Watch “Spirit of Killarney” above.
July 21, 2015 : We embark upon a 15 hour road trip to Killarney Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. Our mission, to answer the calling of the La Cloche mountains and sapphire waters of OSA lake. We left at 1:15pm and arrived to Barrie, Ontario at 2:00am spending the night at a Best Western, apparently the only hotel room left in Barrie. Thankfully my brother was able to find us this hotel from his desktop in Virginia. In the morning we completed the final 3.5 hours of the trip to the town of
Killarney, picking up our canoe along the way at Tyson Lake Marina. Our vessel was an old but sturdy Scott Kevlar canoe weighing in at 52 lbs. The small town of Killarney has a population of less than 1000, it sits on the coast of the Georgian Bay which opens up into the mighty Lake Huron. It is hard to describe the beauty of this town. The air is fresh with a similar atmosphere to a coastal city although without the hint of salt in the air. Just fresh water. It was a warm 27 degrees celsius, dry and sunny with breezes from the lake. We couldn’t believe the water when we saw it, a crystal blue unlike anything we’ve seen before. Most of the people who come to Killarney Provincial Park, stop by this town to visit Herbert’s Fish and Chips, a place where they serve fresh fish caught right out of the Georgian Bay. We had walleye that was simply superb. I now know what they mean when they say that Walleye (pickerel) is the best tasting freshwater fish. After filling our bellies, we headed into the park.
Prior to entering the park, we saw signs warning us that Killarney is open bear country. We took all the necessary precautions before entering the park to camp safely, including a water proof food barrel to tie up a tree at night, we hung bear bells on our duluth packs while we portaged to create noise and not startle any bears. I have always been interested in bears and their behavior, I used this trip as an opportunity to learn more. Fortunately, only black bears are present in central Ontario. They are definitely the least aggressive of the species in North America and will avoid human contact 99% of the time. It is the rare 1% of black bears that have developed a predatory instinct toward humans that we must be wary of. Although there has never been a fatal bear attack in Killarney Provincial Park, this is unfortunately not true of all Ontario parks. The following is a link to all of the fatal bear attacks in North America (notably two incidents at Algonquin Park).
In addition to the predatory bears, one must be cautious of bears that have become too comfortable around humans. Due to the frequent use of camp sites and the improper disposal of food, some bears can develop a habit of lingering around campsites in search of food. These bears can become dangerous when they are defending food or if they are feeling threatened by campers. The best defense one could have against bears is to practice safe camping measures: stay in large groups, make noise while you portage, hanging your food and all scented items in a food barrel suspended high in a tree. Needless to say, LEAVE NO TRACE. Some portagers even had their toothpaste snatched by a bear from their packs in between trips! When all measures fail and you find yourself face to face with an angry bear, bear spray is probably your best defense. I bought it for this trip and fortunately never had to use it against a bear.
While obtaining our camp permits, we were surprised to find that a spot had opened up on OSA lake for our 2nd and 3rd nights instead of our initially reserved Muriel Lake. We were pumped at the prospect of camping in the heart of Killarney. We unloaded our car and packed up our gear at one of the George Lake access points. In terms of size, Killarney is much smaller than Algonquin, yet both are totally different parks. The climate in Killarney is dry with relatively little rainfall throughout the year. It is usually sunny and the quartz mountain range provides a totally different backdrop as well.
The voyageurs in the past used to implement the Hudson Bay start before beginning on a big journey. Basically, on the first day of multi-day trip, they would paddle a very short distance and set up camp for the night, this way, they could get accustomed to the gear and the loads they would be carrying and also could turn back if they noticed that they forgot something. We decided to use this practice as well and it worked perfectly. We camped the first night right on George Lake, we needed as much daylight as possible to set up and cook dinner, and of course to swim! I couldn’t pass the opportunity after seeing young campers plunge from cliffs into the blue waters. We cooked up some hot chicken curry and had some tea, watching the beautiful late sunset.
The next morning, we made our way to the first portage, a short one at only 45m to enter Freeland Lake. The Scott canoe was surprisingly very easy to portage. I attribute this to the well designed yoke which rested comfortably on my shoulders. The Freeland Lake area was more consistent with Ontario backcountry canoe camping that I was familiar with, hundreds of lily pads and flowers in full bloom.
Sarah spotted a snapping turtle the size of a sewer grate swimming under our canoe. After another 410m portage, we were on Killarney Lake. We noticed that as we went further into the interior, the water became even clearer. Killarney Lake is surrounded by the white mountains and was clearly a popular site for campers. We saw a family of campers settled comfortably on one of the islands. We then traveled across a swampy area with numerous beaver dams, after hauling our canoe across one, we made our last 120m portgage of the day to OSA lake!
Upon first laying eyes on OSA lake, I suddenly understood why the Group of 7 artists visited Killarney for inspiration. I don’t think any camera would ever do this place justice, the clear blue waters allow visibility up to 20ft. The white quartzite mountains seemed to enhance the blue by reflecting even more sunlight. The clouds were spectacular. Amazingly, this giant lake only has 4 campsites. As we paddled around, we found that several were already occupied. We took our time searching for a place to set up camp and stopped to have lunch on a small island. We even contemplated staying on this island to camp but decided it would be much too windy without the trees to shield the wind. Finally, We found a perfect island campsite at site #32. A beautiful spruce island inhabited by red squirrels that were apparently tagged with white collars.
Our time on OSA was simply bliss. Perfect weather, with a cool shade among the pine and spruce. We were exhausted and slept for 10 hours after dinner, it was still light out. We swam and sunned on the rocks without a care in the world. There was tiny island just off the shore that we could swim to. Seemed like someone already built a little Inuksuk on it.
The next day we packed up and we paddled to the unofficial portage trail, a little tricky to find but we found some canoes parked on the trail already. I must commend JeffsMaps once again, this portage is not official and we would have never knew about it without JeffsMap. It was a tough one, at 1285m with an elevation gain of about 65 ft. The trail also had many downed trees along the path. I think it is tradition for me to see a wild animal during the last portage of a canoe trip. The previous year in algonquin park, I longed to see a moose on our 7 day trip. By the 6th day I was starting to lose hope, it was only till the last portage on the 7th day did we see young moose grazing by Tom Thomson Lake.
Such moments I believe are truly religious. It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t spend a significant amount of time outdoors. In Killarney, a part of me wanted to see a bear, but a bigger part of me did not. During this last portage of Killarney as I heaved the canoe over a down tree, I spotted an adolescent bear at the corner of my eye, running away from us as it heard us approach. After all of my years camping and hiking, this was actually the first encounter I’ve had with a wild bear. It was pretty awesome. I decided to tell Sarah at the end of the portage about the bear sighting. We kept conversing and making noise during the rest of the portage.
The rest of the paddle home was relaxing. As we came closer to civilization, it was nice to see occupied campsites on George Lake and kids jumping from cliffs into the water. As we packed up and headed to Toronto for the night, I couldn’t help but think what amazing luck we had during this trip. Clear skies, warm and dry weather, no injuries, and tons of memories. Killarney is really a magical place unlike any other park in Ontario, truly deserving of the title of the crown jewel of Ontario.