Saturday, January 21, 2006

The King And I

(Or, how I came face-to-face with Louis XIV)

Notre Dame and the bust of King Louis XIV. Photo copyright: DAVID McMAHON

IT'S like a scene from The King And I. There's Louis XIV and I, side by side. It's mid afternoon in Quebec City, Canada, and his highness and I are completely drenched.

There's much to learn about the reign (or rain, as it may be) of the French monarch. His statue, in the centre of the square outside Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, is adorned with quivering, translucent raindrops that glisten and shimmer like misplaced pearls.

The ruler, who assumed France's throne in 1661, played a pivotal role in settling disputes between Catholic priests and missionaries, and the fur traders, who wielded great influence in the new colony.

If you want proof that religion played a strong hand in the province's early history, drive about half an hour out of the city, to the stunning Basilica of St Anne de Beaupre.

The statue of St Anne the mother of the Virgin Mary and grandmother of Jesus is known as the statue of miracles. Despite the constant stream of pilgrims, there is an enveloping silence inside the magnificent domed structure.

At the entrance are crutches and other medical equipment, left behind by those who came and found a miraculous cure.

Religion is not the only factor that fortifies Quebecois. Their city is the only fortified metropolis in North America whose walls are still standing. Even those with little passion for history's rich tapestry would have a tingling spine at several reminders of the city's former status as a prime outpost.

The pre-dawn sky is silver-grey as I walk through the imposing Porte St-Louis gate. The Parliament complex is behind my right shoulder, the Plains of Abraham are on my left.

The silence is so all-enveloping I can hear my footsteps echoing as I climb the slope to the fortifications. As in everything else in life, it is indeed the fort that counts.

The hillside is emerald green, the trees still dripping rain as the Lower City is spread out before me, a melting pot of amazing rooflines and stately architecture.

The St Lawrence River is a wide grey ribbon that stretches to the horizon as the brooding cloud closes in again.

Momentarily, I am disappointed that the brilliant sunrise I hoped for will not happen. Instead, the photographs I take in the steady rain show the city skyline in a unique manner, like a soft-focus oil painting.

Spread out like a 3D street directory are an assortment of roof styles and colours. Towering above all else is the magnificent Chateau Frontenac, virtually the city's cultural symbol.

A stone's throw away from its imposing shadow is the wide sweep of the Dufferin Terrace. Central to the scene, as if looking over the city and waterfront, is the statue of Samuel de Champlain.

He established a fur-trading post in 1608, ensuring that Quebec City would be a cultural prize that would change hands many times during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Perhaps it is Champlain himself who rolls back the clouds, unveiling the Chateau Frontenac for me to photograph under a brilliant blue sky.

I travelled courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission and Air Canada.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Bear The Brunt Of It

(Encountering creature comforts in Muskoka)

Not a bushfire, but dawn at Algonquin National Park. Photo copyright: DAVID McMAHON

THERE'S a bear in there. And I'm not keen to meet him. But this is a mental balancing act.I want to photograph this Muskoka dawn that is raking across the sky like a bushfire. But this being Algonquin National Park in northern Ontario, Canada, it is home to all creatures great and small.

Bear. Moose. The others I can cope with. But conventional wisdom in this part of the world is that you should employ shrill blasts on a whistle to keep the bears away.

I don't have a whistle. And in a few minutes the photo opportunity will have vanished for good.
What to do? I whistle `Waltzing Matilda’ as loud as I can.

You think that's daft? It obviously worked a treat, because it kept the bears away. Go figure.
Late the night before, I had decided, against my better judgment ‑ ignoring the sound of persistent rain ‑ to drive from Huntsville to Algonquin National Park.

The hotel receptionist provided me with a map and told me I should never turn my back on a bear. And I had already been told to be wary of moose because they tend to stand by the side of the highway, blending into the background.

If there was no way to avoid hitting a moose at 100km/h, I was told to try and manoeuvre my car so as to hit the animal's hindquarters.

Why? Because moose are so tall that they would topple over, crushing the hood and windscreen, and making a terrible mess of me in the bargain. I'm pleased to announce I didn't hit a moose.
Nor was I confronted by a bear. But as we all know, that's simply because I was whistling incessantly.

The still surface of Smoke Creek is a spectacular mirror for the brilliant hues splashed across the northern sky.

By the time I get to Tea Lake the breeze has all but banished the clouds and the sky is clear as the first rays of the sun change the landscape dramatically. Now I can see the russet and brown and gold of the trees that fringe the lake.

As the sun rises, warming the still water, I am treated to the sight of the first tendrils of mist snaking up from the cold lake. Rapidly, this becomes an opaque blanket that looks for all the world as though some invisible Impressionist painter has dropped by and coated the lake's surface.

But the startling beauty is all too much for a city slicker like me. As I juggle cameras, memory cards and spare films, I am concentrating too hard to look elsewhere.

So, when I suddenly get the overpowering whiff of moose dung I look around, expecting to photograph the big animal at point-blank range.

No such luck. I've stepped into a steaming pile of it and it's all over my sturdy boots like a rash.

That's when I realise the truth in the old adage - what's dung cannot be undung.

I travelled to Canada courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission and Air Canada. For more details on Muskoka, visit