Despite the weather, I set off bound for Helsinki via the coastal cycle route around Espoo. Here the path winds along the waterfront properties while the cables on sailboats chimed in the wind and the tree-lined islands appeared like smoky mirages somewhere in the distance.
That evening I wandered along the waterfront to end the day in a classically Finnish way – at Löyly – a communal sauna. Housed in wooden planks resembling a giant shed and adjacent to the ocean, its name comes from the Finnish word for the steam that plumes up off the rocks when you douse them with hot water.
“In Finland there are just over five million people yet around two to three million saunas,” said local guide Jaana. “They are very important for us as a way to socialise and relax.”
Inside there was a choice of two – the continuously heated one, with bright lights and light pine benches and the more traditional smoke sauna, which Jaana advised me to come into. Housed in a darkened room it has no chimney so smoke is trapped inside as the fire heats up and then released immediately prior to the sauna-goers entering. Its distinct smell of earthy smoke reminded me of the forest.
“Ready?” asked Jaana as we left the humid room and she grabbed my hand so that I would jump into the chilling sea water for an instant cool down. I felt adrenaline surge through my entire body as though I’d been awoken from my dream with a jolt.
“See – even in the city of Helsinki we are wild,” she said and, although I smiled, I knew that the following day, things were about to get wilder still.
Into bear country
A one and a half hour flight north to Kajaani saw me headed to my next destination – the Lakeland region and, more specifically, the Bear Centre. A little-known fact is that Finland is home to a population of Eurasian brown bears with figures from 2019 confirming a population just over 2,000.
Despite bear hunting still being permitted each year and the vulnerability they face every time they cross into neighbouring Russia (where poaching to supply the Asian medicine market is rife), many locals in the Finnish lake district have worked hard to show that bears are worth more alive. One way they’ve approached this is by building hides to allow wildlife lovers to immerse themselves into their world overnight.
“We’ll take you out at 4pm sharp, after early dinner at 3pm,” said owner Ari, when I arrived for the mandatory safety briefing with a group of other newcomers. “You’ll be assigned a hide for the night and be given a packed supper to eat. A sleeping bag and pillow is in there and there’s a ‘toilet’ inside for you to use.”
He showed a picture on the screen of a bin covered with a toilet seat to illustrate the facilities; one of the guests sniggered nervously.
A beary wild night
My hide was number four, positioned with lookouts facing a large lake that was flanked by rocks and trees. As we walked there, those who’d already spent several nights in the various hides discussed the merits of each one, with one lady desperate for the uncomfortable and tiny number 13.
Affectionately called ‘the coffin,’ hide 13 had rewarded the still-aching occupant from the night before with sightings of the elusive wolverine, whereas elsewhere two couples had decided to bunk up together in hide one so that they had the advantage of windows on all points of the compass.
I arrived via a wooden boardwalk to my camouflaged accommodation, pleased to escape the hide politics and get my own space. “Remember – don’t make too much noise or talk,” reminded Ari. “See you at 7am.”
Before I could ask who on Earth I would talk to, he’d moved on to the next hut. I closed the door firmly behind me. It was the last conversation I’d have for the next 15 hours.
The first hour passed slowly, while I busied myself adjusting and readjusting my camera, putting on layers, and battling with the unwanted desire to have my first wee.
Just when I was starting to worry I’d see nothing, I spotted it. Not a creature, but a camera lens suddenly protruding from hide number one. I followed the direction it was pointing and immediately saw my first bear – a brown giant staring straight at me.
Related to the North American grizzly, they can grow to 400kg and stretch in length over two metres. The one I was watching edged closer to the water directly opposite me. He seemed unconcerned by the constant click of cameras and, in no particular hurry, waddled back into the trees.
I felt myself exhale in what seemed like the first time in minutes. My hands were shaking and any sense of cold I’d felt had disappeared. And that was only the beginning.
Minutes later another strolled by, this time along the water casting near perfect reflections on its surface. The golden light of dusk illuminated his fur, causing his eyes to sparkle – I felt entranced by his presence.
As the light began to fade, another smaller bear emerged, but she wasn’t alone. She was followed by first one, then another and then a third smaller bear behind her – it was a mother and her three cubs.