For a while I’d thought about going to Finland to photograph brown bears, so a decision to finally book it found me spending 5 nights in a tiny hide out in the swamps, forests and lakes.
In late summer, the bears feast in preparation for the fast approaching winter, and it’s then that bear activity reaches its peak. Bear sightings of course are not guaranteed, but here’s how my week went.
Day 1 involved a 5.30 a.m. check in at Heathrow, so I’d travelled up the night before. The first flight was to Helsinki, and I then had 3 hours in the airport before flying north to Kuhmo. I could have taken a later flight from London, but that would have meant a very tight transfer, and I know from experience just how stressful that is so I’d rather avoid it if I can. I made the right decision, as the guys from Bear Photo who run this trip had missed their connection the day before, and one of our group only just made it on to the ‘plane, puffing and panting having run through the airport to get to the gate. Needless to say, his luggage didn’t make it until the next day!
As I flew north from Helsinki I was struck by just how many trees and lakes were below me. A whopping 75% of Finland is covered in forest and from the little I saw, it’s a beautiful country.
After landing at a tiny airport in Kuhmo with just a one room arrivals hall and a 20 foot long conveyor belt for the luggage carousel, we all ascertained who the rest of the group were, simply by looking at bulging backpacks that were obviously full of cameras and lenses! In our group of 10 there were 7 nationalities – British, American, French, Swiss, Norwegian, Dutch, and Italian. We managed to squeeze us all and our kit into a minibus and had a 90 minute transfer to our lodge which was very close to the Russian border.
The next day saw some of us sitting uncomfortably in the very badly designed bird hide. I was more interested in seeing red squirrels however, as I hadn’t seen them before. Grey squirrels are a familiar sight for many people across large parts of the UK and are often seen in parks and gardens, whilst the range of our native red squirrels is now limited to small pockets, often in wilder, remote locations. Many scientific studies show that the introduction of the grey squirrel has been the major factor in the red squirrel’s decline over the past century, due to competition for food and shelter and also infection through the squirrelpox virus (which grey squirrels can transmit to red squirrels). Once infected with squirrelpox, red squirrels often die of starvation of dehydration within 1-2 weeks. Although grey squirrels can carry squirrel pox, their health is not impacted. Unfortunately, without conservation management, red squirrels could become extinct in England in approximately 10 years so it was great to see quite a few in Finland.
I was pleased to see a woodpecker too, but didn’t bother taking photos of the other birds.
One day we all took a walk to the border between Finland and Russia. The simple barrier on the track is supposed to stop anyone walking into Russia, which in theory is no deterrent at all. In practice, there are eyes everywhere. Or cameras. We’d walked up to the barrier having seen nobody else at all on the way, stopped for a short while, turned around and were on our way back when the Finnish border police turned up and asked why we were there and what were we doing. We’d previously heard a scary story about somebody stepping a foot too far in the forest, who was later contacted at his hotel and ordered to stay there for questioning! How did they know who he was and where he was staying? Don’t mess with the Russians!
Each day followed a similar pattern with free time until an optional afternoon presentation from the Bear Photo guys, sorting out who would be in which number hide that night, dinner at 4 p.m., then walking for about 15-20 minutes through the forest and swamps to our respective hides for the night.
Once we got a little distance from the main lodge we had to talk in whispers and walk in single file, and once inside the hide we had to be as silent as we could. The bears were surprisingly skittish and some would jump and run away at the slightest thing, such as a bird flying up from the ground! It was then just a case of wait and watch. The hides are spread over a large area and we had formed a WhatsApp group to let each other know if there was a sighting. This worked well and was very helpful in terms of alerting us to perk up if our attention wandered, but sometimes extremely frustrating if one area had a lot of activity and another area didn’t! However, I did see bears every night and the colours of the surrounding landscape as summer turned to autumn were the perfect backdrop. For pretty much all of the images I definitely needed my long lens (100-400mm for those of you who are interested) as the bears were usually the other side of a lake .
Here are some of my favourite images.
The images below were taken in near darkness but it was so thrilling to see this bear quite close to my hide. It obliged by sitting down for a few minutes and I was only able to get the bottom two shots because it was reasonably still.
What to do when it’s just too dark to get a clear shot? Adjust all the camera settings and try a bit of motion blur of course! The end result is very hit and miss and these are by no means a hit, but I rather like them anyway. This is when I use the words ‘it’s so bad it’s good again’ 🙂
The conditions one evening were perfect for that classic reflection shot.
The shot below makes me smile 🙂
It was a bonus to see three cubs. Sometimes they’d be close to Mum, and other times it was apparent that she’d instructed them to stay hidden.
On my second night I couldn’t believe my luck when I saw a lone wolf and also a wolverine. I hadn’t dared to hope that I would see either of them, and as I lay in my bunk in the darkness later that night I had a huge smile on my face as I heard the wolf howling in the distance, something that I’d always wanted to hear.
There was a lot of time without any animal activity at all, so it gave me the incentive to start looking for other things to photograph. Actually there was nothing else except birds and trees so here’s what I managed to achieve!
Several times we had a ghostly mist that rose from the ground and it was fascinating to see it moving.
More often that not we had overcast skies but I think it was my last morning when I was in a hide that was perfectly positioned to photograph the stunning sunrise.
And that was it. I consider myself very lucky that although there seemed to be hours of sitting by myself, I did see bears, a wolverine, and a wolf. There are no guarantees with wildlife and I’m always prepared for that, but my thinking is that if I don’t go to these places then I’m guaranteed NOT to see it. I can wholeheartedly recommend Harry and Kyle at Bear Photo. Not only are they fantastic photographers, they’re really nice guys who are building a great business. Go and check out their website if you’re considering a trip to Finland to photograph Brown Bears.