The moment I heard Ontario's Killarney Provincial Park was in the planning stage of expanding its northern borders (an initiative made through the Living Legacy 1999 program) my topographical maps were pulled from storage and I began tracing out a possible canoe route in the area. The maps themselves obviously didn't show a way through, but that didn't mean there wasn't a potential route. Past experience had taught me that all you need is a series of lakes close enough together, and a good reason for someone to once wanting to go there. Of course, it's not as easy as it sounds. The main problem with researching a past route is that you'll usually discover, while you're in the midst of immersing yourself in the subject matter, that there's a good reason why it's been abandoned in the first place.
I made sure to ask my canoe companion, Andy Baxter, to come along for such a trip. His positive attitude is great to have when times get rough out there. He has an extraordinary ability to laugh at the displeasures of overgrown portages and bug-infested campsites. And when things never seem to go the way they should, he makes a darn good bush-martini to help reduce the aches and pains.
We chose the beginning of June to head out, which meant we had a few bugs to contend with, and with the park not yet being fully operational, we had the displeasure of having to drive all the way to the George Lake access point to obtain our permit and then drive all the way back to the Bell Lake access to begin our journey.
To reach Bell turn off Highway 637 on to Bell Lake Road, 38-kilometers (24 miles) in from the Highway 69 exit. The narrow road twists and turns for another 8 kilometers before coming to a T-intersection. Go left here and drive another kilometer to the designated parking area.
From Bell Lake to Three Mile Lake, and then to Balsam Lake, the paddle was quite easy. It was already a part of a major canoe route in the park, with only one short 30 meter portage between the far northwest corner of Three Mile Lake, which is actually an extension of Bell Lake itself, to Balsam Lake. Andy and I made even made good use of an old tram-way maintained by Blue Mountain Lodge to haul our gear and canoe over rather than carry it on the portage.
We then made our way up Balsam Lake, going left of the tram-way and then all the way around to the northeast bay. A late lunch was had on the campsite to the right of Deacon Creek, followed by an easy paddle up the shallow creek leading into Deacon Lake (during low water levels a 825 meter (902 yards) portage, found in the small bay to the left to the entrance of Deacon Creek, can be used), and a short 210 meter (230 yards) marked portage into Fox Lake.
We were in new territory once we reached the far end of Fox Lake and Andy and I pulled the canoe up on a rocky point, just to the left of where Deacon Creek flows into Fox Lake, to look for a possible route. The good news was that we found the remains of an old lumber camp just a few feet in the bush, and a trail lead away from it, along the north side of Deacon Creek. The bad news is that the trail kept snug to a swampy bog for the first 200 meters (220 yards), went through some thick brush for another 200 meters (220 yards), and then over a dilapidated beaver dam to a rarely used trail measuring a good 1090 meters (1192 yards), before ending on Peter Lake. But there was a way through, and apart from having to backtrack quite a ways after attempting to navigate the unmanageable creek past the beaver dam (that was a huge mistake) and then making the wrong turn at a fork in the last quarter of the trail (we should have kept to your left), we were able to make camp before sunset on a tiny rock outcrop halfway down the south shore of Peter Lake.
By 8:00 a.m. the next morning we had packed up and we're searching for a possible way to Panache Lake. We were already informed that a 900-meter (984 yards) long ATV trail lead from the back of the hunt camp at the far end of the lake, and would get us to Panache Lake's East Bay. But we were determined to find the more traditional route into Hideaway Lake, which is actually a small inlet of Panache Lake. And a half-hour later, after drifting slowly along the far shore, Andy caught a glimpse of a dime, nickel and quarter resting a foot down, on the bottom of a small sand bar. He looked up from where the money had been dropped into the water, and there was a small blaze cut into a cedar tree. We had found the trail - an overgrown 410 meter (448 yards) path which eventually made its way to the southeast corner of Hideaway Lake.
Our paddle across Panache Lake was fantastic. It's a beautiful lake with only a handful of cottages developed on this side of the lake. And with only a slight breeze wafting across the surface of the lake, we made the trip from Archie Bay to Taylor Bay in just over an hour. The black flies and mosquitoes even seemed to calm down a little. We were still tormented by a heat wave (it had to be over 90 degrees Fahrenheit) and, worst of all, there was an outbreak of flesh flies to content with. This bothersome insect, commonly known as the "friendly fly" for its ability to swarm humans by the hundreds, is a natural (not introduced) parasite to the tent caterpillar. It looks like a large house fly, and thankfully doesn't bite. At one point I counted 68 clinging to Andy's back.
From Taylor Bay Andy and I made the decision to go south into Jackdaw Lake and check out a possible route back to the park by way of Gosehen Lake (our 1968 topographic map showed an 800 meter (875 yards) portage from the southeast end of Jackdaw to Gosehen).
We first completed a short lift-over into Jackdaw, and then stopped for lunch beside an old hunt camp along the left shore. Then we paddled to the far southeast corner of the lake and, to our surprise, found the beginning of a trail. It was a clear path at first, but at about the 100 meter (109 yard) mark it just seemed to vanish. There was a faint side trail to the right of a substantial wetland, but it was mostly clogged with downed trees and young saplings. We gave it a try anyway, and four hours later Andy and I had successfully hauled our gear to the shores of Gosehen Lake - a small, tea-colored pond equipped with one insignificant campsite located on top a chunk of marsh grass, beside a stagnant puddle full of breeding, blood-thirsty mosquitoes. Our night on Gosehen, however, wasn't too disappointing. Andy made double bush-martinis before dinner, a bull moose wandered through camp just before sunset, and two barred-owls called all night directly above our tent (I think they were having sex).
In the morning we treated ourselves to a hardy breakfast of bacon and eggs, and two pots of extra strong coffee, before, once again, drifting along the shoreline to look for a lost trail leading out of Gosehen. And we did. We'll kind of. We actually bushwhacked with a compass for 700 meters (765 yard), beginning in the first of three tiny inlets at the southeast end of Gosehen and ending up to the south side of marshy area at the top end of Pike Lake. A few trees had old blaze marks on them, and we even came across a few pieces of orange flagging tape. But there was no sign of any trial, and no reason to continue on. But we did anyway.
The ordeal reminded me of Albert Bigelow Paine's description of a portage in his 1908 classic The Tent Dwellers. "It will seldom be a path fit for human beingsA carry is meant to be the shortest distance between two given places and it doesn't strive for luxury. It will go under and over logs, through scratchy thickets and gardens of poison ivy; it will decent [sic] into pits; it will skin along the sharp edge of slippery rocksI believe it would climb a tree if a big one stood directly in its path."
From Pike Lake we had a decision to make. Obviously the route we just took wasn't the best way to tell other canoeists to hook back up with Killarney Park. But we definitely didn't want to suffer through it all over again to backtrack and find another way around. So, we made the decision to head north from Pike Lake and see if it was at all possible to link up by way of a small pond north of Harry Lake.
We took a marked 705 meter (771 yard) portage to Harry, located on the northwest corner of Pike Lake, which was darn easy since it actually was maintained and operated by the park as an actual portage. Then we had brunch on the center island of Harry Lake and took time to check out two commemorative plaques placed on a slab of granite across from the island campsite.
In Memory of
Johnstown, P.A. U.S.A.
who loved to fish these waters
Died Aug. 6 1935 Age 75
In Memory of
Aaro (Mike) Mikkola
who loved to fish and hunt in this area
Jul 2, 1911 - Feb. 24, 1962
There's no connection between the two plaques. The first one had actually fallen in the lake a number of years back after the rock point succumbed to a forest fire. It was later retrieved by a judge from the United States, fixed up, and then cemented into place by local guide, Dan Brown. The second plate was placed there to commemorate another sportsman who simply wanted a bigger marker than the first.
It was a good feeling spotting the two memorials on Harry because they gave a reason for people to once head over from Panache (Panache Lake was the hub of activity for sportsmen beginning in the early 1900s).
After lunch we packed up and paddled over to another marked portage (315 metes or 345 yard) into Frank Lake (more than a marshy pond than an actual lake) and then, tucked away in the northwest bay was a well worn trial. We hit the jackpot.
The portage, measuring approximately 550 meters (602 yard), split about three-quarters the way along. I took the right fork and Andy took the left. His was the best way; mine followed an old rock-bound creek bed.
Andy and I carried the canoe across the portage and paddled it around Brown's Bay for ten minutes, just to complete the loop in an honest fashion. We then to backtracked to Harry, and then Pike Lake. From there it was an afternoon of paddling to Balsam Lake where we planned on spending our last night before retracing our route back to Bell Lake access. Water levels were up on the creek between Pike and Balsam, reducing a 400 meter (337 yard) portage at the end of the creek to just a quick lift-over on one gigantic beaver dam.
Andy and I didn't make camp until dusk. We spent a little too much time watching three moose feed in the weedy shallows of the creek. So rather than cook an elaborate dinner around an open fire we resorted to erecting the bug shelter, sipped on a few bush-martinis and munched on cheese and crackers. While the sun set we sat back and watched the antics of a cow moose and calf attempting to free themselves from a deep puddle of swamp ooze across from our site, and then listened to two barred owls hoot back to one another in the dark forest of pine behind us. Andy and I were in our element, and we finally felt the spirit of this wild place - a fantastic piece of forgotten Killarney.
Time: 3-5 days
Number of Portage: 11
Longest Portage: 1090 meters (1192 yards)
Difficulty: Intermediate canoe tripping skills are required since this is not a regularly maintained route.
Access: Bell turn off Highway 637 on to Bell Lake Road, 38-kilometers (24 miles) in from the Highway 69 exit. The narrow road twists and turns for another 8 kilometers before coming to a T-intersection. Go left here and drive another kilometer to the designated parking area.
Alternative Access: Panache Lake Marina on the north shore. To get there turn south off Highway 17 onto Regional Road 55 (towards the town of Whitefish), just west of the Vermillion River bridge. Then, drive 1.5 kilometers and make a right onto Panache Lake Road (Regional Road 10). It's 13.5 kilometers (8 miles) to the marina. A moderate fee is required to launch your boat there. There is a public access just before the marina but parking is limited. Take note, however, you still need to pick up a camping permit from a regular park access station.
- Trip Duration: Extended Trip
- Skill Level: Advanced
- Water Type: Flat/Sheltered Water