Map is courtesy of Jeff's Map -- my route is marked in blue
Having had such a great time the previous year on the Big Trout Lake Loop in Algonquin, my Dad and I thought we'd tackle Killarney in August of 2019. After reading all of the hoopla about the main lakes of George, Killarney and O.S.A. lakes, we'd thought we'd give it a try and do the famous hike up to The Crack. Thinking if I'd log onto the ministry website to book the site at midnight exactly 5 months prior to the date we were planning to go on, I'd be able to make the booking. Wrong! I still didn't get in. So, we went to Plan B and decided to get into Killarney from the north and combine a couple of Kevin Callan's northern routes into one route and also get down into David Lake to view those wonderful white LaCloche mountain rocks.
So on a mid-August morning at around 8 am, we rocked up to Panache Bay Marina on the north shore of the gargantuan Lake Panache after spending a night at my aunt's camp (they don't call them 'cottages' in this neck of the woods) on Long Lake just outside of Sudbury. We couldn't have asked for better weather. The paddle across the northern and usually gusty expanse of the lake was relatively calm and we quickly made it to the 280m portage into Newton's Bay. It was a weekday and there were very few boats moving on the lake or people at their camps.
Moving around Potato Point and into Sawmill Bay we enjoyed the quiet of the atmosphere, the stunning shoreline and were greatly anticipating the trip that we had just begun, but we knew we were starting with a hefty portage of 2195 meters. Though it took a couple of hours because we were double tripping, it wasn't too bad. It was relatively flat, dry and well worn. Toward the Bassoon end of it we passed though a grove of massive hemlocks and we each gave them a hug to show how large these trees were. One of the benefits of double carrying on a portage is that you notice things like this on the walk back for the second load that you might miss carrying a canoe on your head.
At the put in at the east end of Bassoon Lake, we whipped up a quick lunch of summer sausage and cheese in a pita wrap. While munching on our midday feed, we noticed fish jumping out in the bay. Good Omen! Once we got out there we realized how shallow this entire back bay was. We quickly made a plan to get to our site, set up camp and get back out on the water with our rods. Heading around the point, we investigated the first site on the island in this bay. It wasn't anything to write home about so we decided to continue on to the next island site on the west part of the lake close to the High Lake portage. We were glad we did. This site was a gem -- high on a rock in a grove of pines with views of the lake all around.
Having set up our camp, we headed east back toward the portage to do some fishing. The afternoon began to cloud up and the fish were not jumping anymore. We didn't have any luck and went back to camp for a dinner of steak and ceasar salad. The clouds stayed in and we thought we weren't going to get much of a sunset, but as the sun dipped below the cloud ceiling we were treated to some nice westward views over the western bay of Bassoon through the trees on our site. I love that effect when the lake looks like it's on fire.
I woke up earlier than Dad and was happy to see the sun shining. When I looked northward over the bay, fish were jumping everywhere. I got excited! I hopped in the canoe with my rod and tackle box and almost immediately caught a smallie of considerable size. Getting him on the stringer and thinking of having a fish fry for breakfast, I continued fishing and caught a few more. While getting another one in that I wanted to add to the stringer, the fish that was already on it gave a splash of his tail and darted away, stringer and all, just as I had untied it. When I jerked to try to retrieve it, the fish that I had just taken off my line flopped hard in the boat and out and over the gunwale and back into the lake. In one impressive boneheaded move, I lost two good fish. I had a good laugh over that one. Hearing my dad up and about now, I headed back to camp and made breakfast, after which he joined me and we eventually caught some to eat.
We had booked to stay that night on Bear Lake, which was only a couple of hours of paddling and portaging away, so it was nice to spend the morning fishing on Bassoon. It seems to see little canoe tripping traffic and it was great having the lake all to ourselves. A man did appear out of nowhere mid-morning in a motorized fishing boat and was fishing up and down the north shore, however. Not seeing any structures at all on the lake, my guess was that he was coming up from the fishing camp on Bear Lake. He was respectful in not fishing or put-putting around our site even though fish were jumping all around it.
About 25 feet south of our island site, I cast out my lure and noticed something huge going after it. My first immediate thought was that I was about to hook into a 25 lb Guiness World Record smallmouth, then realized it was a turtle of very considerable size. I quickly reeled in my line not wanting to hook it. As it got closer to the boat, I noticed the underside of it was very yellow, unlike any other snapper that I have seen. Later, after some googling, I think it might have been a Blanding's Turtle. I am still not sure though, because it seemed very large and had the shape of a snapper. It disappeared into the depths of the lake before I could snap a pic.
Before noon we were packed up, loaded and heading for the portage into High Lake. My dad wanted to give one last cast before leaving Bassoon and in doing so hooked into a real fighter. It turned out to be the largest catch of the trip and probably was upwards of 4 lbs. It took him a good 10 minutes or so to get that fellow in. Exciting!
The portage into High was easy and flat. There are fishing boats on either sides of these portages from Bear. Some were from a camp on Lang Lake which is quite a distance from Bassoon, which makes me think the fishing on Bassoon must be special. It was for us. High Lake is not much bigger than a pond and nothing to write home about. We didn't fish at all there. The portage into Bear was a steep descent, but well-used and sat adjacent to a small waterfall. We paddled the length of Bear, grateful for only a light headwind, and knew we found our spot for the night on site 219 on a point on the south side of the lake. Two-for-two with finding amazing sites so far. On a point but nestled in a fantastic pine grove, we had wind and sun protection, an incredible view of the entire expanse of the lake, and due to the fact that there are very few sites on the lake, we felt we had this amazing place to ourselves, despite the odd fishing boat that went by now and again. Getting to the site early in the afternoon allowed us to cook a nice lunch, set up the hammock and relax for the day. Glorious.
Swimming off the deep rocks, reading in the hammock and tents, and exploring the site was the rest of our day. The wind had picked up somewhat by late afternoon and we were happy just to enjoy this magnificent lake that was ours for the day from our site. After a meal and a short paddle, I fished a bit in the back bay near us, but didn't have much luck. Soon, we retired to the firepit and enjoyed some whiskey and the beautiful sunset. Nestled in our tall grove of pines, we felt at home on this cozy northern Ontario August evening, devoid of biting critters.
On the morning of Day 3, again I was up and casting away from the canoe while my dad snoozed in his tent. At first, I began skirting the shore just up from our site but soon noticed to the north, in the main expanse of the lake, that fish were jumping. And when I say jumping, I mean constantly and all over. There was a little rock island near there and as I paddled closer through the clear water, I noticed that the lake was only about 10-15 feet deep in most of this huge bay. I have never seen so many bass jumping all over the place at the same time. I was anxious to get at them, but as luck would have it, on my second cast, my line got into a formidable tangle. It took a good 15 to 20 minutes to untangle it, all the while fish were jumping around me. Finally done, I started to get into them. I then heard Dad calling from the site. I paddled over and he was also ready to go with his rod. We fished for the next hour or so and caught a number of good-sized bass. Wanting to get moving soon, we practiced catch and release, but had a whole lot of fun doing it.
Heading back to the site, we had a quick oatmeal breakfast, broke camp and were travelling south on Bear Lake by 10 am. Rounding the bend, passing the fishing camp and into the bay at the south-eastern tip of the lake, we soon made it to the 285 m portage into Goose Lake. Here was a sign telling us that we were entering into Killarney Park proper. Bear and Bassoon are in a separate, but later-attached part of the park with different park restrictions. Goose Lake is a shallow and weedy lake which looked like it might be a haven for pike, but we were anxious to press ahead to our site on Fish Lake, so we didn't cast a line. There was supposed to be a lodge on the lake but I never noticed it. The 585m portage into Round Otter Lake was a little confusing and hot. It followed a shallow and muddy creek and went through tall reeds. We thought we lost the trail once, but were able to pick it back up. We eventually crossed a large beaver dam and the creek looked deep enough for us to get back in and paddle. 5 minutes later we came to a T-junction and we made a hard right into Round Otter. Just before entering the lake, we came within a paddle's length of a hiding otter that darted into the water under our canoe with a splash. It scared the living bejesus out of me! Maybe he's the guy the lake is named after! Another 100 m portage on the far side of this lake took us to a shallow and weedy pond that looked daunting but was actually relatively easy to get through. By the look on my Dad's face, he wasn't looking forward to it.
After the pond was another 285 m portage on which we surprised a family of grouse. When they flutter away, they never fail to make me jump! It was an easy one and opened up to a rocky point on the west end of Fish Lake, which is long and narrow and therefore windy. Luckily for us, as is mostly the case in the summer, the wind was coming from the west and was at our backs as we were heading east. That always gives the warm fuzzies to a canoe tripper.
There are only 2 sites on Fish and we were aiming for the most eastern island site. We passed the first site which was vacant. It was perched high on a rocky cliff on the north shore of the lake. We didn't stop and get out, but I'm guessing the views from the site would be good, though I wouldn't want to walk down those rocks regularly to gain access to the lake. We happily found that the island site was vacant and a nice one. Three-for-three! It was mid-afternoon and we were hungry, so we jumped into lunch and then set up camp. Not long after that we heard some people coming down the lake and they were aiming for our site. Upon seeing us, the family headed back for the cliff site. By early evening, the wind died and the lake was like glass. We fished the southeastern shore and caught a couple of bass but were only in it for the sport and didn't keep any.
The island that we were staying on was actually two islands separated by a narrow little marshy bit. Our site was on the east side of the island. In the afternoon we explored the island and right next to the beach we found the skeletal remains of an animal. There was also some light-coloured fur near it. Looking at the size and the skull, it looked to be a rather large mammal of some sorts, most likely a deer. Maybe a high speed chase through the forest, and the deer swam to the island in the hopes of escaping a predator, but was unlucky to discover that the hunter was a faster swimmer?
That night we made bush pizza with summer sausage on naan bread - yum, except that I burnt it a bit. We had another great night by the camp fire and got into some whiskey, but never too much! The next morning it rained. But not too hard. Knowing we had a monster portage ahead of us that day, we got up and at it early. We quickly made it to the portage into Great Mountain Lake. Just left of the take out at the portage was an abandoned cabin that has seen better days. I peeked inside but dared not enter.
The rain kicked it up a notch just as we started the portage. Though it is listed as a 440m portage, it travels up a steep incline of about 60 feet and felt longer. About half way up, some teenagers from a camp out on a week-long trip passed us going the other direction and began warning us of low water levels in the weedy bay where our put in was. One young lad exclaimed that it took over 30 minutes to get through only a couple of hundred meters of muck. Worried, we continued up to the put in and had a look for ourselves. It did indeed look ugly, but in reality wasn't too bad once we got into the canoe from a very precarious log we had thrown down. With a little elbow grease, we half-paddled, half-poled our way through in about 10 minutes.
Great Mountain Lake gets a lot of fanfare in its write ups. The rain had stopped by the time we got into the main section of the lake and the lake was like glass. It really was a pretty spot with the Lacloche mountains dominating its southern shore, albeit a bit gloomy on this particular cloudy day. At the time of booking I tried to get on this lake, but no such luck. I vowed to come back and spend some more time at this lovely spot.
Not too far from the muddy take out and into the main part of the lake, we spotted another abandoned old cabin on the northeastern shore. We contemplated stopping in and poking around but the 3km portage was looming and tempting our mettle. We pressed on.
The 2780 m portage out of Great Mountain did its impression of the Macho Man Randy Savage by picking us up and suplexing us from the outset. The portage immediately begins with a mountain to climb. Right out of the gate from the lake is an upward vertical assault for the first 100 meters or so. It then tapers off for a bit and soon has you continuing the stairway to heaven until you are standing on a giant mound of white quartzite after about 1000 meters in. One is literally traversing the Lacloche mountains on this carry. The forest is spectacularly beautiful though with some more giant hemlocks along the way. We made a leapfrog stop at the summit and went back for our second trip of gear. After descending the mountain south, the trail turns east and follows a weedy creek, parts of which can apparently be paddled in high water. The path becomes quite rocky and one must watch one's footing carefully as to avoid a twisted ankle or worse. It then starts elevating again up a very steep rise only to come back down as it nears David Lake. It wasn't the worst portage I have been on, but it is known to be one of the more difficult ones in the park. We passed a family coming the other way who looked liked they might have been on the trail since the late 90s. One of the daughters had a murderous look in her eyes, so I avoided eye-contact and quickly moved on. At the put in on the west end of David, a large group of people in their 20s was starting the portage. I tried not to laugh when one young man asked me if they could put the portage behind them in a half hour or so. I told him he could try!
David Lake was pretty and we were worried about finding a site. We could immediately see why it was one of the more popular lakes in the park. It was still raining on and off and we could see plumes of camp fire smoke emanating from various shore locations. It was mid afternoon and we were hoping to stay in this west bay so that we could easily access the Silhouette Trail later that day. We were very thankful to find that site 104 was vacant. It was nestled in a lovely protected shade of pine and birch on the southern shore. We didn't have any views of the Lacloche mountains but it was super close to the take out for the Silhouette Trail and was spacious on a lovely bed of pine needles. As it was raining, I quickly set up the tarp next to the fire pit to dry some firewood and as soon as I finished, the clouds broke and the sun came out. Go figure. My tarp efforts were not in vain though. They did elicit a comment from a couple of elderly passers-by, who upon seeing my tarp work exclaimed appreciatively from their canoe, "Nice installation!" This became our catch phrase for the remainder of the trip.
We made an early supper and were back on the lake and at the portage to Boundary Lake, which leads up to the Silhouette Trail, by 6 pm. Upon spotting the take out, we were aghast. There had to have been 20 canoes pulled up on the rocky beach. There was literally no room to land our canoe! Eventually a group who was returning from the Silver Peak hike got in their boats and left us some room to beach our canoe.
The Silhouette Trail leads to Silver Peak which is the highest point in the park. In fact, it is the highest point in the entire Lacloche Range -- one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world at a ripe age of 3.5 billion years old! We had originally planned to fit the hike into our trip but we were only able to book one night on David Lake which did not afford us enough time to do the entire 10km round trip to the pinnacle and back. But desperately wanting to get a peek at those gleaming white Lacloche mountains, we compromised and hiked up to the first look out over Boundary Lake. We were not disappointed. The view over Boundary Lake was stunning.
As was the view of Silver Peak in the distance.
Reluctantly leaving that view, we made our way back down to the canoe and paddled back to camp. Seeing only a tiny part of the Silhouette Trail was one of the highlights of the trip and I knew I would be back to see more of it in the future. We had another great night by the fire pit and enjoyed campfire popcorn, with a tipple of whiskey. It was mid August and at night the temperature tends to drop in northern Ontario as a harbinger of what's to come in the near future. This was one of those nights. This makes for some fantastic mist coming off the lake in the mornings.
We paddled out to the northeast end of David Lake through some very pretty channels dotted with white quartz, glancing back at Silver peak from time to time to remember the view. It was now enshrouded in mystery. Or maybe they were just clouds.
The portage into Balsam Lake descends through...well... a forest of balsam trees. It's an easy and very well-trodden path. Once on Balsam we continued in a northeastern direction to find the portage to Pike Lake in a weedy back bay. Here the forest changed somewhat and a lot more birch trees appeared. The put in at Pike is actually a very weedy creek. We tried our hand at fishing but it was tough going without getting snagged in the gazillion lilly pads all over the place. Moving northwest we got out into the more open part of the lake. I got a couple of smallies and my father hooked into a tiny pike. Seeing a group of canoes coming up the creek behind us, we pressed on, wanting to get first dibs on the island site on Harry Lake. We ran into the group on the portage when we came back for our second trip of gear and discovered it was two families with very young children. It's great to see families introducing their kids to the wilderness at such a young age.
Harry Lake is a pretty lake and is divided into two sections by the island that has the campsite. There is plaque on the channel west of the island, right across from our campsite, dedicating the spot to a fellow who fished there often in his lifetime. The site was nice, sitting up on a rock high off the north side of the island. On this particular afternoon, however, the wind was howling and we were quite exposed, especially on the two tiny tent pads on the southwestern side of the island. I tried fishing a bit around the island and had no luck. It was difficult to get anywhere else around the lake with the wind up. In case the wind was bringing clouds, we strung up the tarp near the fire pit. Another nice installation!
The wind howled through the night and did not appear to want to let up in the morning. On the plus side, it was sunny. After a quick oatmeal breakfast, we packed up and began our long paddle to our vehicle. The portage into Frank Lake was easy but a bit buggy. A quick paddle across the tiny Frank Lake took us to the 500m portage into Brown's Bay at south end of Panache Lake. Here we seemed to take a wrong trail and ended up heading down an ATV trail that might have been on private property. It emerged at a dock in Brown's Bay. From here we started the 3 hour paddle across the entire expanse of Panache. In the southern bays we managed to evade most of the wind but once we passed Pine Island in the north and got that West Wind coming in from the massive western arm of the lake, the wind was pretty much a gale force. Since it was only shortly after noon, we didn't want to be wind bound all day and decided to chance the crossing. We made it across with only a couple of close capsizing calls, but I definitely knew what it felt like to be a yo-yo by the end of it.
Grabbing a couple of well-deserved junk food snacks for the car, we made our way back out to highway 17, down 69 and enjoyed a tasty plate of burger and fries at the French River Trading Post on the way home. The north end of Killarney is amazing and we were satisfied with the fantastic trip we had; I can't wait to get back there again.