Back in our home country, there is a superstition that the way you ring in the new year determines how you spend it. So for the past six years or so, we have been heading into the woods to spend the first minutes of January 1st around a campfire. And it seems to be working: we have had no shortage of campfires and incredible camping moments for the rest of the year.
New Year’s celebration in the woods, however, requires a bit of preparation. Five months, to be exact, since reservations for Ontario Parks open five months in advance. That’s the end of July, hardly a time to be thinking about winter and New Year. Last year around that time, we were on our way to hike the Western Uplands Trail. So by the time, we re-emerged from Algonquin’s interior, all roofed accommodations at Ontario Parks were booked. As I tried to decide whether we should go camping in a tent or go for our backup winter destination, Allegany State Park just south of the border (with over 150 cabins, we have never had problems booking one even last minute), I kept checking the Ontario Parks website hoping somehow an available yurt will show up. And time after time the map was covered in red dots as if mocking me. Until one day, Killarney’s dot turned green. I first thought that was a glitch in the system but then I checked and found a new cabin. With years of campsite reservation practice under my belt, I had it booked under a minute. We now had a cabin for New Year’s, in Killarney no less.
As December rolled in with its double digit temperatures, I kept checking the weather network hoping for a trace of snow. We would have loved spending time in Killarney in any weather but snow for New Year’s felt more appropriate. Instead, Twitter and Facebook was filled with pictures of people still canoeing in Killarney’s interior. When December 28th finally brought the first snowfall of the season, I called the park to double check the skiing conditions and then started calling MEC in Barrie to see if we could rent cross-country ski packages (since it’s on the way to Killarney it would have been a more convenient location than Toronto downtown). An apologetic girl on the phone told me they didn’t rent skiing equipment just yet since resorts near Barrie hadn’t received enough snow coverage. The fact that we were going north somehow didn’t matter. Seriously, do they think we would ski on bare ground? I swallowed my disappointment and decided we’d find other things to do. Also, resolved that we need to start saving to buy our own skis.
That wasn’t the end of it, though. The day before our departure, the park superintendent called to let us know that Hydro One wouldn’t be able to finish the necessary work so there would be no electricity in the cabin. He assured that it wouldn’t affect the heat since the cabin had a gas fireplace and offered to set-up a generator for things like lighting and coffee-maker. I didn’t really care about that since I’d rather sit in the dark and make my coffee outside than listen to the generator. In the end, Hydro One managed to finish the work and we had the luxury of electrical light, coffee-maker, kettle and microwave, all included in the cabin.
We left bleak and almost snowless Toronto early on December 31st. Small patches of snow started getting bigger somewhere north of the city until we encountered full-blown winter around Parry Sound.
When we arrived, Killarney had at least a foot of snow and a perfect temperature of slightly below zero. We checked in at the office, bought some firewood, loaded sleds with our gear and set out in search of our home for the next three days.
(Since roads in the park aren’t plowed in the winter, cars need to be parked near the office and all the gear has to be transported in a sled from that point on (about 500 metres). Heated washrooms are located in the park office as well so with every trip to the bathroom we got a bonus one-kilometre walk.)
Cabin in the woods
While I prefer backcountry to organized campgrounds, I can occasionally indulge in glamping, especially in the winter. And our cabin in Killarney was glamping at its best. Settled in the woods against the backdrop of a rock, it looked all cozy and inviting, especially at night. The cabin is located away from the yurts on a dead-end road so we were on our own during our time there. Well, except for squirrels and blue jays.
We have stayed at one of the yurts in Killarney before but a camp cabin is new to this park, in fact it looked like we were its first occupants. Everything was so shiny and fresh. Upon inspection, the only old thing we found was a rusty dust pin.
The cabin had rustic wood interior and a gas fireplace, which was one of my favourite features. However, except for a couple of hours in the morning and evening, we didn’t even need to turn on the heat since it was so warm inside.
There was a queen bed and a double/single bunk bed, a small kitchenette with a microwave, coffee-maker, kettle and mini-fridge as well as a table with two chairs. There was also a large storage box, which doubled as additional seating area and a place to hide and read books.
In front of the cabin, there was a large veranda with two Muskoka chairs, where we kept a lot of our gear and food. Outside, there was a large deck with a gas BBQ, a fire ring and a picnic table.
New Year’s Eve
Once we settled in our cabin and had some snacks, it was already getting dark. We grabbed our flashlights and headed for a walk around the campground. We walked down to George Lake remembering our canoe trip to O.S.A. Lake back in the summer.
When we got back, we still had plenty of time before the year change so we played two rounds of the Mexican Train domino game and then started making diner. By nine, our last meal of the year was ready.
We toasted to 2015 remembering all of its wonderful moments, and once we were done eating, headed outside to start a campfire and await the arrival of 2016. Our younger son usually falls asleep by the time the clock arm reaches 12. This time around he was able to join in the fun: the campfire, the countdown, the “Happy New Year!”, chilled campaign/juice, and a family picture, of course. The one at exactly 12 didn’t turn out very well so the one below was taken two minutes into 2016.
The first day of 2016: snow fort, Granite Ridge Trail and Settlers of Catan
We woke up to a fresh layer of snow. While my husband cooked breakfast, our younger son started building some kind of structure using a recycling bin to mold bricks. After two days, it turned into a seating area around the campfire.
The older one was still asleep after noon. Well, he is a student so he is well trained to sleep for most of the day.
After we got him out of bed and had brunch, we decided to tackle the Granite Ridge Trail. It is located right across the road from the park office and is about two kilometres long.
The first section of the trail was more or less flat and ran through a red pine plantation and a birch grove. Pines in neat, straight rows reminded us of similar plantations in Restoule and Neys. That kind of order and precision felt very out of place in the forest where beautiful imperfection usually rules.
Eventually, we got to the remnants of an old car. Normally, I would consider an object like that an eyesore in the woods but it looked almost beautiful in its last stages of collapse. It also demonstrated the fragility of our man-made world compared to the vigour of nature around it.
Shortly after that, the trail started crawling up, ultimately getting us to some incredible views of Georgian Bay and La Cloche Mountains. By then, the sky had cleared up a bit and the sun made an occasional appearance through the clouds.
Small things along the way were just as fascinating as the sweeping views from the top: fungus patterns on rocks, a small water pool filled with autumn leaves, deer tracks.
As always, our younger son found ways to make the hike even more exciting. For instance, he discovered that smooth, snow-covered boulders were excellent for sliding. Showering in snow was another favourite activity of his.
By the time we finished the trail, the sun was preparing to slide behind the horizon. We managed to catch its last pink traces over George Lake.
We ate veggie burgers for dinner, had a bit of campfire time and then spent the rest of the evening playing our new Settlers of Catan expansion, Explorers and Pirates. The game was long (over three hours) and a bit dramatic. Around eleven I had to invoke my parental authority and put a stop to it even though we were only halfway through. We agreed to leave the board in exact same position and pick up the game the next night. However, there was a lot of huffing and puffing from the upper bunk as our younger son was settling in for the night.
January 2, 2016: hike to the Crack, more campfires, more Settlers of Catan
The next morning, he kept giving me hurt, icy looks, which softened a bit after we made the boys’ favourite power breakfast (pictured below, recipe can be found here).
The iciness melted away completely once we hit the trail to the Crack later that day. On the way back, he suggested we end the game, proclaim his brother the winner since he had the most points by then, and play a different, more complicated version. So that was the end of the drama. We played another game later that night, and I won.
But back to the Crack. The Crack is exactly that – a huge crack in the rock. It is one of the most famous locations in the park and offers great views of Killarney. It can be accessed from George Lake Campground via La Cloche Silhouette Trail (about 8 km one way) or from Highway 637. The latter one is much shorter, only about six kilometres return trip. Yet those who have hiked it know that this trail has some pretty steep climbs. Those sections were even more challenging with snow cover and slippery rocks. The last leg of the hike through the actual crack was the most difficult part since at that point the trail runs over a pile of large rocks and boulders. With snow covering gaps and cracks between the rocks, lots of probing and caution was required to make sure our feet didn’t end up in one of those gaps. But, at least, there were no mosquitoes!
In the end, we all agreed that the climb was worth it. Well, almost all of us. Our older son had slightly mixed feelings about the hike. But even he couldn’t deny that the views from the top were beautiful.
We have hiked to the Crack a couple of times: once in the fall a few years ago and then again this past summer during our interior canoe trip.
In the winter, the park down below looked completely transformed: partly frozen lakes and dark green pines amid otherwise bare forest set against even whiter than usual, snow-covered mountain tops.
On our way to and from the Crack, we stopped to enjoy the view of Kakakise Lake and break some ice, of course, because according to our younger son, very few things in life are more fun than breaking ice.
We found some signs of pretty vigorous beaver activity.
There were also running brooks, frozen lakes, white birches with their skin flapping in the wind and evergreen pines.
January 3, 2016, the last day of our trip
On my morning run to the bathroom, I discovered that it was much colder than the previous few days. The bright sun, deep blue sky and crispy snow under my feet made up for the low temperatures.
We didn’t really want to leave so we took our time packing and cleaning the cabin. We loaded the sleds and started our trip back to the car.
Once that was done, we took a walk around the campground. The campsites were sleeping under a thick snow blanket preparing for a busy camping season up ahead.
Tree shadows created the most beautiful paintings on the white canvas of the snow.
We made our way to the lake. It was eerily quiet: no canoes, no summer crowds, no splashing waves.
Our son made a few runs down the hill but then got distracted by the ice on the lake. It wasn’t thick enough to walk on so he tried breaking through it along the edge.
On our way back home, there was one more thing on our list: our traditional, post-camping fish and chips dinner. The famous Herbert Fisheries in Killarney was, unfortunately, closed for the season but we remembered about Henry’s Fish Restaurant in Midland. We had stopped there on our way back from Killbear back in September. We were the only customers that night but it was open and the food was just as delicious as we remembered it.
So that was a great start of the year. Now here is to an adventure-filled 2016!