The Irresistible Lure of the North

Traditional Winter Camping in Killarney

Killarney Provincial Park is the gem of the Northeast; a place of distinct beauty, made up of white quartzite ridges, forming what’s called the La Cloche Mountain Range. There’s no other piece of wilderness like it in Ontario. Most campers, however, know it only during the peak summer season; a time when campsite reservations are hard to come by and there are less places to escape the crowds. Come winter, the park transforms into a frozen paradise. Visiting the same park between January and March not only guarantees you a place to camp, but it also offers absolute solitude. 

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It was a good 30 years ago that I began my winter camping affliction with Killarney Park. My time was spent camped out in the snow-covered ridge tops beside a small pond on top of Blue Ridge, a crest of white quartz overlooking the eastern end of Baie Fine’s The Pool. It was dreamlike. I spent my days walking along the La Cloche ridges and visiting regular summer hangouts, like Topaz, Spark and Pearl Lakes. It was frosty — the temperatures went down to -30º C a couple of nights. But, I was rewarded on the last morning of the trip by witnessing a pack of wolves attempt to chase down a deer out on the frozen ice of Baie Fine. The deer escaped, the wolves went hungry, and I went away determined to return each and every holiday season.

I’ve pitched my four-season tent in the campground, and better yet, rented a yurt. From the main campground, you can snowshoe to your heart’s content or take advantage of the incredible 30 kilometres of groomed cross-country ski trails. Friends of Killarney Park is a great resource to plan such a trip.

Heading into the interior has an extra appeal. I doubt you’ll see another person while trekking across the frozen lakes and snow-capped ridges. One of my best winter excursions in Killarney’s interior was to Silver Peak

Hiking to the highest point of the park’s La Cloche mountain range is a common ritual for me and many other campers in the summer months. But reaching the frozen summit in the dead of winter had been on my bucket list for years. I joined up with Lure of the North, a guiding company based out of Sudbury who specializes in winter trips in Ontario’s Northeast region. The owners, Kielyn and Dave Marrone, asked me to tag along on one of their outings in mid-February. I jumped at the chance. Lure of the North lead trips using traditional skills, dressed in winter moccasins and cotton anoraks, pulling freight toboggans, and sleeping in a canvas tent equipped with a wood stove. Personally, this is the best way to travel in the winter. Having a heat source at hand takes away an incredible amount of anxiety with camping out in the winter.

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'Lure of the North' guides Dave and Kielyn Marrone

Our base camp was Clear Silver Lake, less than a kilometre from the base of Silver Peak, which we managed to reach by 4 p.m. on the first day out. The walk in was uneventful, under blue skies with an air temperature that dropped to -12º C by late afternoon. It seemed early to camp, but darkness comes soon in February and Dave and Kieyln immediately handed out jobs to everyone.

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Whether setting up camp or tearing it down, it’s imperative that everyone be given chores to do. All seasoned winter campers emphasize the importance of developing a disciplined routine. The second you become even a bit lethargic, the trip is doomed. Having something go unplanned on a summer trip usually isn’t a big deal. With winter trips, where temperatures can reach below -20º C or so, a slight mistake can be deadly. 

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We split up chores: Some of us stomped down an area of snow for our communal eight-person canvas tent, while the others gathered wood. We brought down a dead-standing cedar and hauled it in by pieces back to camp to keep the wood stove going. Then, we cut a hole in the lake ice for drinking water (a cup of tea made from melted snow has a terrible burnt taste to it). Kieyln delivered some snacks and hot beverages before she started preparing dinner, and we were all settled into the cozy heated tent by 7 p.m.

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The contrast between inside and outside temperatures was dramatic, like a meat locker and a Swedish sauna. But with all of us making use of the same tent, we were soon taking turns savouring tea by the cook stove or heading outside to sip on single malt to relieve the claustrophobic feeling, while listening to a nearby Barred Owl’s famous “who cooks for you” call. A bunch of us even took a stroll out on the frozen lake where we lay down and looked up at the stars, while listening to the groan of the shifting ice underneath us.

The darker it got, the colder it became, and the more conscious we were of our actions. Touching metal, for example: the moment your bare fingers made contact, you felt a searing sensation, and a slight frostnip. The surrounding forest turned brittle and black. It seemed somewhat menacing, especially when the trees cracked and popped due to left-over sap expanding in their trunks. As the temperature dropped to -28º C, even light from our headlamps started to flicker, suffering from the effects of the cold.

It’s not all disconcerting, however. Beyond the groaning ice and cracking tree sap, there was an absolute silence to the frozen landscape. I absolutely loved it.

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Our trek up to Silver Peak didn’t go as planned. We only reached the three-quarter mark before running out of time and forced to head back to camp before darkness set in. The snow was just too deep. The beauty of our failure is no one seemed to care if we reached the pinnacle of the park or not. What we witnessed around us while attempting the climb was good enough to lift our spirits.  

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We spent the remaining days hiking up mini-versions of Silver Peak or playing baseball out on the ice, using snowshoes as bats and a roll of Duct tape as the ball. Our final day was frostier and the wind more brisk than our first, but it was more enjoyable. My body had become accustomed to the cold, and I actually enjoyed the sensation of hard ice crystals whipping against me. Pulling a freight toboggan across the lake seemed comparable to paddling a loaded canoe. It’s labour intensive, but extremely meditative, calming, even relaxing. 

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By the final day of the trip, my full attention was on my surroundings. I cherished the winter woods, listening to the croak of ravens as they soared above us while we pulled our freight toboggans across the ice. I could feel the warmth of the sun as it reflected off the ice; fears of falling through the lake ice or freezing to death had diminished considerably. Winter had become joyful, and I couldn’t wait for a return visit to take on Silver Peak once again.  

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About Kevin Callan

Kevin Callan is the author of fifteen books, including the bestselling The Happy Camper, and a popular series of paddling guides. He has been a key speaker at all the major outdoor events for over 25 years. Callan is also a frequent guest on radio and television and a regular contributor to Explore and CanoeRoots Magazine. He is a winner of several National Magazine Awards and film awards and was listed as one of the top 100 modern-day explorers by the Canadian Geographical Society. He was also made Patron Paddler for Paddle Canada.

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