Killarney Provincial Park, at the northeast corner of Georgian Bay, is renowned for its beauty. Along with Algonquin and the Algoma region around Lake Superior, it was a favourite of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven painters whose impressionist scenes made it world famous. One of the park's lakes is named for the late A.Y. Jackson, who painted in the area for many years.
As well as the pink and grey granite also found further south around the Bay, Killarney's La Cloche range of mountains and cliffs are composed of brilliant white quartzite, a smooth, hard rock.
In one place, high above Lake Kakakise, a huge rock fall has sent boulders tumbling down through a fissure or crack in the cliff face. This might not be the obvious place to put a hiking trail, but the climbing experience and the panoramic view from the top of the cliff make it one of Ontario's hidden treasures.
The trail begins fairly benignly, as most do, with a gentle stroll along the remains of an old logging road. Hikers are warned, however, that they must watch the trail markers or risk ending up on a ten-day hike over the 78-kilometre La Cloche Silhouette trail! The trail is well marked, though, with the blazes much closer together than some on the Bruce Trail.... The park also uses inukshuks, those stick-man figures made of strategically placed flat rocks, to mark the way when there are no trees to blaze, so they ask hikers not to build their own. Inukshuks are everywhere up here: all along the highway, they sit on top of rocks by the side of the road in any place where it's possible to climb up and build one.
As we began our hike, hordes of noisy local mosquitoes turned out to cheer us on: there is a damp bog alongside the lower stretches of the Crack trail, so it's really worth gearing up in a bug suit, accessorized with plenty of Muskol. Stands of white birch rise out of beds of wild flowers and it's a fairly easy stroll for the first couple of kilometres, through the forest and then over a large beaver dam surrounded by water lilies.
Once past the shore of Lake Kakakise, the climb begins...straight up, over cedar roots and small rocks, following what would be a waterfall in wet weather. At the top, I thought, "Okay, that was pretty hard. Where are the great views we were promised?" Nowhere yet, because there are still three kilometres of switchback climbing. You'll work every muscle group: thighs, knees, calves, and even arms!
The climb is really in three sections, and the second bit is less steep but longer. It's here that you really see the quartzite boulders and get a sense of how high up above the lakes you've climbed. You'll see Killarney and O.S.A. lakes plus the Blue Ridge and part of Georgian Bay from this point. Get out your bear bells when you emerge into this more open section, though it might be a challenge to actually get the bells on a bear! We saw two, foraging for the abundant wild blueberries that grow in the scrubby soil between the boulders. The first bear was about 50 yards away, so I ran closer to get a good photo. He moved off, less interested in me than in the delicious berries he was eating. The second bear was a bit of a surprise, for both of us! I was downwind, so he didn't spot me until my partner said, 'Bear," quite firmly. He looked up. "Yes?" He moved away before I could hang a bell on him....
Seriously, although you'll sound like a festive reindeer, wear bear bells or whistle and shout a lot. Loud talking is not obnoxious in this situation: it's better to warn the bears that you're coming because all they really want is to avoid you.
The third section, leading to the top, is straight up a gully filled with boulders. It's a fun challenge to pick your route, moving from foothold to foothold, always upwards. It isn't that the rocks are all that large, though some are, but it's the arrangement of the path, which looks in places like a modern, brutalist atrium. Emerging at the top, bells ring, lights flash, and a choir sings congratulations.... Well, no they don't, but you are rewarded with an incredible view over lakes, forests, rock cliffs, and sky.
Although it's a roughly four-hour hike, allow yourself at least six hours for this trip. The bottom section goes quite quickly as you try to stay ahead of the voracious mosquitoes, but once at the top, you'll want to stay to rest, rehydrate, eat something, and take 360 degrees of photos.
On the climb down, take extra care, especially on the last section: you're tired, your muscles are sore, and you are losing concentration. This is when accidents happen, and this is why you really can't start this hike any later than noon. Climbing down these steep sections in the dusk would be really difficult and dangerous. And you don't want to startle any hungry wildlife!
The trip from Toronto to Killarney is supposed to take four hours, but allowing for traffic and small town slow downs, it takes about six. Plan your trip well. The road in from the highway is very, very long. With no gas stations. And, unlike the approaches to Algonquin Park, no motels either.
We stayed in the town of Killarney, a really pretty village of about 500 people, begun as a fur trading post in 1820. Then known as Shebahonaning or "safe passage," it marked the entrance to the North Channel between Manitoulin Island and the north shore of Goergian Bay/ Lake Huron. From 1836 until the construction of the highway in 1963, the steamers carrying visitors and supplies to the area docked in Killarney.
Now, the harbour is dominated by the Sportsman's Inn and Spa, but the Pines Inn, across the road, where we stayed is lovely, comfortable, and very reasonable. The owners, Adele and Paul, are friendly and easy-going; the rooms are cosy and clean; and a delicious, generous breakfast is included in the price of your stay. On some summer weekends, they have live music on the deck overlooking the harbour and in August, there's a pig roast. They open year round.
The village has a long history, and one of the original families, the Pitfields, still run the general store. There is a good fish and chip restaurant, a local museum, and two lighthouses, as well as a small memorial park commemorating an early member of the Pitfield family who delivered more than 500 babies, travelling by horse sledge in winter, in her long career as the district nurse.
The Crack is only one of Killarney's many great hikes, but we need to move on to our next destination: up the Trans-Canada Highway, along the extraordinary, rugged, wild shores of Lake Superior, ending with a visit to the Sleeping Giant.