A pine forest near the eastern border of Finland provides one of the best opportunities in Europe to watch and photograph brown bears in the wild. This is the story behind my first visit in May, 2015.
“How will I know it’s you and not a bear?” I ask with a nervous giggle.
“Bears don’t knock” he replies dryly as he closes the door of the small photography hide that will be my home for the next twelve hours. I suspect this is a line he has used before.
I place my camera bag down and sit on the single mattress that only slightly softens the bunk below it. It takes up most of the room in the hide and doubles as both a bed and a seat for four of the six windows. The remaining space is filled with a plastic chair sitting by the remaining two windows and what looks like a small toilet, but in fact is a bucket covered with a toilet seat and lid. As the contents of the bucket can also not leave the hide until the guide returns the next morning, the lid feels more like a necessity than a luxury.
I turn to the window on my right and watch the guide disappear from view. He has grown up in the local area and worked as a guide here for the past five years – a short amount of time compared to the twelve year stint of his colleague and the twenty-five year career of the creator and owner of Finland’s oldest and most popular bear watching organisation, Martinselkonen Wildlife Centre.
After leading me on a short hike through the forest to the hide, my guide is returning to the larger and more comfortable one that he will be sharing with three Finish hikers. Like me, they hope to see their first brown bear in the wild tonight. Unlike me, they can stand upright and walk around their hide, have the choice of more than ten comfortable reclining chairs and a number of bunk beds to take a rest. They also have an experienced and knowledgeable guide with them – and a proper toilet.
From the outside looking, my decision to book the small photography hide over the larger main one is crazy. Have I really just paid extra for the vulnerability of being on my own in a forest without a guide, in a hide that offers less comfort than the main one most visitors use?
But when I look out at the pine forest that is home to Finland’s most abundant brown bear population, I suspect I’ve made the right decision. And when the first bear arrives just a few minutes later, I know I have.
I’ve chosen the photography hide option for practical reasons: the flexibility of shooting from one of six different holes, the selfishness of immersing myself in my camera without being disturbed by other people and the opportunity to spend each of my three evenings in a different location – a forest, a swamp and a pond.
But I’ve also chosen it for the intangible benefits: the opportunity to disconnect from the outside world and reconnect with nature, the replacement of other people’s voices with the sounds and silence of the forest and the chance to fully soak up the experience without any other distractions.
Over the next twelve hours I enjoy all of that and more. Twenty different bears visit the area. I am entertained by the antics of solo bears and those in pairs and groups. I watch cubs climb trees as their protective mother sniffs out potential danger, adolescents interacting with each other as they play and forage, intimidating males marking their territory and frisky couples signalling the mating season has begun.
I breathe in the fresh air and soak up the energising silence, a feeling that is eventually interrupted by a knock at the door of my hide. I look at my watch in disbelief: has it really been twelve hours?
“Are you in there? Did you survive the night?”
I’m reluctant to open the door, not wanting the experience to end. My only motivation is the fact that I have two more nights of this to look forward to.
I open the door to meet my guide with a big grin on my face. He laughs – he’s seen it before, the grin of someone who has just spent a night watching brown bears in the wild for the first time.
As I leave the hide behind, I've already made the decision to return. Next time I plan to visit during the later month of June or July to photograph the cubs surfacing from their dens for the first time.
(I'm excited to be fulfilling this dream in July this year.)
The brown bear (ursus arctos) is the national animal of Finland, with a population of approximately 1,000. Despite their existence being threatened over the years by hunting and habitat destruction, the population in Eastern Finland remains healthy thanks to the refuge provided by the forest over the border in Russia, where they spend their winter months. This also makes it one of the best places in Europe to see brown bears during spring and summer with almost guaranteed sightings at Martinselkonen.
After spending winter in the hunter-free Russian forest, the brown bears begin to return to Finland from their hibernation in April, which is a great opportunity to see them with snow still on the ground. May and June offer the chance to observe them during mating season whilst the largest numbers of bears (and new-born cubs) visit the area in July and August. Makku, the owner of Martinselkonen has been laying food throughout the forest in spring and summer since 1996. Brown bears are naturally timid and are therefore very difficult to see in the wild, so the regular provision of this food attracts them to the area each season, providing the unique opportunity to watch them in their natural habitat as they play, forage and mate.
The wildlife centre is located near Finland’s eastern border, in the municipality of Suomussalmi. It was the brainchild of an ex border guard and has been running as a family-owned business since 1991. It offers accommodation, dining and a range of outdoor activities all year round, but is most known for the bear watching and photography opportunities it provides from April to August. The accommodation is basic but comfortable, the locally cooked food sensational and the staff friendly, knowledgeable and passionate.
For bear watching, the centre offers two main hides (for up to 12 and 10 people) that are located in a pine forest near the Finland/Russian border. Both wooden hides have dry-toilets, bunks for sleeping, comfortable reclining chairs and sound amplifying audio systems – but you <em>will</em> be sharing it with other guests. Whilst these hides are suitable for photography, there are smaller hides located in three different locations (the forest, a swamp and a pond) that are preferred by photographers wanting to focus on the bears in a more private setting.
Regardless of the hide you choose, the day begins with dinner at the centre at 3pm before a short drive to the forest at 4pm. The vehicles are then left behind and the hides are reached via a 2km walk through the forest, over flat but uneven ground. Snacks (sandwich, biscuits, tea, coffee and water) are provided in the hide, where visitors stay between 5pm and 7am. Upon return to the centre, breakfast is served at 8am with the remainder of the day free to enjoy some sleep, relaxing with the birds and red squirrels, walking or other activities offered by the centre.
The cost depends on the number of nights, the type of hide chosen (photography hides incur an additional cost) and other activities included. I booked directly with the centre and paid EUR 1,150 for three nights in a photography hide with no guide, three days accommodation in a single room, three breakfast/dinners, snacks in the hide and transport to and from Kajaani airport (transfers are also available to Kuusamo Airport).