Exploring Killarney Provincial Park’s wild west side

In a famous photograph of Franklin Carmichael, a founding member of Canada’s Group of Seven, the landscape artist sits perched on a hillside, dwarfed by the landscape and fully exposed to the elements. Sheltered by the hood of his raincoat, Carmichael is surrounded by bald summits, overlooking the lobed shoreline of Grace Lake. The photo was taken in 1934, deep in the La Cloche Mountains of Killarney Provincial Park in Northeastern Ontario.

Paddling through the water lilies of Cranberry Bay on an autumn canoe trip in Killarney Provincial Park.

Killarney’s rugged scenery made it a favourite destination for the Group of Seven. The area is especially prominent in Carmichael’s work; smitten by the area, he bought a cottage near the park’s western boundary to use as a base camp for sketching trips into the wilderness by paddle and portage. Mirror Lake, an austere watercolour, was likely inspired by one of these missions, as were numerous other quintessential pieces of Canadian art.

Nellie Lake boasts Killarney’s clearest water. It’s surrounded by white quartzite hills and features several choice campsites.

A backcountry canoe trip is still the best way to experience Carmichael country. Killarney’s west edge, accessed by way of Highway 6, southwest of Sudbury, is far more rugged and isolated than the popular park campground at George Lake, making it best for canoe trippers who want to be challenged. This area receives fewer visitors, but it’s still important to reserve your campsites in advance. A three-day loop takes intermediate paddlers through Charlton, Murray, Nellie, Carmichael, Grace and Frood lakes.

Morning on Murray Lake, Killarney Provincial Park.

Launch from Widgawa Lodge (which provides secure parking and rents lightweight canoes) and paddle east on Charlton, navigating the twists and turns of Howry Creek to Murray Lake—a good spot to camp your first night. Howry’s marshy shores are non-descript but critical habitat for moose; you’ll encounter stunning scenery soon enough. The next morning, tackle the Notch portage, a steep climb with numerous side trails to Group of Seven-worthy lookouts. The reward at the end of the 1,470-metre carry is Carmichael and Nellie Lakes, aquamarine gems surrounded by white quartzite hills. Nellie is noted to have the clearest water in Killarney.

A classic wood-and-canvas canoe awaits the day’s journey in Killarney Provincial Park.

One more portage takes you to Grace Lake, a great location to spend night two. Grace has the feeling of an alpine lake; here, you’ll quickly appreciate why the impeccable La Cloche Mountains inspired great Canadian art.

Your final morning includes a final portage to Frood Lake’s Cranberry Bay, which teems with frogs and is carpeted by water lilies. From here it’s a moderate paddle back to Widgawa Lodge, retracing Carmichael’s path back to civilization.

About Conor Mihell

Conor Mihell is an award-winning environmental and adventure travel writer based in Sault Ste. Marie. Read his work in the Globe and Mail, Explore, Cottage Life, Canoe & Kayak, ON Nature, and other magazines and newspapers. He's been a sea kayak guide on Lake Superior for close to 20 years, and has paddled from Sault Ste. Marie to Thunder Bay. 

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