Picnicking with bears

Picnicking with bears

Finland’s wild taiga is one of the few areas in Europe where it is possible to photograph rare, majestic animals in their natural environment; particularly, the awe-inspiring Eurasian brown bears who wander freely within its forests, as if waiting to give you the perfect picture.

Bears are marvellous. I can’t imagine not eating for a single day—my size should testify to that—and it has always amazed me how huge animals like bears hibernate during the winter, surviving solely on reserves accumulated during warmer months. Yet, their strength and power can be compared to the big cats, who by the way, eat throughout the year. I have always wanted to watch bears in the wild, observe their activities and behaviour, and of course, photograph them. When informed that I could do all this quite close to where I live, I decided to go right ahead and take that four-hour flight into Finland.

There are two options to reach the Martinselkosen Eräkeskus Wildlife Centre. Take a flight either to Kajaani or Kuusamo; the place is about a two-hour drive from either of the airports. Once you arrive, a small garden area at the edge of the forest enables you to see and photograph several species of birds. The area is remote and very peaceful. Started in 1991 as a family-owned initiative, Martinselkonen Wilderness Centre is located in the municipality of Suomussalmi, near Finland’s eastern border, and very close to Russian territory.

Finding our bear-ings

Every summer, the Eurasian brown bears of this region migrate to Finland after their winter hibernation in Russia. There are several hides built inside the forest where one can stay and watch the bears. Every evening, we would walk for about 40 minutes into the woods to reach the hides and once in, lock ourselves until the next morning. By its geographic virtue, the Nordic (Scandinavia, Finland, or Iceland) nights’ are just a couple of hours of darkness and there’s a good light for the rest of the time. So you watch the bears throughout the night. A guide accompanied us on the walk to the hide where we stay locked in from 4:30 in the evening until 7:30 the next morning, until he comes to take us back. The bears are active during the night and they move into the thick woods in search of berries during the day. It is safe at this time to get out of the hide and get back to our guest house for some sleep. The hides are small (about 10 ft x 5 ft) – just enough space for two – but strong. We carried with us a couple of sandwiches (hey, I’m no hibernating bear!), some tea and some drinking water.

Bears hibernate during the winter,surviving solely on reserves accumulated during warmer months. Yet, their strength and power can be compared to the big cats of who, by the way, eat throughout the year.

Bears hibernate during the winter, surviving solely on reserves accumulated during warmer months. Yet, their strength and power can be compared to the big cats of who, by the way, eat throughout the year.

On our first day, still new to this adventure, we locked ourselves in the hide and set up the camera, the lens peeking out of a small low-lying window with a cloth over it for camouflage. After an hour or so, the first bear appeared – peeking through the taiga trees trunks. Then, within a short span, a huge female followed and she wasn’t alone – she’d brought her cub along. The mother—like most mothers—was very protective of her young. Later that night, she chased a male which had wandered close to us, literally making our hide shake due to their thumping feet. In between all the excitement, I did notice that she could outrun me easily.

The cubs were playful, wrestling among themselves, and at times, climbing over one another. Whenever they felt threatened by the bigger males around (which would only happen if the mother had wandered a little far away), they would quickly climb a tree. As the bears slowly moved away into the woods, I sat back and ate my sandwiches, sipped some hot tea and looked through the small window of the hide. It was a fantastic first day’s experience in the wild.

Once you come back to the guest house, breakfast is laid—porridge served with local berries; the same berries that the bears love. Lunch usually comprised of local vegetables, fish and reindeer meat.

A close call

Hides built inside the forest afford the best possible opportunities to see and photographs Brown bears closely and with minimal intrusion into their daily lifestyles.

Hides built inside the forest afford the best possible opportunities to see and photographs Brown bears closely and with minimal intrusion into their daily lifestyles.

On the second day, we went to a different area – a large swampland adjoining the forest. The swamp had cotton grass in bloom which is found typically in temperate tundra regions. This was the first time I saw them, these large patches of beautiful white grass covering the swamp. My feet would sink, sometimes up to a foot or so in the swamp, if not placed on firmer regions. It started raining soon, and I was initially a bit disappointed since this place had a lot of potentials to photograph bears with a good backdrop. “Rain meant ‘bad light’ and a spoilt shoot”, I thought to myself. I was wrong.

Every weather condition presents a different and unique opportunity to make images in a different way. I experimented with different shutter speeds and ISO to capture the raindrops. With ISO set to high values, I kept shooting away happily. Once it started raining heavily, however, the light became so low that I could see less of the bear on my camera lCD and more of grains and high-ISO noise. It was time to take my fingers off the camera trigger and indulge them with sandwiches and tea. Knowing that the bears were far off, I opened the door of the hide to see that it was still drizzling outside. I stepped out—do not try this at hides!— and checked carefully all around for bears, before finding a spot to answer nature’s call. In no time, I saw a faint brown fur ball moving towards my hide from behind the curtain of rain. Did I mention that these big, beautiful animals run faster than we do? You better believe it. I immediately rushed into the hide and locked myself in. I don’t know if the bear was really coming after me or my mind was tricking me into thinking that. All in all, it was some experience! Rain soon came to a halt, and the clouds opened up letting through the sunlight, which lit up the whole swamp like a mega soft spotlight. After taking some shots of cubs climbing trees and two sub-adults play-fighting, I retired for a couple of hours of sleep in the hide.

Bear today, gone tomorrow?

There are several other places of interest around the wildlife centre which I intend to explore next time. This place is known to organise several such photography expeditions and is also famous for its wolves, wolverines and golden eagles which can be seen in both summer and winter, unlike the bears. There are good opportunities for landscape photographers nearby as well. In winter, those astronomically-inclined will find themselves close to the surreal experience of northern lights (Aurora Borealis).

European brown bears are found mainly in the regions of Russia, Finland, Slovenia and few other Eastern European countries. Statistics suggest that they have become extinct over a period of time in places like Switzerland, Great Britain, France, Germany and Denmark. Bears require a familiar habitat to hunt for food and hibernate during winter. Human occupation of known bear areas leads to the animals abandoning their habitat. This might mean they do not find enough food to sustain them during hibernation Farming and planting of exotic plants also lead to depletion of food sources for the bears. Besides, bear- hunting is a popular sport in Europe. All these factors could affect the Eurasian brown bear population adversely in the long run. Currently, there is still a large population of Brown bears in European Russia but they are depleting in several parts of Europe over time. The European Union has listed the Brown bear as a “Threatened” species, but it is also important that we try and ensure that they are protected and allowed to thrive; else someday, we might be discussing how to save the last few of these magnificent creatures right here in this platform.

How to go

The Martinselkosen Eräkeskus Wildlife Centre is accessible from both Kajaani and Kuusamo in Finland. You should ideally plan your trip from the airport to the centre well in advance.

When to go

The centre offers a variety of viewing and exploring options, not just for their Eurasian Brown bears but other Taiga species as well, through the year. Depending on what you want to see, you should plan your trip in consultation with the people at Martinselkosen, to get the most out of it.

Travel tips

  • Carry lots of mosquito repellent with you.
  • Airport pick up is offered by the wildlife centre staff or one could also rent a car.
  • Carry an eBook reader like Kindle to while away time when there are no bears around.
  • Extra batteries and fast memory cards for your camera. FX cameras with good low light sensitivity are recommended. Fast lenses are good too, owing to low light.

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Read also: Revisiting the moments in the wild 

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About the Author /

A passionate photographer, Balakumar’s areas of interest have grown from landscape and macros to wildlife, portraits and underwater photography. He finds the entire process from composing a scene to making an image thrilling. Apart from photography, he finds pleasure in other activities including hiking, scuba diving and electronics. He currently lives in Switzerland.

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