Bell - Panache - Balsam

CanadaOntarioGeorgian Bay coast
Submitter & Author Information
Route submitted by: 
Shawn O'Reilly
Trip Date : 
June 7 - 9, 2015
Additional Route Information
Distance: 
78 km
Duration: 
3 days
Loop Trip: 
Yes
Portage Information
No. of portages: 
17
Total Portage Distance: 
10825 m
Longest Portage: 
2775 m
Difficulty Ratings
River Travel: 
Novice
Lake Travel: 
Novice
Portaging: 
Moderate
Remoteness: 
Intermediate
Background Trip Info
Water Levels: 
Medium
Route Description
Access to Put-In Information: 

Direct to Bell Lake Road off Highway 637

Trip Journal/Log/Report/Diary: 

Introduction

Last September 2014, my wife and I spent a weekend hiking the trails at the south end of the park and finally understood why “they” call Killarney the jewel of the Ontario provincial park system.  To see more of Killarney but also get in some quality spring fishing, I planned a three-day solo canoe/fishing trip to the north end of the park where limestone has buffered the effects of acid rain and the lakes are fertile and productive. 

Day 1:  Sunday June 7, 2015

Lakes:  Bell, David, Great Mountain, Fish, Gem, Howry

Details:  24.9 km, 6 portages – 4405m, longest 2775m

Weather:  60% chance of showers, High16°C, low 9°C.  Started raining mid afternoon and poured until 3:00 am. 

Upon arriving at the Bell Lake access point around 8:00 am, I realized that nobody was at the check-in, but there was a sign on the door to honk the horn and someone would boat across the lake from the Lodge, which is exactly what happened.  

By 8:30 am, I was on my way across Bell Lake to the David Creek portage.

Since this was my first time canoeing Killarney (I’d only hiked the south sections once and camped at George Lake many years ago), I was particularly keen on observing every detail of the landscape. So far, I’d only had glimpses of the surrounding quartzite mountains, but I was impressed by the combination of vibrant green pine and deciduous foliage and the clear blue lakes and rivers highlighted against the pink and grey granite outcrops veined with limestone, siltstone, sandstone and quartz.

David Lake and Great Mountain Lake were eye openers, with full views of the beautiful quartzite La Cloche mountains to the south and granite on the north shore. 

The 2775m portage from David to Great Mountain was varied in terrain and difficulty but I was able to cut at least one third off by paddling and poling the middle section where beavers have raised the water levels. 

The portage trails in this area were pockmarked with deer tracks rather than the moose and wolf scat I got accustomed to on my Algonquin trip three weeks earlier. I expected to see bear sign by this point, but I hadn’t seen any thus far.

The 440m portage from the higher Great Mountain Lake to Fish Lake to the north was easy, running mostly straight downhill, and the terrain transitioned to typical Canadian Shield topography.  Immediately I could sense that this lake would be more productive than those to the south in the acidic, quartzite lakes.

I wasn’t wrong - almost immediately I began catching small pike and bass. In contrast to the excellent fishing, the weather changed for the worst and so began scattered showers at the forefront of a system that drilled me with steady rain for the next fifteen hours. 

I was booked to stay on Fish Lake that night, but it was too early for me to set up camp, especially in the rain - I prefer to be on the water from sunup till sundown when adventuring on my own.  With literally no campsites reserved by others in this part of the park this week, I decided to carry on to Howry Lake for the night, which was several paddling hours distant.  Because I was properly dressed for the weather, the rain really didn’t negatively affect me and I was able to thoroughly enjoy the impressive scenery that was both familiar yet noticeably different than anything I had experienced before.

Enroute to Howry from Fish is spectacular Gem Lake, a breath-taking site with quartzite mountains rising from the south shore and pink granite lining the north shoreline.  The extreme weather and accompanying heavy rain and low-lying, dramatic cloud formations contributed to the magical scene, but I couldn’t help but wonder what it would look like in bright sunshine or, better yet, morning or evening alpenglow. 

Gem Lake in the POURING rain.  Photos don’t do it justice and the video only slightly more so.

Continuing on to Howry Lake, I was almost in disbelief at the scenery before me, which I can’t really explain since I’m not overly theatrical and it was not necessarily overwhelmingly spectacular, but there was something special about it nonetheless.  Again, the dramatic weather may have contributed to the surreal experience.

It didn’t hurt that the fishing was above average as well.

The only negatives about Howry were the stash of boats at the portage from Bear Lake and the quality of the lone, poor campsite just west of the boat cache. The site itself was less than ideal, but the view was above average and it was getting late so I made the best of it.  I should point out that even though I had my bug head net on my hat all day and I set up the bug shelter around by bed, bugs were practically non-existent on this day – completely unexpected considering the date. 

Day 2:  Monday June 8, 2015

Lakes:  Howry, Murray, Leech, Plunge, Little Bear, Bear, Bassoon, Panache

Details:  28.1 km, 6 portages – 4565m, longest 2195m

Weather:  60% chance of showers, high of 18°C, low of 13°C

Wildlife: Bald eagle, several beaver, sandhill cranes, waterfowl, whitetail deer, herons, loons, ducks 

As usual, I woke up early and was out of bed by 5:00 am.  The morning was windy, cloudy and cool.  I enjoyed a somewhat leisurely breakfast of oatmeal and coffee while waiting to see if the weather would improve, to no avail.

But, the tumultuous skies, rolling mist and variable light conditions continued to impress with their contribution to the intense scene before me, with tumultuous waters between my humble campsite and the impressive quartzite hills rising out of the fog on the far side of the lake, runoff cascading out of the hills and into the lake.

Finally, the clouds began to dissipate, the lake settled down and I was off. 

While rain no longer fell from the sky, runoff continued pouring from the hills surrounding Howry Lake and Howry Creek, often times in steady streams that no doubt ran dry within hours following a rain event or within days after spring thaw.

Run-off from the rain of the last 24 hours, originating at a pond by Nellie Lake and empting into Howry Creek.

Portages were well marked and maintained and the young age of the surrounding forest minimized the number of deadfall usually found on trails this early in the season.

Leaving Murray Lake and it’s lovely views to the south of “The Notch” up to Carmichael and Nellie Lakes, I was clearly leaving the quartzite/granite transition zone and entering quintessential Canadian Shield. 

I travelled north into Leech, Plunge and Little Bear Lakes, all fairly non-descript other than the unusually high number of whitetail deer feeding and bedding along the shoreline.

Deer on the water’s edge on Little Bear Lake – one of eight deer today.

I had reserved Bear Lake as my campsite for day 2, but once again I found myself further along than anticipated, and although Bear Lake was beautiful, there were a few cottages and Bear Lake Lodge on the lake that interrupted the solitude that I craved.  With that, I decided to carry on to Bassoon Lake where the fishing was rumoured to be excellent.

Checking out a campsite on Bear Lake.  If it wasn’t only mid day, I would stay at this beautiful campsite for the night.

However, the two campsites on Bassoon were sub-standard, particularly the east one which was barely useable, so I carried on to Panache, arriving at 5:30 pm after enduring the mosquito infested 2195 meter portage to Sawmill Bay. 

I didn't keep any fish for dinner so I had cured sausage with rice and dried vegetables. 

There was no rain today but remained mostly cloudy with a few sunny breaks and it was very windy from the southwest. The evening however was perfectly calm and surprisingly, biting insects continued to be scarce.

The campsite in Sawmill Bay was excellent with large tent pads, plenty of wood and nice views of the bay.  On a weekend, the cottage at the end of the bay would have some impact on the tranquility, but the lake was silent on a Monday this early in the cottage season. I set up the bug shelter in case mosquitoes emerged at dusk or in the morning, but it ended up being unnecessary. 

Day 3: Tuesday June 9, 2015

Lakes: Panache, Frank, Harry, Pike, Balsam, Three Mile, Bell

Details:  25.4 km, 5 portages – 1855m, longest 635m

Weather: 30% chance of showers, high of 23°C, low of 12°C

Wildlife:  Bald eagle, whitetail deer, osprey, beaver, black bear, herons, ducks, loons, smallmouth bass, lake trout, northern pike

The calm of the night before continued on this morning and I was treated with a stunning sunrise.

The “red sky in the morning, sailor take warning” concerned me somewhat, and on cue, clouds continued to move in.  Fortunately, the sky began to clear and it ended up being a lovely day with just one short shower late in the afternoon.

Paddling north and then east from my campsite, I was impressed with the scenery on this lake.  It surprised me only because of its proximity to Sudbury and the number of cottages on some sections of Lake Panache, but many areas remained wild and undeveloped.

Once again, the quality of the fishing impressed me as well, and I was surprised to catch this 22” lake trout while trolling for pike in Brown’s Bay.

The portage from Panache to Frank Lake had a noticeable increase in elevation and was a pleasant walk, with just a few obstructions to navigate.

Frank Lake is really just a shallow pond, with clouds of mosquitoes at the put-in, so I quickly paddled across and headed for the 290m portage into Harry Lake. 

I knew as soon as I saw Harry Lake through the trees that I was going to love this lake.

Not only was it beautiful, it was abounding in wildlife, including loons, ducks, deer and….

..bass.  I seriously considered extending my trip by a day and spending the night on one of the many wonderful campsites on this lake. 

But after lunch, I decided to carry on.  The 640m portage downhill into Pike Lake was another enjoyable walk, and I was greeted at the put-in by a heron, loon, beaver and deer feeding at the edge of the marsh.  At the east end of the lake, I was followed by a mature bald eagle, who flew from pine tree to pine tree down the shoreline as I paddled by.

At the take-out of the 375m portage into Balsam, I startled three Canada geese that were lounging on the beaver dam, and since they couldn’t take off into the wind, they walked through the thick trees into the forest, which is a rather unusual sight.  I quickly moved on since I knew they were unnaturally exposed to predation in this compromised position.

On Balsam lake, I paddled past a couple of deer on the shore, and then noticed far ahead of me in a small bay, a black shadow that was out of place.  I turned on my Sony action camera and quickly and quietly Indian-paddled close enough to see that it was a black bear foraging along the shoreline.  After several minutes of observation, the bear noticed my presence but chose to ignore me and continued to act like a bear – tearing apart logs, turning over rocks and scratching it’s back on a small spruce tree.  I was happy to see it, but disappointed to see that it was too habituated to be alarmed at my presence.  I’ve seen hundreds of bears in Ontario where they’re properly afraid of humans, but this was my first encounter in a park.

After this encounter, I was satisfied that I had accomplished everything I set out to do on this trip; experience the beauty of Killarney’s unique landscape, fish for and catch good sized pike with a bonus lake trout, observe undisturbed wildlife - particularly less commonly seen mammals such as forest-dwelling-deer and bear, and birds like sandhill cranes and bald eagles – and enjoy the peace and quiet only found on a solo, backcountry, semi-wilderness trip.

With that, I paddled out through Three Mile Lake to Bell Lake, where I began to see people again, and battled a stiff headwind back to the take-out at the south end of Bell Lake.  My three-hour drive home was pleasantly interrupted by a short pit stop at the French River Trading Post for dinner and a bathroom break, where I mentally started planning my next escape.