8 mins

Beyond Lapland: Spotting bears and sleeping with reindeer in the Finnish Lakeland

Think Lapland hosts the best of Finland? Think again. We head to Europe’s largest lake district in search of its wilder side, from sleeping among reindeer to bedding down with bears...

Spotting bears and other wildlife in Finland (Phoebe Smith)

The Siberian jay whistled tunefully as though beckoning me to follow him as he flitted through the tree branches of the boreal forest. With camera clutched firmly in hand, I left the well-defined lines of the footpath and obeyed, ducking and weaving through the prickled branches of the Scot pines.

A barrier guards the Russian border in Finnish Lakeland (Phoebe Smith)

A barrier guards the Russian border in Finnish Lakeland (Phoebe Smith)

Being guided by a bird can be particularly hazardous when you are in the wilds of Finland and – perhaps more importantly – just metres from the Russian border. However, any worries I had about inadvertently stumbling into the former USSR without a valid visa were soon waylaid when, minutes later I reached a huge red-and-white striped metal barrier, flanked either side by yellow signs with the word ‘STOP’ emblazoned across them.

The jay tweeted happily and flew over the man-made border; however for me this was as far as I could go. But I couldn’t complain. For this was the first time on this entire week-long visit that I had seemingly faced an insurmountable barrier between my world and someone, or rather something, else’s.

Wheelie big adventure

A male reindeer sheds his velvet to reveal a fine rack underneath (Phoebe Smith)

A male reindeer sheds his velvet to reveal a fine rack underneath (Phoebe Smith)

It had started back in Helsinki when, as soon as I’d arrived, I was introduced to my transport for the next three days – an e-bike.

“There’s eco mode for when you’re on the flat. Then, if you approach hill, you can crank it up to turbo for a boost,” Matti from Happy eBikers explained as I tried to simultaneously work out how I would fit everything I needed for two nights into my panniers while wolfing down a munkki (Finnish cardamom doughnut).

Fuelled by sugar and with all the GPS routes programmed in, I set off on my self-guided adventure to Nuuksio National Park around 35km away. I rode along the Finnish backroads on gravel, negotiated easily by the bike’s fat tyres, before merging onto cycleways and passing multiple apartment blocks. I crossed over a wide highway where the cars were snaggled in traffic jams, while I cruised past effortlessly on my bike.

Soon I found myself surrounded by nothing but trees, with silver birch, hazel and spruce creating a tunnel through which I passed. As I was ruminating on how accessible the wilderness had been from Helsinki, I popped out of it to rejoin a road and a short pedal uphill to my first night’s sleep – an Igluhut at the southernmost reindeer park in Finland.

Wilderness is just a cycle ride away from Helsinki (Phoebe Smith)

Wilderness is just a cycle ride away from Helsinki (Phoebe Smith)

Reindeer are not ordinarily found this far south of the country – they are Lapland natives – but when several farms closed down a few years ago, the owners here thought that it would be a great way of offering visitors a slice of the north close to the city. And now seven of these antlered quadrupeds call this place home. I was there to sample a new experience: sleeping with reindeer.

The two huts (which each sleep two) are positioned overlooking the wide enclosure where the reindeer graze. After dinner inside the adjacent white lavvu (Finnish for lean-to) I watched the sun set while the reindeer mooched outside. I don’t remember there being a wardrobe involved but it felt very much like I’d somehow stepped through a door into Narnia.

One of the friendly residents of Nuuksio Reindeer Park (Phoebe Smith)

One of the friendly residents of Nuuksio Reindeer Park (Phoebe Smith)

If I had thought it odd to go straight from sitting passively on a plane to cycling through a woodland, then it was even stranger to go to sleep that night in a hut and wake up the next morning to find a reindeer licking the window at the foot of my bed.

A knock at my door signalled my breakfast hamper had arrived – but it didn’t just contain food for me. Alongside my tray of croissants, cloudberry jam and fresh fruit were two large buckets filled with lichen.

The deer munched happily as I fed them from my window while I also feasted on my own meal. As breakfast companions go, the conversation from these grunting, satisfied creatures rates up there with the best.

Magic mushrooms

Bilberries and chanterelle mushrooms (Phoebe Smith)

Bilberries and chanterelle mushrooms (Phoebe Smith)

My next stop would see me having to actually work for my next dish. I cycled about 10km to a place called Hawkhill, a lakeside collection of villas where owner Annu runs foraging courses in the woodland that surrounds them.

Annu fills her basket (Phoebe Smith)

Annu fills her basket (Phoebe Smith)

My next stop would see me having to actually work for my next dish. I cycled about 10km to a place called Hawkhill, a lakeside collection of villas where owner Annu runs foraging courses in the woodland that surrounds them.

“Don’t you go foraging for food in your home country?” she asked quizzically. For Finns the forest is seen as a bountiful place so she seemed not to understand why anyone wouldn’t head out with just a wicker basket to gather ingredients for a feast as a matter of course.

That afternoon she taught me to identify ceps aka penny bun mushrooms (through their large bulbous stem, near microscopic pores, and a cap that resembles a crusty bread roll); how to pick chanterelles without damaging their stalks and allowing for regeneration so they will grow back the following year (with a special tool and in limited numbers per patch); the best places to find the native lingon and bilberries (around bogs) and the art of clipping nettles without stinging your fingers (by gripping firmly in the direction the leaf is growing).

Holy smoke

The wooden deck of Löyly sauna (Phoebe Smith)

The wooden deck of Löyly sauna (Phoebe Smith)

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.”

Saunas nearly outnumber people in Finland (Phoebe Smith)

Saunas nearly outnumber people in Finland (Phoebe Smith)

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

Basic bear hides allow wildlife lovers to immerse themselves in a bear's world overnight (Phoebe Smith)

Basic bear hides allow wildlife lovers to immerse themselves in a bear's world overnight (Phoebe Smith)

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

A Eurasian brown bear (Phoebe Smith)

A Eurasian brown bear (Phoebe Smith)

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.”

A mother bear and her cubs (Phoebe Smith)

A mother bear and her cubs (Phoebe Smith)

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.

The elusive white-furred Finland ‘Spirit Bear’ emerges like a spectre as the sun sets (Phoebe Smith)

The elusive white-furred Finland ‘Spirit Bear’ emerges like a spectre as the sun sets (Phoebe Smith)

“Oh my god, oh my god,” I found myself saying out loud as though I was stuck on repeat, before remembering the instructions not to talk. I felt giddy with excitement. The light was fading fast now, but I refused to leave my post until I could no longer see. And waiting definitely paid off.

Just before the darkness was complete, a ghost-like apparition emerged from the trees. I’d read about Canada’s spirit bears before but never had I heard of their European cousins. Her white fur made her resemble a plush cuddly toy, somehow out of place amid the earth tones. I snapped away wildly with my camera, desperately trying to capture this fleeting moment.

 “There’s a couple of really pale mother bears,” explained British guide Harry the next morning. Along with his photographer friend Kyle, Harry has been leading trips here for years. “One known as Lumikki (Finnish for ‘Snow White’) has had lots of cubs and the one you saw is one of hers.”

We walked in a group back towards the cafeteria, following the paw prints of the cubs that were frozen into the wooden boardwalk behind where I’d been asleep. It may have been a cold night but after wolfing down a hot breakfast, I was ready to go back outside.

Taking flight

A great tit bathes in sunlight (Phoebe Smith)

A great tit bathes in sunlight (Phoebe Smith)

I spent the morning encamped in the bird hide watching crested and willow tits as well as blue jays and red squirrels approach my camera lens as though I were invisible. In the afternoon I followed the trail once more to be rewarded with a sighting of a pygmy owl high in the trees, before following the Siberian jay to the Russian border.

I had one last wild night before leaving Finland behind – at the BirdHouse Hotel in the small hamlet of Paltamo, about 100km west. A former ski resort, perched atop a Kivesvaara hill, here the owners have been inspired by the osprey that soar on the thermals, and so have made a collection of small wooden lodges with bird’s eye views over Lake Oulu and the Lakeland region.

The views from the bed of the Bird House Hotel (Phoebe Smith)

The views from the bed of the Bird House Hotel (Phoebe Smith)

Although I was back inside, sitting surrounded by woodland and wooden walls, the glass window in front of me seemed to melt away. Despite having not managed to follow the jay across the border into Russia, a different line had been crossed on this trip.

By eating breakfast with my reindeer companions, foraging and cooking wild food, warming up in a smoky sauna, spending a night amid the bears and now, resting up where the birds fly – I had removed the barriers between me and nature and enjoyed a true wilderness experience. One where I was no longer just an observer, but part of it all.

The trip

The author was a guest of VisitFinlandMagnetic North Travel and Wild Taiga. Magnetic North Travel offer a seven-day itinerary staying at the Arctic Giant Bird House, Luxury Bear Hide Cabins and camping with huskies (which includes accommodation, breakfast, picnic lunches, dinner, guide services, activities, sauna and all the equipment needed).

Visit Finland

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