I think most canoe trippers have experienced that moment while paddling Killarney Provincial Park’s busy backcountry, when you see your favourite campsite in the distance but then realize you’re not the only paddler making a beeline for it. It becomes a race; first come, first serve mentality kicks in.

Well, Killarney Provincial Park has solved the problem. Now paddlers will be able to choose a preferred backcountry site which is numbered on the reservation system, new park map and on the site itself.

This park’s email was sent out to frequent park users:

“Please be advised, for 2022 arrivals all paddling backcountry campsites have moved to a site-specific reservation model, this also means that all paddling backcountry campsites have received a new campsite number. For your convenience a site number change chart has been developed and can be found at ontarioparks.com/park/killarney to assist with booking your favourite sites.”

This new announcement got some heated debates going on social media.

photoKevin Callan

Historically, paddlers visiting Killarney Provincial Park’s backcountry would pick a particular zone or lake. When you’re ready to make camp for the night, you’d paddle around the zone (or lake) looking for an unoccupied site to pitch your tent. At times, this process seemed adventurous, challenging and all part of the experience. Other times, it was extremely frustrating. You would come across some self-absorbed paddler who was illegally hijacking a site on a lake they hadn’t reserved or a solo paddler who found themselves windbound and forced to pitch camp in a zone where they weren’t supposed to be. Both left you paddling around desperate for a place you’ve legitimately booked. It caused a lot of anxiety, which is something that goes against the reason you’re out paddling in the park’s backcountry in the first place: peace and tranquility.

The feelings over the new reservation system seemed split.

There were paddlers who rejoiced the decision, saying that it was about time the park made the change. It made abusers of a site accountable for how they leave their site. It’s easier and safer for locating a group in an emergency. It also guarantees the ethical trippers, especially ones with kids in tow, a hassle-free place to pitch their tent for the night. And sine more canoeists are in the backcountry than ever before, and a specific-site reservation system might be the only way to solve the issues of overuse.

dfgdfsgKevin Callan

The ones who disagreed with the changed system made sure to get their jabs in. There were strong statements about how jerks can now book months ahead for extensive periods of time for all the good sites, to secure them, only to cancel at the last minute except for the dates they want or auction them off online for a profit. What about planning on staying 2-3 nights on a lake but having to move sites every day because you couldn’t get the same site for each of those nights. It resembled too much like car camping or an outdoor motel; backcountry tripping is supposed to be more spontaneous. It’s now less adventurous; more convenient. It’s also a good way to get locked into a crappy site.

Site-specific backcountry reservations aren’t new. In fact, I think Killarney had that system a few years back but switched it to zones and lakes. Massasauga and Kawartha Highlands Provincial Parks have been using this system since their conception. So has the Halliburton Waterway Trails. Pukaskwa National Park recently made the change after the popularity of the backcountry got overwhelmed. Algonquin just announced the same system for all their backpacking trails. Maybe the Algonquin canoe sites are next? I’m going to guess they are.

But what about places like Quetico? This provincial park is classed as a wilderness park (there are six park’s classifications). In keeping with the “wilderness concept” philosophy, the campsites aren’t marked on the park’s backcountry map or at the sites themselves. Even the the portage takeouts are missing those bright yellow signs. You have to locate everything with your own navigational skill set. You can also camp anywhere within the boundaries of the park as long as you practice low impact camping. You reserve an entrance area, where only a certain amount of canoes are allowed to book per day. This fits Quetico’s management plan, and it seems to work for most paddlers who go there, especially the traditional ones. 

dfgdfsKevin Callan

Killarney is also classed as a wilderness park. Why is it so different than Quetico’s system? Yes, it’s a much smaller park, it’s closer to urban paddlers, it sees more backcountry traffic. Maybe this place has actually become more of an outdoor motel and no longer a place to experience true wilderness.

So here’s a thought: Maybe more emphasis should be had on keeping Killarney’s wilderness appeal than trying to appease the paddling crowds, the paying clientele; and stop controlling them like a flock of sheep.

An interesting thing to note is that prior to writing this, I flipped through my old journal entries when I was writing my book on Killarney, back in the late 1980s. I found a quote I had jotted down from the Park Superintendent at the time, John McGrath. This is what this optimistic heel-biter said of his domain at the time (1988). “I’ll argue “wilderness park” until I’m blue in the face, because that’s what is basically saving Killarney Provincial Park—plain and simple!”

Here’s hoping Killarney remains Ontario’s crown jewel of the Ontario Provincial Park’s system.

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