Urban Paddler has returned! After a brief three years in dry dock, we’re packing up our food barrels, strapping the canoe to the car, and getting ready to dip our paddles into the waters of some exciting outdoor adventures once again. Stay tuned for some new posts detailing all the near-Toronto out trips we’ve done over the past summer, complete with photos, tips on how to do them, detailed Google maps with directions in the bush, and helpful links.
Killarney Provincial Park has long been on my list to visit, but its distance from Toronto made me hesitant. While many fellow paddlers regaled me with tales of its beauty (one fellow I met at Paddle the Don 2015 said I would never be able to return to Algonquin after visiting Killarney), the five hour drive was enough to turn me off. True to my urban nature, I tend to go paddling within a three-hour drive of Toronto. But this past Canada Day, we took the opportunity to strike out on a five-day trip to one of Killarney’s most well-known routes, and brought along a few friends for the adventure.
We chose our route out of Kevin Callan’s Paddler’s Guide to Killarney and the French River, a book I’d recommend to anyone interested in out-tripping through this region. The route, which starts at Killarney Kanoes on Bell Lake and circles through David Lake and Three Mile Lake with several portages, can be accomplished in two nights. But to add a hike up the Silver Peak mountain, which is the highest elevation in the park, and an extra day of paddling to explore other lakes, we extended our trip to four nights and five days.
To guide our way, we carried Jeff’s Killarney Map, which offers incredible detail and comes on waterproof material.
Day 1 – Killarney Kanoes access point and into the wild
Driving from Toronto to Killarney is a simple matter, if a bit of a long haul. Any GPS will be able to guide you here, but be aware that once you exit Highway 69 just south of Sudbury and start heading east, there is patchy cell phone reception. Be careful not to miss the Bell Lake Rd. turn off from 637, or you’ll drive for another half-hour at least before you hit the end of the road.
Killarney Kanoes is a great access point because the outfitting shop offers up anything you’ll need for your trip. We rented a couple canoes for our party of six, which came with the requisite paddles and lifejackets. The helpful staff helped us haul them down to the water and sent us on our way.
After a bit of a paddling lesson for a new sternsman, we zig-zagged across Bell Lake and up Three-Mile Lake. We chose to do the loop in a counter-clockwise rotation so that we’d finish with Silver Peak as the climax of our trip. But most would probably choose to instead do the loop clockwise, covering the several short portages between David Lake and Bell Lake on day one and having the advantage of walking them downhill.
Only one portage was in our way on the first day, a short 50-metre haul to get into Balsam Lake. There’s remnants of an old railway line here, which was a novelty, but I was disappointed to discover that a tram featured in Callan’s book is no longer here. Not only would it have made our portage that much easier, but it also would have been a “first” for me to have a portage assisted by a rail vehicle.
Before we made our camp at site 113 on Balsam Lake for the night, we passed by a rare sight of a loon nesting on a small clump of grass. You almost never see loons completely out of the water, since their rear-placed legs make it impossible for them to walk on land. They only do so adjacent to the water, and when they are keeping a nest.
The site was serviceable and offered a lot of rocks along the water for sitting on and a leaping off point for swimming. The tent pad areas weren’t the best, and the thunder box is quite close to the site and easily visible. We set up a little privacy tarp to make everyone feel a bit more at ease with it.
Day 2 – Logging camp relics on Fox Lake
We planned our second day of the trip as an exploration day, keeping our tents and gear at the site and paddling into nearby Deacon Lake and Fox Lake to try some fishing and exploring of the area. We didn’t really have any luck with the fishing on these lakes, but that seems to be par for the course when it comes to my luck with fishing.
The highlight of the trip was exploring the remains of an old logging camp on the north end of Fox Lake. Easily found just to the west of the start of the portage trail, you should be able to find some rusted-out metal bunk bed frames and a couple of tables.
Day 3 – Paddle (and poling) to David Lake
On this travel day to David Lake, we faced some remarkable winds that threatened to tip us as we ventured across the open water.
After accomplishing the buggy 620 metre portage with a muddy uphill trail, we found David Lake offering more than a stiff breeze coming across our bows. To block the wind as best we could, we cut across to the south shore and paddled toward our site from behind an island the features two campsites. We would have happily camped on one of these, but found both were occupied. From her, rather than make our way back out into the open water and face the wind, we chose to squeeze between the island and the main land through a marshy area. While we did eventually push our way through, it’s not a route I’d recommend. I did encounter a small painter turtle that I briefly picked up to inspect, but slogging through the muddy waters and narrow channels had us going at a turtle’s pace and getting stuck often.
Eventually we reached our site, number 101 on the edge of the peninsula. This was a great site that can be accessed from two different points and offers a very large space to work with. You’ll want to set up on the east side that faces Silver Peak for a view of the mountain, and you’ll be nicely situated for your fire pit on a nicely elevated plateau above the lake. Swimming off this point, as with much of the park, is doable, but you’ll be dealing with rocky shores as you slip in and out of the water.
Day 4 – Hike up Silver Peak
After a hardy breakfast, we paddled directly across David Lake to access the trail that would take us up to Silver Peak. If I were to do this trip again, I’d say site 101 is the best place to use as a base camp if you want to hike up Silver Peak. It’s a short paddle across the lake to get on the trail, and you also get to appreciate a view of it from your site. A few camping site on the same side of the lake as Silver Peak might eliminate that paddle, but don’t offer as nice a view or as large a base camp.
The hike up Silver Peak is beautiful, but arduous. While Jeff’s Map estimates it can be done in about two hours from our acces point, we found it to take nearly twice that long. We stopped to rest several times on the way up. It was a hot day so we quickly emptied our water bottles, and used some mountain streams as an opportunity to pump new water along the way. Once we entered the area that was densely forested, mosquitoes and black flies were also a constant nuisance. But there’s many points where you can stop and admire the view, and the trail itself is interesting and covers varying landscapes.
The really challenging part of the hike is the elevation change. Not only are you hiking up almost 600 metres from sea level, but the route has many peaks and valleys along the way. You’ll climb over one group of rocks, only to descend and then climb up another one. Reaching the apex is a worthy reward, with a wonderful view of the surrounding lakes that easily stretches out to Georgian Bay, 25 km to the south. We had fun picking out our campsite below and marvelling at how tiny it looked.
Don’t make the mistake we did, missing our turn off point off the trail on the way back. While we quickly recognized our mistake thanks to the well-marked trail, it was an extra climb that no one in our group was happy about at that point in the day. By the time we reached our canoes to paddle back to base camp, the sun was setting.
How to do it
Day 5 – So long and thanks for all the fish (and chips)
After an early morning take down of our site and a breakfast of instant oatmeal with blueberries (my favourite for the last day of an out trip – quick and hardy), it was off to extract ourselves from the park. The paddling and portages went quickly enough. While there are several portages to complete, we found the paths easy to travel and each one is fairly short. It wasn’t long before we spotted our access point again, Killarney Kanoes.
After loading up our gear into the cars and returning our rentals, we made a diversionary drive further east on 637 to its end. Having read a recommendation for Herbert’s Fish & Chips in Callan’s book and hearing it independently from another paddler, we had to try it. While it wasn’t a bad experience, I don’t know that I’d recommend this to other campers. Already facing a long drive back to Toronto, this will be another hour out of your way to drive into the town and then back out again. Herbert’s Fish & Chips aren’t particularly cheap or exceptional in quality, plus we found it very busy and it was hard to get a seat either inside or outside. But it was nice when we nabbed a picnic table right beside the river, and the fish and chips were a good reward for a hard day’s portaging and paddling.
Overall we’re looking forward to another trip to Killarney to see what else the park has to offer next summer.