Story and photography by Clay Dolan
Northern Ontario is often referred to as “God’s Country”. If that’s true then Killarney must be her capital or at the very least the front entrance. After all, they say Killarney is the gateway to the North Channel. A boater’s paradise, the North Channel is considered the best freshwater cruising in the world. Untouched wilderness, hidden coves and pristine shoreline draw boaters by the thousands each summer with Killarney as one of the main ports of call. For a small village, it has a large reputation—the charming restaurants, charismatic pubs, and elegant lodging are reminiscent of a maritime fishing village. And boasting the “world’s best Fish ’n Chips only adds to the alure. The area is not limited to its waterways however, just 10 kilometers up the road is the entrance to what many describe as the jewel of the Ontario parks system; Killarney Provincial Park. A mecca for hikers and canoeists, the 645 square kilometer wilderness landscape once inspired the legendary Group of Seven artists.
One only needs to stand atop the white quartzite ridges of the La Cloche Mountains to view the crystal-clear lakes, and pink granite of the Georgian Bay Coast to truly appreciate the divine landscape.
My first Killarney experience was in the summer of 1993. It was my parent’s 25th wedding anniversary and they treated my siblings and I to a week in Killarney. My father had recently purchased his first boat, a 24-foot Limestone which he sailed up from Thornbury Harbour. We spent two nights at the world-famous Killarney Mountain Lodge before heading further north to Okeechobee Lodge. Built in 1941 and steeped in history, Okeechobee Lodge was once a summer destination for Chicago Mobsters. Only accessible by boat, the lodge sits at the entrance to one of the world’s largest freshwater fjords—Baie Fine.
Carved into the La Cloche Range, the roughly 15-kilometer fjord is flanked on either side by towering, white quartzite cliffs. At the end of Baie Fine is the popular anchorage known as “The Pool”. Perched on a small granite island in the center of the tiny bay sits a rustic cabin that was built by Ralph Evinrude for his wife singer/ actress Frances Langford. The couple would sail their 118-foot-long yacht Chanticleer up from the Caribbean for the summer months. The Evinrude family (the original owners of Evinrude Marine now owned by Bombardier) kept the cottage after Ralph’s death in 1986. Langford continued to visit aboard her new, and slightly smaller (108-feet) yacht, which she also named Chanticleer.
Many boats have run aground in the waters of Baie Fine— its small islands and rock outcroppings, combined with a couple narrow channels to The Pool, make the voyage a little tricky, especially for your first time. I can remember sitting on the bow of my father’s boat calling out rocks as we inched along at trawling speed. So, you can imagine our surprise when we finally reached The Pool and saw not only a dozen or so large cabin-cruisers, but also the famed Chanticleer tied up neatly to a small island with a weathered cottage. The yacht dwarfed the cottage and everything else for that matter—it was a sight to see. Needless to say, Dad was a little less concerned about his 24-footer on the way out.
A zoomed-in view from The Crack
Cruising Baie Fine, jumping off the cliffs and swimming in the warm water of The Pool was the highlight of the trip for me. As I imagine it would be for any 15-year-old. Still, years later I was envious of my two older brother’s stories about the famous Carousel Bar in the Killarney Mountain Lodge. Including a dance or two with a taxidermy black bear. Some 25 years later when I bought my first boat, there was only one thing on my bucket list; a trip with my wife to Killarney.
Haily and I trailered our humble 16-foot bowrider from the Blue Mountains in a little over four hours. We were excited for the boating adventures that lay ahead. With such a small vessel however, weather would dictate how much time we would spend on the water. With rain forecasted the next day we knew there would be no rush to wake up early. After an intimate dinner in the Lodge’s main dining room, we ventured into the Carousel Lounge where local musician Andy Lowe already had the crowd dancing.
The forecast held true and we woke up (late morning) to overcast skies and drizzle. We spent the day touring the village and with the summer crowds gone it felt like we had the place to ourselves. Lunch at Herbert’s Fisheries was followed by a few games of shuffleboard back at the lodge. With a fire roaring in the Carousel Lounge, it was time to settle into a couch with a book and a few cocktails.
“Sitting around in the Carousel Lounge
Watching the boats goin’ up and down
It looks pretty much as it did in days gone by
I should’a sailed today but that’s OK
The world can wait another day
We’ll take it easy in the Carousel Lounge”
—Andy Lowe, Carousel Lounge
Saturday greeted us with clear skies, and a moderate west wind. Still too rough for our little boat, we decided to spend the day inland. Although its famous for the abundance of canoe routes, Killarney Provincial Park also boasts some off Ontario’s best hiking trails. The La Cloche Silhouette Trail, a 78-kilometer loop through the park is a mecca for seasoned hikers and can take from seven to 10 days to complete. For those looking for a less challenging excursion, there are many day hikes within the park and along the Georgian Bay shoreline.
One of the most popular day hikes is “The Crack”. A six-kilometer “out-and-back” trail with breathtaking views of Killarney and O.S.A lakes (Ontario Society of Artists) framed by the white quartzite of the La Clouche Range. The trailhead is approximately seven kilometers northeast of the park’s main entrance on Highway 637 and joins up with the Silhouette Trail. Rated moderate to difficult, Haily had no problem carrying our seven-month old son on her back while I carried my camera equipment. It does get steep and rocky near the top, but the iconic view is well worth the effort.
Another popular hike is the Granite Ridge Trail. At only two kilometers in length, it’s a quick and easy trek with more incredible views. The trail winds its way through the forest and past a lone abandoned car that appears to be sinking into the ground, then takes a sharp turn upwards and climbs a steep granite face. There are two lookouts at the top providing sweeping views of the park. The trail head is directly across from the park’s main entrance on Highway 637.
Still unsure about the boating conditions, we decided to do another hike early Sunday morning. This time sticking close to the lodge, we completed the five-kilometer Lighthouse Trail in under two hours. Another “out-and-back”, this trail takes you along the rugged Georgian Bay coastline ending at the Killarney East lighthouse. Constructed in 1866 the lighthouse makes the eastern entrance to the Killarney Channel. The trailhead is right beside the newly constructed Canada House.
Later that day we were due to check out of our room, but the boating conditions were finally looking favourable so we decided to stay another night. With one destination in mind we quickly launched our boat at the Municipal launch in the heart of the village. Once we were clear of the channel it was full throttle all the way to Baie Fine.
Cruising the calm waters of Baie Fine
On the way we passed Okeechobee Lodge, which looked like it hadn’t changed in the two and a half decades since I last visited. Then it was into the fjord where the sheltered water of Baie Fine provided a smooth ride. Cruising at 60 kilometers an hour with towering hills on either side of us was just as fun as it sounds. I was almost disappointed when we reached our destination, but we had one last adventure planned for the day; a short hike from The Pool lies the famous crystal-clear waters of Topaz Lake.
Many of the lakes in Killarney Provincial Park were damaged decades ago by acid rain originating from the nickel mining operations near Sudbury. Topaz Lake was one such causality, and its clear water is the result of an increased PH. Considered a “dead lake”, Topaz’s slightly acidic water prevents the growth of any aquatic plant life. Most of the lakes in Killarney have recovered, but for those located in quartzite areas, like Topaz Lake, recovery has been much slower. Although we accessed Topaz Lake the easy way, it can also be reached by an 11-kilometer hike from the Killarney Provincial Park’s main entrance at George Lake.
Stunning reflections on Topaz Lake
The 40-kilometer ride back to the lodge was surreal as we didn’t see any other boats on the water. Our first sign of civilization was a float plane making a steep dive into the Killarney Channel to land. “Clearly this pilot knows what he’s doing” I thought. Turns out he did—it was the owner of Killarney Mountain Lodge, Holden Rhodes.
Holden purchased the Killarney Mountain Lodge in 2015 and has made a significant investment to the tune of $42 million. Older buildings were renovated, and updates were made to food and beverage spaces. The Covered Portage building, housing 21 suites, was completed in 2017, as well as the Great Room which is a stunning addition to the historic main lodge. The newest draw to the lodge is Canada House, which is touted as the world’s largest log conference centre. Haily and I toured the facility and were in awe of the grandeur of the 34,000-square-foot structure.
The Killarney Mountain Lodge
While we were there construction on another impressive project was underway; the largest paddle in the world, “The Big Dipper”. The size of the paddle was only eclipsed by the character of the man building it, Mike Ranta. We had met Mike the previous evening in the Carousel Lounge. A Killarney local, Mike has paddled (and portaged) his canoe coast-to-coast across Canada, twice! The Big Dipper is 111-feet-long with an 18-foot-wide blade—a Guinness World Record! The paddle’s shaft contains a 50-foot-long stainless-steel time capsule that will be sealed for 200 years. I wonder what they’ll think of us?
The calm of the Killarney Channel
Autumn in Killarney holds a distinctive ambiance—the channel between the mainland and George Island, usually bustling with boat traffic during the summer, sits peaceful and still. The docks along the channel lie empty, save for a few lonely looking fishing vessels. Only a handful of visitors tour the village, while locals are busy preparing for the upcoming winter months. Hiking remains popular as the park comes alive with colour, and visitors often drive up from the GTA just for the day. With 50 acres of wide-open spaces, and ample room for social distancing, the Killarney Mountain Lodge is the perfect place for an active, autumn getaway. The lodge remains open until the end of October, while their sister property The Sportsman’s Inn stays open throughout the winter. If you haven’t experienced Killarney, put this Ontario treasure on your to do list.