“…when I am alone I can become invisible. I can sit
on the top of a dune as motionless as an uprise of weeds,
until the foxes run by unconcerned. I can hear the almost
unhearable sound of the roses singing.”
Mary Oliver “How I go to the woods”
I spot two loons gliding across the lake as I push my canoe off the shore. The sun made a grand entrance about half an hour ago but then slipped behind the clouds. The lake is so smooth I am almost hesitant to break its surface with my paddle. I follow the trail left by the birds, and as I turn around the bend I drift into what looks like a loon party.
“One, two, three…,” I start counting under my breath. “Eleven?!” A camping trip is never complete without seeing loons, and their calls are a perfect accompaniment for a backcountry experience. They, however, usually show up in pairs, occasionally there are three. Last year, we ran into a family with two chicks. Eleven seems like a minor miracle. I am bursting to shout, “Do you see this?” But I am by myself and no one around can share my excitement.
Waking up early has its perks: getting to see a crowd of loons is one of them
Part I: My solo space
This was my third solo adventure, or as I refer to them, my birthday, don’t-want-to-see-any-people trips, which started three years ago with canoeing in Killarney to celebrate my 40th. I followed up with a backpacking trip in Algonquin. Last year, however, I chickened out and opted for a day hike instead.
As my birthday was approaching again, I was determined to revive the tradition but a couple of weeks before the date I still didn’t have a site booked. All those whys often voiced by others whenever I tell them about my solo camping trips seemed to be coming from inside my head now.
Solo backcountry trips can be filled with all sorts of what-ifs but they also bring moments like this when I can just sit among water lilies for as long as I want to.
After my third trip, I still don’t have the answers to all the whys, except for the more obvious ones: an introvert in me craves some alone time and I like to challenge myself. Plus, without having to constantly consider other people’s schedules, interests or levels of hungriness and tiredness, I am free to roam and spend the morning following the loons or take an hour out of my paddle to the campsite to watch a beaver.
Going alone means I can spend the morning following the loons.
As I watch them, they break up into smaller groups, then come back together again.
Eventually, they accept me as part of the landscape and get very close.
I bumped into this beaver on my way to the campsite and spent close to an hour following him around Freeland Lake.
He was busy as, well, a beaver, getting in and out of the water, dragging some sticks and mud with him.
Usually, when you get too close, beavers will slap their tails to alert their friends and dive underwater; this one didn’t seem to mind me hanging around.
In a world where loneliness and isolation have reached epidemic proportions with all sorts of negative impacts on our health and well-being, craving some alone time feels like a luxury. I recognize how fortunate I am to have a wonderful supportive family to return to after my solo wanderings in the wild. A family that responds to my fretting over possible dangers of going alone with a firm “You’ve got this” and sends me away with “Have a fun trip” instead of some useless “Be careful” platitudes. My solo trips aren’t about escaping from them but rather finding and then ultimately losing myself.
During my trip, as I dive into the poetry of Rupi Kaur and Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s account of growing up in the Arctic and becoming an environmentalist (although she doesn’t consider herself to be one), I can’t help but think how each of us is a story or rather an anthology where everyone we come in contact with contributes their own chapter, a verse or just a few lines.
Being alone I can finally immerse myself into reading – a skill I find increasingly harder to maintain; I also start thinking about the way our stories is what makes each of us unique.
With all these competing narratives, I sometimes find it hard to find the one written by me. Getting away from people for a few days is an opportunity to re-examine this collection. It can be a terrifying exercise. What is left when I strip myself of all the roles and other people’s concepts of me? On that early morning, with no one around to see me (except for the loons but even they don’t seem to pay any attention) and no one to define my boundaries, I start questioning whether I even exist.
Wrapped in the morning fog, with no one around to see me or define me, do I even exist?
Once I settle into the silence, however, – not the literal silence, of course, nature is always full of sounds, but rather the space away from everyday chatter and incessant inner monologues – I can finally let go of other people’s expectations and a constant need to anticipate their reactions. Rather than evaluating my every action from the outside, I can turn my gaze outward and just be. Like the billion-year-old hills surrounding me. They don’t need a reflection to prove their existence.
It takes time but once I settle into the stillness, I become one with the hills.
Being alone can be an intense experience. But not because I have to paddle by myself or carry all my gear. Killarney Lake, after all, is two short portages away: the shorter one from George Lake into Freeland is only 8o metres long, the other one from Freeland to Killarney close to 400, hardly a distance at all. Not because it is the hottest weekend of the summer so my paddle to the site and a three-kilometre hike to the Crack turn me into a puddle of sweat. Not because I have to make all the decisions or do all the chores (doing a bear hang is always my “favourite” – throwing stuff has never been my strength so getting a rope over a branch always takes a few attempts). Not even because on my way back from the hike I have to paddle into the wind screaming obscenities at the force of nature that is totally oblivious to my frustrations and keeps spinning my canoe around like a weather vane.
Approaching portage from Freeland to Killarney Lake, the longer one of the two; the last stretch of this paddle was all muck and slime, at one point I almost got stuck but luckily, thanks to the one-two-three-scooch method and some logs, I didn’t have to test how deep the mud was.
Portaging your own canoe gives you a new perspective. And while I’d love to bask in all those “You make it look very easy” comments I got from some strangers I met on the trail, a solo canoe is really light and easy to maneuver.
By the time I get to the campsite, I am tired, hungry and drenched in sweat but even through all the exhaustion and dreams of a good dinner and a soothing swim I can’t help but gasp at the beauty of Killarney Lake.
Hiking to the Crack is a must whenever I go to Killarney; the trek to the top is a bit of a climb, and the sweltering heat doesn’t help.
At one point the trail passes over slabs of rock through a large crack (hence, the name of the trail and the lookout).
Following a trail of blueberries makes my hike to the Crack seem easier.
Being by myself means I have to do all the camping chores: setting up camp, cooking, washing the dishes, doing a bear hang.
Being alone also means that I get this yummy three berry crumble all to myself.
Being in the backcountry by myself brings intensity of a different kind. Once I get away from the world of easily available distractions, notification pings and new Netflix releases, my heart cracks open to the beauty around. Sights, sounds, smells start pouring in: lakes carpeted in water lilies, skies dripping pink paint into the water, the yodel of loons bouncing between the hills, La Cloche Mountains like frozen clouds lining the shore, the smell of pines mixed with the first whiff of campfire smoke. With no one around to share this experience with me, the sensory overload becomes almost too much to take. The stories whispered, crooned, bellowed at me by the lakes, the solemn hills, by the wind and the birds and the feathery clouds fill me to the brim so I pour them onto paper and into the camera lens to prevent my heart from exploding.
The first campfire of the trip is almost a spiritual experience.
Freeland Lake rolls out carpets of water lilies to welcome me.
Water lilies splendid in their multitudes are even more magnificent close up.
The sky above my head, the sky under my feet, I feel like I am floating between two identical worlds.
The view from my site is never static with new strokes and lines added all the time.
Part II: My soul place
During the weeks, months even, before my scheduled departure day, I did research, read blog posts and studied maps searching for a route that was remote enough to give me the needed solitude but not too long or challenging for a soloist with very little experience. At one point, though, I almost settled on a 40-kilometre loop in Algonquin, which included close to eight kilometres of portaging, because a three-kilometre portage seems not only doable but very easy when you are looking at a one-inch line on the map back at home. Luckily, the voice of reason prevailed and I shifted my gaze to less challenging routes.
Two weeks prior to the trip, as I was about to book the Burnt Island – Little Doe Lakes loop in Algonquin, I threw all the research out the window and decided to check if there were any sites available in Killarney. This close to the date, my expectations were low – the park gets reserved months in advance. So when I found availability on Killarney Lake for both nights of my trip, I felt like it was meant to be and booked the site.
I ended up on site #21, not the best one on Killarney Lake, but I made it work. Because I had a smaller tent, I was able to squeeze it right by the lake instead of setting up deeper in the woods; plus the jutting rocks all around the site were perfect for pictures.
This is not the first time I try to expand our camping range and then default to Killarney. I don’t know why this park has such a strong hold over me but during this trip I finally embrace that it is my soul place and nowhere else I feel the same level of connection and deep, overpowering contentment. That realization happens very early into the trip, about ten minutes after I leave the access point at George Lake. The moment Killarney’s white hills peek from behind the pink granite rocks, all my worries, doubts and fears melt away.
The moment Killarney’s quartzite cliffs peek from behind the pink granite, I feel at home.
Over the next three days, there is not a minute when I feel afraid or even wary. Not once do I sit up in my tent in the middle of the night woken by a broken twig or get alarmed by a weird sound on the trail. I am not saying this to brag about how brave I am, because I was scared during my first two solo trips, to the point where I carried bear spray with me everywhere and was always prepared to run. This time, I have this unwavering confidence that nothing bad can happen to me in Killarney. (I am right if you don’t count some pesky creature ripping through my food bag and eating most of my snacks but I am willing to share).
You are never really alone in the backcountry: These three merganser ducks kept checking on me from time to time.
Each campsite seems to have a resident snapping turtle: this one showed up on the first night to say hello.
And, of course, there were always a few loons hanging around.
What I experience during my three-day trip is the feeling of home and connection that grows stronger with every sunset and every sunrise, every call of the loon and every splash of water awoken by my paddle. I can feel the pull every morning as I am greeted by the view of Killarney’s sparkling cliffs across the lake and every time the green waters envelope my body in a gentle embrace. I feel it that time I paddle into the gauzy fog surrounded my white capped hills and the moment I reach the top of the Crack, turn around and feel overwhelmed by the now familiar yet somehow always unexpectedly striking view. During all those instances I am suspended in my canoe between two identical worlds, time no longer a rushing river that carries me forward, but a deep emerald pool. And especially on that afternoon I spend lying on a pink rock drenched in the heat of the sun, my spine perfectly aligned with a crack in the stone, feeling the roots sprouting from my body and reaching deep inside this billion year old granite. As I head home at the end of my trip, I know parts of me will remain among these hills and lakes forever, but I also carry with me a few of Killarney’s verses scribbled in the anthology of me.
Waiting for the sun to rise is like waiting for the beginning of the world.
The view from my tent makes my heart sing every morning.
Wrapped in fog, the hills are dreaming. Am I part of their dream?
Suspended in my canoe, I feel like the time has stopped.
It was my sixth time hiking to the Crack but the view still takes my breath away (and not only because of a challenging hike to get there).
The Crack’s sentinel pine tree towers over the now familiar yet always surprisingly fresh view.
White cliffs, the sea of green and a strip of Georgian Bay in the distance – all the things that make me fall in love with this place over and over again.
Parts of me are scattered among these hills and lakes forever, and every time I visit I leave with a few more of Killarney’s verses and stories scribbled in the anthology of me.
12 thoughts on “My canoe trip to Killarney: The magic of being alone (in two parts)”
Wonderful article. I especially like the observation on the stories others vs. my own story.
I once took three days off in late November and hid in a lakeside hotel to read “The Magic Mountain” by Thomas Mann. Never regretted it 🙂
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Thank you for reading and commenting. Time alone is so important. Always makes me feel more grounded and refreshed.
A delightful post in every way.
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Thank you. So glad you enjoyed it!
Oleksandra, once again a great post accompanied by your gorgeous pictures. Really makes us feel like we are part of the trip. What camera and lenses do you use to shoot your wildlife? Looks amazing. I’ve only been to Killarney once in my life, but your pictures take me back there. Especially the blueberries, beavers, loons and the quartzite mountains. I’ve never done a solo trip but it is certainly something I would like to try one day. Thanks for sharing and best to you and your family.
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Thank you, John. Killarney is very beautiful and yes, going alone is a completely different experience.
In terms of my camera gear, I have Nikon d750 and only bring one lens with me in the backcountry to save on space and weight. It’s AF-S Nikkor 28-300 mm 3.5-5.6. It’s not the best but what I like about it is that I can go from landscape to zoom without having to change lenses. And with wildlife, timing is everything, animals don’t like to pose for some reason 😀 What also helps is cranking up the ISO so then you can have fast shutter speed: if they move, it helps keep the photos sharp. And taking lots of pictures in a row – one of them is bound to be good. Hope it helps but let me know if you have any other questions.
And thank you for stopping by and reading.
Thank you for posting such a refreshing article. I love to be alone and often exclaim to my friends, just because I’m single, live a lone (with 2 cats) and do things on my own, doesn’t mean I’m lonely. I too wanted to go camping my my 40th birthday this summer, but had objections and guilt trips from all sides. I ended up canceling my reservations at a random park I chose. Kicking myself in the butt for that one. Next summer, I will do a solo camping trip. Thanks so much for the inspiration.
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I think people often confuse aloneness with loneliness. Being alone doesn’t necessarily mean you’re lonely, just like you can be lonely with other people around. We are so hardwired to constantly connect and socialize, and it makes sense since it has helped us survive as species. But at the same time we all need time and space to be alone to reconnect with ourselves, and some of us need it more than others.
I hope you are able to go on your camping trip next year and your friends will be more understanding this time. Good luck!
Hello there just happened to stumble onto your piece here as I am planning my own first solo this year in Algonquin (I have just turned fifty….). Look forward to reading through more of your adventures.
Thank you for sharing.
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Great to hear from you, Brian. Glad you enjoyed my post. All the best with your trip. I love Algonquin as well. Planning a trip there in the fall, this time with my family. Enjoy your solo trip! It is a truly special experience.
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