Along the North Shore of the Gulf St. Lawrence, lies a beautiful chain of approximately thirty limestone islands and over 1,000 rocky islets and reefs. This is the wondrous Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve, a land of spectacular monoliths and lush forest. For the Star Wars fans, it’s like Dagobah! A ‘land that time forgot’ with ancient boreal forest covering the land, literally dripping with moss and lichens.
It has that primordial quality where the last prehistoric creatures could still roam – and where you half-expect Doug McClure to appear around the corner. The island chain is rich with present-day wildlife, with over 35,000 puffins in the breeding season, plus seals, dolphins, whales, otters, beavers, red foxes and other small land mammals. It is incredibly beautiful.
I’m lucky enough to have visited the archipelago before, so this time I want to prioritise my brief visit. As the seabird breeding season has ended, this trip is really all about the forest and the monoliths, with one exception… Last time, I’d heard about a friendly red fox, but all I saw of this gregarious fur-ball was its scat. Nice. Fingers crossed, this time it would be different.
The short boat-trip to Île Quarry (Quarry Island) from Havre-Saint-Pierre overflows with picture postcard potential. Low-lying mists shroud the islands, abstract patterns follow in our wake, and idyllic little fishing boats glide serenely on glassy waters.
Once ashore, with the soft light and mists still lingering and knowing time is an issue, I race along the boardwalks shooting the boreal forest as I go. You could spend weeks here. Trees, lichens, berries, and fungi… It’s one of those locations where you can see lush nature images everywhere you look. The overcast skies really bring out the vibrant greens. There’s that smell that only old forests have – mushroomy, composty and yet still fragrant.
As I reach the end of the boardwalk, I hit the gravel path. The sky opens wide and the trees thin out to stunted firs and berry-laden bushes. A shingle-covered coastline and the famed monoliths are revealed. They are extraordinary! Carved by the elements through millennia, they tower over the surrounding limestone bedrock. The timing is perfect, with the lagoons full of water after the retreating tide, I can photograph the reflections that I missed on my last visit.
Some of the most striking monoliths have been named. The shot below shows the “Rhino” on the right of the image. There’s a crocodile too. Along with an owl, an eagle… On the next island, Île Niapiskau, you can meet the breathtaking “Dame de Niapiskau!”. It is so bizarre!
Luck is most certainly on my side. As I set-up, the mists evaporate, allowing soft sunlight to create some much-needed modelling and contrast to the “Rhino” stone. I move about on the bedrock and wade into the shallow lagoon, working with the angles and reflections, thankful that I had donned the wellies. If you’re an experienced landscape photographer, you will be in your element. Me? I’m just shooting on impulse.
The tour is on a tight schedule. Before I know it, my alarm is ringing, sounding the end of my session at the monoliths. As I pack up the backpack and head back into the forest once more, I receive the radio call that I have been hoping for. “Elliott?! Elliott?! We have a fox on the landing shore.” I bolt along the boardwalk and promptly stack it into a bush after attempting a tight corner on slippery boards. Ouch!
I look a right state as I arrive back at the landing site: sweaty, flushed red, covered in mud, and puffing like a train. It’s never fun taking a spill overladen with camera gear. I was rolling around like a tortoise on its back. I sit myself down, breathing some calm into the proceedings and tempt the fox over with a few squeaks – trying to make myself sound interesting. Obligingly, the fox comes over to investigate and comes too close to focus on with the 200-400mm. I quickly grab the 24-70mm, squat low and shoot the ‘close-up wide-angle’ instead. The fox’s colouring is much paler than the British red – orange/yellow rather deep orange/red.
The fox visits everybody that is sitting down, checking around their feet for crumbs. As the fox wanders away, I switch back to the 200-400mm and follow – with slightly more composure than when I arrived. The fox was flitting in and out of the long coastal grasses and boreal forest tree-line. For a moment, I lose sight of him, but he pops out close-by and sits in the shade of the fir trees.
There’s just enough time to grab a few more portraits before he turns and melts into the forest… Then he pops out again. I thought the encounter was over, but apparently not. The fox sits down and just looks at me, expectingly, but I have nothing to offer. This, he has now worked out as he trots away toward the jetties, where the tourist boats are moored.
The cheeky character proceeds to check out whether any of the boat pilots have anything for him and he is in luck. Well, maybe not luck. As I watch, it becomes quite obvious that this is a regular exchange. The fox is not shy or timid in the slightest and knows exactly where to go and whom to approach. After scoffing a few last nibbles, he’s on his way back to land. I ready the camera in case he returns, but with a final glance back from the edge of the forest, followed by a huge gaping yawn, he vanishes. It’s my cue to leave too, but I can’t wait to return.