Article Words : William Gray | 16 October

Tracking down brown bears, Estonia

For European travellers, there’s no need to travel far for close bear encounters: the wild, prehistoric woods of eastern Estonia, easily accessible from Tallinn, are rich in atmosphere and enormous creatures

A dozen paces. That’s all it took for the forest to draw a green veil behind us. Swathes of birch and fir smudged out the threadbare foresters’ track. The bear’s winter nest was only 500m away, indicated my guide Triin Ivandi, but it felt like we’d been miniaturised and dropped into a game of pick-up sticks. Or should that be trip-up sticks? A storm passed through here in 2001 and the aftermath of fallen trunks lay crosshatched before us. We weaved through the arboreal mayhem. Triin was like a woodland wraith, swift and sure-footed, faithfully tracking with her handheld GPS; I was the blunt needle snagging and scrabbling behind her.

It was late May in the wild woods of eastern Estonia. Cuckoos punctuated the dank, loamy air with their chiding calls as a log disintegrated under my weight, exploding in a mulch of rotten wood. My boots sank into a spongy mire of age-old humus. Clawing at pine needles embedded in my shirt collar, I noticed that the forest floor was pockmarked with pools the colour of over-brewed tea: a primordial breeding ground for mosquitoes.

I tried not to contemplate what I would do if I encountered a bear in this tangled forest. We were staking out an area known as Alutaguse, one of a cluster of wild and woody bear strongholds in the north-east of the country, close to the Russian border. And it wasn’t just bears that lived in these woods. Elk, roe deer, wild boar, wolf, wolverine, lynx, flying squirrel, golden eagle… it was all out there.

Prehistoric paths

Back in the air-conditioned cocoon of our van, with a mouthful of M&Ms and a handful of anti-bacterial wet wipes, I started to appreciate the forest we had just spent two hours hiking through.

The bear’s old hibernation nest was, it has to be said, fairly unremarkable as far as  ‘goals at the end of gruelling, sweaty, mosquito and tick-ridden quests’ go – a shallow depression in the lee of an upturned stump with a few twigs and branches scattered around it. Much more profound was the sheer wildness of the place.

Estonia’s woods throb with life. There are insects everywhere, from gaudy ground beetles skittering across the leaf litter like runaway gemstones to dazzling dragonflies quartering the stagnant pools. Mostly, you just see the signature of animals: a twig quivering where moments before a warbler perched; the twitch of grass in the wake of a mouse or vole.

But it was the mere fact that we had been walking – or in my case floundering – in the path of bears that gives this corner of Europe an almost prehistoric edginess. I felt like  I’d slipped back into the wildwood of my distant ancestors, struggling through a land inhabited by beasts long vanquished from the Oxfordshire bluebell woods of home.

Triin led me on another, briefer, foray into the forest, revealing brown bear claw marks slashed a disconcerting 2.5m up a pine trunk. Later we were on our hands and knees poking a pile of day-old bear dung, bristling with undigested pine needles.

I was convinced: bears live here. Now we just needed to try and see one.

Shhh!

“This is a good time to do anything noisy,” Triin whispered to me once we’d crept into a hide at the end of a mile-long forest track. I glanced around the interior: chairs and slit windows down one side, bunk beds along the other; a composting toilet in one corner  and footstep-muffling carpet on the floor. It was just before 6pm – well before the forest night shift began – so we busied ourselves shaking out sleeping bags, readying cameras, clearing throats and other rowdy chores. Then we sat down and shared a bar of chocolate, acutely aware of each other’s mastication.

The windows in the hide were about 15cm high by 50cm wide – each one framing a panoramic view of a clearing ragged with stumps and trunks and crowded by thick stands of pine, birch and spruce: a chaotic canvas crying out for a big, furry focal point.

Triin told me that a local forester put food out for the bears – a few little treats scattered around the clearing, designed to tempt, not spoil them. No one wanted this to become a bear circus.

I nodded enthusiastically. It was so intensely silent inside the hide that I could hear the gristly popping of my neck vertebrae. I reached for a ginger cookie. The bag crackled like wildfire and I flinched. Thankfully, the biscuits themselves were soft and crunch-free. We also had quiet fruit. No slurpy pears or lip-smacking apples – serious bear watchers eat bananas.

Sunlight seeped from the clearing, rising like an amber tide along calloused pine trunks and gleaming on the paper-white bark of the birches. Three hours passed and I started willing tree stumps to transmogrify into bears. Not a good sign. I tried honing my patience by learning birdcalls. Cuckoo didn’t take long, but Triin soon had my ear trained to the melodious flurries of red-breasted flycatchers and the soft purring of nightjars.

“There are probably around 30 bears in the area,” Triin told me in a hushed tone, barely louder than the sigh of evening breeze. A total of around 600 brown bears are found in Estonia, a fraction of the Eurasian population, estimated at 100,000.

Making an entrance

I was about to quiz Triin on our chances of a sighting when there was movement in the trees. A fox entered the clearing, flowing through the undergrowth like a wisp of russet smoke. It paused 10m away and stared straight at the hide. My camera sounded like a shotgun going off , but the fox stood its ground.

“This one’s a female,” Triin breathed. “She’ll have cubs, two or three weeks old, in a nearby den.”

The vixen’s mate appeared and the pair padded around the clearing for about 15 minutes. Once they’d gone, I celebrated with another crunch-free cookie, easing my  hand into the bag as if it might be cobras inside rather than soft biscuits.

The sighting – albeit a humble fox – had tautened my nerves; fine-tuned my senses. I chased around the twilight shadows in the clearing and nearly fell off my chair when a raven croaked harshly from a nearby tree. No sound or movement went unnoticed.

Triin spotted them first: a pair of shambling figures in shaggy, silver-grey coats; bandit-mask faces, neat paws, quivering snouts. Too small for bears, I thought. Too big for badgers.

“It’s quite early to see raccoon dogs,” whispered Triin. “They usually turn up around midnight.”

In hushed tones, she explained that raccoon dogs are not actually closely related to North America’s raccoons but are ancestral members of the canid family, indigenous to East Asia and introduced to the Baltic States in the mid-1900s – mainly, it seemed, to be hunted for their fur. Their latin name meant ‘night wanderer’. Our pair of masked marauders quickly located the stash of goodies put out for the bears, pausing occasionally to mewl at each other or sniff the night air.

A small solar-powered bulb fixed high on a tree trunk began to wash a faint silver pool of light across the clearing. The raccoon dogs dragged their bounty out of sight, a Tengelmann’s owl trilled once, then the forest fell silent. Empty and silent.

Hours ebbed by in the murky slide towards night and the ratcheting of ISO numbers on my camera. It was 2am when we finally gave up our vigil.

If you go down to the woods...

Two foxes, two raccoon dogs and a raven: not bad for a night of wildlife watching I thought as I ransacked the breakfast buffet at the Aqva Hotel & Spa. We had emerged from the hide at around 7.30am and driven to the nearby town of Rakvere, squinting as the forest gave way to farmland raked by early sunlight. We’d stopped to watch white storks standing sentinel on their twiggy nests atop farmhouse roofs, and to train our binoculars on common cranes flouncing about the fields.

But bears were still prowling my mind. Triin had already asked if I wanted to try the hide again that night, and I had said yes – despite the fact that I’d just checked into a luxurious hotel where I could sleep in a proper bed and eat as noisily as I liked.

After a brief siesta and a quick look at Rakvere’s 700-year-old fort, we drove east again, dawdling along the network of gravel roads that burrowed into the ancient boreal forests of Alutaguse. We were rewarded with two sightings in quick succession – one of a black woodpecker, the other of a pine marten scampering across the track ahead. And  although we never saw one, there were signs of beaver everywhere: chiseled stumps of aspen, log dams and tannin-rich pools.

But the biggest find during our afternoon’s tracking was a set of fresh prints. The rounded forepaw and the larger, oval hindpaw were so clearly stamped in the mud that we could see the individual impressions of each claw. Triin backtracked and pieced together the bear’s moves: where it had emerged from the forest, crossed the track, browsed on birch saplings then tried to cross a flooded ditch, slipped, changed its mind and then ambled off in the general direction of the hide.

The hide? Triin nodded. These tracks were from last night, probably a big male.

The raccoon dogs put in an early appearance at 8pm that night, but they were upstaged by a mini wildlife drama inside the hide when a column of ants discovered our stash of crunch-free cookies.

Better late than never

It was 1.30am when Triin whispered: “Brown bear – coming in from the right.”

A large, rounded shadow morphed into snout and ears, hunched shoulders and stocky legs as the bear strode into the clearing. It was the male; probably the same bear that had been regularly visiting the clearing for the past few days. Triin’s voice was so calm, so controlled. Inside my head, a rather more exuberant voice was bouncing around my skull, screaming ‘Bear! Bear!’

“The territories of male European brown bears can be 40 sq km,” Triin continued. “No other bears, especially females with cubs, will come near while he’s around.”

Yes, but look, it’s a bear!

Using binoculars I could see the glint of the tree-mounted floodlight in his eye and watch the shimmy of fur on his back as he rooted around for titbits. Occasionally, he paused and lifted his head – light etching his profile in silver against the charcoal-stroke chaos of the night-time forest.

I struggled to keep the bear in my sights as his foraging took him further from the pool of light. One moment he was there, the next he had merged back into the shadows – bear and wildwood as one.

Wanderlust contributing editor William Gray is author of Footprint’s Wildlife Travel guidebook.

The author travelled with local nature specialist Natourest, which offers a variety of wildlife trips. An expert-guided two-day bear-watching tour in Alutaguse costs €100 (£85) pp, including a night in a forest hide.