizza Hut in Parry Sound and had a couple of pies waiting for us when we got into town around 9 pm. Pulling into our driveway in Peterborough shortly after midnight, we left the canoe and gear in the car to be dealt with the following day, headed for the showers and drifted off to sleep in our beds thinking about the incredible trip we'd just experienced.
Killarney is indeed the jewel that people claim it to be.