Longest Portage Ever. Time stood still as I watched my one boot sink into the fast moving water at the edge of the stream, held in place by the other boot that had fortunately become stuck in a bit of thicket just out of the water. We had begun the 6 day hike a few hours prior to this moment and were just a few kilometers into the trek when we came across our first stream crossing. Before the boot predicament we had been deciding how and where best to complete the crossing. I had decided to tie my boots together and throw them across to the other side of the stream; however when wearing a hiking pack improperly, range of arm motion is restricted and throws come short. Lesson learned.
Back in the moment and with a new sense of urgency, I found what I thought to be the narrowest and most shallow (and fastest moving) part of the stream and began my crossing, using my hiking pole as a stabilizer I inched my way across. The bottom was smooth and slick Canadian Shield. The water, being mid-April, was just above freezing. It felt like hundreds of pins being thrown against my legs. Now across and reunited with my precious hiking boots- I knew this was going to be a great trip.
Every year I try and get away for one marquee adventure, and most years it comes in the form of a canoe trip somewhere. This year, Darren, who has joined me on countless trips, told me of a hiking trail called La Cloche Silhouette Trail; a 78 km trail of ups and downs that looped through Killarney Provincial Park. I have always wanted to visit Killarney- although I always thought I would canoe it first.
In February we started planning. It occurred to me that I had never really been on a hiking trip. I’d been on many day hikes- Yosemite National Park, Joshua tree, etc., but never on a multi-day trek. My daypack was always filled with a water bladder, survival/first aid kit, snacks, and a camera. This trip was planned to be 6 days and 5 nights and everything needed was to fit in one pack each. There was no way my day pack or canoe pack was going to work.
The first purchase on the list was a proper backpack. Through research online I found there were far too many options and too many variables to make a quick decision. I ended up at Mountain Equipment Co-op and tried on a few sand-bag filled packs. I ended up buying a 75l pack made by MEC. It seemed comfortable and well built. I got it home and started to test fit all my gear, beginning with my sleeping bag.
My sleeping bag has been with me since high school. I purchased it from an army surplus store. It’s a two bag down filled sleeping system that even came with a liner and a canvas outer. Originally it was rated to -30 but I’m sure it has lost some of its insulating value over the years. I’ve used it on countless canoe trips and winter camping trips (and every time one of my friends stays over from a pub trek it’s the go-to). It also took up about 60% of my new pack. Shit.
I ended up back at MEC and purchased an all down -5c bag for about $200. There was some great synthetic bags there too, but they don’t get as compact (The only big downfall of down is that if it gets wet, it takes a long time to dry, so a bag liner or trash bag is a great purchase). Great minds think alike- Darren bought the same one. My other purchases included a new ultra-light sleeping pad, an inflatable camp pillow (how did I ever go without?) and a whole bunch of ready to eat camp meals.
It was now early April and we were in the final stages of planning. Weight was an obvious factor and comforts were exchanged for necessities. Camp shoes were replaced with lightweight flip-flops, camp stove and fuel was replaced with a stick stove (firebox) and clothing was minimal. The packs came in weighing around 35 to 40 lbs., prior to adding cameras and accessories. It’s become a bit of a tradition to pack a couple barley pops and steaks for the first night, so my pack was just shy of 50lbs.
Killarney is about 4 hours north of Toronto, Ontario. We got an early start to the day and left early, planning on hitting the trail around 10am. After several hours and many coffees later, we pulled off the main highway and headed for Killarney. Silver Peak is a prominent fixture there, and when I first saw it from the road I immediately thought it was snow capped and that we’d made a horrible mistake gong in April. My fears were short lived as I quickly learned it was actually white quartzite rock which in part makes Killarney Provincial Park so amazing. I quietly became apprehensive of the hike ahead as I realized that we wouldn’t climb it until day 4.
We parked the car at the gate and picked up our trail permits. I took a picture of the “Bears active in Back Country” sign and chuckled imagining a bear wearing a headband and ankle weights. We parked the car near the trailhead, gathered our gear, and set out. It was 10:30am.
If you do La Cloche trail clockwise, the first section you hit is “Baie Fine”. it’s a deceivingly easy part of the trail with well traveled paths and rolling hills. About an hour in we crossed paths with a solo hiker who mentioned to us he’d met another group of hikers that melted their boots in their campfire and were wondering how to hike out. We never crossed paths with them. Lesson 2, don’t cook your boots.
Just after the river crossing and my boot adventure we saw our first deer. It hung out for a bit before dashing off. Moments later we started “The Pig”. 295 meters up a creek bed. Half way up, near campsite H7, we took a quick break and I wished I had gotten in better shape prior. I was also really looking forward to getting to our site at H8 as my feet were killing me. A hike is like a portage that doesn’t end, and it became abundantly clear that a lighter pack is better. An hour of hiking, and seeing what would be the last hikers we’d see for a week, we could see our camp across the river. So close, yet so far, as we had to hike another kilometer to cross at a bridge, where we got to see what remained of a deer. We hit the site late afternoon and set up camp. It began to rain a little, the most rain we saw the whole trip. Days total: 1.10 deer, 2 beer, 1 steak, and 5 hikers. Tomorrow the goal was campsite 20.
Day two started with oatmeal and a cup of coffee. The firebox stick stove proved to be an excellent choice as a cooking source, and by the time we packed the tent, it was cool enough to pack.
About 500 meters’ into the hike I started to forget about my regular world and started to really open my eyes to Killarney. I was in constant awe of the diversity of the region. At site 16 we stopped for some trail mix and beef jerky and looked out over the landscape. Silver Peak was in visible the distance, and I wasn’t worried about how far away it was, but excited to see what was between here and there. As we approached site H20 later in the day, we heard what we thought was a dog barking, and immediately thought someone was at our site (in Killarney, you book specific sites, and etiquette dictates you camp where you book) We both breathed a sigh of relief when we arrived at a vacant site 20. Around 2am we heard a very near pack of wolves. Awesome.
The next day was a very active day. The landscape had gone from rolling hills to cliffs- steep grades, drops, and climbs. We had the pleasure of climbing a flowing waterfall, ascending some great ridges and the subsequent descents. The day ended at site 33, Little Mountain Lake. Wind had pushed the remaining winters ice to the nearby shore, and it sounded like a glass wind chime throughout the evening. The surrounding ridges cast moody shadows over the lake and we relaxed by the fire. I also tended to my feet, which were now raw from the trip. This was when my feet were at their worst. I was no longer making fun of Darren’s nightly foot care regimen and had learned another lesson, stop and tend to a hot spot on a foot when it starts, you can‘t walk off foot issues.
Nothing says good morning like an uphill hike out of camp 33. We spent the day walking from ridge to valley and back to ridge. I recall wishing I was in better shape for this trip, but my “portage” mindset was gone. There was no point “a” to “b” anymore. We were having fun in our environment…until we hit Silver Peak side trail. I had gone quiet and was hating life. My legs and lungs burning, we started the climb up to Silver Peak. Darren, at first was trying to keep conversation going, but then left me alone to deal with my negativity, knowing I’d be fine at the top (Finding the right “Accomplice” in adventure is another story). There was still a fair bit of snow on the trail as we hit the top of Silver Peak, and once at the top, we hung out at the old footings of the ranger tower. The view was spectacular. Georgian bay was visible, as were the smoke stacks in the opposite direction in Sudbury. In fact, you could kind of see the whole La Cloche route and it was a rewarding feeling to see the distance we had covered. Foreboding clouds approached and we began our decent.
Little Superior Lake was our view for our final night out and we relaxed and watched the sun drop while enjoying a cigar and bourbon. The next morning we had breakfast; coffee and oatmeal, and began our last day of La Cloche. After admiring the view of O.S.A. Lake we continued the hike.
Just before starting “The Crack”- a narrow pathway over large rocks and boulders marking the last big decent of the trip- we stopped for a break. We hadn’t seen anyone for 5 days and as we rested and took in the view we spotted a cell phone (with a camo case oddly) at the edge of the trail with one bar of battery and signal left. The cell phone is the ultimate opposite symbol of relaxation, and as much as we wanted to throw it further into the bush we knew we had to carry it out with us and turn it in at the ranger station. This cell phone also symbolized the end of the trip and soon I’d be reunited with mine.
La Cloche Silhouette Trail was the most difficult physically and mentally challenging trip I’ve ever been on. It was also one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done and a great adventure. Things I learned on this trip:
- Hiking boots- waterproof means they’ll take a lot longer to dry out, break them in before hand too
- Hiking Pack- try a bunch out at the store, if the staff aren’t helpful or you can’t test load the pack- run away
- Dehydrated food is your friend and if time doesn’t permit dehydrating your own, the ready eat meals at camp stores are tasty. Bring some hot sause or spices with you incase food boredom sets in.
- Bring a small non essential comfort item. For me it was my camera, could be playing cards, harmonica, etc.
- Tarps are amazing. Ones designed for hiking are the way to go, lightweigt and tough
- Stickstoves are great (in my area anyway) why carry fuel if theres some on the ground
- Don’t overpack clothes. I carried stuff I never wore.
- Know the person/people you’re going with- obviously never camp with someone you cant stand- but know their skills and abilities, its good for all involved.
- Have a first aid kit and know how to use it.
- Share your route with others. That way if you don’t check in after the trip they know where u are.
Most important - go do something.
We tackle the La Cloche Silhouette Trail in Killarney Provincial Park, with a quick stop at the top of Silver Peak...cut short by rain clouds approaching.