Finland 2019 – The Bears

As explained in my previous post, the site I visited last week is in North East Finland, very close to the Russian border. It is one of the wildest, most untouched environments in Europe, and remains one of the last remaining European strongholds of Brown Bear, Wolverine and Wolves. This area was registered as an official conservation site with the Finnish government in 2016. All forms of hunting are strictly prohibited, safeguarding this area for predators to use in the future.

It is a pristine and very precious landscape and you can only really appreciate the huge expanse of this wooded wilderness when you look on Google maps.

It has been my first trip to Finland and I was bowled over by the beauty of this area. Visiting in Autumn, as the temperatures dropped and the colours changed, meant I was really treated to some spectacular views. The reserve is interspersed by lakes and, with the cold nights, the sun rising produced some spectacular photographic opportunities. I had only taken my 100-400mm lens, so most of the shots I took of the landscape were on my phone. The real experience came from standing there… it is so quiet and the landscape so immense…

Although I had lots of camera projects and exploration to do, the chance to see bears in the wild was obviously exciting me greatly. During the day, Kyle, Harry and I experimented with live camera kit and trail camera set-ups and, at night we would go into the hides.

In north-eastern Finland, it is the  European brown bears Ursus arctos arctos that visit . They emerge from hibernation around April and remain active until late October, when they begin to go into hibernation. They can be seen around the reserve within those periods as they visit various parts of the site for small fist-sized pieces of meat that are left out. Bears are a highly omnivorous species, which feed opportunistically. Their diet consists of food items such as berries, plant material, nuts, insects, carrion and small mammals. These forests provide all that they need. The fact that no bear hunting ever occurs here also means that individuals have learnt that this is a safe location, hence the chance to see females, with cubs, as well as other individuals.

The site has a series of wooden hides, dotted around the location, providing superb views and photographic opportunities. These hides vary in size, from small ones suitable for just one person, to larger hides for several people. There are basic bunk beds and mattresses inside, and a sleeping bag. To keep the disturbance on site to a minimum, we entered the hides at around 4pm and were not allowed to leave until 7am. We had to be perfectly quiet at all times.  Armed with my rucksack full of my photographic equipment, plenty of warm clothes and a packed lunch it was one of the most exciting things I have done.

I spent my nights in the hides on my own. There is something pretty special about being alone, in the darkness, in such a remote location.

It is incredibly quiet.

The air is fresh and clean.

At no point did I ever feel afraid. That was the first thing that many people asked me. These bears are extremely cautious and will run if there is any noise or if they see humans. You have to be completely silent. I was not in any danger.

I loved the feeling of isolation and being part of that pristine landscape. Sitting in a small chair, wrapped in my sleeping bag, I had views from a small window above the photographic canvas openings for the camera lens. I am not one to sit still for very long usually! Ask anyone who knows me!

In this situation, there was no option other than to sit, look, listen……. and wait. That wait was wonderful as you never knew when… or if… anything would appear. The light changed from minute to minute. Some evenings, the colours in the sky were truly amazing and, as the sun gradually sank, the temperature would drop. I prayed the bears would appear when the light was at its most beautiful… I only had one evening when this was the case. The colours were stunning and the light cast a beautiful hue over the scene….

 

More often, I was battling with high ISOs, trying to decide how to get the best image I could.

Scanning constantly, a movement would catch your eye and a bear would emerge from the darkened woods. Pausing every few steps, it would scan the area. Every time this happened, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and, as adrenalin kicked in, my pulse raced. This scene was something I felt highly privileged to experience. These were wild animals and there is something incredibly special about seeing them stand next to lichen-clad trees, in their natural environment.

There was a lot of waiting involved. When you see images from this site, you might imagine that you get into the hide, look out the window, watch lots of bears, take lots of photos and then head back to the warmth of the lodge. These are wild animals. You never know when they will appear, if at all. You may be lucky enough for them to walk literally metres in front of you. They may never emerge from the forest fringes. They may appear for just a few minutes per night. Other times, they may spend ten minutes in view. To me, that is what makes it so special. You watch natural behaviour, in a stunning location, of one of Europe’s largest land predator.

What made it even more special is when this female would appear and bring her three cubs…

There were a number of individuals visiting. This species of bear can vary greatly in colour, from almost white, through to dark brown, almost black. Their coats are incredibly thick and I was astounded at the thickness of this pelt. I would imagine that these creatures would halve in size if their coat was removed! There is one youngster who is very pale. The night I had best views of her, the light had almost gone. She appeared, almost ghostly, from the darkened woods and paused long enough for me to get a few shots. What a totally incredible looking individual….

I would watch until I couldn’t watch any longer. As the darkness shrouded the landscape, I knew the bears were still out there. They would feel more confident as the darkness spread. At this point, it was time to settle down for the night. There was something quite sobering as you lay down and close your eyes, knowing they were out there… only a thin piece of wood separating you from the Finnish wilderness and its inhabitants.

It was cold. Very cold.

Some nights it went down to -5 degrees. Fully clothed, two coats, hat and inside a sleeping bag, I slept soundly, somewhat cleansed by the hours of isolation and observation. I only awoke in the night when the temperature dropped significantly and I had to wrap myself more closely in the sleeping bag.

As fingers of light broke through the trees and lightened the skies, I would wake and, still inside my sleeping bag, I would sit at the hide window, watching the day form. It was very meditative. Some mornings were simply stunning…

I repeated this for 5 nights, spending time in different hides, with different outlooks. Each time, the experience was as exhilarating as the last. I can not imagine losing the feeling of awe and excitement. I took far too many images. It is difficult to not take as many as you can, in the hope that this moment will stay with you for ever in the digital capture of that moment in time. In fact, what I chose to do later in the week, was to spend more time watching. More time absorbing the moment through my own eyes, rather than through a lens. This is what will remain with me more than my photos. I can replay those moments over and over in my mind.

I hope the memory never fades. If it does, I will have my photos to fall back on.