This is the story of my eight day canoe trip in Killarney Provincial Park – Ontario’s Crown Jewel.
There’s one thing I do obsessively before heading out on a canoe trip; check the weather. It changed many times over the course of the week leading up to our departure, but the last time I glanced, the forecast was showing full sun across the week. I was hopeful.
I was hopeful until B came home with a report of a hurricane that was to hit the eastern seaboard, and that would explain the high winds we had been experiencing day and night leading up to our trip.
Looking at the longterm forecast, I remained hopeful.
Preparing for the trip was done the day before leaving. We had just moved into a new apartment and the only thing we had prepared was our food for the week. B spent hours dehydrating one-pot meals that would make life on the trip easier since we took very limited gear with us.
When the alarm went off at 4:00AM on Saturday, October 3rd (at “crow piss” as B would say), we loaded all our gear into the car and grumbled about the howling winds at that time in the morning. “It will die down by this afternoon,” or “it could be different up in Killarney”, was what we said to reassure ourselves.
We stopped at an authentic “choke and puke” for breakfast and watched the waves on Lake Simcoe crash against a wharf in Barrie as we drove through. “It doesn’t look that bad,” we both told ourselves.
Driving north and looking at all watercourses (ponds, lakes, rivers, creeks and even puddles) along the side of the road, we kept telling ourselves “it doesn’t look that bad.”
We pulled into the office at George Lake in Killarney Provincial Park to get our permits and describe the colour of our canoe and tent, a norm when booking backcountry sites. B described the colour of our canoe as “champagne, with a white bottom”. The Park Attendant asked, “Are you expecting be bottoms up?” After months of planning, map reading, and route planning, we were finally about to embark on B’s graduation trip. Would it be curtailed by a strong headwind as quickly as it started? Since it took us about 7 hours to drive to Killarney Provincial Park, we decided long ago to spend the first night on a backcountry site on George Lake.
We unloaded all our gear down at the dock and watched a couple paddle in from their trip. There was a bit of small talk before they went to take gear to their car, during which they mentioned that they watched a group of 6 turn back from Killarney Lake because it was too windy. And while they were away, the wind picked up their canoe sitting on the dock and blew it onto shore. I ran to try and save it from any damage and in the back of my mind I kept telling myself “it can’t be that bad.”
All loaded up and excited to paddle to our first site, we had a pretty strong headwind. We paddled out of the secluded bay that we had started from and saw some pretty harsh white caps on the main lake. We kept paddling and spotted what looked to be a site across the lake. We went for it, but turned around immediately when the waves were an inch or two from crashing over the bow of the canoe. My heart was racing. We decided that it might be best to wait it out on shore. We paddled to shore, made tea and agreed to wait for the wind to die down.
While we were shore-bound, we watched others paddle into the chaos and quickly turn around. It was hopeless. We weren’t on the shore for more than 15 minutes before B started talking about throwing in the towel. He felt defeated. I did too. It was our first day and we couldn’t even paddle to our first campsite, how were we going to do this canoe trip? It was a trip that we had both been looking forward to for such a long time. It was a trip that just the three of us were taking together. It was much needed quality time for us. I mentioned maybe getting a site at the campground and paddling out the next day from there if the wind died down. It didn’t seem right to go back, and I could see the devastation festering in B.
We reloaded the canoe and were about to head back to the campground when B suggested giving it another try. I couldn’t say no. We had to at least try it again. Our plan was to quarter into the gale-force winds and then turn close to shore on the other side and ride the tailwind down to the campsite.
Once we were paddling, we couldn’t turn back. Turning the canoe in these waves would definitely result in tipping over. We were committed. The rollers were so high that we were catching air under the bow of the canoe. CRASH, CRASH, was the sound we heard after each pounding wave. We kept paddling. I just looked down and counted to 10 with every stroke, over and over, and over. I was terrified. We were about 3/4’s of the way across when I yelled back if we could turn now, “NO!” so when I didn’t have anything left to give, and my arms were in pain and all the muscles were drained in my body, I paddled harder than I had before. Even Banjo was tense as she leaned into B in the stern.
It’s amazing how adrenaline works. We were both vibrating when we landed our canoe at the campsite. I needed a stiff drink right away and buzzed all over the campsite in disbelief that we just paddled through that. I didn’t know I had it in me.
We spent the afternoon watching paddler after paddler turn back.
The only reason why we decided to paddle through the gale-force winds in that condition is because we were all wearing our PFDs (which we always do), and because we were on the same lake as the campground. If we were anywhere else we would have never done this. Safety was our number one priority during this trip with caution used during every step and every paddle stroke. But sometimes when you want something to work so bad, you have to take a chance. And that chance turned into a pretty great story that we will be telling for years to come.
As you can see on the map, we didn’t have far to paddle, but it was a very hard first day! From the George Lake access point to campsite 3.