Canoeing Around Philip Edward Island in the Fall


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I recently completed a canoe trip with friends near Killarney, Ontario during the last week of September with fall colours in full swing. This area is known for the beautiful Killarney Provincial Park. We have previously enjoyed visits to the park and would recommend it as a starting place for any new paddlers. On this particular trip, we travelled just southeast of the park for a 4 day, 50 km paddling circumnavigation of Philip Edward Island.

Philip Edward Island (circled) is south east of Killarney Provincial Park on the north end of Georgian Bay

Philip Edward Island is currently Crown land. This means Canadian citizens are permitted to camp for free, without a permit, for up to 21 days in any particular site. (Non-citizens may also camp on Crown land but require purchase of a permit.) 

The southern shore of Philip Edward Island opens into Georgian Bay. The northern side takes paddlers through Collins Inlet, parts of which border the Point Grondine reservation and park. Of note, Philip Edward Island and surrounding area are part of the current Wiikwemkoong Islands Boundary Claim being negotiated by the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory First Nation and the Government of Ontario.

Our route

Day 1: Chikanishing River put-in to West Desjardin Bay

We arrived in Killarney late morning and picked up our canoes, which we had arranged in advance to rent from Killarney Outfitters. The outfitter is a good stop for last minute purchases if anything is needed or forgotten, supplying fuel, fire starter, maps, and most camping equipment. They also have bathrooms available.

We began at the Chikanishing River starting point. Parking was approximately $15 daily for our car. 

The beauty of the region in fall was evident from our arrival at the access point. 

Chikanishing River Starting Point

There is a 2.4 km Chikanishing Trail that starts at the access point (just to the left in the above photo) and while we did not make time for this, we saw many others out with their cameras enjoying the trail. 

We planned a shorter paddle for our first day, given the later start. While camping anywhere on Crown land is permitted, there are a number of designated campsites along Philip Edward Island that offer a little more in terms of infrastructure (fire pit, bench and previously used tent placements indicated by rocks placed in a square). The Killarney Outfitters employee pointed out a particular campsite at the base of the highest point on the island, and we made that our destination for day one. 

From the river, we headed out to the Georgian Bay side of Philip Edward Island. Due to the rougher conditions on this side of the island and direction of the winds, I would echo the guidance (seen on most trip reports for the area) to go out this way. 

We were treated to beautiful Georgian Bay scenery along the way.

It was a little rainy on the day, and at times the line between water and sky seemed blurry, as though we were canoeing off the edge of the world.

After a few hours of leisurely paddling, we arrived at our campsite in West Desjardin Bay, as seen on the Unlostify map below.

We arrived and set up camp in moderate rain. This was a fantastic, large campsite with ample area to explore once things dried off a little.

The moody weather added to the views.

Click to enlarge

Day 2: From West Desjardin Bay to Martel Island

In the morning, we woke up to dry weather and explored the area again with more light. 

Enjoying the area, we lingered longer than we should have that morning and did not get on the water until nearly 10 am. This proved to be a mistake, as the winds quickly picked up in the later morning. Our progress was slow due to waves and eventually we stopped for a break when conditions started to feel unsafe due to the 1 m swells. We took on some water after a wave hit us in the side and sprayed into the canoe. It only happened once, but if we wanted to continue in those conditions a spray deck would have been necessary.

We made a challenging stop on the east side of East Desjardin Bay to get off the water. Almost every shore on the south side of PEI is all rock which the waves were pushing us up hard against and the smooth rock is slippery when wet – particularly where it is dark brown to black in colour. The section we were attempting to land on was also steeper than we would have liked making it the most difficult of the trip. 

Once safely ashore, we walked across the island to scout out the conditions around the point and on the other side in Solomon’s Bay – an approach we used a couple of times throughout the trip. We decided to portage everything over to cut the point and put-in in the calmer waters, but not until after some lunch, naps and cards. 

The water in the bays and between the many islands is often a clear, rich turquoise colour.

The windy conditions on the crossing did not allow for pictures, but the protected side of each bay offered shelter from the wind and beautiful places to wait when needed. 

We decided to push on further that day, lest we get stuck due to the thunderstorms that were forecasted for the next day. We ended up making less progress on day 2 and stopped on Martel Island in Solomons Bay to make camp and planned an at-dawn start to the next day. 

This was not marked as a designated campsite, but offered ample space to pitch tents.

Despite making limited progress and staying in an unexpected location, it’s hard to go wrong with views like this from most locations in the area. 

The smooth, reddish-brown ‘mars’ rock is found throughout the area – providing a much different look and feel than even other parts of Georgian Bay. Elevation changes are mostly gradual making the islands relatively easy to traverse.

Day 3: From Martel Island to Mill Lake

We learned our lesson from the day before and did not tarry the next morning. We got up at 6:30 am with a plan to pack up and be on the water when the sun rose a little after 7 am. A rainbow greeted us as we left the site.

It was a wet day and possible thunderstorms were forecasted so we kept a close eye on the clouds as we paddled that morning. Due to our experience the previous day, we opted to complete the optional Big Rock portage instead of taking the suggested route that would have had us go out around each point on the south side of the island – leaving us fairly exposed in Georgian Bay. 

It is a 550 m portage from Big Rock Bay to the west side of Garbage Bay over flat trail, but involves mud to mid-shin in areas. In a couple 100 m segments there are trees growing next to the trail and the trail isn’t wide enough to comfortably portage the canoe around the mud – you have to go through it. 

The west side of the portage had a decently spacious landing, but the native phragmites may make it more difficult to find and reach the spot in the spring and summer. The east side was much shallower and muddier which required us to walk the canoe out a ways in knee-high muck before the canoe was paddle-worthy.

Garbage Bay is littered with many small islands that provided cover and were fun to paddle around and between. 

While we love Unlostify maps and they have always served us well in the past, in this instance we found the depiction of the shoreline imprecise. In many instances, our Unlostify map suggested a land connection between Philip Edward Island and the smaller islands off the southern coast that did not exist (most notably, see Bateman and Deer Islands below compared on Unlostify versus Google maps). 

Fortunately, one of our group had purchased the Philip Edward Island & Area map from The Adventure Map® series by Chrismar and we discovered we were able to navigate through many of the smaller islands to provide protection from the waves. 

Using this strategy, we made good time. We finished the Georgian Bay side of our trip and made our way north to Collins Inlet. You’ll start to see the occasional privately owned cottage and hunting lodge through this section.

In Collins Inlet, we began to see more colourful fall foliage. The initial stretch of the inlet was one of the more beautiful sections of the trip (though unfortunately rain limited photos here).

Collins Inlet was the name of a lumber town from 1886 to 1918 and all that remains are scattered posts sticking up out of the water that used to support a pier.

There are very few designated campsites between the south side of the island and Mill Lake to the north. While theoretically camping is permitted anywhere on the Crown land, the terrain would make this challenging. Much of the shore is made up of tall cliff faces and steep hills. The north side of the inlet here is part of the Point Grondine reservation. 

We ended up making our way to Mill Lake and stayed at the first marked campsite at the northeast edge of the lake (south of the inlet). We passed a few motor boats along the inlet and they were present in the lake throughout the day and evening which definitely had a different feel to it than the rugged isolation of the Georgian Bay side of the loop.

Day 4: Mill Lake to Chikanishing River

We had initially set out to do a five day trip and considered staying in the area an extra night to explore more by water. In the end, we opted to cut our canoe trip a little short and head back on day four, allowing us to add on time to hike the Crack Trail at the end of our trip. 

Our last day was notably colder and we paddled upwind for most of it but enjoyed clear skies.

We were able to spot some of the Ojibwe pictographs on the northern side of the inlet west of Mill Lake on the bottom of a large cliff face a little bit west of a narrower section. For more information and cultural context, check out Discovering Rock Art by Thor Conway.

Before too long we were back at Chikanishing River and back to land.

Overall, I would highly recommend this trip. However, some degree of prior paddling experience is needed due to the variable conditions on Georgian Bay. Packing for the weather and anticipating the possible need to stay put for a day or two to wait out winds and waves is important, so I would recommend ensuring some buffer time is built in to your trip. 

If you end up making good time as we did, there are many other parts of Killarney Provincial Park to explore by canoe or foot in the extra time!

Back in Killarney, ON

After locking our canoes back up at the put-in point, the first thing we did was head back into the town of Killarney for some much needed hearty food. 

We treated ourselves to delightful fish and chips from Herbert’s Fisheries, and some unreal fritters from Gateway Restaurant & Bakery. We then did a casual, yet speedy, 8.5 km hike to The Crack in Killarney Provincial Park (a 4-hour hike that we did in 2 hours).

Read more: Things to Do in Killarney, ON

Trip resources

For a complete list of the things you may need on your trip, see Canada’s Camping Checklist.

Maps

Reference

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