I WAS in red alert mode. As in, alert to red autumn foliage in Muskoka, a region in northern Ontario, Canada.
During the 17km drive from the town of Port Carling to neighbouring Bala, I was puzzled because the trees were distinctly more red than they were the previous day.
My eyes were not deceiving me. In Bala, I was told that despite the sunny mid-September daytime conditions, the cold weather overnight had frozen the sap in the trees, causing the leaves to change colour, creating a profusion of red and russet tones that did not exist 24 hours earlier.
If that sounded like culture shock, the car radio, tuned to Moose FM, issued a warning about a black bear in the vicinity of my hotel.
If it’s autumn tranquillity you seek, catch a flight to Toronto and do what I did — get off the plane, jump into a rental car and head north for just over 200km till you get to Port Carling.
This is the heart of Muskoka, a picturesque haven of lakes that has as many golf courses and fishing spots as snowmobile clubs.
Port Carling’s most famous landmark is a mural that was once the largest of its kind in the world.
At 34m x 14m, it looks like a huge depiction of an old vessel, the Royal Mail Ship (RMS) Sagamo. But a closer look reveals that it actually comprises more than 9,000 frames based on an original 905 historical photographs from the town's first century of settlement.
Digital imaging has rendered the original black-and-white photographs into small colour segments that form the huge image of the Sagamo that one sees from a distance.
The original mural was unveiled in August 2005, but after sustaining weather damage over almost a decade, was replaced with a new version last year.
Chairs, colours and cranberries
After I checked in to the Delta Sherwood a short drive away, I discovered my first Muskoka chair.
Made from local timber and meant exclusively for outdoor use, Muskoka chairs have wide backs and gently contoured seats, but their real homage to summer is encapsulated in their generous armrests. As I settled into one, I discovered just how deceptively comfortable natural wood can be.
These chairs seem to be varnished timber and have retained their finish well, despite being exposed to the elements.
But in the course of the next few days, I saw several more painted red, blue, yellow and orange, like separate segments of a timber rainbow.
There were other colours to admire in Port Carling.
Before dawn the next day, I watched as the myriad of twinkling stars receded and an orange veil heralding sunrise appeared above the low distant hills across the lake.
The sudden warmth of the rising sun began to coax tendrils of mist from the cold surface of the lake, and as the sun climbed into the clear sky, its widening glow catalysed what looked like a choreographed dance of silver misty spirals.
Later that day, I opted for another classic Canadian experience, a visit to a cranberry farm.
At Johnston's Cranberries — which, appropriately enough, is on Cranberry Road — I chose to walk around instead of taking a guided tour aboard one of the covered wagons.
As a teetotaller, I resisted the temptation to kick back with a bottle of cranberry wine but I learnt that the region’s early settlers thought that the blossoms resembled crane's heads and initially called them “craneberries”.
Watch out for moose
My next port of call was the world-famous Algonquin Provincial Park, a 90-minute drive from the Delta Sherwood and a haven of more than 76,000ha of forests, lakes and rivers.
I wanted to get there before daybreak to photograph the sunrise over yet another Muskoka lake.
When I told one of the locals about my plan, he warned me to be careful of moose.
Moose? Seriously? But aren’t they placid and not dangerous?
Yes, he said, but they are a highway hazard.
“They blend in with the darkness and they’re not clever enough to avoid cars,” he explained. “Because they're so big, if you hit a moose at speed on a highway, it'll collapse onto the car and probably crush you.”
But not one moose had a crush on me.
On board an ancient ship
Relieved, I headed to Gravenhurst half an hour away, and booked a lake cruise on the Royal Mail Ship (RMS) Segwun.
Built in 1887, the oldest operating steam vessel in North America had literally linked the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.
The weather had deteriorated as the ship cast off from the wharf, but the crew members eyed my cameras and asked if I would like to head down to the engine room to get a unique experience.
Watching them shovel coal into the boilers was an eye-opener in terms of physical efficiency, but the piece de resistance came when I was taken up to the bridge, to stand beside the captain of the old ferry vessel amid the vintage timber and the shining brass.
At the end of the cruise, when the old vessel docked smoothly, I had my own ferry-tale ending.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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