The forests of Finland

Posted on 2 September 2011
Anyone who has flown into Helsinki will know it’s not a particularly large city. It’s also surrounded by forest on all sides, forest as far as the eye can see (except when the eye is looking at a lake). There are 188 000 lakes in Finland, which is a lot of lake. Although even this is not quite as impressive as knowing that 66% of the country is covered by beautiful green forests: forests full of spruce and pine trees, birds, butterflies, moose, reindeer and bears (among others). This is my kind of country, green and natural, where wildlife is allowed to survive relatively undisturbed in natural tracts of land, without fences. I wouldn’t have expected any of you to know these two wonderful facts, as until I climbed into the second (much smaller) propeller plane in Helsinki for my flight to Kajaani, I didn’t either.
When the din of the propellers finally died down, and I felt safe enough to gaze out the window, all I could see below the odd cloud cover was forest, lake, forest, and lake. It was magical, so much green. Our drive from the airport took just under two, hours, and when I wasn’t sleeping from exhaustion brought on by far insufficient sleep in the Arctic, I just stared out the window while our driver, and the owner of the lodge, Ari, told us about the bears. That was of course the sole reason for our trip to Finland, the chance to watch the European Brown Bears as they go about their business from the safety of a photographic hide.
The lodge itself was set deep in the Taiga Forest and was homely and family run. It is on the shore of a small lake, surrounded by trees, and about 2 kilometers from the Russian border. That first evening we basically collapsed into bed straight after dinner, dead to the world. The following day, we decided to take a walk to the border. I don’t think we got there, and I’m not entirely sure we headed in the correct direction, but we did enjoy spending some time in the forest, listening to the birds, watching butterflies and searching for berries.
That afternoon, we met our host at 4pm for dinner and an introduction to the hides. The hides are situated on the edge of a small lake, in a marsh, surrounded by (predictably) forest. The bears are very shy animals, as they are still hunted in Finland and Russia, although the border area is almost a “˜safe haven’ for them. In Finland at least, permits are very expensive, and not many fins can afford one. Then we started the march to the hide. I say “˜march’, as our guide was on a serious mission. Its just under a kilometer, and we must have covered that distance in max 10 minutes.
We were fortunate to have amazing weather, but this also means it was hot. 28 degrees hot most days. Marching as we were up and down little forest paths when the air is muggy and you’re carrying a good 20 kgs of camera equipment certainly didn’t help us keep cool! One problem with having the Arctic trip right before was that I had basically packed 2 t-shirts. In future, I would take a few more, especially in July during the Finnish summer!
The hides are about 1.7 metres wide, and 1.5 metres long. That included space for bunk beds, and there is  no toilet to speak of, just a bucket with a seat and lid (- a good reason not to need the loo!) The first night we were so hot, it took forever to cool down, mostly because we hadn’t been prepared. By the third night we had wet towels with us, and it was pleasant. You can choose your hides each night, depending on the view you want, and then you cannot leave between 5.30pm and 7am the following morning, for obvious reasons.
We had barely been in the hide for half an hour when our first bear arrived. There are scraps of Salmon hidden under logs for the bears, from the nearby salmon farm. This encourages them to visit the site as part of their nightly foraging. I was over the moon excited to see him, in his shaggy brown coat on the opposite side of the lake. Some gulls scared him off though, and I was worried that would be it for the evening. How wrong was I!
We had around 15 visits that first night, by what I imagine was 5 or 6 individuals. One came to within around 3 meters of the hide, so close we could almost feel his breath! Of course, I had just stuck my head out of one of the 4 lens holes when this happened. and was obliviously day dreaming away when a sharp pat on the back brought me back to reality, and to quite a surprise with the bear staring at me chewing some salmon. They are really beautiful creatures, with very flat faces and huge rear ends. When they run, their whole body shakes from side to side, and they look very comical. Their eyes are a rich brown colour, and the younger ones have incredibly sleek coats of a rich hue. It was quite something to have them so close.
That evening I slept about 2 hours, from 12-2pm. It is light enough to see the whole night through, although in the midnight hours it’s a strange blue light, and there was quite often mist rising off the lake. When I woke, and my dad went to sleep, he had barely laid down when a Wolverine appeared from the forest and ran around the lake. A while later, he ran back again, and a different individual appeared an hour or so later. We were also fortunate enough to see a lone wolf, as he moved between the trees. Wolves are very endangered in Europe, and this was really special for us. He was a large silver male, almost ghostly in the mist.
The following morning after breakfast and a shower I passed out for a good 5 hours. One thing you learn quickly in the Arctic is to sleep whenever there is time, and to sleep well in the daylight. I out this to good use in Finland, and slept like a baby all day long until we woke to visit the hides again in the afternoon.
It was really quite an experience staying in the hides. They were small, hot and uncomfortable, but the sightings were like magic. To be able to watch wild brown bears in their environment, completely undisturbed was really special, and I will definitely be doing another few trips to see them. I believe April has far fewer numbers, but there is a good chance of seeing them in the snow. September is supposed to be great for the autumnal colours and the cold misty mornings. At the very least I would like to experience these two seasons with the bears, and maybe see a mother with cubs, or a bear climbing a tree. Either way, bears have certainly stolen part of my heart, and I dream about seeing them again soon.
I should however warn that the mosquitos are giant, and tenacious. If you spray the anti-mosquito cream on them, they are still not deterred. I have proof in the form of 20 odd giant bites on my shoulders and elbows. Still, that’s hardly too high a price to pay for the opportunity to see a bear in the wild!

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