It took me four days to appreciate that Killarney was alive. I don’t mean merely that it was beautiful, colourful or animated. I mean that its lakes and rivers exchanged water as deliberately as organs and vessels exchange blood, that its weather had all the same temperamentality as might a working consciousness, that even the rocks had the sensitivity of a nervous system.

I am not a superstitious man, nor do I put stock in the supernatural, but as we pressed deep into the backcountry of Killarney Provincial Park, paddling its portage web farther and farther from the soft familiarity of parking lots and information kiosks, I found my rigidly rational mind giving way to an unspoken dialogue with the landscape. We stopped choosing our campsites for their location and instead settled where we felt most welcome. We began trusting intangible things like luck and premonition to choose our schedule and route, and more than once an alarm sounded in my head, apropos of nothing, and I raised my eyes to find a male moose brushing the lakeside with absurdly wide antlers, a young bear caught strolling through a sunbeam, a small herd of deer spying on our camp and then filling the woods with their riotous retreat.

cxvZack Metcalfe photo

You cannot simplify this park into a collection of plants, animals and fungi, nor should you pay too much attention to the delineation of its borders. Killarney is alive, an entity unto itself. Knowing this going in will save you some time.

I came to this stretch of northern Ontario for its mountains, condensed cliffs of quartzite which loom, omnipresent, on every horizon. They are snow-cap white, except where they are pink, cut through with deposits of pumice, and they are bald, the hardiest of spruce and pine unable to climb their crowns. These, the La Cloche Mountains, were at one time as tall as the Rockies, but have lost their war with the elements, standing now as “eroded mountain roots,” in the words of anthropologist Peter Storck, “exposed like the stump of a tree that has been cut.”

The lakes between are an education in ecology. Killarney’s only sin is that it occurred so close to historic Sudbury, which, for much of the 1900s, smelted unchecked plumes of sulfur into the atmosphere, most of it condensing precisely here, stripping the carbonates of Killarney’s soil and acidifying its lakes to catastrophic extremes. These emissions were tamed in the 1970s and so some lakes recovered, but many remain irredeemably dead, stifled by slow flushing and the patient rejoinders of chemistry.

xzcZack Metcalfe photo

I’m ashamed to say these dead lakes are sublime. Clearsilver, Killarney and Topaz lakes have been so cleansed of life that you can see clean to their bottoms. Their submerged rocks have no adhering plantlife on which to slip, their waters no roaming turtles of which to be wary, no haze through which to lose sight of diving friends. They are the most sterilized of swimming pools, sapphire blue at an angle or else perfectly transparent, inviting in all their unambiguous clarity. In time these dead lakes, too, shall recover, finding again the microorganisms which support everything else in turn, bringing back the tangles of plantlife, the mushiness of mud and algae, the panicked patter of ducks and the slap and stroke of beavers. The lily pads, turning technicolour in fall. The double-helix of flying insects rising from the water.

Amid all of this, it’s easy to miss the pines, but every now and again they grab you: the Whites and Jacks rooting stubbornly in scarred soils, lording tall and thick over campsites with armies of ants battling overtop their snakish roots, standing like kings on lakeside cliffs, their needles always bending the light in the most peculiar way, appearing as delicate strands of hair. They are the keepers of Killarney, and are, in truth, the only reason this park exists.

Just as they snagged me in the September of 2021, they snagged A.Y. Jackson 90 Septembers previous. The most audacious member of the Group of Seven paddled into this enclosed wilderness by way of Baie Fine, a long and narrow fjord in the southwest which connects Killarney’s interior to Georgian Bay, in 1931. While paddling toward his first portage, he encountered a representative of the Spanish River Lumber Company, from whom he learned the ancient pines of his ultimate destination, Trout Lake, would be cut the coming winter. And when he reached Trout Lake, conceptualizing the paintings for which he is famous, Jackson was spellbound by the richness of the glassy calm water, the quartzite peaks of Blue Ridge to the north, and especially by the doomed pines which would drape themselves over his most famous work.

ewarA.Y. Jackson (1882–1974), Hills, Killarney, Ontario (Nellie Lake), c. 1933, oil on canvas, 77.3 x 81.7 cm, Gift of Mr. S. Walter Stewart, McMichael Canadian Art Collection

He returned to Toronto with a fire in his belly and wrote a flurry of letters to friends and colleagues, striving belligerently to prevent the harvest of Trout Lake. In the end he convinced William Finlayson, Ontario’s Minister of Lands and Forests, to negotiate an exchange of limits with the Spanish River Lumber Company, preserving Trout Lake and a membrane of surrounding wilderness. He also inspired the Ontario Society of Artists to take up the cause, lobbying for years thereafter to establish Trout Lake, and ultimately 485 km2 of surrounding wilderness, as Killarney Provincial Park in 1964. In 2006, the park was expanded to 498 km2 and, that same year, was complimented by an adjoining protected area, the Killarney Lakelands and Headwaters Provincial Park. Together, they are 651 km2 strong.

I repeated A.Y. Jackson’s route except in reverse, beginning in the park’s southeast and travelling toward Baie Fine in the west, passing by or through lakes named for the painters who rescued them. There was A.Y. Jackson Lake in the east, Muriel Lake and Artist Lake in the southcentral and, in 1933, Trout Lake was renamed O.S.A Lake after the Ontario Society of Artists. It ranks among the most stupefying in the park, many of the same ancient pines still holding together its banks and isles, reaching in one direction or another with branches like open hands, grasping for something unseen.

dsgfZack Metcalfe photo

Perhaps the most salient difference between Jackson’s time and my own is that O.S.A Lake is now among the dead, one of the slowest to recover from acidification. Paddling its length was like balancing our canoe on a dense cushion of air, beneath us columns of water pure and distilled. There were no fish of any kind; fallen trees preserved in their totality on the bottom, entirely free of bacterial decay. For long stretches of time we just floated, gawking downward at the aquatic display, an empty amphitheatre, startling us with its silence.

The Group of Seven sent several of its members here. Franklin Carmichael painted Killarney so frequently that he, too, had a lake named in his honour, and the La Cloche, Silhouette Trail, which circumnavigates the park and its backcountry, derives its title from one of his paintings. Arthur Lismer’s loveliest work, Bright Land, depicts Topaz Lake so exactly that I was able to find the very spot from which he painted it.

sdfZack Metcalfe photo

After three days’ paddle, reminiscing on art, rock and life, we found ourselves as deep into Killarney as we intended to go: on Great Mountain Lake far to the north. Then we learned of a rainstorm fast descending on the park, promising turmoil which seemed impossible after so many sweet and sunny days. Here was Killarney’s character at work, its mood shifting wildly as clouds took the southern horizon and thickened into a moist mass. The next day, we resolved to escape, covering the length of the park in a belligerent seven hours.

The rain came down in torrents, a constant curtain of water contorting in the wind, the waves of the wider lakes jumping the bow of our canoe and landing in my lap, our equipment soaked through, floating in several inches of spontaneous ballast. Every lake was a race against our own limits, every beaver dam a fresh conundrum, every portage a tense affair through which we expected a tumble or slip and shatter a shoulder or knee, but we succeeded, arriving at our launch midafternoon, ushered out by impatient elements.

dsgfZack Metcalfe photo

It would be days before I felt truly dry again, and weeks before Killarney receded from waking memory. It is a wild place, a haunted place, crafted by mountains and refined by erosion, stained by acid and preserved in paint. It travels with you for every step and stroke of the paddle, and it never quite lets go.