How often in your life do you get to cross a notoriously difficult portage while having a great conversation about portaging, great places to canoe and the adventures in the outdoors with a girl in a bikini? Wait… I should probably start at the beginning.
The Toughest Portage?
On my quest to travel along and rate Ontario’s toughest portages, one portage is constantly being mentioned. First off, it has a name. This a kind of portaging rule-of-thumb – the most sure way to know a portage is going to be tough. But also, this particular name gives you no hint of exaggeration: “The Pig”. Any story I may tell about a tough trip leads someone to reply “Yeah, but have you done ‘The Pig’?” Located in Killarney Provincial park, this route will take you along a path of loose rocks up a steep incline for most of its 1320 gruelling metres. In wetter months, this rock bed is a stream making for a wet, slippery ankle-breaking adventure. For us canoe campers, the take out is found after travelling through the south western end of the park to Artist Lake and over to Three Narrows. Keep your eye out for the portage though, as you may, like we did, become distracted by navigating the bogs and pass right on by. (Seeing a makeshift take out further down leads me to believe this is pretty common.)
It’s All About From Where You Came
On the other hand, for the motorized boaters, “The Pig” is just a neat little trail for a half-day hike. Accessible from Georgian bay through Baie Finn, there is a gorgeous cove called “The Pool” where many pleasure cruisers take a scenic tour. (I don’t believe the “has-a-name=tough” rule applies to coves.) Many will often dock to spend a few hours hiking halfway up the trail into one of the park’s hidden gems, Topaz Lake. Its crystal clear waters are legendary, so many people hike up for a scenic swim, others just simply to see the water.
There are also quite a few private cottages on Three Narrows, and no doubt many come from the north end of the trail for the same reason. We also saw ATV tracks on parts of the trail, so we had no illusions of being the only people who’d travel this portage. (Regular readers know just how much I love ATVs.)
The Side Show
We found out just how popular this area was once we started lugging our gear and canoe up the rocks. We made it only a few hundred meters before dropping all our gear to rest, where we were suddenly greeted by casually dressed hikers and bewildered boaters. For us, it may have been a scorching hot day, but for the boaters, it was a beautiful August afternoon, and there were plenty of people out taking advantage of the ideal weather. One couple just starred at us like we were nuts, another wanted to know why we would be taking so much stuff with us, while another took pictures of us like we were putting on a show for the tourists. A man from Alabama was concerned because after having hiked a good portion of the trail and back not seeing any lake, he figured there was no way we were getting to the other side by nightfall.
When we passed the very subtly marked side trail to Topaz, we were barely half way up the incline of the portage, but had left the day-hikers behind us. We rested again further along but could still hear people chatting back down the trail. The area is pretty scenic, and while taking these breaks allows for recuperation, they’re also an opportunity to look around at the view you’re normally ignoring while starring at your feet to avoid stumbling.
Smell The Roses
The worst part of a tough portage (or to some – any portage) is the fact that you really don’t appreciate your surroundings. You’re concentrating on all the wrong things. Your thoughts are focused on the effort, the discomfort, getting through it – not to mention on how that jerk convinced you this would be fun. I’ve often complained that with the canoe on my head I can barely see (or hear) anything but my own feet in front of me. I’ve often joked that for all I know there could be anything behind me and I wouldn’t notice – a picturesque moose, a hungry bear, or even a Swedish bikini team.
“The Pig”, for all its steep trails and rough terrain, passes through some lovely shaded forest, with tall, often wide old trees and cliffs on both sides. The trademark feature of Killarney is the white-capped quartzite hills that surround you, and on this trail you get to see the rock face up close. Do take those rests, for the obvious reasons sure, but also to take a look around. It’s gorgeous.
Speaking of gorgeous views…
So on we went, and just as you pass a culvert you begin your short descent down to Three Narrows Lake. Make sure to keep to the right where the trail splits or your portage will last much, much longer, as the hiking trail heads west and away from the water. With friend Brad well ahead of me with the canoe, it was just past this point where I heard someone right behind me ask “Would you like any help carrying some of your stuff to the lake?” I turned to reply when I was shocked to see a nice young lady in a bikini walking directly behind me on the trail. I politely declined, thanking her all the same as my gear was all packed up on my back. She explained that she understood how tough portaging could be, having just come back from a really great trip in Algonquin where she helped guide inner-city youth who normally don’t get a chance to see the wilderness like that. She then talked about some other great hiking and canoeing destinations she’s been, telling me about locations on Georgian Bay that I really must see for myself.
Are You #$&@ing Kidding Me?
So there I was, in what was supposed to be the middle of nowhere, on one of the most notorious portages in the (south of) the province, being escorted down a beautiful trail on a nice day by a bikini clad lady who likes canoeing and portaging and seemed to love the outdoors as much as I do – not to mention offering to help carry my gear! Was I dreaming? Had I run into some kind of rarely seen but legendary woods nymph or forest maiden (which would explain her sudden appearance)? Was I in a beer commercial? Was I about to wake up, jolted back into reality from being passed out, or did Preston finally crack, delirious from one portage too many? No time to answer those questions, just nod your head and smile. Do NOT do anything to scare her off.
We talked for what to me seemed a good while, but realistically was no more than 3 minutes, when suddenly an ATV roared up. Looking directly at my trail companion, the driver blurted out “You lookin’ for Topaz?” She stopped walking to respond. “If you’re looking for Topaz Lake, you missed it,” the ATVer said with almost a sigh, “It’s back up there and to the right.” From the way he spoke obviously this happens a lot. While the trail marker is easy to spot coming from the north, from the way were were heading the side trail is hard to catch as it veers back into a u-turn before it heads west towards Topaz. (Look for a sign that points to Three Narrows. Topaz is behind you if you’re facing the sign to read it.)
Sure enough, that’s where my new companion and her friends were going – of course it was – and they had missed the side trail. Looking back, I saw that they were now getting directions from the ATV guy – that’s right, there were like 5 bikini girls in all – and alas, my new friend turned around to walk back. “See ya,” I called back, waving like some unabashed desperate monkey, “Nice talking to you!” Then they were gone.
Have you ever had that disheartening moment in the middle of a tough portage, exhausted at the effort put forth only to suddenly find out you’re only a tiny fraction of the way? That’s how I suddenly felt, even though I was just a few metres away from the end, going downhill no less.
Yep – One Portage Too Many
Nevertheless, I was quickly struck by how comically absurd this experience truly was. I was laughing when I caught up to Brad at the water, saying “Wasn’t that crazy? Who’d think of all places to be approached by bikini clad women would be on a portage – let alone this one?”
“What?” he asked.
“The girl I was just talking to up there,” I responded, “They were heading to Topaz and missed their turn.”
“What are you talking about? What girl?”
“The girl up right up there… Oh, right. You had the canoe on your head. You probably couldn’t see them. Who did you think I was talking to?”
“Um, I think I heard a voice, but I thought that was just you.”
We debated the existence of the legendary forest maiden for the paddle to find a campsite, and eventually Brad admitted that he saw the ATV, and acquiesced that there was a possibility there could have been someone walking with me.
Um… So What About The Portage?
The campfire chats we had were about the portage, and our perception of it. Was this one truly worthy of all the hype? We ultimately decided that it was, but not the worst portage we’ve ever done. Don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty tough. Brad is an avid cyclist, rock climber and all around fitness junkie (read: nut-bar) and even he felt that it was a rough climb. (I also started to realize I really need to find some lazier friends to make my fitness level seem better.) I kept thinking about just how much tougher this would have been in the spring, with the bugs, mud and water running down those rocks. Wow. Even still, I believe because of its comparatively short distance it was still a (slightly) easier haul than that of the Golden Staircase.
Two days later we’d cross back over a 2,950m portage from Three Narrows to Killarney Lake (I know, we’re gluttons for punishment). It was a little tough at first, but other than the length it was generally a pretty easier carry-over. It’s even more of a gorgeous trail, with quartzite escarpments on either side.
So what did we learn? First, the Pig is a tough portage, though not the toughest, in a beautiful area of a gorgeous park, and well worth checking out. If you go, try and book a night on OSA Lake the night before so that you haven’t exhausted yourself getting there, but also so you have enough time/energy to get far into Three Narrows for the next night’s stay. There are a lot of private cottages to ruin the feeling of being “out there”, and there is a much better view on the North and East side of the lake. (Also, OSA Lake is incredible and well worth staying a little longer).
Second, if you’re riding your ATV down a trail and you see a portageur having a pleasant conversation with some nice lady, mind your own damn business!