This is the whining part -- the good bits version is what you really ought to read.
The first thing I did was to investigate the tours run by the tour company that my friends used, TravelWild. Unfortunately, they were booking for fall 2000 as early as March of 99, and I did not want to make my plans 18 months in advance, since there was a substantial penalty for cancellation, and who knows what I might be doing that long from now. My next trick, since I'm not really a fan of organized tours, was to try to do an a la carte trip, especially since the itinerary of the organized tour seemed to be stretched out, and I felt it was an inefficient use of my vacation days. Unfortunately, in the amount of time I was willing to spend investigating, I didn't manage to come up with information about tundra buggies, and I didn't want to just trust that I would be able to get out to see bears once I was there. For example, with a scuba diving trip, you can just book your air fare and hotel to the destination city, and then once there, get a local outfit to take you out on a boat. But I didn't know if this would work for bears, so we decided we'd better go with the tour company, unless we were willing to spend a lot more time with organization of the trip.
So when Valerie saw a flyer at the New England Aquarium for a Churchill polar bear viewing trip, she picked it up, and I called the aquarium to see if they had room still, and they did. This was with a different tour company, Natural Habitat Adventures, but it seemed that their itinerary was substantially similar, and they were leaving in 1999, only six months away. They were somewhat more expensive than the TravelWild trip; most of the extra money was kicked back to the aquarium as a donation.
But, they were a trip in the hand, and so we decided to pay for availability. And, we decided to grit our teeth and try to cope with the various problems that arise due to group trips. In a previous group trip (for scuba diving), we had a lot of "hurry up and wait" issues, and with the schedule of the trip starting with a "hello dinner" in Winnipeg (which, if you look at a map, isn't exactly on the way from Boston), we expected to have similar issues with this trip.
Some travel agent tried to start me off on the wrong foot by booking us onto an early morning flight to Winnipeg on the grounds that many other people from the trip were taking that flight, but I figured out there was a better time to go, and I figured that we would have enough time with all these people :-) So we left around 11 a.m., and arrived in Winnipeg around 4:30, which gave us plenty of time to get to the hotel, and even wander around Winnipeg a bit before the hello dinner. That's when they hit us with the information that we would be leaving the hotel at 8 a.m. (not a disaster -- we would need to be on an early schedule for the polar bear viewing anyway), but not only that, they wanted to confiscate our luggage at 6:45 a.m. Now, I kind of like to have my stuff with me, and be in control of my stuff, and I really didn't like that they wanted to confiscate the luggage rather a long time before they wanted our bodies on the bus. On the other hand, it ended up being okay -- they didn't really get the luggage until 7, and our bus went straight to the airplane on the tarmac, rather than having us wait in the airport for an hour, so they might have wanted our bodies at 6:45 if they had taken both luggage and us at the same time. However, at the time of the hello dinner, I was concerned about this whole thing, because I like to get a lot of sleep, and while I'm willing to get up early, when I do, I insist that I go to bed early night before. I was getting concerned about them scheduling both late-night activities and early morning activities, and not getting enough sleep. So we left in the middle of the orientation, at 9 p.m., in order to be certain to be awake in the morning. It turned out that they really had said all the things they needed to say to orient us, and they let the rest of the people go shortly thereafter. But still, it was mildly annoying.
Our plane from Winnipeg to Churchill experienced mechanical difficulties, so we then got to hang out in the airport for an extra hour anyway, but that's not really the fault of the tour operator!
After our orientation slide show once we were in Churchill, there was some weirdness, because the place the slide show was held, the Churchill community center, was about one block from our hotel, and I wanted to walk back. We eventually did get to, but they wanted to take us in one of those buses. Some of the people in our group were elderly and frail, and so they appreciated having a bus, since the roads were in fact icy, but it just seemed like there was way too much worry about bears in town. The place is lit up like a Christmas tree, so that you can make sure to be able to see any approaching bear. Plus, there are a lot of perimeter traps in order to keep bears out, so the likelihood of actually seeing a bear in town is quite low. Anyway, we seemed to have this "don't walk at night" argument with our guides frequently, but we mostly won. It just seemed mildly annoying.
I didn't really think that the second day on the tundra was all that valuable. However, had the first day been a blizzard, and we been unable to see anything, the second day would have been vital to have available. Had we been doing this as some sort of do-it-yourself late-binding trip, I would not have paid for the second day.
The helicopter tour was another place that having an organized tour didn't work out the way we would have preferred. They scheduled our helicopter ride (which was to be an hour and a half) for 8:30 in the morning. Since we were already on an early schedule, it's not the hour that was the problem. However, this was the day we had to check out of our hotel, and so naturally they wanted to confiscate our luggage at 10 (considerably before checkout time, I'll note), and so this made it more complicated, since we would have to have our bags out before we left. I felt this was egregious behavior on the part of the tour operators, since the airplane didn't leave until three in the afternoon. So we whined before hand, and made them give us a special arrangement where we could have our bags out at 11, giving us some time after the helicopter ride for packing. It then turned out that they did not actually collect luggage until well after 10, and so we actually made the regular luggage pickup, but in theory we might not have. If I had been scheduling my own trip, I would never have made this plan. If the only time available had been the last day, and therefore I would have known about the checking out thing, I would have made a reservation for after 10. Or perhaps instead of the three-hour tour of Churchill!
When we returned from the helicopter, the other couple waited for the bus to take them back to the motel, but we decided to walk, and when we arrived, the helicopter liaison, who was waiting to coordinate the next people from our tour, inquired why were we back already, he didn't expect us for another half an hour. So, I guess we got gypped -- he explained that we were supposed to get two 15 minute on-the-ground sessions, which I actually would have enjoyed, since we didn't actually get to put our feet on any natural ground the entire trip. It probably would have also helped with the motion sickness issue. On the other hand, it was a little late to do anything about it. It seemed like this guy wanted to do something for us, like get us some kind of partial refund, but then in the end nothing came of it. I don't think that I will sign up for helicopter tours in the future, unless I can find out in advance what the accommodations are like -- it really was a cattle car in the back.
Unlike the flight to Churchill, the flight back to Winnipeg was uneventful. However, upon our arrival in Winnipeg, our tour operators attempted one last time to screw us over. Our flight home was scheduled at 10:45 the next morning. Since we were getting transportation to the airport from the hotel rather than from the tour operators, I had hoped this would go smoothly. The tour employee who met us handed out little cards which told us what time we would be shuttled to the airport, and what time we had to have our luggage out to be confiscated. They told us 8:10. This seemed outrageous to us. Even though we were on an early schedule, and so it would not be any trouble to make this pickup, it seemed like there was just going to be excessive waiting around in airports. So, we asked why this schedule was necessary, and we were told that we would have to go through customs in Winnipeg. We found this difficult to believe, since we were making our connection through Toronto, and we expected to go through customs in Toronto, and so we complained again, and she stuck to her story. However, once we arrived at the hotel, we called the airline, and they confirmed that no, of course we would not go through customs in Winnipeg if we were connecting through Toronto, and so we spoke to the concierge to change the reservation time of our shuttle, and also to tell them that we would handle our own luggage. Indeed, we woke up early in the morning, but we spent our time taking a walk along the river in Winnipeg, which was really quite lovely. When we got to the airport, a number of our fellow travelers were already there, and they commented on our successful avoidance of excessive waiting around in airports. Of course, they too could have done the same trick.
So, I have been complaining a lot about ways in which being on a group tour detracted from this experience. As far as I could tell, there was one way in which being on this tour was much better than doing it ourselves. The tundra buggy that we were in had 26 seats. There were 14 in our party. Having the buggy only half full was a great advantage -- when there was a bear on the left side of the bus, everybody got to see it! We did see, when we were viewing other tundra buggies (in their natural habitat -- they travel in packs), that many of them were much fuller. When we inquired, we were told that these were the a la carte buggies. So, at least that part of our experience would have been significantly worse. Now, was that worth all of the other harassments? I don't know. Certainly if we had planned our own trip, it would have been shorter, instead of being "a three day tour jam packed into a week". And, while the tour operators often went out of their way to accommodate our various requests, if we didn't have the tour operators in the loop, we wouldn't have had the requests.