Bear watching in Finland

Sitting up all night in a log cabin waiting for wild bears might not sound much fun but, equipped with a pack of cold beer, Paul Morrison gives it a go

5 mins

“Sorry about the traffic,” said Harri, “It’s a holiday weekend.”

I looked at him perplexed. Since leaving the vicinity of Oulu airport we had passed perhaps a dozen other vehicles on the long roads that cut through the endless Finnish forests. Now, at the first major intersection for an hour, we were waiting for a lone campervan to turn right, which had Harri drumming his fingers impatiently on the steering wheel.

I suppose the concept of traffic congestion is all relative, but as we drove eastwards across the rolling landscape of central Finland the sight of another car was a welcome distraction from the monotony of green that rolled by the window like the backdrop in a movie.

Our first encounter with wildlife came as we neared our destination, by the Russian border. Harri hit the brakes as a reindeer trotted down the middle of the road towards us. It dashed past, undeflected by our presence.

Not surprisingly, large herbivores are more of a danger than other vehicles on these quiet country roads. But I had my mind on other creatures, having booked myself onto a long weekend break with a difference, and the promise of seeing some of Europe’s most exciting wild animals.

“I’ve been trying to see bears in the wild for over 30 years,” said Simon, a computer consultant from Winchester. Trips to North America had proved fruitless, but his wife had encouraged him to try his luck closer to home. He and I made up the very small group of visitors, escorted by our young guide, Harri. Harri had an infectious enthusiasm for Finnish wildlife, and was looking forward to revisiting the reserve where we would spend our three nights in Finland.

‘Nights’ is a misleading term, for this was June, and the midsummer sun would keep the sky bright around the clock. It was hot and humid and the air buzzed with the sound of a million insects; only the roadside marker poles, which act as guides to snow ploughs, hinted at the stark contrast of the seasons. “We had a record cold winter last year,” Harri said proudly. “Even the diesel in my car froze.”

For the brown bears of northern Europe winter is the season for sleeping – though not a true hibernation as some presume. The cubs are born in the winter den, and rely on mother’s sustenance to carry them through to the spring thaw.

A big wooden bear signalled an end to our three hour drive, and we turned into the driveway to Martinselkonen Wilds Centre. The large, wooden building set in the middle of a forest was designed as a frontier guard post. In the days when the Soviet Union gazed westward Finland was at the frontline, but today the attitude is more relaxed and the post now doubles as a wildlife centre and hostel run by border guard Markku Määttä and his wife Oili.

Markku and Oili shared the same slim build and ready smile, and though neither spoke more than a few words of English, with Harri’s help we communicated well enough. Our arrival coincided with the start of Markku’s summer holiday, which meant a break from border patrols and more time for his bears.

“Ever seen any Russians?” I asked him

“Never,” he responded. I couldn’t imagine it would be very difficult to sneak across in any case, with hundreds of kilometres of wilderness on either side. It certainly doesn’t stop the bears, who wander back and forth with impunity, tearing through or digging their way under the border fence.

To get a feel for where we were Markku showed us a map of the region – a mass of forest scattered with lakes – and he pointed out the hide a kilometre or two from the lodge. Our chances were good, he explained. The mating season was over, and the bears spent the bright summer nights patrolling their territory seeking food. But it was too late to head out that evening, so we talked a while, ate a hearty Finnish meal, and retired to bed.

The next morning we went for a walk in the woods, following narrow trails and boardwalks, through dense forest of spruce and Scots pine. We glimpsed rare birds, and came face to face with an adult elk that glared at us before lolloping off through the marshland.

In the short and intense Scandinavian summer the forest was thick with buzzing and birdsong. Woodland ants scurried around the leaf litter, building great ant-city mounds, and wildflowers and bilberries sprouted in every patch of sunlight.

But for all the beauty of the wilderness, we were mostly passing time until the hours when the sun would dip and the bears would awake. After lunch, with the heat outside too oppressive to contemplate any activity, we followed their lead and slept the afternoon away.

"You can't outrun a bear..."

As we rose for the evening’s action, I recalled the joke about two men preparing for an expedition into the woods. They’re both a little wary of bears, so one of them buys some sports gear and decides to take up running. “What’s the point?” his friend calls out when he sees him one day on his evening jog. “You can’t outrun a bear!” “I don’t have to,” he calls back, “I only have to run faster than you.”

There’s some truth in this – Harri told me that brown bears can reach speeds of 60kph, and they can also swim and climb trees. In the USA I recalled seeing information leaflets in the national parks explaining how to react to a bear attack – something about curling up in a protective ball – so I asked Harri what position he advised. Smiling, he put his hands together in prayer and looked to the heavens.

Fortunately bear attacks are very rare in Finland; most of the time the bears will run away on scenting a human. The only casualty in recent years, and the only fatality this century, was – ironically – a jogger on a midnight run.

To reduce the risk of similar encounters we headed off to the hide well before bear waking time. Bears have keen senses of smell and hearing, and the notion that they have poor sight is unfounded, so there was no chance of sneaking in later and still hoping to see them.

At 5.30, with the sun still high, we drove down to the water, where Markku ushered us into a small boat and rowed us across the reed-fringed lake. On the far side we stepped ashore and made our way along a narrow path, emerging at another lake where a small wooden cabin stood at the edge of the forest, facing a clearing – the stage for the night’s performances.

On stooping to step inside, it became clear that this was no ordinary hide. The customary benches had been replaced by a row of six coach seats – extra comfort for the long hours ahead. Behind the seats was a sleeping area, and on one wall a small curtain hid the chemical toilet, for once inside the hide there was no going out until morning.

The hide’s external resemblance to a Scandinavian sauna was matched by the atmosphere inside. Markku had designed it to minimise the chances of disturbance, so instead of the usual open viewing slats of a bird hide there was a narrow glass window running the length of the front wall, giving a panoramic view of the clearing and lake, but admitting zero fresh air. Below this was a shelf for books and cameras, with curtain-covered peepholes for lenses.

In the early evening the temperature outside was still around 30°C, with humidity approaching saturation. So in the stuffy hide we stripped to our shorts and sat and sweated and waited.

In the clearing a grisly collection of bones testified to the activity of previous nights. To load the dice in favour of the short-term visitor, Markku has made the clearing into a feeding station, burying caches of fish-heads cadged from a salmon-factory, or laying out the occasional road-kill.

“It’s a form of recycling,” Harri quipped

I was concerned at first that artificial feeding might be having an adverse affect on the bears’ natural behaviour, but my qualms were soon dismissed. Markku works hard to ensure that the bears don’t associate the food with humans, keeping out of sight at all times, and only topping up the food when the bears are asleep.

Bears cover a lot of ground on their night-time prowls, and carrion is a key part of their diet, so all Markku has done is set up a natural event in a regular spot so that viewing these very wild bears is a bit easier. The bears may stop off on their rounds, but the urge to cover their territory, as well as to avoid other bears, means they don’t stay too long and never congregate.

Early evening the clearing was in sunlight

A cuckoo flitted around the carcasses, picking up insects, and in the trees behind the clearing, ravens gathered, screeching to each other at intervals.

Two hours after our arrival, and just as I was thinking of taking a nap, Markku tapped me on the shoulder. “Karhu!” he whispered, and pointed to trees on the left of the clearing.

There, ambling out of the forest, was an unmistakable shape. Markku recognised the visitor as a female, and we watched her walk into the sunlight and rise up onto her hind legs to scratch her back against a tree in true Baloo fashion. She snuffled about, took a bite from the remnants of elk carcass, and rolled over on her back. A few minutes later she was off, back into the woods, and we were left to celebrate our first sighting.

“Kippis!” called Harri – ‘Cheers’ – and we raised our mugs of Karhu beer as a toast. Yes, there is a ‘bear’ beer , complete with a bear’s face on the label.

“Herluken gerluken!” responded Markku, which had Harri in fits of giggles, and Simon and I looking puzzled. “It’s an old way of saying ‘cheers’,” Harri explained with a broad grin. “But you have to learn how to say it before you drink too many beers,” Markku added. So we did, oblivious to whether we were uttering some local obscenity or a quaint old greeting.

Celebrations over, we settled down once more, Simon sporting a smile born of a lifetime’s ambition fulfilled. The night was young, the sun would sink but never set, and there were plenty more bears in the woods.

Over the two nights in the hide we saw a total of seven different bears. Each one was noticeably different – its colour, size, shape and scars – and Markku had names for them all. On the first night Markku identified one bear with pale patches behind its neck, as Tapla, or Patch. Patch was in the company of a much larger male, Aleksi, which was exciting news for Markku as this was the first time he had seen them together, and the first proof he had that Patch was female.

After five years of observations you might have thought that Markku would grow tired of bear watching, but there was still much to learn, and like a bear soap opera, there were plenty of changes in the cast and twists in the plot to keep him hooked.

This summer 15 different bears had visited the feeding area, including three or four residents who stay in the area year-round. In all there are thought to be around 700 brown bears living in Finland, and according to Harri the numbers have been increasing in recent years.

However, brown bears face new risks from the other side of the border. Most of the Finnish bears roam into Russia, where, since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the land has been opened up to logging and sports hunting. Hunting is allowed in Finland, though under much stricter control, and is forbidden on the land we were on. For Markku the restrictions are not enough, and his small operation has been playing its part in changing the attitudes of the nation.

Back at the lodge he showed us a video clip from a report on the alternatives to hunting on the main evening news programme. One of the reporters came to the hide to watch bears and left enthusing about his brush with nature.

On our second night a big bear appeared...

We were alerted by the alarm calls of the ravens, and out of the woods strolled the formidable form of Kontio. The 60kg Patch had seemed big enough but she was dwarfed by this 200kg male; it’s no surprise that most bears steer clear of the bigger males. Through Harri’s telescope I could see the power in Kontio’s paws as he set about digging up fish, his teeth and claws shining in the evening sunlight.

Patch did reappear on the second night, and at one point went down to the lake for a bathe, but her feeding was interrupted by the arrival of a big, chocolate-brown bear, who emerged from the ridge of trees on the far side.

“Ball ears!” whispered Harri, which sounded like an insult but was actually the translation of his name. “You see – like Mickey Mouse.” And sure enough, as the big bear ambled nearer we could see he had big round ears on the top of his head. He also sported a fresh scar across his face, showing what can happen when bear meets bear.

Markku was excited about Ball Ears...

“The first time this summer!” he proclaimed. By keeping tabs on who was passing through the area and who was resident, Markku was building a valuable picture of the bear population and their habits.

It was this passion for information that kept Markku awake most of the night while the rest of us nodded off at intervals. The occasional light breeze that made it through the slats brought a soft murmur of approval, but otherwise the only sound was from the insomniac cuckoo outside. In the quiet moments I sat back and relaxed, taking in the stillness of the forest and watching the light slowly shift from orange to pink to blue.

At around 5am on our final night Markku roused us from our slumbers and signalled that the coast was clear. We emerged, bleary eyed, into the cool morning air and stretched our stiffened limbs. Still communicating in whispers we made our way back to the boat, keeping a lookout for furry faces in the woods.

In the distance we heard thunder, and a steady breeze signalled a change in the weather. For the first time since our arrival, we were able to walk through the woods unmolested by mosquitoes. Glancing across at Simon I could tell he wasn’t bothered, for he had the look of a man who had much bigger tales to tell.

The author, Paul Morrison, travelled with Wildlife Worldwide

When to go: Bear watching at Martinselkonen runs from May to July inclusive. May is a also good time for birdwatching.

Getting there: Martinselkonen Wilds Centre is situated 65km east of the town of Suomussalmi. 

Health & safety: Mosquitoes and blackfly are a nuisance, especially in late-June and July, but a DEET-based mosquito repellent, plus long-sleeved shirts and long trousers should do the trick. Shorts are good for inside the hide. A sunhat is essential for midsummer walks.

Related Articles