Phillip Edward Island: Circumnavigation (6 days / 60 km)

This is a fantastic flat water trip with zero portaging, opportunities for unlimited exploration, great fishing, and breathtaking sunsets on the rocky Georgian Bay coast. It is predominantly crown land and there are plenty of established sites. It was a true pleasure to do this trip and one I recommend for any paddler, as it can be done by canoe or sea kayak.  

Highlights:  

  • Spending a couple of nights on the open coast of Georgian Bay, and everything that comes with it 
  • Crown Land – no permit fee for sites 
  • Fantastic Fishing 
  • Pictographs and a sacred indigenous ambush site  
  • Ghost Town 
  • Unique geological features and picturesque aqua coloured water  

Trip Summary 

Starting: Chikanishing Trail (Killarney Provincial Park – Purchase parking permit from George Lake) 

Ending Point: Chikanishing Trail

Total Distance: 50-60km (This is the approximate distance round trip. Every trip will vary depending how much exploring is done) 

Duration: 6 days 

Difficulty: Intermediate  

Things to Note:  

This trip can be done in so many ways so feel free to get creative. We saw a couple of lads in a quaint little sailboat and had a cute rowboat they used to explore the shorelines. There was also a couple who paddled out to one island for a couple of nights and were picked up by a water taxi they had arranged. 

  • You must be adaptable and work with the lake. When conditions are ideal or better take the opportunity to explore to outer islands. When conditions are less than ideal, stay in protected coves and channels. It is not unreasonable to plan an extra day for the weather!  
  • Check the weather report, and not just one. Windy.com is great (or download the app) – it gives you details for wind, waves, radar, and much more. Plan ahead but be adaptable. Picking which direction you go will likely depend on your trip plan and the upcoming forecast.  
  • Mark your territory – If you see a rock in a peculiar spot, there may be poop under it! There are little to no kybos/thunderboxes and the rocky geography can make it challenging to find a good spot to poop on some islands. Be sure to go as far inland as you can and away from the shoreline. Do your research on different ways to poop in the woods/coastal environments and try to minimize your impact.  
  • The rare lichen and coastal flora are very fragile and susceptible to human impact. Walking the same path to and fro (the shore, ‘facilities’) leaves less of a footprint.  
  • Rattlers – yes, there are Massasauga Rattlesnakes out there. They don’t want to be around you just as much as you don’t want anything to do with them. If you hear or see one, give it space, warn your comrades and camp elsewhere.  
  • Slick rock on the shores – be careful.  
  • Shoals – Be on the lookout for shoal beds. Nautical charts can help with this, and they are also marked on some maps.  
  • You will be paddling in shared waters with other vessels. Follow the rules and laws of waterways. If you don’t know, educate yourself before going out there to prevent unnecessary accidents.  

Georgian Bay/Lake Huron is not to be taken lightly. If you do plan to paddle on any big body of water, make sure you are doing so on days with ideal conditions or those that match your paddling skill set. Winds and waves typically pick up in the afternoon so get on the water early if you want to make the most of your days. If conditions get bad, find a safe landing site and get off the water!

Location 

Phillip Edward Island, Northern Georgian Bay, Lake Huron.

The road to Killarney, Highway 637, gets you to the access point at Chikanishing Trail.  The road into Killarney is a bumpy ride. Be sure to strap down your canoe well and double-check along the way. 

Traditional Territory: This route is located on the traditional territory of the Mississauga and Anishinabewaki (source).

Maps & Resources 

Maps: Unlostify Killarney Map  and The Adventure Map – Phillip Edward Island  

Campsites: This route is on crown land, so no permits or campsite reservations are required. However, you will need a parking pass from George Lake Campground to park.

A note on campsites

Crown land means there are plenty of established camps sites – there is no need to make your own unless the lake forces you off the water where there is not a site already established. Some sites are obvious from the circle of rocks forming fire pits, but others will require some scouting.  

Group size – Tons of site options if you are solo or tandem; for larger groups finding the right site can make the experience, but may prove to be challenging in high season.  Getting on the water early and finding your site by no later than mid-afternoon is a good way to ensure you get a campsite that is ideal for your group.  

The geography of the area is rocky, so be sure to bring a good sleeping mat! I love rocky shoreline camping, but there are those that do not. There are few sites that provide the comfort of the forest floor, and moss is fragile and gets your tent soaked. Be creative when securing your tent. Winds can pick up so you want to ensure your tent it won’t fly away while you are cooking dinner. Your pack, sticks and rocks, and strategic guy lines will help prevent you from chasing your tent down the bay. 

Outfitters & Shuttles 

No outfitter or shuttle was used for our trip. However, there are options in the area for rentals if needed. There are also water taxi/shuttle services – it is a good idea to have this contact information readily available, or you can even get in touch with them beforehand in case of an emergency.  

Trip Report 

Put in at Chikanishing Trail (Killarney Provincial Park – Get a parking permit from George Lake Campground)  

Distances – distances provided are what we travelled each day, and ‘as the crow flies’ (direct distance). As each trip will vary pending on conditions and where you choose to explore, distance will also vary.  

Note: There are garbage and recycling disposal here, so don’t forget to pack out all your trash! This is a sensitive environment, and increased popularity has resulted in more and more trash being left at sites. Please use the provided facilities or pack out everything!

Day 1: Chikanishing Trail to Site 1 (3 Km) 

We arrived at the put-in around 2 pm, which gave us enough time to launch and begin the journey. As we paddled south, the narrow creek began to open up and we were pleasantly surprised to have met a calm and tranquil Georgian Bay. We made the first short crossing to a cluster of islands. The first site we planned to stay at was occupied but it was not hard to find a site on a nearby island.  

Campsite:  This small island site was located on the northwest coast of Phillip Edward Island. It had plenty of spots to set up tents and pre-existing fire pits. It was a rather small island and did not have plenty of spots to use the facilities. The guys threw some lines in but didn’t catch any fish our first night. It was a stunning sunset and the lighthouses twinkling over the horizon were rather peaceful.  

Day 2: Site 1 to Blockbuster Island (12 km with exploring the Fox islands, 5 Km as the crow flies) 

We woke to a peaceful morning with no wind or waves. Our bellies were full, camp was taken down, so we paddled south. We had a destination in mind and were open to explore to see what opportunities the lake gave us that day. Another day with glassy water provided ample exploration.

We were able to make it out to the Foxes, a cluster of Islands that is only accessible in decent conditions. Here we found rare geological features –  the glaciers receded thousands of years ago and these islands tell a piece of their story. On West Fox Island, there are unique wavy grooves in the rock carved from glacial action.  It’s a pretty spectacular sight to see. There are campsites throughout the Fox Islands but most of them had been occupied. We planned to move a bit further anyway. We made our way to a more protected island and found a perfect site on Blockbuster Island. 

Campsite: Blockbuster Island 

Blockbuster Island is one of the larger islands on the south coast of Phillip Edward Island.  There are a few sites with decent landing sites on the north side of the Island, which is more protected from offshore weather. It has some decent elevation which makes for a great spot to catch the sunset over the vast open waters of Georgian Bay.

With the La Cloche mountain range and the Snake Islands in view, it is absolutely stunning and I couldn’t help but feel I was in a different country. There was a decent swimming hole to rinse off and it provided a couple of spots to fish from shore. A nice camp kitchen with some rock benches made for a cozy stay.  

Day 3: Blockbuster Island to Hinks Island (14 km, 10 km as the crow flies)  

Another day with great weather and a calm lake. We broke camp with plenty of time to make our way to the southeastern coast of Phillip Edward Island. It was easily paddling, too good to be true. This was the third day with pretty much perfect conditions – not too hot or sunny, smooth water, and the fortune of finding great spots in this new area we were exploring.  

One of my mates, Bob, caught a beautiful Northern Pike while we stopped for a break in Big Rock Bay (there was a really nice and large site on the east side of the bay). Bob tried to humanely get the hook out; unfortunately, the hook was way down in the gills. As Bob was cleaning the fish, we got out the stove, pan and some spices – it was a delicious snack.  

Campsite: Hinks Island 

This was a fabulous site. It was in a protected bay (Deer Island Bay) on the north side of Hinks Island. A sand beach landing was quite pleasant and made for another great spot for a quick dip once camp was set up. There was a beautiful forest with a ‘normal’ forest floor, which made for a rather comfortable sleep and easy setup compared to the rocky terrain prevalent in the area. Plenty of sites just in the forest and additional space slightly inland. A short walk towards the south part of Hinks Island revealed another spectacular view of the open Georgian Bay waters.  

Day 4: Hinks Island to Mill Lake (16 km, 5 km as the crow flies) 

This was a slog of a day. We anticipated a headwind moving north through Beaverstone Bay towards Collins Inlet. It started off with a nice calm paddle through some narrows; it wasn’t long until we were out of the lee of the shore and blasted with a fierce headwind. We island hopped and took breaks as needed. We knew once we made it to Collins Inlet we would be out of the thick of it.

We stopped for lunch at a small campsite on the north point of Sheep Island. We were fueled up to finish the last push through the headwind and make our way to Mill Lake.  

The paddle through the eastern entrance of Collins Inlet was a nice change of scenery. Suddenly, we had gone from an open coastal environment to a narrow channel similar to paddling a river valley. We paddled on the north side of the Inlet, in the lee of the wind and with the sun on our skin. We passed through the ghost town of Collins Inlet (an old lumber and milling town) and some fishing lodges.

A short distance further we made it to Mill Lake. We saw a few paddlers ahead of us that day going into Mill Lake and did not risk going the 3 km in to press our luck that one of the better sites would be unoccupied. It was later in the afternoon and we were pretty tired from that paddle in the headwind. We paddled down the east shore and scouted for potential sites. We found a site that was sufficient for us and set up camp.  

Campsite: East shore of Mill Lake 

The site we stayed on Mill Lake was not the best nor the worst. It was a nook on the rocky shore and had some uneven terrain. There were enough spots to set up our four tents, some more comfortably than others. We made it work and it was surprisingly cozy.  

Day 5: Mill Lake to Western Entrance (12 km, 10.5 km as the crow flies)  

We woke up with a slight headwind in front of us. We got on the water and once we made it back to Collins Inlet the paddling was fairly easy. It was not long until we passed through the ambush site and it really provided a unique sensation. The pictograph site was just a little further down the inlet. They were challenging to find, and once we saw them we were blown away. The Red Ochre rock drawings had us in awe.  

As these are sacred sites, it is not for me to share the stories behind the pictographs, although with some quick research on pictographs in the region, you should be set.

Campsite: South shore 3 km east of the Chikanishing river

The site was one of those multi-level sites and was fairly spacious, offering an excellent view of Collins Inlet. There are 3-5 tent sites in the forest in the lower section and a fire pit. There are also a couple of sites on the upper level with another fire pit. We used the fire pit on the top as our kitchen area and the majority of tents were set up in the lower level.  

As we were expecting, a massive storm cell moved in overnight. Winds gusting above 40 km/hr with lightning showers kept some of the crew up. Luckily we did the trip in the direction we did, otherwise, we would have been on the exposed side of Phillip Edward Island. 

Day 6: Western Entrance to Chikanishing River (3 km) 

In anticipation of continued bad weather, we were up early, only to be greeted by thick fog and gusty winds. Luckily, we only had a short 3 km paddle back to the Chikanishing river. As we paddled through the western entrance of Collins Inlet, we saw waves crashing on distant shoals. I couldn’t help but reflect at that moment, thinking of the great adventure we were just about to wrap up and how grateful I am for how everything turns out as it should.  

Reflections 

Truly a great trip that can be done over a long weekend (for experienced paddlers who want a quick mission) or it can also be stretched into 7+ days. Our longest day was 16 km and we only had one day with a headwind. We enjoyed ourselves out there and the last bit of calm before consistent fall weather rolled in.  

Spending a couple nights on the open coast of Georgian Bay, and everything that comes with it.

If you have not spent any time on the shores of a Great Lake you are missing out. The sheer feeling of being out in such a remote part of a massive lake is hard to describe. Even more so, given the fact that you paddled yourself there in a small human-powered vessel. Georgian Bay and the blue waters provide the feeling as if you are in the tropics (even though you are only 4 hours away from Toronto)!  

Crown Land (no permit fee for sites).

While it was great to not pay for sites, the accessibility of these sites by other watercraft users means there can be traffic. Going in shoulder season may give you more options, but you may also have more unpredictable weather.

We were fortunate to not run into too many groups this time around. (Side story – A few years ago I was out on the Fox Islands and saw a large water taxi drop off what had to be more than 20 people on Martins Island. Curiosity got the best of me and I paddled in to ask what they were up to – turns out it was some organized photography group that was there for astrophotography/ stargazing and sunrise photography).  

Fantastic fishing!

My friend Bob was on a roll and caught a number of fish, including the Pike we ate, along with another which was his new personal best. Jake, my other pal, only pulled in seaweeds. It was rather amusing as they were fishing in the same spots. Jake even used some of the lures Bob was using and still no luck.  

Pictographs and a sacred Indigenous ambush site.  

This was a really unique part of the trip. The anticipation of knowing we were approaching these sights with such historical and cultural significance was special. The adventure of locating these, and reimagining the history was a unique experience (it was clearly a carefully selected ambush site, with vantage points on either side of the valley). It really gave some insight into some of the warfare tactics used in this region; the pictographs told their own stories.  

Untold stories of the past.

Passing through Collins Inlet, there was a different vibe or energy in the air. The old ghost town, the sacred indigenous site (the two that we were privy to) are just slices of the history surrounding Phillip Edward Island and the region. There is a sense of overwhelming consideration of all the ‘untold stories’ of the history of the region.  

Unique geological features and picturesque aqua coloured water.

The waters of Georgian Bay are stunning, and we were blessed with no swell or waves when we paddled the exterior part of the island. Paddling on glass-like water while gazing out into the vast Georgian Bay was a real treat.  

As a rock hound, I truly cherish any time I get to spend on the Great Lakes. The geology and geography of the region are so unique and I am always dumbfounded at the power of nature. From the rare minerals evident in bright colours on the rocky coast to the fascinating thought of how the shores have been carved from thousands of years of waves and ice moving over them, it is somewhere I don’t think I will ever get sick of.  

Geology is the study of pressure and time. That’s all it takes, really. Pressure…and time.” 

 – Red, from  Shawshank Redemption 

Gallery 

Author Bio 

Jesse Yacoubov is an outdoor and experiential educator, wilderness guide and adventure enthusiast.

“Growing up in Toronto, the call of the wild, sense of adventure, and connection to land instilled a great passion in me to pursue a career in outdoor education. With a true passion for exploring new and wild places, I have been fortunate enough to have led two 70+ day canoe expeditions, with plenty of other backcountry trips under my belt. Canoe tripping has instilled great values in me, and it is a pleasure to be able to share some of that with others.”