We scramble up a hill, through a thick forest, in search of a rock. In a sea of boulders, stones and pebbles of various sizes and forms, the mission may seem strange, not to mention futile. This, however, is no regular rock. Known as Carmichael’s Rock, of Franklin Carmichael fame, this particular chunk of Killarney’s signature quartzite was immortalized in a 1934 photo featuring the Group of Seven artist perched on a rocky cube against a magnificent backdrop of Grace Lake framed by La Cloche Mountains. Even though numerous Group of Seven aficionados have made this trip before us, there is no actual trail leading to it. With no directions, apart from a starting point the host at Widgawa Lodge showed us on the map and some stacked rocks along the way, we stumble along determined to find this piece of Canadian art history. Lots of sweat later, some blood, but luckily no tears, we finally arrive. The rock in front of us definitely looks like the one in the picture. But what’s even more telling is the view that opens up behind it. I can see what Carmichael meant by “a landscape … rich in inspiration … and full of inherent possibilities…”
Landscape that moves us
Killarney was a special place for the Group of Seven and for many artists before and after them. Three of the Group members – Jackson, Casson and Carmichael – were instrumental in the creation of the park when they learned about a potential logging project around Trout Lake. The lake has since been renamed O.S.A. (after the Ontario Society of Artists) to recognize their contributions to preserving this magnificent land.
Franklin Carmichael, the youngest member of the group, was especially in love with the park. Killarney’s famous multi-day backpacking trail is actually named after one of his paintings – La Cloche, Silhouette. For a while, he lived in a cabin on Cranberry Bay near the north-west corner of Killarney and made frequent trips to Grace and Nellie Lakes. On one of those trips, he was captured in that famous photo together with a rock that now attracts people eager to walk in the footsteps of the Group of Seven.
That wasn’t our goal when we booked this year’s canoe trip to Killarney. In fact, I knew nothing about Carmichael’s Rock when, after hours of researching possible summer destinations, I landed on someone’s post about Nellie Lake. Just one portage away from Grace, Nellie Lake is famous for its exceptionally clear blue waters. (Isn’t all water blue, you ask? More about that later). My interest was piqued. Unfortunately, all three sites on the lake were already booked so I reserved a campsite for three nights on the nearby Grace Lake. We were going back to Killarney!
“Where do I find the words to describe the beauty that is Killarney?” That’s how I started one of my posts a few years ago. I still struggle for words that would capture the full depth and breadth of reverence and wonder I experience every time I glimpse the wavy outlines of its white cliffs interspersed with splashes of blue in-between. In times like that, I envy artists who can pour their emotions on canvas and reach for my camera willing the lens to see what I see and hoping it can translate at least some of my awe into pixels.
Signature Killarney view: Grace Lake surrounded by La Cloche Mountains
This time was no different. Grace Lake, one of, if not the most beautiful lake we’ve ever stayed on, was the embodiment of everything I love about Killarney: cool waters dotted with islands, balding La Cloche Mountains, crooked pines clinging to white rocks. It was reminiscent of the O.S.A. lake, yet smaller, therefore its beauty more compact and intense. I could see why Carmichael kept painting it over and over again.
Grace Lake is one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever camped
Grace Lake’s many islands
Landscape that makes us move
Beauty like that requires some work, of course. Our trip started at Widgawa Lodge, just south of Espanola, off highway 6 that connects TransCanada Highway with Manitoulin Island. The friendly (that’s what Widgawa means according to Jeff’s Map) place used to be a gold miners’ base camp a hundred years ago before it became a holiday resort and boasts another Group of Seven artist, A. J. Casson, among its guests. These days the Lodge offers camping and cabins, and serves as a western access point to Killarney. It has canoe rentals, provides parking (at a cost) and issues Killarney backcountry permits. And if you’d like to skip all the paddling, you can order a water taxi that will whisk you right to your first portage.
Widgawa Lodge serves as a western access point to Killarney
That, of course, isn’t our style because paddling to our destination is half the fun. So once we got our permit and canoe, and loaded the gear, we set out in the direction of the park. We followed a meandering West River down to Charlton Lake, then turned south towards Frood and Cranberry Bay, all connected into a big, narrow body of water. That means no portages but can also create problems on windy days. We hit a bit of a rough patch at the entrance to Frood Lake but for the most part the water was smooth and calm. I wish I could say the same about our return trip, which brought us more than two hours of paddling into the wind and waves.
Selfie time before we start packing
And we are ready to go
First leg of our trip – so far so good
First glimpse of La Cloche Mountains – always an exciting moment
Surprisingly, even with additional challenges, the trip back took us less time, probably because it required constant paddling for the risk of getting flipped or turned around. Whereas, on that sunny Friday morning we took our time getting to the portage: we leisurely paddled through Cranberry Bay enjoying the surroundings and stopping to observe a family of loons. Was it the excitement over seeing baby loons for the first time that kept us rooted (anchored?) in one spot for half an hour, or were we postponing the portage time? While the only portage of the day, at 1770 meters it was the longest we had to do to date. I definitely wasn’t looking forward to lugging our food barrel across it. Sitting in a canoe while watching tiny, fluffy loons follow their parents and listening to their gentle talk was a much more pleasant way to spend time. Eventually, the loon family left and a couple of campers caught up with us so it was time to hit the trail if we wanted to get the best site on Grace Lake.
Family of loons on Cranberry Bay
Not that there are bad campsites on Grace Lake. All three of them looked pretty decent but I had one site in mind. Did we get it? Well, you’ll have to keep reading.
The other campers didn’t know there were three campsites so were visibly rattled when they learned we were going to Grace Lake as well. “Isn’t there just one site?” asked one of the guys quickly pulling stuff out of the canoe. I was tempted to say: “Yes, and now we will have to race for it,” but that would have been mean. So I assured him that with three sites we’d all have a place to set up our tents. That didn’t mean the race wasn’t on, I noted to myself, and at first it looked like we were losing it. The guys were the first to pack and go, while we took our time readjusting and repacking to ensure everything was securely in place with as few separate items and bags as possible. Nothing worse than having random stuff slide down and bang against various parts of your body, especially on a long portage like this.
Taking a break along the portage to Grace Lake – how much longer?
That strategy paid off in the end. The moment we came across our competitors’ tent barely 100 metres into the portage, one of the many items they abandoned along the way, I knew we had it in the bag. I know it doesn’t matter how you portage as long as you manage to get yourself in one piece and your stuff in however many pieces you can to the other side. Still, I was pretty tickled we did in one go.
After that, it was only a short paddle to campsite 179, our cozy home for the next three days. It featured a gorgeous view and a beautiful rocky ledge from which we could enjoy it. The ledge was also great for reading, eating and conversing with turtles. And that’s where we observed our fellow campers paddling towards the next campsite as we polished a well-deserved tub of hummus with crackers.
Our campsite on Grace Lake
View of our campsite from the water
Lots of time spent reading and enjoying delicious meals with a view
Pancakes with maple syrup because why not
More yummy foods
Our favourite spot
Reading by the water, reading in a hammock
Reading by the fire
Our trip happened right before the fire ban
Pitas with melted cheese to go with our minestrone soup
The first night brought a severe thunderstorm. A not-so-distant thump-thump of thunder woke me up, just in time to zip up the fly right before the sky got unzipped releasing torrents of water onto our tent. At first, I tried to count the time between lightning bolts and claps of thunder but had to give up when the world outside turned into a disco club complete with strobe lights and nonstop drumming. It wasn’t the worst storm we’ve experienced while camping; still it was hard not to think about the fact that nothing but thin fabric separated us from all the drama outside.
Our tent survived the storm
Ever so reliable, our tent didn’t let us down this time either. In the morning, the world welcomed us – all shiny and clean with no signs of last night’s storm. Looked like our trip to Nellie Lake could go as planned. We made breakfast and ate it in our dining room with a view.
But before we even finished the dishes, the drumming was back. It wasn’t clear which way the storm was moving so we decided to wait a bit – nothing worse than getting caught in a thunderstorm in the middle of the lake.
Good thing we did. Not much happened at first. The lake was smooth as glass, upside down hills, pines and islands hanging under the surface. After about an hour, we started wondering whether we should pack some snacks and head to Nellie. Five minutes later the glass of the lake broke into millions of tiny shards, the wind whipped them up into the air and carried towards the shore. The clouds that up until now were only grazing the treetops to the west suddenly expanded and sucked in every bit of light bringing night in the middle of the day. Nature’s rage was a terrifying yet mesmerizing sight.
Will it rain?
Looks like the storm is getting closer
Those clouds don’t look good
Nature’s fury is a terrifying and mesmerizing sight
Ten minutes later, everything was over. Not a single drop of rain fell. The light pushed the darkness away in the direction of Nellie Lake. Our plans needed readjustment: looked like a good day to find that piece of rock.
Over the hills
I am a mountain person at heart: something about the way mountains can lift me up to the sky, while also keeping me firmly grounded and humbled by majestic expanses beyond the horizon. That love could probably be traced back to my first backpacking trips in the Carpathian Mountains. And that could explain my soft spot for Killarney. After all, La Cloche Range is the closest we have to mountains in Ontario.
Indigenous people believe that rocks are our grandfathers, spirits of our ancestors. It’s hard to find a place where this spirit is more present than among La Cloche Hills – at 3.5 billion years old these are one of the oldest mountain ranges on Earth with all the wisdom of our grandfathers etched into its wrinkles. La Cloche Mountains are believed to have once stood higher than the Rockies; today, Silver Peak, their highest point, is less than 600 metres high. Billions of years will do that you.
3.5 billion years of history etched into La Cloche Mountains
So as we scrambled up the hill in search of Carmichael’s Rock, I tried to remember that there were billions years of history compressed under our feet. When we started our mission, we had very little idea where we were going. After scouting the shore, we located the only spot where we could disembark the canoe and just headed upwards. Eventually, we stumbled upon small cairns someone had so helpfully built to guide us in the right direction.
Looks like a good spot to start our expedition
Ready to set off in search of Carmichael’s Rock
Is this the right way?
At one point, we lost the cairns and ended on the other side of the hill, rewarded with a beautiful view of the mountains, lakes and Georgian Bay in the distance. We retraced our steps, located the cairns again and kept going.
Views of Killarney Provincial Park to the south
Views of Grace Lake down below, our campsite barely visible
The rocks were slippery after the rain, and no matter how careful we tried to tread, our son eventually fell and ended up with a bad scratch on his leg. I thought the expedition was over but he insisted on continuing. I guess it will make a good for-the-love-of-art story for when he starts his high school art program in the fall. One of the many stories Carmichael’s Rock has witnessed over the years.
Enjoying the view from Carmichael’s Rock
We finally made it to Nellie Lake one day and a two-kilometre portage later. While a fairly long one, the portage wasn’t too taxing: the trail wasn’t too steep, bugs weren’t too bad, and we didn’t have much to carry apart from our lunch and water. Except for my husband, of course, who still had to carry our canoe. But even he will agree that the trip was totally worth it.
Portage to Nellie Lake
Somewhere halfway through the two-kilometre portage to Nellie Lake: leaves have been so severely eaten by insects that the forest looks more like early spring
Nellie Lake is another of Group of Seven’s favourites. Jackson’s Hills, Killarney (Nellie Lake) comes to mind, and it’s even possible to trace the spot that inspired the painting. We decided to skip this particular adventure this time. It was a beautiful, sunny day and we preferred to spend it lounging on the white smooth rocks and swimming in the blue, clear waters.
A beautiful spot to spend the day on Nellie Lake
Using the word ‘blue’ to describe water may seem redundant because isn’t water supposed to be blue? That’s how kids usually paint it: a strip of blue at the bottom, a strip of blue at the top, the rest of the world in-between. In reality, the water takes its clues from the sky and can be anything from grey to turquoise and to yes, light blue depending on the weather.
The blue of Nellie Lake is a category of its own. It’s as if nature in its infinite whimsy spilled all its supplies of blue paints into one lake. Depending on the light, the colour of the water can go from azure to cobalt to deep royal with all the different shades in-between. I lost count of how many times we said: “I can’t believe the colour of this water!”
Nellie Lake is a study in blues
In addition to its blues, Nellie Lake is also famous for its clarity – up to 28 metres. The ripple on the surface prevented us from seeing that far down. Still, watching the bottom a dozen metres below was an unusual experience: a mixture of fear – where did all the water go? – and exhilaration – I believe I can fly!
This ethereal beauty has a bit of a sad side to it. Because of a low pH, Nellie Lake supports little life. We did see a couple of loons and a beaver dam but other than that the lake looked more sterile than the nearby Grace.
We observed a very strange loon behaviour, which, as we later found out, is called a “penguin dance”. It is a sign of extreme agitation and was probably a reaction to a group of canoes that passed by earlier. A reminder to give wildlife enough distance.
On Grace Lake, we made friends not with one but two snapping turtles and saw piles of turtle egg shells on our site. Frogs jumped off rocks in every direction every time we disembarked our canoe and bull frogs sang us lullabies every night. A trio of loons was a constant feature, their calls echoing across the lake. Merganser ducks lived on an island right across from our site providing entertainment during our meals on the rocky patio. We even encountered two deer on our hike to Carmichael’s Rock, one of them a tiny spotted baby.
This large snapper came to visit us on our very first night on Grace Lake
Turtle egg shells scattered all around the campsite
Three loon buddies on Grace Lake
Although sometimes they would lose the third one
This merganser duck lived on an island across from our campsite
Dragonflies are among my favourite bugs
One of our frog neighbours sunning on a rock
So even though we enjoyed our trip to Nellie Lake, we were happy to return to our site on Grace Lake back to our turtles, loons and frogs.
I am not an early bird by any stretch but backcountry camping often turns me into one. The birdsong, so crisp and clear in the morning stillness, often wakes me up before dawn. This time I peeked outside and could see no further than a few metres – the rest of the world disappeared behind a thick gauze.
The world disappeared behind a thick white gauze
I got out of the tent and climbed the hill behind our site. Slowly the landscape started coming into focus: vague outlines of islands down below, the top of a hill like an island in the sky. Then the sky to the east exploded in red, the sun pushing its way through the fog. The world was born anew – white rocks gleaming under the morning light.
Islands in the water, islands in the sky
A fiery sun pushing its way into the sky
Sleepy hills shaking off the remnants of the night
The story has it that Ojibwe used these rocks as signaling devices. Somewhere near Little Current, on the southern outskirts of La Cloche Mountains, there are remnants of Bell Rock called so because of the sound it produced when struck. When voyageurs first discovered it, they named the mountains La Cloche – a bell in French.
On that foggy morning, with the world shaking off the remnants of the night, I could hear the hills still ringing, calling on us to see the Earth as more than just a depository of useful resources but rather a sacred, living masterpiece that it is.