Searching for stillness in a shifting world: Our first backcountry trip on the year

Time stands still during the last few moments before sunrise; the world holds its breath awaiting the sun’s big entrance. It is my favourite time of the day. I steer my canoe into the middle of the lake and just sit there watching dark silhouettes of the hills framed by the soft glow of the sky above and the lake below. Over the past few months of being homebound and unable to leave the city, I’ve been craving this silence – the absence of that permanent urban hum that even COVID hasn’t been able to extinguish. Here, in the middle of Nellie Lake, everything is quiet, so quiet that I can hear blood rushing through my head. Or is it the heartbeat of the Universe? I listen to its rhythmic beat punctuated by a bird song bouncing between the hills.

sunrise on Nellie Lake

Waiting for a sunrise on Nellie Lake

This has been a challenging year. And while our family hasn’t been affected nearly as much as some, the constant onslaught of information – both through work and personal life – has been weighing on me, filling every pore of my being, leaving no room for anything else. The last few months have been a blur: mornings merging into nights, weekdays into weekends, weeks stretching into months, months into decades. During these morning hours on Nellie Lake, when the world below mirrors the world above I can finally feel my mind slow down and see inside me reflections of this perfect stillness.

morning paddle on Nellie Lake

Mornings, when the world below perfectly mirrors the world above, are the best time for a paddle.

And so starts our first backcountry trip of the year. Technically, it started the day before with a drive up to Widgawa Lodge, a windy paddle (luckily, mostly tailwind) through Charlton, Frood and Cranberry Bay, and two long portages totalling 3.6 kilometres with only a short stretch of Grace Lake in between.

start of portage from Cranberry Bay into Grace Lake in Killarney

Ready for our first portage of the trip

By six, we set up camp on campsite 143 on Nellie Lake. The last few hours of our first day in the park also featured a refreshing swim in the crystal clear waters of Nellie Lake, a magnificent double rainbow stretched across the sky, a spectacular sunset, delicious Pad Thai from Backpacker’s Pantry for dinner, reading and a lot of staring at the water.

view from campsite 143 on Nellie Lake in Killarney

Campsite 143 on Nellie Lake: we were excited to be back.

sitting on the rock at site 143 on nellie lake in killarney

I have dreaming about this moment for the last few months.

Beautiful double rainbow over Nellie Lake

A beautiful double rainbow on our first night in the park: we couldn’t wish for a more dazzling welcome.

sunset on Nellie Lake in Killarney

Watching the day slowly melt away

So yes, the trip officially started the day before. But in every trip, there is a moment when the buzz of the world that I’ve dragged with me through all the lakes and portages (as if the weight of camping gear isn’t enough) starts to recede and I can feel a spring at my core start to unwind. This time that moment arrived on the golden wings of a June sunrise, under the watchful gaze of Killarney’s white hills.

We booked this trip a couple of months ago when we weren’t even sure whether we’d be able to go. But then again, when you find a site available on Nellie Lake, you book it and worry about details later. That’s what I’ve learned during my multiple unsuccessful attempts to get a site here. Last year, by some unexpected stroke of luck we managed to change our reservation from Helen to Nellie in the middle of our week-long trip, and I fell head over heels in love with this beautiful lake. I was excited to go back, even if only for a night. Then we built the rest of our trip around this one-night availability, getting two nights on Helen and another one on Grace.

paddling on Grace Lake

Last morning in the park: paddling on Grace Lake

As a result, we ended up with a route that featured three long portages that we had to do twice amounting to 12 kilometres of dragging our equipment through the woods and a whole lot of doing very little in between. Luckily, the portages, while long, weren’t too hard and, if it wasn’t for a welcome party of mosquitoes and black flies, could even be enjoyable. I am kidding, of course, no one enjoys portages. If you are a rare weirdo who does, I would love to hear from you. What is it that you find attractive about climbing over a fallen tree trunk with a food barrel on your back, arms full of paddles and ears filled with bugs’ buzzing? The best part about a portage is the first glimpse of water on the other end.

portaging in Killarney

As if portaging isn’t hard enough, occasionally you get obstacles like a fallen tree blocking the trail.

But they do help get farther away from crowds. Three sweat-inducing, muscle-straining, bug-infested portages were the price we were prepared to pay for sharing Helen Lake with no one but turtles, beavers and fish.

view from site 173 on Helen Lake in Killarney

Morning on Helen Lake: not a single person in sight

snapping turtle in the water

Our neighbour on Helen Lake

snapping turtle in the water

Another snapping turtle, this time on Grace Lake

beaver flapping its tail in the water

We met this cute guy during our evening paddle on Helen Lake and he put quite a show for us.

view from campsite 179 on grace Lake in Killarney

View from our campsite on Grace Lake

merganser ducks

As always, there was a family of merganser ducks living on an island across from our site on Grace Lake.

merganser ducks

Another merganser ducks family visited us on our last morning in the park.

Helen Lake

Early evening on Helen Lake

It may seem counterintuitive to crave solitude after months of isolation. But only by stepping away from the everyday, I could start processing the events of the past few months. And, of course, undiluted nature time has always helped me keep my balance and maintain my mental health. This time I needed it more than ever. With 2020 springing on us more changes than most decades, Killarney’s billion-year-old hills offered permanence I could hold on to. Being there for every sunrise and sunset during our trip, watching the world fade into the softness of pinks and oranges, just to be reborn the next day, helped measure time. Familiar smells, sights and sounds provided the constant I’ve been missing in the shifting world.

view of Grace Lake in killarney

Grace Lake framed by Killarney’s billion-year-old hills offered a sense of permanence in a shifting world.

watching sunset on Grace Lake in Killarney

Watching sunset from our site on Grace Lake

morning on Helen Lake

Embracing the stillness of early morning hours

sitting by the water on site 179 on grace Lake in Killarney

Watching the time stand still for the first time in months

end of day on helen Lake in Killarney

Measuring time by sunsets and sunrises rather than work hours and to-do lists

That’s probably why we had very few activities planned apart from moving from one site to another. More than anything I wanted to stay still and let the nature flood my senses, envelop me in a tight hug, sooth my aching brain and heart. I felt like a thirsty traveller who’s just stumbled upon a spring of cold water after weeks of trekking through a desert. I kept gulping this stillness unable to get enough of it. I plunged into reading revelling in the fact that I could finally process information that wasn’t COVID-related. And every time we jumped into the lake to cool down, I could feel the waters wash off not only sweat and dirt but also some of the stress and anxieties.

enjoying the view on site 173 on helen lake in Killarney

I couldn’t get enough of the silence; the absence of a permanent city noise is what I’ve been craving.

reading by the campfire on site 179 on Grace Lake in Killarney

For the first time in months I could finally process information that wasn’t COVID-related.

reading on site 173 on helen Lake in Killarney     reading by the water on Helen Lake in Killarney

Usually, our trips are packed with activities; this time we spent a lot of time reading, swimming and watching the water.

cup of coffee, creme brulee from Backpacker's Pantry, jam and cookie, magazine by the lake

A perfect morning starts with a good cup of coffee, great breakfast (who said cookies with plum jam and creme brulée isn’t breakfast) and even better reading.

As we walked back the three long, much hotter, but, on the plus side, significantly less buggy, portages, I felt lighter. Not only because we ate most of the food from the food barrel, but also because a lot of the darting thoughts and heavy feelings were now dissolved in the lakes, shaken off along the trails, and swept away by the wind.

paddling on helen lake in Killarney

General information

Widgawa Lodge and Outfitters issues backcountry permits for anyone entering Killarney from Highway 6 and offers canoe and gear rentals. With COVID precautions in place, they request to call or email them ahead of time to schedule your arrival time.

Our itinerary

Day 1: Widgawa Lodge – Charlton Lake – Frood Lake (windy as always) – Cranberry Bay – portage into Grace Lake (1.6 kilometres) – paddle across Grace Lake – portage into Nellie Lake (2 kilometres) – camp on Nellie Lake

Nellie Lake is one of the clearest lakes in Killarney with 28 metres visibility on a calm day. The water is a striking blue colour that never seizes to amaze me no matter how many times we come here. Not the regular blue of other bodies of water but rather someone-spilled-buckets-of-paint kind of blue.

Nellie Lake

Nellie Lake is one of the clearest and most beautiful lakes in Killarney.

paddle against the blue water of Nellie Lake

The colour of the water never seizes to amaze me.

The lake has three campsites. #144 is the farthest and considered to be best. We like 143, mainly because of a sparkling white rock ledge that is perfect for morning coffee, reading, sun bathing or any other activity you’d prefer. Site 144 has access to a rock as well but it is not strictly part of the site and requires a bit of a walk.

campsite 143 on Nellie Lake in Killarney

Campsite 143 on Nellie Lake

Nellie Lake

View of site 143 from the water; yes, that is the bottom of the lake visible in foreground.

making coffee during camping

Coffee is coming soon.

sitting by the water on campsite 143 on Nellie Lake in Killarney

Enjoying dinner and some reading by the lake

Day 2: portage into Helen Lake (2.4 kilometres) – camp on Helen Lake
Day 3: rest day on Helen

Because it isn’t easily accessible, very few people come to Helen Lake. All the campsites were available, and during our stay there we didn’t see a single person paddle through it. We stayed on campsite 173, which was pretty nice with great views all around and lots of space on the rocks. Yes, rocky outcrops and views are at the top of my campsite musts list.

site 173 on Helen Lake in killarney

Site 173 on Helen Lake

site 173 on Helen lake

Lots of rocks for swimming, sunbathing, reading and just watching the lake

Site 138 is another great site. It is located right on the portage between Helen and Low Lakes so I was hesitant to stay there. Who’d want to have people file by all day? Turns out no one ever does so it’s pretty safe. The other downside is lack of a good tent pad unless you are okay with setting up camp on hard rocks. The views, however, and excellent swimming in Low Lake with lots of, you guessed it, rocky outcrops, more than make up for less than excellent sleeping conditions.

portage between Helen Lake and Low Lake in killarney

Portage between Helen Lake (right) and Low Lake (left) is where site 138 is located.

view from portage between Helen and Low

View of Low Lake from the portage

paddling on Low Lake

Exploring cliffs surrounding Low Lake

Day 4: portage into Nellie (2.4 kilometres) – portage into Grace (2 kilometres) – camp on Grace Lake

It was the most challenging day so we broke up the long portage haul with a lunch and swimming on Nellie Lake. On Grace, we got our favourite site 179 third year in a row. Again, the site has some excellent rocks to lounge on, a view of an island, plus you can climb up the hills behind the site for a great panorama of Grace Lake.

site 179 on Grace lake

This is our third year in a row staying on site 179 on Grace Lake.

morning on grace Lake

Morning on Grace Lake

Day 5: portage into Cranberry Bay – Frood Lake (still windy but not dangerously so, we’ve seen worse) – Charlton – Widgawa Lodge – stop at Herbert Fisheries in Sudbury for some fish and chips – drive to Toronto


Ready for our last portage of the trip

8 thoughts on “Searching for stillness in a shifting world: Our first backcountry trip on the year

  1. As always, I resonate with your stories, as they convey a deep understanding of your surroundings and an intimacy with nature so gracefully captured in your photos. I keep coming back to your blog 🙂 Enjoy the summer.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your photos perfectly capture the peace and solitude of the lakes. Our escapes this spring were in the form of camping out in the forest, away from people, but I believe I shared that sense of relief when I could finally get away from the constant hum of daily life and start to focus on what I brought to read. Oh, and that rainbow was fantastic!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Meghan. It’s been a difficult year. I am grateful for all the opportunities to get away and disconnect. And, yes, we were so excited to see that rainbow. Also happy that I decided to bring my wide-angle lens even though it meant extra weight on portages 🙂


  3. Pingback: The trip that almost didn’t happen: Canoeing in north-west Algonquin | Gone Camping

  4. Pingback: A look back: 2020 in pictures and words | Gone Camping

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