Going Home

November 1st, 2006

Today is the last day of our holiday. We have breakfast and check out of the hotel, then jump on board the hop on – hop off tour bus for a quick trip to Casa Loma – The “House on the Hill”. It is said to be Canada’s only castle.

Two hours of looking around and taking photos, and we’re back on the bus for the journey back into the city. I then go looking for a photo lab to process my last roll of film, and then have lunch. We picked up the photos, and were back at our hotel by 3:30pm, we grabbed our suitcases and headed for the “Express” bus to the airport – which was parked out the front of the hotel.

We pay the driver, and get on board. He then informs us that we won’t arrive at the airport until 5pm! That’s 90 minutes on the “Express” bus when a taxi would take maybe 20 minutes. I thought about getting our money back and finding a taxi, but we’ll still make it to the airport in time (6:35pm flight) and a taxi would be about twice as much as the bus.

Eventually we arrive at the airport, and check in. The American Airlines check-in staff tell me they’re unable to print boarding passes for the LAX-SYD portion of our trip, but are able to check out bags all the way to Sydney. We then head for the US customs checkpoint, where we are fingerprinted and photographed yet again. After dropping our bags off, I remember that I left my suitcase locked. Oh well, the TSA will just have to deal with it.

Since we were running close to the deadline, I didn’t bother asking for my unused film to be hand screened. I figure I’ll hardly use it again anyway – so it doesn’t really matter how many times it gets X-rayed. We also skip our visit to the AA lounge, as we only have about 20 minutes until boarding.

THe flight went well. I had the window seat for a night flight across most of the USA. It was great seeing all the lights from the small towns (and some big ones) as well as other aircraft. As we arrived at LAX, there was another plane landing on another runway – it was like we were doing formation landing with the other plane.

After leaving the AA plane, we headed for the Qantas Club for our new boarding passes to Sydney. Thankfully the upgrade to business class I requested happened, and we were allocated seats 16 J & K. They’re the upstairs exit row seats – so we had well over 2 metres of legroom, even after our seats were fully reclined into their sleeping position.

I managed about 10 hours sleep on the flight to Sydney, thanks to the audio/video on demand system rebooting several times – I just gave up and got some sleep instead. Both Shelley & I seem to prefer the enconomy class food – the business class food seemed to be trying too hard to be fancy, instead of just being decent food. I guess it didn’t help that they had run out of our first choice for the main meal.

Overall, it was a very nice flight – I’ve never slept that well on a plane before.

Toronto

October 30th, 2006

It was still raining as we left Niagara Falls, but the sun came out as we headed down the freeway towards Toronto. The traffic was light until we got closer to the city, then all of a sudden we came to a stop thanks to the expressway being closed for roadworks.

After another half hour stuck in traffic, our bus arrived at the first hotel – where it got stuck as there was not enough room for it to turn around in their driveway. Eventually we made it to our hotel, the Delta Chelsea.

Downtown Toronto seemed unbelievably busy for a saturday afternoon. We had lunch at the Eton Center and dropped my film from Churchill in to be developed. After some shopping we picked up the photos and headed back to the hotel. We headed to bed rather early, it was great after being on the move for most of the last three weeks.

Today we had a tour of the city on Grayline’s “Hop on, hop off” tour. Our first stop was the CN Tower, which was rather disappointing when compared with Sydney or Auckland’s towers. Most of the main viewing deck was taken up with a cafe, so after a few photos, we headed downstairs to the “glass floor” deck. I was expecting most of the floor to be clear, but no. They had a section of a few square metres made of glass, and the view out the window was obsecured by the closed outside observation area which has a metal safety grill. Even Calgary’s much shorter tower was more impressive.

Back on the bus, the tour took us around most of the east side of the city, and eventually up north to the big house on the hill. 20 minutes later we were back at the bus terminal where we started the tour. We then headed for a nearby park to shoot squirrels, with my camera.

Tomorrow we’re headed home. I can’t believe it has been almost three weeks, and it has been an amazing three weeks. We’ll have a few hours in town tomorrow and then we’re headed for the airport to begin our day and a half trip home.

Niagara Falls

October 28th, 2006

We left the Winnipeg Four Points and headed for the airport, I don’t think the staff at the security checkpoint were too happy with having to hand screen my 14 rolls of film, but I really didn’t want my undeveloped polar bear photos being x-rayed. Yet again I had to have my camera bag tested for explosives – they did that in Calgary too, I’m not sure why other than the “It has a lot of camera equipment in it” excuse given by the Winnipeg staff.

The flight to Toronto was rather bumpy, but it was nice to be on a “big” plane again. I know an A319 isn’t really big, but it at least had overhead bins that could fit my large camera backpack unlike the CRJ-705 from Calgary and the twinprops to and from Churchill. At least the prop planes had a special compartment for oversized carryon, unlike the RJ. I think next time I’ll use Westjet instead of Air Canada, as they have an all 737 fleet with large overhead bins.

Toronto Airport has a very slow baggage service. It took about half an hour for our bags to appear. After picking up our bags, we went searching for the Niagara Air Bus desk to check in. Eventually we found it, and had a short wait for the bus.

After a 90 minute bus trip, we had arrived at The Brock hotel in Niagara Falls. It was raining. I guess the rain didn’t really matter, as we were going to get a bit wet anyway thanks to the falls. All I have to say is Yay for Gortex.

The Brock hotel is interesting.. It has stairs at the front, which is a pain for anybody who has suitcases. Secondly, check-in is on the 2nd floor. Our room was on the 11th floor, but the main lifts only go to floor 10. To get to 11 and 12, you have to change at the 9th floor for a “private” elevator to 11 & 12. All that effort to get to our room was worth it, as the view was spectacular, even with the rain.

The Niagara Falls area is very tourist orrientated, and I hated it. It seemed like a giant version of Lunar Park. The actual falls area is nice, but the main streets are full of tourist traps. The “Maid of the Mist” wasn’t running, as it stops for the winter, but we did go behind the falls. $11 each for a 10 minute walk down a wet tunnel to see a wall of water. We want our money back.

By far the best part of the stay was seeing the falls at night from our room, as they are lit up. That made it all worth it.

Our last day in Churchill

October 27th, 2006

Today is our last day in the land of the great white bear. First stop was a visit to the eskimo museum. It was full of interesting pieces such as a stuffed polar bear and lots of carvings. They also have a gift shop, which had a book about polar bear cubs, which Shelley insisted on getting :)

We had a spare half hour, so we quickly went over to the Tundra Buggy gift shop, where I purchased a book and a few other gifts. It was then time to head to the airport for our trip back to Winnipeg. Today we were on a Calm Air HS 748 instead of the chartered Convair we had for the previous flight. We collected our bags and headed for the Sheraton across the road from the airport. We said our goodbyes and headed for our rooms.

I’d like to thank Hayley for being such an excellent tour guide (even for a kiwi! :) ) and also the rest of the group – you guys were great.

Our second day on the Tundra Buggy

October 27th, 2006

Today started the same as the first day, except it was cooler – we had a frost on the ground. This was a good thing, as it meant the bears were much more active.

We again met Bob on buggy #10 and set off into the tundra. It wasn’t long before we saw our first bears – this time a mother with a cub! The bad part was it was too close to the other buggy company’s lodge, so we couldn’t get as close as we would have liked.

It wasn’t long until we saw our next bear, this one was walking up to another buggy. Eventually it came over to our buggy, and decided we were much more interesting than the other buggy – as it tried to look into our buggy three times – once each on both sides, and the rear deck!

We had to break off from this bear to move into position for the helicopter to take us on our half hour tour. The heli tour was excellent – I wish we went on the full hour instead now. We saw 6 moose and a big bear, along with an excellent overview of the Churchill area. The people on the hour tour say they saw many many bear, including two sets of cubs and a pair of bears play-fighting. I won’t fully believe them until I see their photos :)

The long day on the tundra went by too quickly – I wish I could have stayed out there all week. We saw a few more bears, but they were sitting around conserving their energy while waiting for the bay to freeze. We saw a few birds such as tparmigan and goose, and several Artic Hares. We even saw a seal in the water, some of the group thought it was looking for another seal that was caught on the rocks yesterday, and was caught and eaten by a bear – as that kill site was very close by.

On the way back to the Launch, we spotted what we first thought was a Lemming, but turned out to be a Weasel. It was very small, and moved very very quickly – so quickly I couldn’t get a decent photo of it as the light wasn’t the best this late in the afternoon.

We arrived back at the launch and said thankyou and goodbye to Bob, and headed back in to town for dinner. Yet again we set the alarm for 1am, in an attempt to see the northern lights. Yet again we didn’t see anything.. :(

Day 3 in Churchill

October 24th, 2006

Today we’re off for some Dog Sledding. On the bus to the Northern Studies Center, I was wondering how we were going sledding when there was no snow.

The answer was a sled with wheels. The wheeled version is apparently more comfortable, but was a bit of a letdown – I was looking forward to the real thing. If I could do this trip again, I’d go a week or two later – the problem with that is we wouldn’t have been able to do the Rockie Mountaineer as that was the last train of the season, same with the Icefield Parkway trip.

Our first day on the Tundra Buggy

October 23rd, 2006

It’s 8am and we’re on the bus to the “Launch” – the starting point of our Tundra Buggy adventure. We arrive after a bumpy half hour bus ride and board buggy #10 where we are greeted by our driver, Bob. The buggy is only half full, which means our group gets a seat (and a window) each.

If we thought the bus ride was bumpy, the buggy was even worse! We crawled along at walking pace for about half an hour, and then we see our first bear. Bob stops the buggy, and we either open the window, or head out to the viewing deck on the back of the buggy and start taking photos. I think I took about 300 photos of this first bear :)

A while later we spotted our second bear, sitting in the seaweed on the beach. All the bears today were sitting around resting – it was about 2 degrees, cold for us, but hot for a polar bear.

All up we saw about 7 bears – some of our group claim 11, but I think we saw a few bears twice :)

Churchill

October 23rd, 2006

Miss PiggyOur trip to churchill started early with a 6am meeting in the lobby of our Winnipeg hotel. Shortly after we were loaded onto a bus and driven around to teh far side of the airport and loaded onto an old Convair 580. We took off before sun rise, however we couldn’t really tell thanks to the heavy cloud and fog cover.

Two hours later we arrived in Churchill, and were put onto an old school bus and given a tour of the area by our guide Hayley and our driver Pam. The seats on the bus were designed with school kids in mind, not adults with large backpacks full of camera equipment. We saw the outside of the polar bear jail, and a beach with lots of bear snares and also an old cargo plane that crash landed.

Tomorrow we’re onto the Tundra Buggy to go out and see the polar bears and oher wildlife.

Winnipeg

October 21st, 2006

Sheraton Four Points at Winnipeg AirportToday we departed Calgary for Winnipeg. Our two hour flight to Winnipeg was in a small 70 seater regional jet. At least the airport terminal had wireless internet access (unlike the sandman hotel).

I was surprised at the service on board the Air Canada Jazz flight, as my previous flight with Air Canada wasn’t so great. The Sheraton Four Points is, as usual, excellent. It even has Polar Bear Cam on the TV (if you don’t have real player, get Real Alternative instead).

We’re at the Four Points for two nights, then off to Churchill for the polar bear tour.

Calgary

October 19th, 2006

We arrived in Calgary mid-afternoon, and checked in to our hotel. We’re on the 19th floor and I can see 16 or so wireless access points – and every single one is properly secured! I assumed when the hotel said they had high speed internet, that they would have wifi to the rooms. No, they have a small “business center” consisting of 2 PCs and a space to plug your laptop in. So I’ve been here for 2 days and only now had a chance to get in here to upload my photos.

Yesterday we went to the zoo. Calgary at this time of year doesn’t seem to be a tourist hotspot, as the zoo was fairly empty (except for those annoying school kids). I got some more good photos – I love my new 100-400mm lens, I haven’t even tried to use my 70-200, so I might sell it when we get back home. The weather is overcast, but not too cold – the view from the Calgary Tower was okay, but not great.

Today I dropped the 8 rolls of film I’ve used so far in to be developed, and we went for a walk in the island park to the north of the city in the Bow river – this is the same river that runs through Banff. We saw lots of squirrels, and some of them came right up close to our feet – Shelley wants to bring one home with us.

I picked up the photos, they look alright – I still prefer the digital SLR over the film, but the film SLR has the advantage of better wide angles. The solution to this problem would be to buy a 5D, but shelley says I’d have to buy too many bears to make up for a $5000 camera. We also bought a new suitcase at Hudson’s Bay Company (think Myer or DJs) as Shelley’s had broken.

I finally managed to get access to the laptop desk in the Business Center, Shelley went back upstairs with my access card, so I’m stuck here. She said to just knock on our room door – but the lifts require the access card so I can’t even get up to our floor. I wonder when she’ll realise this and come down with the other card.

Tomorrow we’re off to Winnipeg, I hope the Sheraton Four Points has better Internet access than here – I’ll have several thousand photos of polar bears I’ll want to upload :)