A forest hideaway in Finland offers an exciting night of brown bear spotting. Our guide points towards the soggy mud at a fresh bear footprint, size 13 super-wide fitting. I peer into the forest but all is still and there are no bears in sight.
Bear watching is one of those experiences you have to put on your Finland bucket list, along with ice fishing in Lapland and visiting Santa’s hideaway in Rovaniemi.
Finland Bear Watching
We have been trekking through the Finnish forest for 30 minutes and I’m quite relieved to reach our destination.
As we approach our cabin, there’s a man on a tractor scattering a trailer load of fish heads, tails and entrails from the local salmon factory in the forest clearing facing our hide.
At that suggestion of bears nearby, we shoot into the safety of the wooden cabin.
I sink into an old reclining car seat and position my camera with the lens poking through a peephole.
Above the long shelf, there’s a narrow Perspex-covered window which runs the length of the cabin.
Like everyone else, I’m so charged with adrenaline at the thought of seeing my first wild bear.
In one corner of the cabin, through a wooden door, there is a chemical toilet. Long plastic pipes extend above the roof to direct the human scents and sounds away from the cabin.
I’m fiddling with my camera when someone whispers “look there’s a bear.”
Sure enough, about 10m in front of our log cabin is a big brown bear. The bear lumbers towards a pile of salmon and we all grab our cameras.
Our bear-watching experience begins at 3pm, with a large Finnish lunch at the Martinselkosen Wildlife Centre.
We munch salmon, creamed potatoes and vegetables, fuelling up for our night in the cabin.
Then we drive along a forest track for about 20 minutes and continue through the forest on foot over wooden planks placed across the swampy bog.
Bears in Finland
Many people believe the bears are not a danger to people because they generally shun human contact.
Scavengers by nature, they eat a wide variety of food, including leaves, berries, honey and sometimes – when they’re hungry enough – reindeer or elk.
The natural instincts of these bears are not affected by the nightly luxury of fish served up to them, between the months of May and August. But to make sure that their bears stay safe from the hunters, the locals stop feeding them a couple of weeks before hunting season.
This is when the bears follow their sharply honed instincts and take off to the Russian wilderness to prepare for hibernation between October to April.
A 32-year-old 300kg bear appears in the clearing. It’s not difficult to see he is the alpha male.
The speakers inside the cabin pick up the sounds of the bear’s enthusiastic crunching as he stuffs his maw with salmon. He is soon joined by a 120kg female bear and youngster weighing around 80kg.
When another male turns up, the alpha huffs and snorts as a reminder to the pack that he is in charge.
When the young bear gets too close to the alpha, it is chased away.
Banished to a corner, the younger bear stands fully stretched on two feet with his arm hugging a tree trunk as he licks off the thick coat of sweet honey smeared on the tree trunk
Over the next several hours, the bear traffic is thick, with a total of 11 bears coming and going through the night.
They disappear for an hour or so at a time and then return from different sections of the woods. The fish piles gradually dwindle.
Rumble in the woods
As we are close to the Arctic, at 11pm there is still enough light to see the bears quite clearly. One beast has a vigorous scratch against a tree trunk.
A couple of bears decide to have a rumble and face each other roaring loudly for a few minutes. The trees tremble, the ground shakes and we are all thankful for the safety of the cabin.
At midnight, the traffic thins out and some of us crash out on the wooden bunks at the rear of the cabin while others lie on the seats.
I rouse from a deep sleep to the beeping of an electronic alarm clock and struggle up to peer out of the window into the soft morning light.
At three in the morning, a lone bear wanders among the leftovers. A small animal rustles in the bushes, perhaps a lynx or a wolverine.
At 7am, we pack up and head back to the wildlife centre for breakfast. On our way back through the forest it occurs to me that I have no clue what to do if we should encounter a brown bear on the track.
Martinselkosen Wildlife Centre has rooms, apartments and cottages.
Paws for thought
● There are from 800 to 1000 brown bears in Finland.
● Bear-watching season runs from May to August and sightings are guaranteed. Mating season is from May to July but females tend to mate only once every three years.
● An adult male can measure up to 2.4m high and weigh up to 350kg, though their weight varies greatly throughout the year.