If you know me at all, the only thing that I could possibly want for my 48th birthday is a weekend in the woods! Under the stars, frogs and loons and birds singing, a wildlife orchestra to soothe the soul. We all live a crazy busy life. Work, bills and chores. Out in the wilderness the demands of civilization disappear but the demands to just “be” become paramount. It’s a relaxing way to spend the weekend, for me anyways. I could spend a night in the wilderness and feel like I took a month off work! It’s that refreshing doing very little except existing.
I had booked my Killarney get away about five months ago - that’s just how eager I was to get in. The season opener was to start on May 5th weekend! I was all over it. I even found my favourite “easy going” site. My friend calls it the area where the fun people stay! A quick paddle from the parking lot, and you are off on the other end of the lake with nothing to see but rocks, granite, lakes, wildlife and the beautiful canopy that is the forest of Killarney!
Five months ago, a lot was different in my life. I was living in Toronto and had no way to know that not much after that I would be living in Barrie! It worked out because living in Barrie, I’m door to door by train to my work, and I have cut off a two hour drive to get to places like Killarney! Another great thing happened. Literally the night I picked up the keys to my new place in Barrie a few months ago, I got a text! A text from a very dear friend that I hadn’t seen in 11 years but had known for probably 40! We will call him JR.. We would meet up about a month later after that initial text, reconnect and find that we hadn’t missed a beat. We were the classic version of JR and Alice.
Despite nearly 31 years of not seeing much of each other, it was like the time in between had disappeared. Our old friendship was reborn in an instant! 31 years ago we were quite the pair, so much so, we were pretty much grounded from each other! Thankfully not much had changed except that nobody can ground us!
One of the meeting weekends prior to this Killarney trip, I told him that despite the fact that we had a cottage, a cousins cottage, a friend’s cottage, a bunkie and a trailer to choose from, I mostly chose the tent to sleep in most nights of my summers at the lake. It was much easier to hear the frogs and sounds of nature from the tent! I managed to talk him into trying it one night. So there he was camping on the hill in a tent - with no fly! Which I must say was amazing as a first night of tenting for 2023 - I had to get my fix, what can I say. What a night sky we got to enjoy.
It must have had an effect on him, because when I told him I was going to Killarney for my birthday by myself - he wouldn’t have it! He was coming. And I was all too grateful as I knew there was no way classic JR and Alice wouldn’t have a memorable time - it had to be!
A couple nights before we were to head for Killarney I got a call from the Park saying they were delaying the opening for May 5th to May 6th, would I want to cancel? I wasn’t giving up so a quick call to the Outfitters and the problem was solved. We had a backyard for Friday night, so we could still head into the Park on May 6th.
I got JR and the gear and my Presley in the car on Friday and the road trip started. A three hour drive to Killarney with a stop in Parry Sound for some last minutes…
Oh the joy to hit the Killarney Road which is about 60 kms from Hwy 400/69 to the Outfitters. The road is so pretty snaking through trees, and rocks, and by smaller little ponds and lakes. My heart was so filled with joy. I had great company that was keeping me laughing the entire time and the excitement within me about getting on the water, I am sure I ought to have been glowing.
Pulling into the Outfitters felt very much like a homecoming. Seeing their sign, the canoes all about, the old ranch style looking building and the geese out on the grass was soul food! I couldn't wait to pull around the corner of the property to the Back 40 where we would tent for the night. BUT NOT SO FAST ALICE!!!
I pulled in… if it wasn’t a muddy mess as it’s been raining for a week. And if I didn’t take the softest spot possible and get my old Sparkie stuck. Sparkie is a very small car. Not really an offroader, although I drive it like she is. But out comes the Owner, what a joy it was to see him coming around the corner! A big hug for him to say “Happy Spring, and a big thank you for having me in the yard and oh, and can you give me a push!”. Classic Jr and Alice - gotta make an entrance ! Ha ha.
I must say I bought a canoe this year, a very nice one, a Carbon Fibre Ranger by Langord. I will blog about it after the first real trip with it. But this Outfitter has been so good to me over the years, that it’s a loyalty thing. If I do Killarney, I rent a canoe from him! These Outfitters have such great wisdom and knowledge to share, the least we can do is keep them in business for blazing the trail for us backcountry enthusiasts.
We got the push we needed out of the mud and we went in to the field to find a high and dry spot for the tent. Not easy, but I found one. I got the tent put up and JR got to exploring the place. A little while later the Outfitter shows up with a truck and some wood - and says you know you are the first ones in this field this year so I am gonna give you some wood to last the night. I was very proud that I was his first customer of the season. I do take a little pride in being “hardcore” although I am barely past beginner. But I’ll take the first in badge! Yeh…
The Outfitter hung out for a bit, we shared stories and people we had in common like a principal we shared and on and on and on. After a while of tales, and JR making us die laughing with his animated story telling The Outfitter looks us in dead serious gaze and says:
“You two are bent!”
I am not sure what he was talking about? The fact we were going in to camp the first week of May just a week after ice out or that we had great stories to tell! It doesn’t matter. I took the compliment with pride. As there is no doubt the Outfitter had his share of adventures over the years!
The Outfitter finally left and left us to our own. We were enjoying the fire, and the sounds of nature. But JR looks around and looks at me and says Alice, this looks like the kind of place where bears would be! I am like well, yes - there are bears here. I then said something like they pass through from time to time and we probably wouldn’t even know it. I am telling you the orchestra that night of wildlife sound was something else! JR thought we were surrounded by crazy raccoons, there was an owl, other birds, the geese and at one point Presley pointed at the bush and gave her warning bark.
Just before midnight we see another car coming in to the back 40. If the boys don’t get them selves stuck in the same mud hole! But unlike me who has learned once you are stuck stop spinning the tires, these guys thought if they kept spinning the tires it would get better - no such luck. So they had to haul their gear from the stuck car to the field to pitch up their tent in the dark. They then joined us at the fire. They were on their way into Carlysle Lake. If you are reading this guys - We say “HI!”... And hope you had a great trip.
I waited for the full moon and midnight because I wanted to say I had a full moon on my birthday, and surely I did. The Outfitters instructions were that I had to be at the office first thing at 8 a.m. to work on the canoe stuff so they could deliver it to the put in for us. So just after midnight I went to bed and JR stayed up a while longer. He seemed to be truly enjoying the fire and the nature we were surrounded by.
Eventually he made his way back to the Tent… I have to say I learned one very hard lesson that night. When we were leaving that morning i knew I should bring a second sleeping bag, but I ignored my inner wisdom and thought ahhh these +5 summer bags will be fine! I got my wool, except for that one wool sweater I really needed. Well the night got very cool and I did have a very chilly night. But it wouldn’t be my worst one!
In the morning exploring the site, guess what JR found in the mud on the permitter of the field - a BEAR PAW print. So surely we had a visitor overnight! So the vibes of the trip were now set!
Up early in the morning to the Outfitters store, I was the first transaction in the till for the 2023 season - again bragging rights!!! I am really proud of my eagerness.
We paid for the canoe, picked up our gear, the canoe would be delivered to the put in, so we had time to run in to the Village of Killarney to pick up some coffee and a sandwich. The scenery there is really pretty, we also got to go to the Mike Ranta’s Paddle and sit and talk some more. We have 31 years to catch up on! So still so much to share… We weren’t in much of a rush.
Now it was off to Bell Lake.
The Bell Lake road is something else, very chewed up. Definitely not a Sparkie kind of road, but it’s an Alice kind of road, which means just go anyways! JR enjoyed the road, and I was in my glory heading for the lake where we would start night two of our adventure.
WE pulled in the parking lot, there was barely anybody there. The guy that runs the booth at Bell Lake was sitting on the deck and sees me coming and Yells “Ms Herculson!” Again another very warm welcome back!
The store wasn’t even set up yet. He said there wasn’t very many in the Park, only one other set of campers on the lake where we would be staying. There wasn’t even any bear reports yet, well because there was nobody there to report - this was OPENING DAY! And my 48th birthday. PIcking up a permit to paddle in Killarney has got to be the very best Birthday present a girl can ask for and having JR join me was icing on the cake! I love bringing newbies out because I know how it will go. They will see how it is, and they think they won’t do it again, but once you get the taste of it - it’s insatiable - trust me! The wilderness changes you. I swear. It’s so good for your soul - it’s the best medicine for almost anything!
We got our canoe - I was so proud of myself to portage the 17’ canoe down the short path to the lake from the racks in the parking lot. Yes JR would’ve done it, but you know me, stubborn - I’ll do it myself! Got our gear loaded, the dog loaded and locked up the car. And we were pushing off into Bell Lake!
And so the paddle would ensue. It’s not a very long paddle to the site where we stayed. I chose this one as a season opener because it’s backcountry but gives me the opportunity to test gear and warm up. In the event something isn’t working or I get into trouble the paddle back to the car is very doable within 30 minutes making it the perfect spring warm up! And it’s great wilderness. We paddled on to my site! My favourite on that lake because your tent is up high overlooking the lake, but along the side of the site is a beautiful sand beach. Not so much a thing on May 6th a week after the ice has gone out, but come summer - what a great spot to sit in the water and enjoy the wilderness undisturbed . A natural DO NOT DISTURB!. Nothing better than swimming in a hole where you can see nothing but trees, rocks and hear loons and other animals scurrying about.
We got to our site, unloaded the gear. JR got to work gathering wood for the fire, and I got to work setting up tent for the night. My tent is getting on in the miles, but has done me a great service. With this spring warm up I did learn the floor would need to be treated this year (first time in four years), but a small tarp made a fine makeshift floor til I can get to the chore of re-sealing the floor. I got everything ready for our night time slumber. JR picked a great spot for the tent over looking the water and closer to the fire.
The day was beautiful. We sat on this rock over looking the lake under a blue sky, glistening waters still sharing story after story of life since we were grounded from each other. Both of us having so much life to talk about. But for me it’s so special. So many people I have missed for so long! You see my uncle sold our cottage in the late 90s. It was a devastating time for me. It was the cottage in Muskoka where I got my thirst for all things nature, water, paddling and tenting outside. My uncle had this shed which was much like the local pub, so he knew everyone for miles. The Shed was where neighbours passed through as they made their way through their day, chores and on the way to go fishing. So it really was the neighbourhood hang out. And where friendships were born. So not having it in my life has been very hard. But I was getting caught up.
JR and I realized we forgot something back at the car, which gave us an excuse to head out on another paddle across the lake back to the car.
I loved watching him explore. I can hear him still from further back from our site - “What the hell is this back here?” Ohhhhh the Thunder Box! That’s where you - you know! His expressions were priceless. For those that don’t know the Thunder Box is an outhouse without the walls and roof! It’s basically a wooden bench sitting over a hole for doing your business.
He was enjoying all the trees and the different rocks and watching the birds that would dive for fish on the lake. A special mention to the Bald Eagle that landed to say hello to him!
We got a fire going and made us dinner. Started with some dehydrated split pea soup made by yours truly - which by the way was delicious. Then a store bought dehydrated meal, Which wasn’t so good - just saying! But we were fed.
We enjoyed an evening fire, then headed out for another evening paddle along the lake paddling to a frog pond - it was so loud. Saw a beaver. And of course the loons. And just explored the beauty of our surroundings from the water. I got to get out there in the canoe to get pictures of our site from the water. A beautiful spot indeed!
When we brought the canoe back we noticed there was a group of about three trees near the shore that had been stripped of its bark. Definitely bears do that, but there was no sign of any bears on our site. So I wasn’t too worried about it.
The night would carry on. Back to camp to get the fire going again, and enjoy more chatter. JR was quite surprised as I went on and on about all the things you have to put away so that a Bear won’t come around. I am very very careful. I grew up in Northern Ontario where bears are the norm in our backyard. I do not mess around. I know that it’s one false move and they will be there. So we got my stuff packed away in the pack, in a bear barrel, tied to a tree, in the ground, down wind from the fire, and under some spruce boughs, just the way I was taught by the old timers. For the most part I figured we were safe…
We stayed up at least til the stars were out I didn’t want to miss a Killarney night sky. I was first in to the tent but JR took a chair in the vestibule of the tent facing the water and I laid awake with the screen opening chatting with him from the near comfort of my sleeping bag. I had my wool leggings and a wool sweater which at first was toasty-ish. I really enjoyed laying there in my sleeping bag chatting with him sitting there staying awake til my chatter gave way to my sleepiness. I eventually fell asleep. JR got the fire out and eventually made it to the tent.
Apparently no sooner did he close his eyes when he hears the sound of two rocks bashing together. So he wakes me "what the heck was that?" And I listen but then say “JR, I think I got a mild case of hypothermia.” He’s like let’s not worry about that did you hear that!
Well there it was again a sound of a rock being hurled off the hill and in to the water. Well by the third time, JR is so worked up that I am dying of laughter. So then we hear it two more times! I am talking it sounds like something is throwing basketball size rocks off the cliff and in to the lake below! But I am laughing, my teeth are chattering and he’s going on and on. “What the hell is this - are these bears gonna stone us to death!”. He is going on and on. And I am dying laughing. The sound stopped after the fifth or sixth time. But we laid there for a while longer listening. And wondering if whatever it was, was gone. But I am telling ya the animated commentary by JR who gets very excited was to die for. I was laughing so hard, that I could hardly have cared if a bear came through the tent. I was having so much fun that attacked was the least of my worries. At one point during the rock smacking. JR seriously looks at me and says - are you sure we shouldn’t get in the canoe, paddle back to the car and go get a hotel in Sudbury. To which I replied if you wanna see bears, the best time is at night in the parking lot when they are checking out everyone’s cars for food. I was like the best place for us right now is right where we are. But I listened to his animated escape plans. Ok Alice, if he comes for us you run to the canoe and I”ll meet you in it!.. Oh my. It was too much!
We eventually laughed ourselves back to sleep. But I really did suffer a bit that night. SO happy to see morning come. I was cold. Teeth chattering cold. I have made this mistake once before in Frontenac. It was about April, But sometimes I am a tough nut to crack! I knew though I wasn’t in great shape, I wasn’t at any serious risk. I was uncomfortable and learning a lesson, but wasn’t in real danger. I could’ve got up and made a fire if I really needed to. I chose to sleep with chattering teeth. It adds to the memory!
Morning came, and we were up very early to pack up and get back out on the water. Despite whatever had been flinging rocks, as we now call it Stoner Bear there was no sign of a bear around the fire. The food was fine. The canoe was fine. We will never know what was flinging rocks off the rock. But my theory is this:
I think it was a bear. I think he came to check out the fire. And when he was smacking it around the power would’ve smacked the rocks right off the cliff in to the lake. But you see after the first rock is when JR asked me what was that whispering. I theorize at the moment the bear heard the voices from the tent. Then the roaring laughter , the next rocks we heard was the bear high tailing it out of there and making more rocks splash off the rock. Guaranteed if it was checking things out and heard voices , it would’ve been on the run right quick.
JR has several animated theories one of which is a ghost! I like my version. But his stories are better. I do ok with this blogging, but if this blog was the animated story version of it by JR you would be needing depends to get you through the story. No doubt during the whole stoner bear incident I was laughing so hard, that at 48 I am lucky I didn’t pee my pants!
In the morning while we are loading the canoe JR says to me. Alice you are crazy. As he picks up my pack and puts it in the canoe. What is this? You gotta haul this 200 lb pack. Have to hide your food so diligently, be careful what you put in your tent.. Paddle and eat this dehydrated food. I don’t think I like this he says. I laugh and say you wait. You will miss it! I tell him it’s the greatest sport ever. I have to use my brains to deal with problems, I get to use my physical strength, I get to give my mind a rest from the every day. I get to enjoy the wilderness. I told him, I come out here for one night and it’s actually rest for me. He was thinking geesh this is more work than my job. I knew what would happen though….
We paddled back to the car, enjoying the mirror images on the still morning lake. The reflection from the rocks sideways on the lake made it look almost like sideways totem poles. It was just a beautiful and perfect morning after a perfect weekend of having the best birthday ever with some great company. I have never laughed so hard on a trip ever.
It was a very uneventful car ride back to JR’s home. I had a moment to get cleaned up, do some visiting then head back to Barrie.
Wouldn’t you know it the next morning there was a text from JR. “i think you need to book another site ASAP!”. So there it is. Despite all that - he wants to go again!
And that there is why I write this blog! Hoping that you too will want to get out there and enjoy the adventure that is backcountry camping. I wake up many mornings with my bad hip and think what did I get myself into. Or I wake up with mild hypothermia. But there is so much good in it, the bad parts fade in your memory quickly but the memories of stoner bears and loons never leave you. And in that the desire to go again is born!
It’s an adventure full of stories yet to be written, but so worth being told for years to come!