I have spent all but two years of my life living here in Ontario, and if there is one thing that I continually lament more than anything else, it is the fact that this province is virtually bereft of anything that even resembles a mountain. The Adirondacks are a full 7-8 hour drive away, and some years that simply isn’t possible... so this is where Killarney turns into a veritable gold mine.
Remember earlier that I said the province was virtually bereft; well Killarney (which is a three and a half hour drive away) has been my salvation for the last fifteen years of my life. The one catch however is that Killarney can only be accessed by car, there is only one access road, no buses go there and the park is located 65km along this solitary road... to most this must seem pretty straightforward. I however decided to invest $45 000 into a university education rather than get started on assets like a house and car… so the getting there always left me in a bind.
Now before I start in on a rant on the futility of a bachelor’s degree in anything I will get to the purpose of this trip report, which is to enlighten those of you in more mountainous regions what some of us SPers have to go through in order to get anywhere near mountains.
Some of you might argue that these are nothing other than rocky hills as they pale in comparison to the heights of their loftier cousins to the west… but I beg to differ. They are in every sense of the word mountains; I have climbed up to 5660 meters so I know of what I speak. These peaks have been weathered down over 2.5 billion years to the rocky remnants they are today… they were once higher than the Rockies and that spirit remains infused into the very quartzite of the La Cloche mountains.
In this little corner of the province some of the rarest alpine formations east of the Rockies can be found, and years where I am shy on cash and unable to get to higher peaks they have soothed my spirit and kept my sense of adventure alive with their rugged peaks.
The alarm shredded the blissful void of sleep at 5:40; Rach and I stumbled through the morning and left the house by 6:30. The drive up took less time than usual as it was early and there were fewer cars on the single lane highway that wound past the plethora of lakes and through the pink rock of the Canadian Shield.
The turn off onto highway 637 almost always sends a fresh surge of adrenaline through my body, as I drive I spend much of my time craning my neck looking up over the trees for that glimpse of Silver Peak that lets you know you have returned, and I never relax until I do almost as if I’m unsure that this mountainous jewel nestled in a corner of a vertically challenged province may no longer exist.
We made good time and arrived at the Outfitter’s at 9:30 to rent the canoe that made climbing in the interior possible. To get to this peak would be possible on foot, but I imagine it would be anywhere from a 6-9 hour bushwhack through the thick bush of the Canadian mixed forest. We only had one day available to us and even I had little desire to reconnoiter my way through the endless trees and bushes when a canoe was so much easier.
We had the canoe loaded and in the water by 10:00 and were hoping that the wind that was leftover from the tropical depression that had passed through the previous day wouldn’t make it a war for us to canoe the three lakes that we had to cross to get to OSA Lake and Sentinel Dome that awaited us.
Sentinel Dome is so named firstly because it stands sentinel over the aquamarine pebble strewn lake where the provincial park was started, and was voted the most beautiful lake in the province (which contains around 500 000 lakes for curiousities sake). Secondly because of its dome shape, a shape that is fairly common to the park because of the eons of weathering that has gone on here.
It is third highest point in the park and the second highest peak (as False Peak is part of the Silver Peak chain), and is one of a handful of places in the province where one can climb 300+ meters or 1000 feet up and over rock. So it is a very special place indeed. We canoed through George Lake in forty minutes, half the time it took us on our last visit, and counted ourselves lucky that the notorious 1 meter plus swells were nowhere to be found. It is only a carryout here so we were quickly in Freeland lake and on our way to enfabled Killarney Lake which is where the park gets its name, as it closely resembles the low rocky peaks and clean lakes of Killarney Ireland.
We quickly canoed Freeland lake and were on our way along the 500m portage to Killarney Lake. It was great to return to Killarney Lake again, her tranquil greenish-blue waters feel like home to me, and in my opinion it’s a more beautiful lake than OSA. It is also home to some of the rockiest and most prominent peaks in the park. For these two reasons and countless others it is my favourite place in the park, hands down. You can even get to Silver from here if you don’t mind the lengthy hike along half of the Blue Ridge mountains… a phenomenal hike to say the least.
We canoed through Killarney’s sheltered bays until at long last we found ourselves entering the main section of the lake and where I caught my first views of the second highest peak in the park, I had trouble from this distance seeing that it was higher than white rock, its neighbour directly to the east. When we got closer though I could start to see the 100m difference in height. It was a large sprawling peak in size and in terms of different personalities offered more for a climber than any other single peak in the park including Silver.
Soon we were in the Killarney Lake narrows, breathing a sigh of relief as we watched the black bear slip soundlessly back into the woods well away from our portage. This was a great brush with nature, but like any encounter with the largest predator in the wilds it left us rattled, so we continued on making an extra amount of noise so that we wouldn’t surprise our large bearish friend as we made our way through the stands of maples on this section of the lake.
We had another 500m portage before our canoe was in the waters of OSA lake. From here you couldn’t even see Sentinel Dome, I was hoping that the map was accurate and the best access to the peak was from this lake at the eastern narrows.
After only a few minutes Sentinel Dome came back into our field of vision I was even more impressed here than I had been at the Killarney narrows by the sheer size of this peak… at least by Ontario standards. After only a few more minutes we were on the shore at the opening in the trees where the easiest access to the peak was.
Only 6.5 hours after leaving the house we were at the foot of the mountain. What’s strange about the trip is that one has to use both car and canoe quite extensively just to arrive at the foot of the peak. One really has to love mountains to go through this.
We pulled the canoe up out of the water and made our way through the woods where we quickly worked our way up to the left up a steep hill to the foot of the rock fields that we would follow to the toe of a rockfall and onto the unobstructed larger fields of rock that lead straight up to the summit. We crossed over the fields stepping cautiously across steep sections and across the plentiful loose rock, until we approached the first of the two cruxes of the climb. At this point we stopped for a water break and turned to drink in the amazing scenery surrounding us. We could see the Crack, Baie Fine, Georgian Bay and most of the scenic islands on OSA Lake.
This stage is up over a 12 meter section that is most easily ascended climbing up a series of 2 ledges that switch back on one another. The only thing that remains is to do a weight transfer and one more simple moveto gain access to the boulder strewn field. From here I was really astonished and excited about what lay in our path. We had no idea what to expect next as I climb one secion at a time knowing full well that even at its worst Killarney always offers a plethora of routes up each peak.
This section I have aptly named 'the wedge' as it is a wedge shaped cut marked by large car sized boulders, and a serious 20m high vertical face. This is the most difficult section of the ascent, nothing serious compared to what most mountains throw at you, but a very rare alpine formation here in Ontario. There are three or four rock towers that rise from 5-10 meters before one reaches the boulder field and the vertical section, at the base of the towers base there are several deep caverns that cut into the boulder field that one has to pay attention to when crossing. There was a cut between the two biggest towers with a cavern on one end and a cavern on the other that one has to step across to gain access to the relatively steep field of boulders.
I took time out to climb the tower to the east just because it was so rare and beautiful, before descending down to where Rachel was vacillating about crossing the one meter gap across the crevasse onto the boulder immediately in front of her. We scrambled up and over the boulder field stopping regularly to snap pictures before we encountered a series of ledges that were connected by a few basic climbing moves and we were onto the final section of the climb.
I have spent a considerable amount of time in the park and for sheer climbing delight only Split face peak and to a certain degree the main ridge on George Lake can compare with Sentinel Dome for the sheer variety and extent of climbing opportunities provided, and perhaps Sentinel Dome offers just that little bit more. It is over 1.5 kilometers wide, well over three times wider than Split face, and it is marked by some bluffs to the east, the center and the wedge to the west. A very distinct peak with more than a few personalities to sate my climbing appetite.
We could see the summit from the top of the wedge and proceeded on a northeasterly tack for ten minutes until we stood at the top next to the summit cairn. The view from here was the most spectacular I have had the pleasure of sharing in all of my years visiting the park. The sun dappled the waters of OSA Lake and Georgian Bay, with infrequent brilliant shafts that turned the silvery waters golden from moment top moment. To the west was Baie Fine, this narrow inlet with its steep walls is the closest thing to a fjord we have in the province. To the east was the Crack, Split face and Silver Peak the terminus of the Blue Ridge range. Rach and I had a tasty lunch, snapped a bunch of pictures and absorbed the beauty of the view knowing full well that with the onset of the dreaded Canadian winter it might be some time before we could return to the mountains… at least here in Canada (Hello return to Mexico!).
The down climb was quick we made it in a little over 45 minutes hiking slightly to the east away from the wedge and down a steep 45-50 degree section that required Rach and I to be more than a little cautious as we ascended 200 vertical meters very directly rather that the more circuitous route we had taken on the way up. Before I knew it we were looking for the orange ribbons that were attached to trees and marking the trail up the peak.
Canoes and Cars
Of course there was still a two and a half hour paddle followed by a three and a half hour car ride before we stumbled into the house at 11:30 a full seventeen hours after we began the day. This in a short synopsis is the odyssey one must undergo here in Ontario if one seeks to go for a day trip climbing… cars, canoes and hiking boots, Oh my!