“Be strong, O paddle! be brave, canoe!”
The Song My Paddle Sings by E. Pauline Johnson
If you read my previous post, you know that for my 40th birthday I decided to go on my first solo canoe trip in Killarney. Or should I say ended up going, because originally I planned backpacking in Algonquin. I even had sites booked on the Highland Trail. Backpacking seemed easier to execute and required less gear – just two feet and whatever fits into a backpack. Then, after our Killarney trip at the beginning of July, it became clear: I love canoeing way more than backpacking, I love Killarney, and hence I should go canoeing in Killarney. So two weeks before the trip I changed my reservation, got in touch with Killarney Kanoes to book my mode of transportation and started watching Bill Mason’s videos on how to paddle a solo canoe. After some deliberation I decided to go with a solo canoe instead of a kayak for a number of reasons: I prefer canoeing to kayaking, a canoe is easier to portage and easier to pack, i.e. you can just throw stuff in. As a bonus, ‘paddling my own canoe’ works as a figure of speech.
To be honest, after our failed excursion to Silver Peak during our previous trip, I was hoping to get a site somewhere close to the peak so I could finally complete that hike. However, with only two weeks before the trip, I was lucky I managed to book anything at all. I ended up reserving a site on Carlyle/Terry Lake for two nights. To get to Silver Peak, I would have had to paddle for four hours and then hike for two more. So I was looking at a 12-hour return trip at the very least, which is quite an undertaking even for two paddlers, let alone a first-time soloist. So I had to give up on that plan (although to be completely honest, not until I actually arrived in the park). Luckily, there was another trail to hike close to where I was staying but I will get to that later.
One of the advantages of staying at Carlyle/Terry was a short paddle to the campsite (about 40 minutes), which meant I had a clear exit strategy should things go wrong. It helped me feel less anxious and gave some peace of mind to my family. Being so close, it came with disadvantages. I could occasionally hear the road when paddling on Carlyle. Plus the southern side of Carlyle Lake is lined up with cottages. You can’t see them from Terry Lake because it’s tucked away but I could hear the motor boats on Saturday. On Sunday, almost everyone left so it was quiet. But I would imagine it gets pretty busy on long weekends.
And so it begins…
I left Toronto early on a Saturday morning. The roads were clear so it was smooth sailing all the way to Barrie. However, in all my excitement, I forgot to get gas, and the “empty tank” light went on just as I hit the 400/11 highway split. I was trying not to panic as I was picturing the often-travelled stretch of the highway between Barrie and Midland searching for any recollections of a gas station. I couldn’t remember any so my two options were to turn around and go back to Barrie or try my luck and do some exploring on one of the side roads. I got off at the next exit and started driving east eventually coming across Oro Medonte and a gas station. Crisis averted – I could breathe easier. Getting stuck on a highway with no gas would have slowed me down considerably, not to mention a dent to my “I can do it all on my own” resolve.
One thing that gave me pause when I was planning this trip was a drive to Killarney. Over four hours in the car all by myself didn’t sound very exciting. But with the help of CBC’s Ideas podcasts it wasn’t too bad. I arrived in the park close to 12. My first stop was Killarney Kanoes to pick up my backcountry permit (my canoe had already been delivered to the access point earlier that morning). Around one, I was at Carlyle access point.
I grabbed my vessel, which was extremely light and easy to carry because it was shorter and narrower than a tandem canoe, and took it to the water. And that’s when I was faced with a conundrum – with a metal pole on one side of the seat and a yoke on the other, there didn’t seem to be any space for my legs. After careful inspection, I discovered the yoke could be easily unscrewed so I didn’t have to squeeze my feet under it after all (that would have been embarrassing, not to mention impossible).
A fabulous campsite, all to myself
I quickly threw my stuff in and set out. I was in a bit of a hurry as I wanted to make sure I got a decent site. After reading several reviews, I knew site 55 was considered the best on the lake with 56 being a close second (some people rated 56 as number 1). Either way, I would be happy with either of those. So I was working hard to get to the site. On the way, I checked out 62, which seemed ok but I was looking for fabulous. After all, it was my birthday.
I paddled a short strait connecting Carlyle and Terry holding my breath for a big reveal. I could see almost right away a red cloth flapping in the wind at site 55, then made out a couple of tents – the site was taken although it was empty at the moment. I then paddled around 56 looking for any signs of human presence. It was hard to see because the site was so high up the rocks but it looked promising. After several tries I managed to get out of the canoe (I later found a much better put-in spot) and clambered up the rocks.
It was unoccupied, fabulous and all mine. As I was exploring the site, a group of young people in two canoes showed up looking for a place to set up camp. I’d beaten them by no more than half an hour so they ended up staying at 62.
I never got a chance to see site 55 up close but it must be absolutely amazing to be considered better than 56. First of all, 56 was huge, all open space and smooth rock with beautiful views all around. (The pictures of the site were taken on different days, hence, sky variations).
In the back, under the whispering pines, there was plenty of room for tents and a firepit.
A thunderbox was further into the woods, allowing for lots of privacy (not that I was concerned about it being all by myself) but still offering a glimpse of the lake through the trees.
Site 55 was supposed to have a waterfall but I couldn’t see any signs of it. It must have dried up because of the weather this summer. So really 55 had no advantage over the site where I was staying. My only concern was blueberry bushes carpeting the site. There were hardly any berries around but still, what if a bear decided to show up to check on it.
How to be alone
I didn’t feel scared by then, blueberries and all, but it did feel weird to be on my own. So I kept myself busy with camping chores, which needed to be done anyway. I set up my (or technically my older son’s) tent. I found a branch for a bear hang and it took me only three attempts to get the rope up. I collected firewood.
I then set up my kitchen far from the sleeping area and started making my very late lunch: ramen noodles with broccoli, mushrooms and eggs. It was quite fancy for a camping meal.
As I sat down to eat, my neighbours returned from their day trip. It was a group of four women, which was a bit of a relief.
Once the lunch was finished, dishes washed and the food hoisted on the tree, it was time for a swim. Another great thing about the site was swimming. From what I could see, there were some pretty deep spots for diving right off the rocks. And there were areas for people who prefer a smooth water entry like me.
I decided to go paddling afterwards and quickly discovered that it was hard to take pictures in a solo canoe unless the lake was absolutely still. Because the canoe is narrower and so light, every wisp of wind would just turn it around the moment I let go off the paddle. I gave up on the idea to take pictures and just worked on my ‘j’ stroke. Terry Lake isn’t big at all so eventually I decided to venture into Carlyle but the moment I approached it, I was whipped around. So I thought maybe it was the night to stay on land, do some writing and enjoy the campfire.
I made asparagus risotto with real asparagus and asiago for dinner. My new friend showed up to keep me company while I was eating.
The sunset wasn’t very promising that night, although it improved as it got darker. The almost full moon added to the ambience. And I finally managed to record the loon.
Eventually, I was driven into the tent by relentless mosquitoes. Plus I felt tired – it’d been a long day. I fell asleep listening to mosquitoes buzzing outside my tent and thinking about my husband and kids.
The ups and downs of being alone
The next morning I woke up before seven because the sun was beating right into the tent. (Note: if you are someone who likes to sleep in, set up your tent further back to get some shade in the morning). I thought I would open up the fly a bit to get some air and hopefully a little more shuteye.
I unzipped the tent door and saw this.
No sleep was possible after that. I quickly changed, grabbed some water and my camera, took a few pictures from the shore, hopped into the canoe and was gone.
I am not sure I can put into words the feeling of awe that morning. Nature trips lend themselves to a lot of awe-inspiring experiences all the time but it was something else. Spectacular, magical, ethereal… None of these words work. I kept taking pictures hoping they would make up for a lack of words. I even tried a video. But for the most part, I just sat there breathing it all in, meticulously etching this memory into my every cell.
Eventually, I paddled into Carlyle. This time the lake didn’t fight me. On the contrary, it felt as if I was gliding on top a perfectly smooth, polished glass, the world split in half, identical both above and beyond.
Or were those magical forest creatures dreaming along the shore?
I felt bad every time I had to disturb their reveries with my paddle.
I kept paddling until I reached almost the end of Carlyle where the perfect smoothness of the lake gave way to water lilies and entangled stems.
I hit a beaver damn and took it as a sign to turn back. I was feeling hungry and still had a long paddle to my campsite.
By then the mist had evaporated and the underwater world disappeared under the ripple. But the wind wasn’t too strong so an hour later I was back home. That whole adventure took over three hours and that’s when I really appreciated being by myself – I could just hop into the canoe and be gone for as long as I wanted to without having to worry if anyone was sleepy/tired/hungry/thirsty/etc.
I only met four people that morning: a lone kayaker enjoying the solitude, a father and daughter on their way to Johnnie Lake, and a young man skinny-dipping near site 62. He quickly pulled on his underwater the moment he saw me and then profusely apologized for being too loud the night before (I hadn’t even heard them).
Once back at the campsite, I made oatmeal and scavenged the campsite for blueberries (yes, that’s all I could find).
My neighbourbours across the lake were packing. It made me sad. Having women across the lake provided some security. Three guys arrived shortly after the women left and blasted music across the lake before they even unloaded the canoe. I find any sounds that haven’t originated in nature really annoying during camping (small doses of guitar and singing are okay as they are produced right on the spot and not exported from civilization and then amplified for everyone to hear). It was even more annoying on this trip when I was looking for some alone time. That moment also made me realize my vulnerable position – as a woman by myself I didn’t want to approach three dudes and ask them to keep it down. Luckily, they turned it off pretty quickly and I didn’t hear them again for the rest of the trip.
through the cracks
After breakfast, it was time to get cracking, i.e. head to the Crack. (See what I did there?) The Crack is one the most famous, if not the most famous spot in the park. We’d hiked it three times before, including this past winter and last summer. But that view never gets old. Plus it was close-by and realistic unlike Silver Peak.
To get to the Crack, I had to paddle to the end of Terry Lake (5 minutes), portage into Kakakise Lake (860 metres), paddle across Kakakise (about an hour) and then hike to the top (about 40 minutes). Portage was longish but not too hard once I figured out how to carry my day pack, camera, paddle, life jacket and canoe all in one go. The trail was dry and relatively mosquito-free but judging by the boardwalks in the middle, it probably gets muddy and buggy when it rains. There was a bit of an ascent at the end of the portage closer to Kakakise, which was even more difficult to tackle on the way down, when a canoe is harder to balance and keeps scratching the ground at the back. The last bit of it over roots and rocks was particularly challenging but doable.
After the portage, paddling was child’s play. During all our hikes to the Crack, I never realized how big and beautiful Lake Kakakise was. Killarney’s signature cliffs were now visible up ahead, something that was missing on Carlyle and Terry. I also learned that ‘kakakise’ means ‘mischievous old crow.’ (Jeff’s map is full of little nuggets like that.)
The lake has two campsites and a cottage on an island but I didn’t see any people until I reached the other end. I didn’t bother going all the way to the portage and found another spot where I could get on land. I tucked the canoe under the trees, changed into my hiking shoes and was on my way. There were quite a few people on the trail that day – a big difference from the morning when I saw so few.
I joined the trail at the point where it starts its steady ascent. Everyone who has hiked to the Crack knows that the last thirty minutes can be a hard trail to crack but the view from the top is all it’s cracked up to be (okay, okay, I will stop with the puns). One of the hikers that day summed it up very nicely. He showed up on the top, breathless and red in the face, then turned around and pronounced: “Now it all makes sense.”
That’s how I feel every time I reach the Crack. For the risk of sounding cheesy, I will say: every time I come here, I fall in love with the view as if for the first time. Because even though the landscape remains the same: same outlines of Killarney and O.S.A. Lakes, same white cliffs, same strip of Georgian Bay in the distance, same lone pine at the top of the Crack. However, the light, the colours, the mood and most importantly, your own inner landscape is always different. This time it looked serene, peaceful, with a hint of nostalgia.
It started raining when I was half way through Kakakise, large drops breaking up the quiet smoothness of the lake. I didn’t hurry back mesmerized by towering cliffs on both sides, swirly patterns on the rocks and twisted pines clinging to the vertical hard surface.
Luckily, the rain stopped by the time I reached my campsite and I had some time to make dinner. But it was back, stronger and more persistent, before I finished eating.
So I decided to turn in early. I set the alarm for 5:30 the next morning hoping it would clear up and I would get my birthday sunrise, and fell asleep listening to the rain.
Here comes the sun
When I woke up the next morning, things didn’t look promising. It seemed unlikely the sun would be able to break through the metallic shield of the sky. But I got out of the tent anyway, even though it was tempting to go back to sleep.
I set up the tripod and waited.
Eventually, all that waiting paid off. The grey fabric of the sky acquired a pinkish tint and showed rips and tears, fraying at the edges and growing bigger, the light streaming through them and bouncing of the lake surface.
Then the sun peaked through one of the holes, perfectly in tune with the song of the loon. Though very distant and subtle, that was the best rendition of ‘Happy Birthday to you’ I have ever heard.
Plus I had a handful of jewels scattered around the site to add to the festive mood.
Swimming was next on the agenda, followed by a long coffee ritual and breakfast. I was trying to postpone the packing and leaving moment as long as I could. But at some point, I had to get to it.
The paddle back to the access point was quick and uneventful. Around 10, I reached the parking lot.
I dropped the canoe near the sign, threw my gear into the car and was on my way back home. Only four podcasts separated me from my wonderful family.