The La Cloche Silhouette trail is an 80km, difficult, hiking trail that loops through the Killarney Provincial Park. I had never before been to Killarney, but had heard good things, as it is in this park where Ontario’s only mountain range exists (these mountains just barely pass the definition of what a mountain range is). These mountains are composed of a white quartzite, and with plenty of lakes and dense forests and bogs and swamps, the park is home to some spectacular views and nature experiences. I got the idea of attempting to hike this trail in less than 24hrs from an article I read in some outdoor adventure magazine, the name of which is currently escaping me. The park recommends hikers to take 7-10 days to complete the trail. I read that article a while back …possibly even as late as last year. I knew this summer was going to be big, as I was hyped from a fantastic summer last year where I biked across Canada and started trad-climbing, and this summer I was going to graduate from my PhD (which I did, by the way, in late August).
Last winter, I decided to challenge myself to three things: complete a full Randonneuring series (Randonneuring is the sport of long-distance endurance cycling. Starting at 200km in 13hrs, it progressively moves up to more challenging distances – 300km in 20hrs, 400km in 27hrs, 600km in 40hrs – up to 1200km in 90hrs. A full series involves completing a 200, 300, 400 and 600km event in a season.), run my first triathlon which I decided would be a half Ironman, and complete the LaCloche Silhouette Trail in less than 24hrs. With the first of the two behind me, I decided to end the year with the 80km hike.
But first I had to find someone to do this with me. As it is fall, I knew I could be hiking in the dark for upwards of 12 hours. I didn’t want to be doing that by myself. Killarney Provincial Park is home to wolves, bears, and moose. None of which I’d like to run into in the middle of the night in the middle of a trail far from help… alone. So I asked my life-long friend Ryan, who I hiked with on multiple trails in Sedona, Arizona, and who also hiked with me to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back in an 8 hour stretch. Unfortunately, I told Ryan about the idea in early September, which only gave him a month and a bit to train. I, on the other hand, was tired of training after completing my triathlon in early September, and sort of got lazy.
We managed to get some training in together. I think we did a 15km hike near Minden, ON, a 25km hike in the same area, a 10km hike on the property where we work, and then Ryan did a 40km hike with a friend of his while I was away in West Virginia climbing. For gear, we tried to pack light. I had a first aid kit with emergency blankets and a tensor bandage… one tensor bandage… ibuprofen, and tiger balm. I had some extra clothing, like a wool long-sleeve base layer, a pair of light pants, light wool gloves and a small toque. We decided on trail-running shoes for footwear, and I brought two extra pairs of socks. For food, we brought banana bread sandwiches (butter, honey, peanut butter, etc), cliff bars, small baked potatoes soaked in Italian dressing (these things are life savers!), too much trail mix… and some gatorade mix. Toilet paper, a compass, a knife, a bright (80 lumen) headlamp with extra batteries, and a bear bell finishes up the list.
We began our adventure Monday night, which in Canada was Thanksgiving. We drove up to the park from Barrie, which is roughly a 3.5 hour drive, starting at 6pm (I was late getting to Ryan’s). On the way, we were delayed by some kind of car accident, and later almost got into an accident of our own when I almost hit two (count ’em) Moose. Once into the park, we payed our fee and set up our tent. Any last preparations needed were made and we went to bed. We set the alarm for 3am.
3am. Looking back, I can’t recall why I thought this was a good idea. I think we thought we were going to get this hike done in 20 hours, so getting some of the dark hiking done early on, when we’re still fresh, would be good. We started the hike in the counter-clockwise direction. This is probably the least popular route, as it starts with the most difficult stuff at the beginning.
We wanted to get that out of the way first, since we’d be too exhausted to battle these mountain climbs at the end of the hike. The first problem we encountered was Ryan’s headlamp batteries died within the first couple hours of hiking. Seriously. Luckily we had spare batteries, so we replaced them and kept going.
These first hours were mostly spent hiking through forest. The first big obstacle we encountered is a section of the trail termed ‘The Crack’, as this section is mostly steep mountain boulders you need to scramble up. I think from here you would be given an amazing view of Killarney Lake and other stuff…but it was still too dark to see landscape. From here on you are in the Silver Peak Trail section. This is ~30 km of mountain hiking. It’s extremely beautiful. We managed to watch the sunrise from here at around 6:30am.
Here’s a video of us after 6hrs, maybe 20km?:
The first 25 km were tough but very beautiful and didn’t feel that hard because we were still very excited and fresh. We went through ‘mountain ranges’, and lush forests, and swamps, all within a relatively short time. Next we came to a sign that said Silver Peak. We knew that there was one trail that was off the main trail and lead to a very high mountain peak. We decided we’d drop off our bags and do that difficult 1.5km hike, take some pictures, and come back for our bags. The climb was tough, but I still felt good. The view was definitely the best we saw on the entire hike. You can see the park in full 360 degrees.
Here’s a video of us at the top of Silver Peak, maybe 25km?:
At this point Ryan started to feel some pain. As well, it turns out we left our bags at the wrong ‘fork’, so I volunteered to run back the kilometer or so, pick up both bags, and walk them back. From here, we knew we had the hardest part of the hike behind us. We hiked for another 7 or so kilometers, at a little bit of a slower pace, going over some more mountain passes and meeting some solo hikers along the way (all men, around 40-60 years old, and attempting to do the trail in 4-7 days). At the ~38km mark, going down a hill, Ryan slipped and yelled out. I asked if he was ok, and he told me that his knees were in a lot of pain. Essentially they weren’t working anymore. We were about half-way through, and now we had two bum knees.
Here’s a video of us, at the 13hour mark, more than half-way:
After 13 hours, we knew we only had a couple of hours of daylight left. At one point Ryan fell down, yelled out in pain, and, in a moment of desperation, let me know he didn’t think he was going to make it. This had to have been our lowest point. We didn’t know what to do. We didn’t really consider much. We took a break. I decided at this point to carry both packs. We started up again, resigned to the fact that we would not be getting out of this park anytime soon, with possible plan Bs running through our minds.
The biggest problem for Ryan’s knees were going up and down (obviously). From the map, I determined there were only 3 more difficult passes to deal with. One coming up, then 20km of ‘easy’ hiking, then another difficult pass, some ‘easy’ hiking, a difficult pass, then ~5km of ‘easy’ hiking to the end. This was good motivation. I just wanted to make it to that 20km of ‘easy’ hiking. The reason I put easy in quotes is because, although there are no steep sections in these sections, there’s still wet and rough terrain along the way. Many times I stepped in a puddle and got soaked feet.
After 15.5 hours of continuous hiking, night fell. We turned on our headlamps and trudged on. At around 9pm, it started raining. It rained… I don’t even know for how long. It felt like forever. It may have been on and off for about 6 hours. It wasn’t heavy, but it was continuous, and annoying. Luckily it wasn’t that cold. At one point a wolf ran beside me…probably 10 feet away. It scared the living shit out of me. I’ve never before in my life seen a wolf in the wild. What the fuck! I got out my knife and stopped to wait for Ryan. I told him about it but he didn’t seem very concerned. He said that only sick wolves attack people. I asked how he knew it wasn’t sick. I was scared, Ryan seemed unfazed.
Around midnight, as it rained, Ryan said he didn’t know if he could go on without sleeping a bit. This sounded like a great idea to me, as I was feeling sick (I think I got something from a friend of mine at work, but didn’t feel the symptoms until half-way through the hike) and my shoulders and back were aching from carrying both packs. We found a large tree to sit under, but it was on a bit of a hill. I was willing to try to sleep here, but Ryan recommended we find a more flat area to sleep. We went on, found a place on the trail that was relatively dry (there was no where that was actually dry, being fall and having no real leaf coverage, but some pine trees were large enough to provide some shelter). We laid down, got out our emergency blankets (space blankets I call them), and tried to go to sleep. I passed out immediately. Ryan didn’t have such luck. I snored a bit, which scared the shit out of Ryan, as he thought it was the sound of a bear. After 30 minutes, Ryan woke me up and we were on our way. Ryan hadn’t slept, but he felt much better. From here on out, we managed to hike for an hour at a time, before collapsing for a rest. On almost every rest, I think I passed out, whether under a space blanket or not. Ryan managed to sleep for a couple of these rests.
Here’s a video of us at the 24hr mark, with less than 20 km to go (which at our pace still meant 6 hours to go). I say we have 12km to go, but in retrospect I think that was wrong. I realize there’s not much to see in the video, but the audio is there in all its glory:
The last nap I took was at the 27hr mark, just as the sun was rising. It was still a little dark, and we were heading up a long wide steep portage section. I passed out, and when I woke up it was much lighter, which I was very thankful for. 12 hours of continuous night hiking was taking its toll on me. From here we had 14km to go. Essentially there’s not much more to say.
Here’s the last video I took:
We lumbered our way through relatively easy hiking, but lots of wet passes, and finally made our way to our campsite. We were so happy! What an incredible adventure we had. We got back at about 10am, which would put our hike at the 30hr mark. We passed out in our tent for about 3 hours, then had to drive to Barrie (3.5hrs), and then had to drive another 1.5 hours to Minden.
I don’t think I have ever had such an intimate experience with nature as that first nap on the forest floor, under the huge tree, in the rain, under my space blanket. I am very thankful for that experience. There are many religions around the globe that incorporate stressful / exhaustive rituals that put the person into a frame of mind that is susceptible to very meaningful and deep experiences. Examples of this are vision quests or fasting. I didn’t have a religious experience, but I certainly had a beautiful experience that was heightened due to my extreme fatigue and exhaustion.
We didn’t get the hike done in less than 24 hours like we originally hoped for, but we also didn’t have to get rescued out of the park with any serious injuries, and I’m very thankful for that. So far Ryan seems to be recovering well. He probably doesn’t have to see a specialist or anything. He just needs to rest up.
Would I do it again? Definitely…but not for a while. For now I just want to rest…