It’s 2001. Charles MacDonald has just started at National Geographic, editing a documentary in the evening hours about Denali in Alaska at his editing desk in Washington, D.C.
He gets home late and his wife, Lisa, is in Baltimore and their son Jesse, in Grade 2 at the time, was at school.
“I was listening to NPR Classic and they broke in with news, and they never do that; I thought that was odd,” MacDonald said. “They said a plane had flown into the World Trade Centre.”
He thought ‘that can’t be right.’ He turned on CNN just as the second plane hit the other tower.
This was before a third plane would hit the Pentagon, less than an hour away from his home, in an event that would shake the world.
He called the office to see if he needed to come in. National Geographic was taken off the air while Fox News, the company’s owner, took over the airwaves.
Two minutes later, Rosemary Thompson, a former producer at CTV, where he helped out from time to time, asked Charles to come in.
Some of their staff were away on vacation, others were scrambling to get to where they needed to be.
“She told me a couple (of reporters) were on their way to New York and another was headed towards the Pentagon, and I asked, ‘the Pentagon?’ and she said ‘yeah, a plane flew into the Pentagon,’” he recalled.
He hopped on the subway to head into Washington and he was the only one on the train —the only person heading into the city.
“It was the most bizarre thing, and I was still half tired, hadn’t even had a coffee yet, and didn’t quite grasp what was happening,” he said. “Another train went by and it was packed, leaving town.”
He went into the bureau and by then, both towers had fallen.
He sat in the editing suite until midnight.
He had to watch all of the raw footage coming in, including things that never aired because they were too graphic.
“It was terrible, it was like a bad B-movie,” he said.
“But, it’s news. I’ve covered a couple of warzones, so I’ve seen some stuff. But I remember that I’m there to report on what’s happening,” he continued.
“There’s nothing I can do about it, but I can tell people about what’s going on,” he said.
MAN OF THE WORLD
He has one of those calming and disarming personalities, the type where you could just sit there and listen to him talk for hours.
He has long, flowing brown hair —a style he’s had for decades.
He first moved to Washington, D.C. close to 25 years ago to work out of the CTV News bureau, similar to the work he had done in Ottawa and Halifax.
His wife, Lisa, was a stay at home mom for the first few years while they lived in Silver Spring, Maryland, just outside of D.C., because the visa that Charles had only allowed him to retain employment while in the U.S.
It was only meant to be a three, maybe four, year stay in Washington. It turned out to be much longer than that. Almost 25 in total.
It took 10 years before they got their green cards and both were able to work.
In the meantime, Lisa said she became the ‘volunteer queen’ of the neighbourhood. She was the head of the parent-teacher association, sat on several committees and more. She would later go on to work at a local library.
They got their U.S. citizenship eight years ago.
The Washington bureau was responsible for covering not only the news out of the capital city but also large parts of the North and South America and sometimes Europe as well. He was on the road a lot.
MacDonald left CTV and took a job at National Geographic in 2001, initially to work on a new magazine show with an environmental twist.
He had eight editors under him and even more on a freelance basis. Charles said it was a well-oiled machine.
“They had a state-of-the-art studio with two anchors,” Charles recalled.
“We literally couldn’t spend our budget fast enough,” he said.
“When I first got there, I thought, ‘wow, I’m working with the pros,’ but I realized that I had more experience than most of the people there,” he said with a laugh. “They wanted the shooters and editors to have more experience than the producers and reporters.”
Charles laments that they did some great work but the show was cancelled after three years.
His team was reorganized into the production arm of the channel, switching their focus to documentaries.
“I was all over the world — the arctic, Afghanistan, Australia —there was a bunch of locations,” he said.
He continued to freelance for CTV during major events, including presidential elections and inaugurations.
Through his membership and awards with the White House News Photographers Association, he shook hands and got his photo taken with presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
One of his fondest memories was spending nearly a month in the arctic while filming a documentary.
“It’s a really neat place, it’s like a different world,” he said, noting that the arctic was really special.
“It’s just a different way of life and it really is a foreign land that’s right in our backyard,” he said. “You meet the most bizarre people in the Arctic because a lot of them go up there to get lost.”
Charles recalls one instance where he encountered a tourist in Grise Fjord, one of the northernmost civilian communities on the continent.
“There was this old guy on the tarmac sitting there with his suitcase, just kind of waiting and I could see him talking to the pilot before walking back,” he recalled. “I had a bottle of scotch with me and I offered him a shot and he said ‘oh, please,’ and I asked him his story.”
Charles said the man was a retired teacher from Boston who had always wanted to visit the arctic. Problem was that when he got there, he ended up staying much longer than he intended.
“He was stuck in Grise Fjord for almost three weeks because the planes just couldn’t land, so he just couldn’t get out,” he said. “I asked if he wanted to come with us, we were travelling by snowmobile and had more than enough room.”
“He had the time of his life; he got right involved and was helping with the cook, he just loved it,” he said.
The man corresponded with Charles for a decade afterwards until it eventually stopped. Charles suspects he may have passed away.
Between 2016 and 2019, Charles primarily freelanced and established his own production company, mainly producing education and nature videos.
Charles and Lisa now live in Falmouth, leaving the hustle and bustle of Washington, D.C. behind.
It’s definitely a big change for them and not just the scenery.
“It’s extremely bizarre,” Charles says as his wife giggles. “It’s just a different way of life.”
Both Charles and Lisa were born in Ontario, but their plan was always to settle in Nova Scotia, where much of their family lives. Those plans took off sooner than expected.
There happened to be an opening at Arcadia Entertainment in Halifax and Charles jumped at the chance to join the company.
“The job was written almost as if it had my name on it. They wanted someone who was seasoned with working on long-form projects, had international experience, at least 10 years,” he said. “And I thought, ‘you’re kidding me.’ I hit the button to apply and I received a call 20 minutes later.”
Three weeks later he moved to Nova Scotia for good.
Lisa says they’re happy with their new, rural-living lifestyle, but do miss some of the conveniences of living in a major city.
“We were spoiled,” she says with a laugh.
Both MacDonalds admit they’re still adjusting to their new environment, but are grateful for the opportunity to live so close to family.
“It took two years before I bumped into somebody I knew in Washington,” Lisa said. “It only took me a couple of weeks here.”
When asked about the changing tone and political climate where they used to live, MacDonald said D.C., Virginia and Maryland all voted for Hillary Clinton in the last presidential election, and tensions remained high.
“It’s a Democrat area, but we were shocked,” he said, noting he lost $100 when he bet on the election.
“There is an air of anger and stress out there now; we didn’t leave because of that, but it was just serendipitous that we did,” he said.
Charles covered Obama’s inauguration in 2009 as well as Trump’s in 2017 for CTV.
“I was on the Washington Mall on those days, and (President Trump) called the crowd estimates fake news, but I saw the difference,” he said. “Obama’s was more well attended by far, people were dancing in the streets. With Trump, there were riots in the streets.”
They used to live 20 minutes away from the White House, now they’re 20 minutes away from Ski Martock.