A canoe trip can make or break a relationship, or at least seriously test it. It also makes for an excellent romantic getaway. Sure, all that paddling is tiring, portages are exhausting, and you are drenched in sweat by the end of the day. But then there are awe-inspiring views, sunrise paddles and cuddles by the moon, fine dining by the lake (Backpacker’s Pantry and AlpineAire offer some deliciously fancy meals like Pad Thai and Triple Berry Crumble) and leisurely coffee by the campfire, relaxing swims in the clearest water, loon serenades, and, with no people for miles, as much privacy as you could ever wish for, making you truly feel like you are the only people in the world. I watch romantic comedies. I know what it takes.
Canoe trips feature fine dining by the lake
There are also beautiful evenings by the campfire
And don’t forget breathtaking views enjoyed together
On top of all this romance 101, canoe trips lend themselves to moments, which, while not often featured in love stories, are arguably even more romantic. For instance, when my husband volunteers to get into knee-deep mud to push the canoe or does all the camp set-up so that I can take advantage of the evening light to take photos. My favourite part, however, is an opportunity to share an experience that is uniquely our own and create an endless supply of “remember when” stories and references that no one but us will understand.
My favourite part is creating special memories and “remember when” stories to bring back
This August, my husband and I set out on our second backcountry trip as a couple and our longest canoe trip yet. After visiting Grace and Nellie Lakes in western Killarney last year, we decided to continue exploring this less travelled and considerably less crowded part of the park. Our route started at Widgawa Lodge on Highway 6, traversed Murray, Howry, Fish, Great and Little Mountain Lakes, Three Narrows, McGregor Bay, Low and Helen, Nellie, and finally Grace Lake, plus endless creeks and swamps, and finished back at Widgawa. Eight days and more than 90 kilometers later, we emerged with 1,645 photos and even more special memories.
Here are some of the highlights.
Day 1: Widgawa Lodge to Murray Lake through Charleston Lake and Howry Creek; one official 185-metre portage, plus a short carry around a beaver dam
Our day started at a hotel in Sudbury with a fairly crappy breakfast and drive to Widgawa Lodge, where we rented our canoe and got our park permit.
At Widgawa Lodge canoe launch: all packed and ready to go
It was a relatively short and easy paddling day, most of it spent on Howry Creek. A narrow, meandering, zigzagging, twisting and turning strip of water, it hugged muddy banks, wrapped around islands of lily pads, drifted past beaver lodges, and occasionally got cut into before and after by a beaver dam. We didn’t see the culprits until we hit Murray Lake, though.
Most of our paddling the first day was through Howry Creek
We paddled past beaver lodges, which sometimes had snakes tangled between the branches
Lots of old stumps and more beaver lodges and dams
We finally met master builders on Murray Lake
The sky was hiding behind fluffy clouds playing tag. Every time one of them was caught, it got upset and shed big, fat tears into the lake. Convinced that rain was imminent, we even set up our new tarp once we reached the campsite but there was no need for it after all. Those random drops were the only ones we would see in the next week until our last day on Grace Lake when an equally meagre amount of precipitation grazed the surface of the lake cutting perfect circles on the water.
Fluffy, grey clouds played tag all day, dropping big fat tears into the lake whenever one of them got caught
In spite of all the clouds, not much rain fell that day, or during our entire trip for that matter
Once we arrived at Murray Lake, there was no one there yet so we had our pick of the campsite. We headed for 156 by The Notch portage (the steepest one in the park) planning to hike it just to see what the fuss was all about. Access to the site was all muddy so we ended up at #148 across the lake giving up our Notch plans along the way.
Site 148 was pretty good but Murray Lake itself isn’t particularly exciting
Convinced it was going to rain we set up our new tarp but it wasn’t needed after all
View from our site #148 on Murray Lake
More views from the site, this time reflections of the setting sun
Day 2: Murray Lake to Great Mountain Lake through Howry, Fish and more of Howry Creek; number of portages – 4 (445m, 150m, 125m and 440m), beaver dams – countless
Initially, we were supposed to stay on Fish Lake for our second night but then last minute decided to change it to Great Mountain Lake (I am glad we did: nothing against Fish but Great Mountain Lake is way prettier). That required calling the Ontario Parks reservation line; online system refused to make the change stating the site was too far from the previous night’s stay. Looking at the map and counting kilometres, I couldn’t understand why. The reason became apparent rather quickly once we hit the narrow part of Murray Lake and Howry Creek. With water levels considerably lower this time of year, there was more pushing and pulling the canoe than paddling.
Travelling through Howry Creek that day involved more sliding and pushing than actual paddling
What you can’t see here is that our canoe is sitting firmly in the mud
Moments before my husband got out of the canoe and sunk into knee-deep muck
Our whole day was a study in mud: gooey mud, sticky mud, stinky mud, sludge that pulled us in waist deep, some viscous clay clinging to our sandals for dear life. The pinnacle was the end of our portage into Great Mountain Lake where the water and the shore seemed to have had a spat, putting a wide stretch of ominous looking dark matter between themselves. We ended up loading our canoe and setting off from an old stump that saved us from diving chest deep into the muck.
The end of portage from Fish into Great Mountain Lake: setting off this old stump was the only way to avoid diving chest deep into mud
Add to all that mud endless beaver dams that seemed to rise out of the water as if conjured by magic (which beavers’ engineering genius very well may be), and what looked like a fairly easy and straightforward paddle on the map turned into an unexpectedly long day.
We encountered a lot of these obstacles in the first few days: while annoying, it is an impressive fit of engineering
Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t all grim. There were some funny moments, if you choose to see sinking knee-deep into mud as funny, and there were lots of magical moments: drifting through fields of grasses and purple pickerel weed, cutting through sheets of lily pads, seeing sandhill cranes for the first time. And once we hit Great Mountain Lake, all the mud and hardships of the day were washed away by its cool waters and equally invigorating beauty.
The day wasn’t all muck and mud, there was some actual paddling involved like here on Howry Lake
The scenery was magical, even if the route was a little challenging
Drifting through fields of grass
One of my favourite moments of the day: pickerel weed as far as the eye can see
Sandhill cranes are one of the two species of cranes in North America (the other one is a whooping crane); this was our first time seeing them
Another interesting creature we encountered for the first time – caterpillar of a cecropia moth, the largest moth in North America
While this didn’t qualify as a magical moment of the day, it was definitely interesting: this cabin at the beginning of portage from Fish into Great Mountain Lake looked like it came straight out of a horror movie
On Great Mountain Lake, we set up camp at site 158, which was perfect in (almost) every regard. The only downside: no matter how hard we tried we couldn’t find a thunderbox. So if you ever stayed at this site and know where it is, let me know.
Site 158 on Great Mountain Lake: a big, open rock was one of its best features
The site 158 had everything except for a thunderbox: Anyone knows where it’s located? Because we couldn’t find it
Beautiful evening on Great Mountain Lake
Sunset on Great Mountain Lake, one of the many we will see in the next few days
Day 3: Great Mountain Lake to Three Narrows Lake through Little Mountain Lake and Kirk Creek; number of portages – 8 (55m, 910m, 900m, 20m, 40m, 75m, 40m, 185m), plus a few beaver dams (again)
Our morning was slow: reading, writing, soaking up the sun, making friends with a couple of snakes who looked like they were enjoying their own romantic getaway. Eventually, however, it was time to pack up and go.
Our morning was slow: reading, writing, soaking up the sun
Mac and cheese for breakfast? Yum!
We shared the campsite with these two love birds (or should I say love snakes)
A short paddle across Great Mountain and then Little Mountain Lake with its teal waters brought us to the first two major portages of the trip: both at around 900 metres separated by a creek so narrow that loading and unloading the canoe took way longer than getting across it.
Paddling on Great Mountain Lake: Killarney’s signature cliffs up ahead
Portage from Great Mountain to Little Mountain Lake was short; two of the longest portages of the trip are coming up
Little Mountain Lake is small but its beautiful teal waters are definitely worth a visit; unfortunately, it doesn’t have any canoe campsites but there is a backpacking one for those tackling La Cloche Silhouette Trail
Since we couldn’t carry all our stuff in one go, we decided to do the 1.5 carry. My husband would go ahead with the canoe, while I carried the backpack first and dropped it somewhere halfway for him to come back and get it. I then returned for the food barrel and the rest of the packs. The only problem with this method was figuring out where the halfway was. I tried counting steps but overshot both times ending up almost at the end of the portage.
We’ve just completed our first 900-metre portage of the day; the next one is across this creek if only we can get to actual water
Before we know it, it’s time for another portage
Most of the day was spent on Kirk Creek. Unlike Howry, it was deep enough for paddling, although all the twisting and turning, along with beaver dams and other obstacles, considerably impeded our progress.
Kirk Creek featured some beautiful scenery
In addition to beaver dams, we encountered other interesting obstacles: time for some limbo
This time, the narrow strip of water cut through alder groves. With branches reaching into the water to kiss their reflections, they reminded me of paddling through mangroves in Florida. All that was missing was a few alligators and crocodiles sunning along the bank. Instead of gators, we met a frog eyeing us disdainfully as we tried to get our canoe around yet another beaver dam. Surprisingly, we didn’t see any beavers even though signs of their activity were all around. My husband proposed a theory that they didn’t work on weekends.
Paddling through alder groves reminded us of paddling through mangroves in Florida; all that was missing was a few alligators sunning on the shore
After finishing our eighth portage of the day, we were excited to finally reach an actual stretch of water that was wider than our canoe. Three Narrows Lake didn’t seem to share our excitement; instead of a warm welcome we got wind and choppy waters.
Three Narrows Lake was big and confusing; luckily it had lots of bays and nooks where we could hide from the wind
Three Narrows used to be three separate lakes until a series of dams were built (by people, not beavers) to create one large body of water. And I mean large. After about two hours we finally managed to get halfway through it.
One of the three dams that were built to turn three separate lakes into one big body of water
By then it was almost 7:30, the sunset was approaching – we had to pick a site. #52 was the closest so we decided to check it out. I wasn’t impressed at first. For starters, unlike the previous site where I couldn’t find a thunderbox, this one featured it prominently, practically in the middle right next to the best tent spot. My husband refused to go any further, and I could see his point: it was getting pretty late by then, the next site was at least half an hour away, so we had to make do. We later got to see almost all of the other sites on Three Narrows and ours had the best view, which made me feel better about our choice. As for the tent, we found a different spot, not as level but closer to the lake.
This is what site 52 on Three Narrows Lake looks like from the water
Site 52 had a lot going for it, although we’d prefer it if the thunderbox was a little further in the woods – see if you can spot it
Day 4: rest day at Three Narrows Lake
Even though Three Narrows Lake is located right in the middle of Killarney, it has a few cottages, which come with motor boats. How they managed to get them there is beyond me. Had I known it before I might not have chosen Three Narrows as our rest stop but it was the half point of our trip so it seemed like the right time. Not that the cottagers or boats bothered us in any way. Our site was tucked away so we still got our privacy.
To the left of our site, the lake tapered into a creek where beavers practiced cannonball dives at night
We also had a great view of La Cloche Mountains
That wasn’t its only upside. The site, so seemingly lacking the night before, slowly revealed its hidden charm throughout the day and, by the time we were leaving it, felt like home. I liked a huge rocky ledge offering great views of Killarney’s puffy hills etched into the lake. The fire pit area between a rock and an uprooted tree looked like a room and provided excellent protection from the wind. As we enjoyed breakfast in our dining room, a hummingbird fluttered by, its wings heard but not seen. And at night we could hear loons exchange calls, their songs ranging from mournful to joyous to otherworldly and serene, interrupted only by beavers practicing cannonball dives in the nearby creek.
Beautiful morning on Three Narrows Lake: view from our campsite
Since the best tent spot was right next to the thunderbox, we had to look for alternatives
Our neighbours on Three Narrows Lake
We met these gulls while paddling on Three Narrows Lake later that day
It was a slow day. My husband got to finally sleep in as much as he wanted. I used the time to read and write. We had some delicious meals. We went for a swim.
The fire pit area between a rock and an uprooted tree looked like a room
We enjoyed some delicious meals during our rest day
We also spent considerable amount of time dreaming and writing
Our only activity of the day was to do some paddling and bushwhack up the hill to get a phone signal. Normally, we don’t care about phones and connections. This time, however, our younger son was on a dance tour in Ukraine so we had to check in with him from time to time. While at it, we also got an incredible view of Three Narrows Lake wrapped in a tight embrace by La Cloche Mountains.
We bushwhacked to the top of the hill to get this view of Three Narrows Lake
Day 5: Three Narrows Lake to McGregor Bay through Kirk Creek; number of portages – 7 (50m, 60m, 75m, 50m, 60m, 45m, 35m), plus a bonus one
Our longest and most diverse in terms of bodies of water covered day started quite uneventfully with a long, uninterrupted paddle through the rest of the Narrows. It took us almost two hours to get to our first carry of the day. After that, it was a rapid succession of short, but annoyingly closely spaced portages. Sometimes we could already see the next one as we loaded the canoe. Somehow, we ended up with eight instead of seven indicated on the map. As we took a snack break by the waterfall, we joked that after doing so many portages we must have unlocked a secret one.
Day 5 of the trip featured lots of short portages
Sometimes we could already see the next portage while loading the canoe
This is where La Cloche Silhouette Trail crosses Kirk Creek
Time to get out of the canoe, again
The highlight of the day was a heron accompanying us along the way. He kept flying forward every time we got close but not too far away as if to make sure we were okay or maybe just posing for pictures.
This great blue heron spent most of the day with us so we ended up taking lots and lots of pictures
This painted turtle was the only turtle we met during our entire trip
A frog prince with a very penetrating gaze
And a few more flogs
We diligently counted the portages impatient to be finally done with them, not knowing that once we hit the Bay we would look back wistfully at that frequently interrupted stretch of paddling. At least there the route was clear. The East Channel, part of MacGregor Bay, on the other hand, was confusing with lots of islands, turns, nooks and endless opportunities to get lost. Multiple cottages adorned its shores and boats kept getting bigger the further we paddled. They all came in groups (I wonder what a group of yachts is called), either scared to be alone or simply showing off in front of each other. On the bright side, the day was calm and we didn’t have to battle the waves.
After eight portages we finally reached the open waters of McGregor Bay; with its endless cottages and ridiculously giant boats, it was our least favourite part of the trip
When we finally reached site 135, our goal for the day, we were greeted by the most terrifying vision: three large boats moored to the tree on the site, their owners lounging on the decks, marinating in pop music, beer and smugness. We had a choice to make: we could ignore them, set up camp and hope they would eventually go away. But that would mean “enjoying” the view of their big boat backsides and poor taste in music for an indefinite amount of time. After seeing hardly any people for days, that was too rough of a transition. So we decided to head for the two remaining sites on the Bay about an hour away. We knew we were cutting it close to the sunset and there was no guarantee the situation would be any better but the risk we took paid off. The North Channel was much quieter, with smaller cottages and simple motorboats, partly thanks to a narrow passage barely big enough for a canoe.
Crossing from East into North Channel
One of the sites looked occupied so we headed for #133, which turned out to be the worst one of our entire trip. It was cluttered with fallen trees and branches with hardly any space to move around or put up a tent. That was the first night we didn’t go for a swim or have a campfire driven inside the tent by a buzzing cloud of mosquitoes. On the plus side, we got a beautiful sunset and a tent window view of the full moon spilling its molten silver into the water.
Site 133 on North Channel hardly looks like a campsite from the water
This was the worst campsite of the trip but we were grateful for the shelter it gave us
The site definitely had potential but all the debris made it hard to walk around
At least, we had a nice view from our tent
This little guy kept climbing up our tent all night; in the morning we finally realized it was a frog
That night we had one of the best sunsets; too bad we couldn’t enjoy it properly driven inside the tent by a cloud of mosquitoes
Also, in a sudden bout of inspiration, we managed to change our next night’s stay from Helen Lake to Nellie. Those, who have stayed on Nellie Lake, know its three sites are highly coveted and very hard to book. As we planned our trip, all of them were already reserved so we opted for Helen Lake instead. But while we were bemoaning the state of our current site, I decided to check if all that hard work and sacrifice unlocked more than just an extra portage. Sure enough, the red dot on Nellie had turned to green. So we used the last of our phone juice to call the park office and switch our reservation. We were going to Nellie Lake and no amount of mosquitoes or crappy sites could put a dent into that (although mosquitoes did leave a few bumps). And the site was good for something after all: phone reception was excellent.
Day 6: McGregor Bay to Nellie Lake through an unnamed creek and swamp, a.k.a. swamp of despair, Low and Helen Lakes; number of portages – 4 (55m, 25m, 60m, 2.4km), plus one lift-over
The next morning we were eager to leave this disappointment of a site and get to Nellie so we quickly packed and headed out. The day didn’t involve much paddling, but we had the longest portage not only of the trip, but our entire canoeing career to look forward to. Before we got to that, there were more swampy mazes to navigate through. At one point, we got lost, circling around a water lily field, unable to find access into the creek. Water lilies were pretty, though, and lily pads were huge, probably to better catch tears and sweat of unlucky travelers stuck in this “swamp of despair” aptly named by a couple we met later that day.
Swamp of despair where we got lost looking for a creek access
But look at those water lilies, some of the largest we’ve ever seen
My husband pondering whether we will have to live here from now on if we can’t find a way out
Getting over some rocks and logs: our last unexpected obstacle of the day
Low and Helen Lakes, separated by a short rocky portage with a campsite right in the middle of it, were an interesting sight. Standing at the top of the portage, we could see how much lower Low Lake is (I guess that’s where the name came from).
Low Lake is an exception in a cluster of lakes named after women
Portage between Low and Helen Lakes also has a campsite right in the middle
Standing on top of the portage it is easy to see how much lower Low Lake (on the right) is compared to Helen Lake (on the left) – hence the name
Helen Lake, by the way, is beautiful so I am sure we would have had a great time staying there hadn’t we made a switch. That would, however, mean that we’d have to do two long portages in one day: 2.4 kilometres from Helen into Nellie, followed by a 2-kilometre one into Grace. With all the back and forth, it adds up to almost nine kilometres of lugging stuff, making it more of a hiking than canoeing trip. So changing the site worked well from a practical standpoint as well.
The portage into Nellie, while long, was less challenging than expected. I finally figured out the correct distance for the backpack and my husband and I both returned to it at the exact same time. We finished the portage together, which could be why it felt easier. Or was it because Nellie’s beautiful waters were waiting for us as a reward at the end of the trail?
All set for our 2.4-kilometre portage from Helen to Nellie – the longest portage of our entire canoeing career
After the portage
What is so special about this lake? After a visit there, using the words ‘clear’ and ‘blue’ to describe any other body of water feels inaccurate and undeserved. One of the clearest lakes in the park, Nellie has a visibility of 28 metres. Which makes for a magical sight: the sky above, the sky below, bottom of the lake visible through the clouds. On a calm, sunny day, you can even see your canoe’s shadow.
Nellie Lake – yes, the water is that blue
Nellie Lake is one of the clearest in the park – visibility is up to 28 metres
That’s our canoe’s shadow on the bottom of the lake
When we arrived at Nellie, we headed straight for site 144, which seems to get the best ratings, but it was already occupied by a family and a very loud dog. Site 143 didn’t look like much from the water – just a small opening in the woods – so we bypassed it as we went back to #142, which was also taken by a solo canoeist without any pets. At that point, we had no choice but to go back to 143. The site turned out to be everything we could wish for. Level tent pads – check. A big fire pit with benches around it – check. A sparkling white rock for eating, drinking coffee, reading, writing and just idling – check. Beautiful views – check. Excellent swimming – check. When we go back, it will be our number one pick. (Now I am having second thoughts about singing its praises. What if it attracts more people? Scratch all of the above – the site was terrible.)
Campsite 143 didn’t look like much from the distance but it slowly revealed its charm as we got closer
Site 143, one of the three on Nellie Lake, wasn’t our first choice but turned out to be everything we could wish for
It had a large fire pit area with benches around it and excellent tent pads
The view from the campsite is one of the most important things; site 143 nailed it
More beautiful views from the site
Here is one at night: the light of the moon, even if sifting through the clouds, was still quite powerful
Day 7 – Nellie Lake to Grace Lake, one 2-kilometre portage
This was one of the best days of our entire trip. Since our next destination was only one portage away, even if a long one, we weren’t in a rush to leave. You’d think that meant sleeping in but instead we woke up before dawn. For the first time my husband joined me and we paddled together into the sunrise. This is where I should write something about a magical moment we shared. In reality, my husband kept yawning in the back, incessantly and unnecessarily loudly. Although, I must admit it was helpful to have someone steer the canoe while I was taking photos. Plus, I got a picture of myself.
Morning paddle on Nellie Lake
For the first time my husband joined me on this early morning excursion and together we paddled into the sunrise
By the time we reached the other end of Nellie, the sun was already high up having carved a light path for our canoe
Someone is not fully awake yet; there was a lot of yawning at the back of the canoe
Having someone else with me meant I could even get a picture of myself
We crossed the entire length of Nellie, which is about six kilometres long. By the time our canoe reached the far corner of the lake, the sun was already high up and the mist was slowly coiling its way into the sky. As we turned around to paddle back, both the sky and the lake were a tightly stretched cloth of blue without a single wrinkle or blemish.
Lake’s misty breath coiling its way into the sky
Beautiful morning reflections: this one looks like a snake
What wild creature dwells here?
The lake is so smooth it is hard to believe it’s water
Once we got back, we enjoyed our coffee on the rock by the lake followed by a swim and a good nap on that same rock.
Morning coffee by the lake
Sun + water + coffee = the best part of the day
As much as we wanted to stay, we still had to get to Grace. So, without much enthusiasm (mostly because we could feel the end of the trip approaching), we started packing, then headed for the portage. While shorter than the previous one, it was also hillier and, therefore, felt longer.
Not all superheroes wear capes – some have a flapping tent behind them
At Grace, we got the same site 179 where we stayed last year. It felt like coming back home.
Site 179 on Grace Lake was the same one we used last year – it felt like coming home
View from our site on Grace Lake
Unlike an islandless Nellie Lake, Grace is dotted with islands and rocks
The merganser duck family still lived on an island across from us. This time, there were 14 of them. They kept splashing around like kids first learning to swim.
A family of merganser ducks lived on an island across from our campsite
We got a beautiful sunset that night, a few hesitant drops of rain and even a rainbow.
A beautiful sunset to mark our last evening in the park
Day 8 – Grace Lake back to Widgawa Lodge though Cranberry, Frood and Charleston; one portage – 1.6 km
I woke up already thinking about our drive back and my upcoming trip to Ukraine, but then I pulled myself back into the here and now. It was our last day in the park, and I knew I would regret later not being fully present.
Morning on Grace Lake – hard to believe the trip is over
Sure, we still had one more long portage and paddle back to the Lodge, which we managed to cover in half the time, probably because the wind, usually present on Frood, decided to give us a break. And yes, there was a drive to Toronto, unpacking and packing again, a long flight I was dreading. But all of that was in the future.
Our last portage of the trip awaits
I met this little guy while portaging from Grace
Our last portage done; a couple more hours of paddling till the end of the trip; my face a few shades redder than when we started
Widgawa Lodge already visible in the distance
And it’s a wrap!
So I sat on the rock by the lake with my morning coffee watching the islands bathed in golden light, reflected in the deep green waters. My husband quietly sipped his coffee right next to me, an amazing canoe partner I’ve been lucky to have to navigate the wilderness of Killarney and the wild waters of everyday life. And I knew there was nothing more perfect than this moment, the bitter vigour at the bottom of my coffee cup, the intense green stillness of the lake, and this breathtaking, heart piercing, soul-nurturing togetherness that requires no talk or grandiose declarations.