- Transit: To get to the Bell Lake access you’ll need a vehicle. Right now Parkbus will take you from various locations in Toronto, too. Killarney Kanoes is onsite for outfitting needs. Fuel is available at a station just a bit east of the turn-off onto Bell Lake Road.
- Cost: Low.
- Crowds: None to speak of on a Summer weekday in high season.
- Attractions: Camping, canoeing, kayaking, swimming, hiking, photography, bird watching, serenity, absolutely gorgeous views.
- Accessibility: To get to campsites you’ll need to be able to canoe or kayak, or hike through sometimes rough terrain.
- Safety Note: While it can be rewarding in unparallelled ways, backcountry camping is not for beginners, unless you’re going with experienced backcountry campers you trust. You’ll need to know things like what to do if your canoe flips, and how and where to hoist your food bag to keep it safe from bears. Proceed with caution.
- Environmental Impact: There is a can and glass ban at Killarney. Please respect it. Also, respect the park and please leave your campsite in better condition than you found it.
- Click here for map.
We’ve travelled from Manitoulin, the biggest lake-bound island in the world, onto the Canadian Shield and through the remains of a three-and-a-half billion year-old mountain range, one of the oldest on Earth: The staggeringly white La Cloche mountains, blanketed with emerald forest. We’ve gone around the entire north end of the park and circled back to Bell Lake, where we put in our canoe.
Living in Ontario, you’re subliminally inundated with pictures of the north. The peaceful wilderness that stretches out to the distant arctic and Hudson’s Bay. Blue sky reflected in the water, wind-blown pines clinging to rocky island anchors, the rolling Canadian Shield streaked with whites, greys, and pinks. From the ubiquitous Group of Seven to endless ads evoking the feel of the Muskoka Lakes, this – this very place – is what every one of them is channelling.
I’ve never seen it before, but I’ve seen it everywhere.
It’s an effortless landscape in the way of ancient places: The water, the forest, and the land are all just so, draped across each other like silk, landing exactly as they wish to; entirely uninterested in trying to impress. This place has long since soared above the clouds and been surrounded by sea; it’s been tropical and temperate and buried by glaciers; it’s watched life grow from its infancy, the birth of plants and forests, oceans and continents come and gone.
All this is in the back of my mind as we paddle deep into the park. The few canoes full of eager strangers we set off with drop away one by one, and we keep going. A few fishing boats buzz by until we turn the corner out of Bell Lake.
Our trip becomes quieter and quieter, even birdsong melting away in the breeze from the north.
As we approach our first portage the water shallows and the shores grow near. The beauty of this place hugs in close. Lily pads crowd around, graceful branches reach out over the water, and dragonflies swoop from bank to bank. It’s a symphony of blues and greens here, with splashes of white, purple, and the rusty ruddy forest floor.
The portage is perhaps the easiest I’ve ever taken. Short, straight, and flat, it follows a decaying marine railway from one lake to another in less than fifty metres.
We amble across and meet the only other traveller we’ll talk to on our journey, a smiling older man bringing his grandchildren here. His reverence for this timeless oasis is unmistakeable. He tells us it’s been quiet here the past few days. He sounds conflicted about that – happy that there are no swarms to tread on what makes this place special, and sad that it isn’t more loved. (Though I understand other parts of the park get crowded.)
We continue on to our final stop: Little Bell Lake, all to ourselves.
We swim and set up our hammocks. We listen to loons and other birds sing, fly overhead, fish in the lake. The only human sounds here are our own. It is a total, almost jarring solitude.
The food cooked over the campfire is good, the company even better. There are no diversions here to keep us from talking about the important and the ridiculous, to distract us from sharing silence, closeness, and touch. We fall asleep quickly to the calls of distant frogs and nearby loons.
Any hope I had of taking shots of the starry night released as my eyelids did, and I unwound into dreams.
In the morning the sun is warm and the lake is a mirror. Inspired by our map and Explore the Backcountry we set off to Chain Lake to see if the old portage route back to Bell Lake is passable. If it is, we’ll cut at least an hour off our canoe time.
Chain Lake is easily reached; the rock dam at the tiny narrows is no problem to portage – a small hump of Canadian Shield and a tiny set of waterfalls. In Chain Lake we’re careful not to disturb what we encounter. Who knows how long it’s been since someone’s dipped their paddle in it? We are acutely aware that we’re guests here.
It’s a small lake, and pretty. There’s one large island and a very irregular shore. At the end we find the water vanishes into mud, so we turn around. There’s no portage trail here to follow. Maybe – maybe – with the spring run-off, or in the winter when the ground is frozen, but not in the middle of summer.
We turn back and explore the lake’s island, which is white with a red-orange scalloped shore. We run and skip across it like kids.
It strikes me that this is one of the few places I’ve been where I don’t find a single sign of human waste. No discarded coffee cups, cigarette butts, beer bottles, or the like. I expect to see some trash among the clutches of flotsam and displaced stones, but nope. Not even a shred of plastic.
I question whether I should write about this place at all; whether I should draw attention to somewhere so gloriously free of humans. But I remember the long trip in here, the sore muscles, the portages. I don’t think this will interest the type who’d flick a cigarette butt into dry grass.
We return to our campsite and I see a dragonfly in the water. I wonder if I should help or, like they say in all the nature documentaries, let nature take its course. But it’s hard, here, to believe in the false dichotomy of people and nature. We are all inextractable from this world. For some people that’s terrifying. Right now, for me, it feels beautiful.
I offer the dragonfly a stick, and it rapidly climbs on.
The two of us lie by the shore and drink up the sun and quiet. It feels safe and happy here. A good place to recharge.
Some delightfully unmeasured amount of time later, the dragonfly flits off towards the distant, ancient mountains.
And I keep looking long after I can’t see it anymore.