Celebrating my birthday in Killarney: a 45-year-long journey to Silver Peak

At 543 metres, Silver Peak isn’t the highest of mountains. Even the word “mountain” sounds like a bit of stretch. But it is the highest point in Killarney Provincial Park and offers breathtaking panoramic views of the La Cloche range, the closest we get to mountains here in Ontario.

Silver Peak is the highest point in Killarney and offers breathtaking views of La Cloche Mountains in Killarney.

As I finish my hike from David Lake to the top of Silver Peak, I’m relieved to finally see the glimmer of white rocks through the trees – a clear indication that the end of the trail is near. It is my third time hiking Silver Peak and you’d think by now I would remember that it is not an easy trail. But somehow it still takes me by surprise how much longer and harder it feels than what you’d expect from a five-kilometre hike. What equally takes me by surprise is the feeling of awe once I get to the top and look around: rolling hills of the La Cloche Mountains, squiggly contours of the lakes nestled between the sparkling white hills and a glimmering strip of Georgian Bay in the distance. White boulders are scattered around like frozen clouds mirroring their puffy cousins in the sky, and there is an immense feeling of open space and grandeur stretching all the way to the horizon in every direction.

White boulders scattered on top of Silver Peak

I lie down to catch my breath, my back pressed against the arching warm back of the mountain, and listen to its stories – 2.5-billion-years’ worth of them. Stories of former glory days when the La Cloche range was higher than today’s Rocky Mountains. Stories of a ringing sound they produce when struck with a hard object that marked celebrations and ceremonies, and was used for communication or to send warnings. That sound earned them the name “Sinmedwe’ek” from Ojibwa/Nishnaabeg people of Wiigwaaskingaa, which translates as “bell rocks” or “sounding stones.” The meaning made its way into the present day name for the range – La Cloche means “bell” in French. Stories of Indigenous peoples who have called this area their home for tens of thousands of years and continue to live in surrounding communities. Stories in which mountains are not just piles of rocks but are honoured as our ancestors, our grandfathers, keepers of our memories. Stories of the times when the town of Killarney was referred to as Shebahonaning or “a safe passage for water travel” in Ojibwa. The settlement, and subsequently the park, were renamed after Killarney Park in Ireland in the mid-19th century after the signing of the Robinson-Huron Treaty. A story that echoes that of many other places on Turtle Island – renaming as a violent, colonial act of erasing Indigenous people’s presence and connection to the land. 

As I listen to these stories, I think of my own love for this land. The love that was born the first time I visited the park more than 15 years ago – that deep feeling of peace and contentment that fills me every time I lay my eyes on the Sinmedwe’ek white cliffs or dip my paddle into one of Killarney’s blue lakes. And as I feel the warm stone press against my back, my spine aligned with a wrinkle in the billions-year-old quartzite, I get transported into the mountains of my youth – the Carpathians, a range in eastern Europe, where I took my first backpacking steps. In many ways, so different from the white cliffs stretching before me: higher, considerably younger, with outlines that are more jagged than rolling, with tumultuous rivers, instead of placid lakes, rushing through their valleys.

Yet, to me, Sinmedwe’ek or La Cloche Mountains tell stories that are similar to those I heard when hiking the Carpathians, stories that echo the life narrative itself: of ups and downs, of losing the sight of the mountain top you are trying to reach but continuing to persevere along the trail trusting that it will eventually get you to your destination, stories of sometimes necessary detours and spontaneous off-trail adventures, of those exhilarating moments when you get to a viewpoint and take in the glorious vistas. Stories of those rare moments when you can see both where you came from and where you are heading allowing you to inhabit both the past and the future while being firmly rooted in the present, connected to the rock under your feet.

Hike to Silver Peak: through the woods, over roots and rocks, past stunning vistas

In many ways, my solo birthday trips are a way to look both back and forward and enjoy that moment of being present and connected to the land and myself. So as I stand on top of Silver Peak breathing in the views around me, I think of my journey here. And not just my sweaty, two-hour-hike from David Lake that now looks like a blotch of blue paint spreading through the green. Not even my paddle to the campsite the day before or my long drive from Toronto to the accompaniment of the Emergence Magazine podcast. I think back to my childhood forays into the forest behind my grandparents’ house back in Ukraine, a magical place where dreams of my future travels nestled in the tree branches. Of my grandfather who liked to roam the woods by himself, passing his love of nature and solo wanderings to me, and whose presence I can feel so deeply in this moment.

I think of all the sunsets I watched in the Carpathian Mountains with my friends when I knew a part of me was left among those peaks forever. Of my numerous trips to Killarney, each one tying me closer to this land. No matter how many times I come here, every time I see Sinmedwe’ek white cliffs rise from behind the trees, I feel a surge of joy followed by a feeling of calm that engulfs my entire being.

My paddle to the campsite with Silver Peak in the distance: seeing Killarney’s white cliffs always makes my heart sing

I think of all my previous solo trips – back to my inaugural 40th birthday adventure, which felt terrifying and exhilarating at the same time, all subsequent canoe trips to Killarney and one backpacking weekend in Algonquin – each one making me stronger and more confident. All of them leading to this moment on top of Silver Peak with La Cloche Mountains stretching to the horizon, splashes of blue and white among the green in every direction, a strip on Georgian Bay sparkling in the distance.    

Views from Silver Peak are spectacular in every direction.

On my second morning in the park, I wake up at 5:28, two minutes before the alarm clock is supposed to go off, and look outside the tent window. Searching for a campsite the day before took some time. David Lake is big and all the campsites with a view of Silver Peak, or at least close to the La Cloche Silhouette Trail that would lead me to Silver Peak, were already occupied by the time I made my way here from Bell Lake. After zigzagging from site to site, I was finally ready to camp anywhere as long as I could set up my tent, make dinner and jump into the lake, not necessarily in that order. I ended up at site 99, which turned out to be decent, if not outright spectacular. It did have one significant advantage as far as sites go: from its rocky shores I could follow the sun’s journey throughout the day, from its spectacular entry in the east all the way to the moment when it slipped behind the hills in the west – a fit that requires a very specific geographical location that not every campsite can accomplish.

Campsite 99 on David Lake offers a front-row seat to sunsets and sunrises.

So when I open my eyes on a Saturday morning and poke my head out of the tent, I can see reds and purples splashed across the eastern horizon. The awe-seeker in me is already reaching for the camera while simultaneously pulling on a sweater. Another part of me, however, the one that enjoys her morning sleep, puts up a good fight but eventually concedes, mainly because the awe-seeker promises that we’d return back to the tent after taking a few pictures. Needless to say, that promise gets broken.

On my second day in the park, I am greeted with a spectacular sunrise.

Half an hour later, my canoe cuts through the stretched-out canvas of the lake and I slowly lower my paddle into the water pushing through the clouds drifting underneath. These morning paddles rarely have a destination. Half the time, I just sit quietly in my canoe in the middle of the lake reluctant to disturb the calm that heralds the birth of a new day. I sit and wait for the world come to me, shower me with its beauty, flood my senses with the calls of the loons – their otherworldly songs gliding across the smooth surface of the lake and bouncing between hills. And if I sit long enough, my breath eventually matches that of the lake, of the forest and the hills that are now waking up and shaking remnants of their slumber into the water.

Early morning paddles are my time to get lost in the calm and beauty of the lake.

These early hours in the middle of the lake, amidst yawning hills and ethereal loon songs, when sunrise fiery hues give way to hazy blues – that’s when I feel so intensely present while slowly disappearing in the world’s embrace and the line between now and eternity is gradually erased.

As I turn around to paddle back to the site, I am met with a vision of Silver Peak towering in the distance. That view makes me smile. Even though I wasn’t able to get a campsite from which I could see Killarney’s highest peak, the mountain has been watching over me the entire time.

I can hear the mountain beckoning so I think of my journey to the top, a journey that is still to come later that day, after coffee and breakfast. I imagine every step of it: a paddle across the lake, a trek through a short section of the La Cloche Silhouette Trail followed by a hike up the trail that is a patchwork on intertwined roots and rocks – the journey that started in the woods behind my grandparent’s house.

Silver Peak towering over David Lake, beckoning for me to reach its top.

Before my birthday, I wake up in the middle of the night and get outside. The world is a monochrome painting done in different shades of blue, light streaming through pinholes in the sky. As I stand there, one of the tiny glowing balls dashes across the inky blue dome, burning its way into oblivion, and I rack my brain for a wish.

Tomorrow, I will start my day blowing out a candle on an apple pie for one by the side of the lake with no one but a couple of loons for company. Then, after a three-hour paddle back to the put-in at Bell Lake and an even longer drive back home listening to more Emergence Magazine podcasts, I will finish the day with my family – blowing out a candle on a cheesecake that my son made for me. The best of both worlds, the fact I never cease to be grateful for.  

Celebrating my birthday with an apple pie for one

But that’s for tomorrow. Right now, on the eve of my 45th birthday, I am standing at the edge of a lake, its surface so mirror-like that I am afraid it would break if I touch it, trying to figure out what’s next. The final destination is now obscured from view but I have to trust the trail will eventually bring me there, no matter how much longer it will take or how many ups and downs it will have, how many unexpected detours and sudden turns. One thing I can hope for is more and higher peaks along the way, more thrilling off-trail adventures, more stunning views, and, of course, trustworthy travel companions. So I close my eyes and make a wish.                

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