In some parts of the world, brown bears get a bad press. They are solitary, illusive and powerful predators, that can be disruptive to farming communities. But in Europe, conflict between humans and bears is less common. I headed off to Finland to find out why…
I have to admit to being intimidated by the thought of coming face to face with the Eurasian Brown Bear (Ursus Arctus). These powerful and impressive creatures are, after all, the close cousin of the North American Grizzly.
Brown bears have a tough reputation, due to attacks on livestock, beehives, orchards, even villagers. Large heavyset beasts; an adult male weighs in at up to 450 kg, with a body length of over two meters.
People are naturally scared of these large predators. Attacks on humans tend not to be the result of predatory behaviour, but result when the bear is compelled to defend itself, its cubs or a carcass.
Bears are still hunted in Finland, and can fall foul of poaching or be victims of the trade in body parts for natural medicines. But conflict is rare as there is far less contact due to low population density in the areas favoured by the bears.
In fact a sparsely-populated area of north eastern Finland known as the Taiga Forest, offers great opportunities to view them behaving naturally in the wild, away from human interference, and in a responsible way.
So I put aside my fears and headed to Finland to discover the real story of the brown bear…
Based at the aptly-named Wild Brown Bear wilderness lodge near the border with Russia, we were ideally situated for a bear watching adventure.
Spending two full nights in isolated hides, we had a good chance of spotting bears, wolverine, foxes and arctic hare as well as a slim chance of spotting the more illusive wolves and lynx.
The first thing to note is that this is a wildlife experience like no other. You will get the chance to see brown bears up close. But the trade off is that you must follow the rules of responsible bear watching.
You will not be able to wander freely in search of the bears and you must follow the instructions of your local guide. Once inside the hides you must stay put from 18:00 to 07:00, keep talking and noise to a minimum, avoid flash photography, refrain from smoking and drinking, and ensure food is safely stored.
Even if you follow these rules, there’s no guarantee you will see brown bears. But if you do, the rewards will be worth it!
This part of Finland is truly magical, despite the swarms of mosquitoes that plagued us.
We got quickly settled in the bear hide, a stones throw from a large lake and the Russian border beyond, and waited in hope that one of Europe’s largest predators would emerge from the trees.
I whispered “bear” to the rest of the group and pointed silently. Within minutes a large brown male known as Aulis (meaning generous) burst from the undergrowth on to some rocks, and descended to the marshy area below, splashing and puffing as he paced restlessly in search of food.
A nervous-looking female bear known as Lumikki, much lighter in colour and approximately seven years old, emerged next. She was calling out as she quickly traversed the marshland.
To our surprise, two perfect young cubs, approximately five months old, tumbled from the berry bushes briefly, before scurrying back to the forest to await her return, answering her calls for reassurance.
Aulis, who is thought to be aged 15, eventually put in a second appearance and came within three metres of the hide where we sat frozen in fear and excitement, scared to breathe in case we startled him, and intensely aware of the sound of his own heavy breath as he turned over a log in search of food.
A chair creaked and he was gone again. Photographing the bears is challenging as they don’t rest still for a moment, and your hands will be shaking when they do. So my advice is to put the camera aside and enjoy the precious moment rather than collect a large number of blurry photographs!
With 24 hours of daylight, it was not difficult to lose track of night and day.
On the second night, it was just me and one other group member, in a tiny two person hide on the edge of the marsh. I couldn’t help thinking that it would not be particularly challenging for a bear to enter the hide if it wished…
She was still surveying the area when a second female came in to view, causing her to rush for cover. She returned some time later and fed about 6 metres from the hide.
But the highlight of the second night was another visit from Aulis, who paced around in characteristically impatient fashion, and passed just one and a half metres from the hide, at one point stopping to look directly at me.
I have seen the big five in Botswana, tracked mountain gorillas in Uganda, and swum with manta ray and leopard shark in The Maldives, and this wildlife experience was at least on a par with any of those, both awe-inspiring and unique. I only wish I could have stayed longer.
Amanda travelled on Explore’s four day Brown Bear Weekend trip. Departures run in June, July and August and cost from £869 per person. Price includes return flights; three nights’ lodge accommodation with all meals; transport and the services of an Explore leader and driver. For more info, or to book, visit Explore or call 01252 884 723.
Cover photo by Olivia Lewis, from Explore. All other photos, copyright Amanda Williams, 2015.
Here’s a little video I took of Aulis. It makes the hairs on my neck stand up to watch him striding towards the tiny hide: Aulis
Click here for more adventures in Finland.
I was hosted by Explore on this trip, but as always my review is honest and all opinions are my own.