Canoeing Killarney NorthWest -
Dave and Helen Damouth
July 14-20 1985
From July 14 through July 20 we canoed into what we expected to be the most remote part of Killarney Provincial Park. This is a primitive wilderness park (except for one developed campground at the entrance) located at the northeast corner of Georgian Bay in Ontario. Those of you new to Wilderness may also want to read 1984 messages from me and Andrea Carpenter describing Killarney, which may be the most beautiful canoeing area in the country. Backpacking trails also exist. (I will forward old messages on request). As usual, this message also serves as my own trip log, and probably contains much more detail than most of you will be interested in reading.
Our group turned out to be three people, so this was also an occasion to try tripping in a solo canoe. We rented a Curtis Solo Tripper (Kevlar version) for the odd person, and took turns in it. This canoe is 15' 7" long, 30" max width, and 27" wide at the 4" water line. Its weight is 34 pounds according to the catalog and 38 pounds according to my scales. The heavy ash portage yoke supplied by Curtis adds another couple of pounds. It is quite round-bottomed and feels very tender when you first climb in. After a few days, it felt fine. The second canoe was my We-no-nah Odyssey, 18" 6" long, 45 pounds.
We left Rochester about 10:00 AM July 13, stopped at the French River Motel around 4:00 PM for the night, and drove another 1.5 hours on July 14 to arrive at the park office at 8:00 am. July 14: Left the dock about 9:30 am. The weather is sunny and unusually warm. We're canoeing shirtless and rapidly getting burned.
Traveled George Lake, Freeland Lake, Killarney Lake (5.6 miles of water, two portages totaling 525 yds) and began the 3935 yard portage to Three Narrows Lake at about 11:30 am. Got everything across the portage in a single trip. Leon and I carried 35 to 40 pound packs plus a 40-pound or 45 pound canoe. Helen had a 45-pound pack and no canoe. This included food for six days plus emergency food for one day.
Near the end of the portage, I slipped on mud, went abruptly down on one knee to catch my balance, and heard a loud CRACK, at which point the canoe hit me on the head. When I sorted things out, I found that my expensive carved wood shoulder-fitting yoke had broken cleanly in half and one half had ripped out of the bolts which held it to the gunwale. I carried the rest of the way with the canoe resting on my head. Fortunately this was the last portage before our planned stopping point. After making camp, Leon and I improvised a splint with saw and knife, and used lots of 1/8" nylon line to bind it to the yoke to hold the whole mess together. It feels reasonably secure - perhaps it will survive the trip.
We stopped at campsite 40 in the east end of Three Narrows Lake around 3:00 PM. We've stayed at this campsite before and it is one of our favorites. The site is actually on a 25 yard wide ridge between Three Narrows Lake and a small unnamed lake 20 feet above it, connected by a nice little waterfall. When stopping here, you should reserve half a day to hike up the stream to Quartzite Lake - a beautiful little high altitude lake surrounded by steep quartzite cliffs. July 15:
Awake at 6:30, left camp at 8:30. Traveled Kirk Creek (canoeable except for the marked portages and many marked and unmarked beaver dams). Portage 2330 yards to Great Mountain Lake. 520 yds to Fish Lake, 100 yds plus beaver dams to Gem Lake, 100 yds to Howry Lake. Stopped at site 150 in mid-afternoon. There is nobody in this part of the park. We have the lake all to ourselves. The portages are rarely used and somewhat overgrown. Campsites are clean with firewood nearby.
The sun was hot, the water looked good, so Helen and I dropped the packs and went for a swim. We swam across a little bay to a rocky point, and were drying out on a hot rock, when suddenly - thunder. A black cloud had snuck up behind us (our view to the west was blocked by trees). We swam madly to the campsite, frantically set up the tent as the first sprinkles started, and got our gear inside just and the deluge began. Leon, who had set up his tent before swimming, helped us get ours up, and carefully avoided laughing. Rule: ALWAYS set up the tent before doing anything else.
July 16: Awake at 6:30, had a leisurely cornmeal pancake breakfast and left camp at 8:45. Traveled Howry Creek (240 yds plus several carryovers), Murray Lake, portaged 1700 yds to Nellie Lake. We've wanted to get here for years, and it always looked very remote and difficult to reach. As it turns out, we could easily have reached it in two days.
Nellie is advertised as the "clearest lake in the Park, with 90-foot visibility". I believe it. We could see chunks of quartzite on the bottom far out in the middle of the lake. The water is an intense blue-green color when under a blue sky. We passed one couple coming the other way as we entered the portage from Murray to Nellie (they said we were the first people they had seen in several days), but up till then saw no footprints on the portages, and had the lakes to ourselves. Moose tracks were common on the portages, but we never saw a moose.
July 17: Waking at 6:30 seems to be automatic now. It rained during the night but has stopped. The sky is threatening, and as we stand around debating, thunder begins to rumble and a big black cloud appears in the west. Within a few minutes the rain begins. Dive back into the tents. At 7:30 the storm is gone and we try again. Break camp and pack up wet gear, leaving about 8:45. This leg of the trip has been our biggest uncertainty. The map shows no route from Nellie to Helen Lake, and we originally planned to bushwhack the 1.5 miles with canoes and packs. The park office map had a hand-drawn line on an overlay, and they told us it was a "canoeable creek". The folks we met yesterday confirmed that there was indeed a route from Nellie to Helen, but said that the first 2/3 was all portage and no creek, and further that the map was wrong and that the creek we would eventually hit entered Helen Lake not in the bay indicated but in the next bay to the East. They said they spent two days looking for it, and that the Helen Lake end is completely unlabeled. As we reached the indicated place to leave Nellie, we found a real live portage sign, heaved a sigh of relief, and started off down a very faint trail.
At the head of the portage is a mouldering old dock and large cabin, abandoned for many years and about to fall down. It's sad to stand among the rotten floorboards, torn mattresses, scattered drawers and utensils, and think about the amount of energy and love some family devoted to building such an elaborate structure in such an inaccessible place, and what it has now come to.
The trail is so faint that we lost it and had to double back and search a couple of times. We eventually came to a swamp that looked sort of canoeable, and set off. After untold acres of lily pads, cat tails, pickerel weed, etc, we found the inevitable beaver dam. Below it was a stream which did indeed lead us to Helen Lake. As we had been told, it is not where the map says it is. The Helen Lake end and the transition from the swamp to the portage are unlabeled and would be very difficult to find if coming up from the south. From Helen Lake, there is a short portage down the steep rocky path of a dry waterfall to Low Lake. At this point we relaxed, since portages are clearly shown on the map for the rest of the route.
Little did we know that the worst was yet to come. The first part of the stream and the first portage were uneventful, although the portage was unmarked. After following the stream for another half mile or so, it degenerated into a broad swamp. After canoeing around the swamp for a while we found a huge beaver dam. The beavers up here are very industrious. Many of the dams, including this one, are five feet high and this one was over 100 yards long. But there was nothing canoeable below it - just mud and swamp grass. No sign of a portage anywhere. We climbed a hill to the west of the dam and could see water, presumably Georgian Bay, half a mile or so to the south. But a search along the banks of the swamp showed no hint of a portage, and the climb up the hill was very steep and rocky, through dense forest. It would take forever to get the canoes through it. So we found our way over to the east end of the dam and another ridge of high ground. Still couldn't find any portage. We then decided we must have missed the portage and retraced our path back through the swamp and up the creek to the previous portage, looking for any possible alternative routes. We found nothing even remotely likely. Back to the east end of the dam. A faint game trail led along the margin of the swamp, in the general southeasterly direction we needed to go. Well, we came anticipating a bushwhack with the canoes (but not at this spot), and the map shows an inlet from Georgian Bay somewhere to the southeast, which MIGHT be just over the hill. We climb the hill to the east and can't see anything. The going is very rough and rocky - would be tough with canoes. So the vote says follow the game trail along the swamp - maybe we'll come to canoeable water.
Carrying canoes through dense brush with a pack on your back is an interesting form of torture. We dropped the packs and carried just the canoes. Within 50 yards or so we realized we'd have trouble finding our way back to the packs. (Yes, our back trail was sort of visible, with trampled grass and broken branches, but it was crossed by innumerable game trails, and a moose makes an even more visible trail than a man with a canoe.) So we dropped the canoes, went back for the packs, and continued to push ahead by making two trips over each 50-yard segment. When one of us went ahead to scout, it only took 100 yards or so in the dense undergrowth, with a relatively featureless local network of beaver and moose trails and a maze of dead trees felled by the beavers, to begin to wonder if we could find our way back to the others.
For the first time in the many years that we have carried them, we got out our emergency whistles and agreed on a set of signals which Leon had used with Girl Scout expeditions he led (one whistle blast is a request for everyone else to respond with one blast - letting the initiator know that everyone is still within hearing; two blasts means "come to me", and is to be acknowledged with one blast from everyone; three blasts means "danger, come to me cautiously", and also is to be acknowledged with one blast.) Although this scheme kind of destroyed the image of Daniel Boone exploring the untracked wilderness, the whistle sound carried very well in the woods, added a large margin of safety, and made it possible for the scout to walk almost directly back to the group from a considerable distance with much less time wasted marking and memorizing a trail.
At this point I realized I was very thirsty, that our two canteens of water were already more than half gone, and that it looked like it was going to be a long afternoon. The swamp water seemed decidedly unappetizing. The going finally became impossible, so we followed a game trail up the hill to the east and then portaged along the ridge of the hill. Huge slabs of solid rock made the going easier. But then the ridge ended. Swamp ahead. More swamp down the hill to the east. Our old familiar swamp to the west. We've been bushwhacking for three hours and have made perhaps 1/2 mile, maybe not even in the right direction. What next? This is not the way to keep your credentials as expedition leader.
I went ahead by myself to scout the swamp to the southwest keeping in touch with the others by whistle. I'll never forget the look on Leon's face when I announced we were going to walk across the swamp carrying packs and canoes. After the mutiny subsided, he and Helen discovered they had no better ideas, so we started out. We had to carry everything at once because there was no dry ground to put the packs on. Yes, you actually can walk across a swamp. We often sank to our knees, but then the bottom felt quite firm. The swamp grass grows in little hummocks and sometimes I could step from one to the next without sinking hardly at all. Often the grass was so thick I couldn't see the "ground" and would trip over a hummock or an ancient log (alligators don't come this far north, do they?). I found myself wondering whether, if I fell flat on my face in mud two feet deep with a pack and canoe on top of me, the others would be able to find me and get me out before I drowned.
A couple of hundred yards into the swamp we came across a lead of open water. It was almost exactly the same width as the canoes, and knee deep, apparently scoured by the spring runoff. Apparently it was so narrow that it was hidden by the tall swamp grass when I looked down on the swamp from the adjacent hillsides. The canoes floated, the packs (and Helen) went into the canoes, and Leon and I walked down the ditch towing the canoes. We had to bend the canoes a bit to get around the corners. By this time it was 5:30 PM and we were far from a campsite. The ditch led to a real stream in another few hundred yards of towing, and we could climb in, mud and all, and paddle. And around the next corner was Georgian Bay!
We paddled out into open water and suddenly realized that we hadn't had lunch. We got into the swamp before lunch time and had been wandering around it getting chewed by horse flies and deer flies ever since. On an island in the bay, we stopped alongside a floating dock at a shuttered cabin, washed off a lot of mud, and devoured "lunch" along with about a gallon of water apiece.
In looking back to where we'd been, and looking at the map, we found that the creek we came down entered Georgian bay in a different place and is apparently a different creek than the one we were supposed to be on. We still can't figure out where we went wrong. Is the map wrong again? (The couple who came the other way didn't mention any problem at this point) Did we somehow portage across to the wrong creek when leaving Low Lake? Did the beavers divert the swamp to a new outlet? Some day we'll go back and investigate. Note that the topographic map provided by the park (scale 1:50,000) only has contours every 50 feet of elevation, so local detail is not shown. I believe the official Canadian Government topographic maps are at the same scale, and so would not be significantly better. On flat land in the valleys, removal or addition of a single beaver dam can change a mile of dry land and stream to swamp or vice versa. However, the only major dam we saw in this area appeared to be many years old.
Another hour of paddling down a winding arm of the Bay brought us to a campsite, well before dark, but very tired. This site on Georgian Bay is accessible by the chrome-plated-yacht crowd, and was by far the grubbiest we've seen in the park - piles of fish scales where they had cleaned their catch (can't mess up the pretty boat), pike heads scattered around, piles of unburied toilet paper in the woods. And the tent site was marginal and unused for years. Apparently this site is used only for picnics and fish cleaning and not for overnights. It was also inhabited by huge swarms of voracious mosquitoes. Have you ever looked out your tent window and discovered that the netting was bowing inward from the force of a million mosquitoes beating their wings trying to get at you? If the netting had broken our bones would have been picked clean in an hour! From the tip of the point we could see (and hear) four huge yachts anchored in various bays. At least one left its generators running all night. Fortunately, our tents were behind a rock ridge and we couldn't hear the noise from there.
July 18: Up and underway at the usual time. Up another arm of Georgian Bay to Kirk Creek. Up the creek to Three Narrows Lake. A beaver swam across in front of us carrying a leafy branch - the first time I've seen an active beaver during the day. The creek is pretty - clear water and lots of short portages around small waterfalls. We're back in familiar territory now. At the head of the creek is a concrete dam built in 1934 which controls the height of Three Narrows Lake. It looks like it is about to fall down. We took the very steep 1700 yard portage across to Baie Fine (Georgian Bay again, but it is a very long way around to here by water). We chose the 825-yard portage to Artist Lake instead of the swampy little stream with a beaver dam every hundred yards. Then portage 110 yds, short paddle, portage 230 yards into Muriel Lake, 300 yds into OSA lake, and make camp in mid-afternoon at site 29 on an island with a view of the white quartzite mountains in three directions.
While we set up camp and cooked supper, a couple of chipmunks ran back and forth past us, often a few inches from our feet. We watched a chipmunk try to remove the little yellow plastic ball from the adjusting cord on a life preserver. When startled, it tried to run off with the ball, and did an immediate somersault when yanked back by the 6" cord. This was repeated several times before it got the idea that the ball was attached to something.
July 19: A hot sunny lazy day. We picked a quart of blueberries (it seems very early for them to be ripe) and made blueberry cornmeal pancakes (with hot maple syrup) for breakfast. I paddled across to the south shore of OSA and climbed an interesting looking mountain while Helen and Leon sun bathed and relaxed. From the top, I had an impressive view of George Lake to the South and OSA to the North, but I wasn't high enough to see across to Georgian Bay. When I came down, the wind had come up quite strong, white caps were marching down the lake, and I had an interesting time single-handing the empty 18.5 foot canoe across the several hundred yards to the island.
About 1 PM we packed up and headed out of the park. After a 200-yard portage into Killarney Lake, we had completed the circle and were retracing the same route by which we entered. The wind continued to rise, from the west. OSA and Killarney were both runs straight down wind, fast and fun. Coming into the muddy portage from Killarney to Freeland, Helen jumped out, lifted the bow up on shore a bit, and I started forward up the canoe to avoid stepping into the goop. The broken yoke (which is also the center thwart) struck again. As I reached the center of the canoe, which was now mostly supported by its two ends, the weight stressed the gunwales outward at the center, the broken thwart and its splint dropped out, and before I could get my weight out, the wooden gunwales on both sides spread far enough outward to crack the wood. The Kevlar is very flexible and undamaged, but repairing the gunwales to get the original strength back without messing up the appearance will be a finicky woodworking job.
Freeland Lake and George Lake were straight up wind, and on George Lake the wind had a clear 2-mile fetch to build up strength and waves. The going was slow but stable and controlled in the tandem canoe. The solo canoe, with Leon and I trading off periodically, was tough. Even with a pack in it for ballast, it would stop dead if you missed a stroke, and keeping it headed into the wind took a lot of steering energy.
Partway up George Lake, we noted that one of the hiking trails bent close to a bay on the south shore and that we might be able to duck into the bay out of the wind, pick up the trail, and have an 800 yard portage instead of a 1.5 mile paddle barely moving against the wind. We headed into the bay, portaged the few yards to Little Sheguiandah Lake, and discovered that we had to pick our way up a steep rock ridge to get to the trail. We walked a bit of the trail and discovered that a hiking trail is different than a portage trail. In the short stretch we walked there were two spots where the trail went between trees too close together for the canoes to fit through, and another spot where it turned a sharp corner between rocks and the canoe couldn't possibly get around the corner. We gave up the idea and resigned ourselves to paddling the whole distance. At least the shore exploration gave our paddling muscles a rest.
I presume that solo paddling into the wind will get easier with experience and improved technique, but it was a long slow haul, and we were tired and an hour and a half behind schedule when we got back to our car. Leon paddled all of George Lake in the solo straight into the hurricane, refusing my offer to trade with him, and ended with a rather self-satisfied smirk on his face. We drove to the first motel with a vacancy, mixed a strong gin and tonic, and spent the evening scratching our mosquito and fly bites.
July 20: We saw an interesting dam and lock as we passed Honey Harbour on the drive home. A short detour led us back to the dam, and we watched the big yachts coming through the locks and read the tourist literature. This waterway goes all the way from Georgian Bay to Lake Ontario near Toronto. The literature led us another 20 miles upstream to Big Chute. Here, instead of a lock, they float the boats onto a huge railroad car which is pulled by a cable along a track up over a ridge and back into the water. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't stood there and watched it for an hour. This thing can handle one boat up to 90 feet long and 90 tons displacement, or up to 9 typical 20-to-25 foot cabin cruisers. The boats were stabilized, and the propeller end held off the floor, with huge hydraulically controlled canvas slings.
Arrived in Rochester around 6:00 PM, relaxed for a while, and celebrated with some big juicy steaks.
Footnotes: The campground on George Lake is fully booked for the rest of July and all of August. When we arrived at 8:00 am, there was a line of people waiting for possible cancellations. DO NOT plan to drive late and spend your first night in the campground, until well into September.
The park now takes reservations for interior campsites on Killarney, OSA, George, Jonnie, and Carlyle Lakes. (These are the only big lakes that can be reached with short easy portages). I believe they are essentially full for all of August. Plan to arrive at the park early enough so you can go further into the interior. Killarney is still a well-kept secret in the United States. But it's far from a secret in Ontario. The parking lot at the canoe launch was nearly full, and only two cars (ours and one from Quebec) did not have Ontario plates.