Last month I travelled to Finland to photograph the elusive European Brown Bear (Ursus arctos arctos) . Having never visited a Nordic country before I was really looking forward to a different environment, a complete opposite to my African experience. I had been keen to diversify my wildlife portfolio but to continue my work on large mammals so bears were the next challenge, and what a challenge they were.
I travelled from London to Helsinki then, with the shortest connection ever and after running through the airport at speed I finally caught a flight to Kajaani.
Kajaani is in central Eastern Finland and is the capital of the Kainuu region. Another hour and a half drive and I had reached the Wild Brown Bear Lodge in the Kuhmo area which borders Russia.
The lodge is situated in the beautiful wilderness of the Boreal forest. It is one of the best locations in Finland for Brown Bear and Wolverine. I had over 20 different hides to choose from each offering a different view of the area, swamp, lake or forest, but which one to choose? It was a game of luck to whether the bears would be visible or present near the hide you were in, already I could see this was going to be a real challenge.
September is when the Autumn colours really start to present themselves and so I was keen to capture this beautiful season with some beautiful animals…..hopefully.
There was a high chance that bears would be in the area as they feed to prepare for winter hibernation but you can never be certain. Talking to other photographers and guides, there had been sightings of a mother bear with cubs fairly recently and a large male, so I was hopeful we would see them.
The next afternoon a group of other keen photographers and I walked into the forest and settled in to our chosen hides for the night. With the bears being more active in the early evening and throughout the night it was important that we got in the hides before they appeared and stayed put until the next morning.
I started off in hide 13. A one person hide which was actually the size of one person! Thankfully I am not 6ft tall! Although small, this hide provided great views of the swamp area from both sides, it meant I could easily move my camera to where the action was without making too much noise.
I set up my camera, poured myself a tea from my flask and waited. I was constantly scanning the area looking for movement in the bushes, anticipating my first bear. Whenever a crow would call or fly off I would grab my binoculars to make sure I wasn’t missing something.
Two hours went passed so quickly with no sighting, then all of a sudden, to my right, a vision in white! I took a few frames, it was a female on her own, no cubs. A different female to what had already been spotted previously by others at camp!
She was beautiful, her pale coat really made her stand out against the greens and oranges. You could tell she was very nervous, even though a fair distance from me I almost felt like holding my breath as any noise could scare her away. She took a moment, a fleeting few seconds to look my way then disappeared as quickly as she appeared. I then could take a breath! What a special encounter. I later found out that this was her first year alone, independent from her mother, so naturally she would be cautious as she found her way around. Brown bears reach maturity at around 3-5 years old and usually stick with their mother for the first 3 years. After that they leave each other but can come back into contact occasionally, tolerating each other from a distance.
The first night didn’t end there, after that incredible sighting a large male entered the area, he was huge and wandered in like he owned the place. Male bears can reach a whopping 350kg and can stand at over 7 feet tall. At this time of year it’s important that the bears are in top condition as they prepare for a hibernation, full coats and full bellies. These bears certainly looked good to me.
As the light was fading it was getting harder and harder for my camera to expose and focus but I still stayed alert, watching from all windows. I was rewarded by the mother bear with her 3 cubs to my right, they got quite close but unfortunately it was too dark to capture. Two of her cubs were blonde so I could just about make them out but as I was watching them I looked out of the other window to my left to find the independent blonde female just staring at me. She looked so ghostly in the darkness, it was definitely an eerie feeling. I took a few frames even though I knew my camera would struggle, just so I could remember the moment. She really is such a lovely bear.
I know this image is no good in terms of quality I just love the fact that the highlights outline her distinctive shape, you can clearly make out it's a bear without seeing any detail.
The next day I was treated again to some really memorable sightings. I had chosen a different hide this time, with a pond in front and the forest behind. I saw the large male, the blonde female and the mother and cubs. But the icing on the cake was what I spotted as the light was fading.
A pale shape appeared on the forest tree line and it was slender so I thought this can’t be a bear. I looked through my binoculars and couldn’t believe what I saw. Taking a quick picture I zoomed in just to check I wasn’t mistaken. I wasn’t. It was a wolf, one of the most elusive predators in the world. I was so thrilled. They are really rare to see and I got to see one. The image I took was in such low light that it wont be winning any awards but I had to document it. Sometimes just capturing the encounter and experiencing the moment is more important than creating a perfect image. I was later told that there are only about 150 wolves in Finland so seeing this individual was even more special and a real highlight for me.
Another moment that stood out for me was when I was back on the swamp. The mother and cubs were foraging right near my hide, she kept standing up to sniff the air and seemed very cautious and I could see why. The large male was approaching from the other side of the swamp, heading towards them. Males can kill cubs if they come into contact so I was nervous for them and hoped that they all stayed safe. The male kept coming closer then disappeared into the forest behind. As the mother took her cubs back into the forest there was raucous noise. The male was clearly still there and they had come into contact, what I heard was the mother and male scrapping, she had clearly signalled to her cubs who immediately climbed a tree for safety. Luckily they seemed to have an understanding and the male backed off allowing the cubs to descend. Females can be very aggressive when they have cubs so I’m not sure who my money would be on if this were to escalate. It certainly was exciting to see and hear and a reminder that these are not just cute, fluffy animals.
Along with the amazing sighting of the wolf, I was also lucky to see another elusive predator, the Wolverine. These animals although resembling a small bear are actually a member of the Weasel family. They are not to be messed with. Although mainly feeding on smaller rodents and rabbits Wolverines have been known to take down large deer like a Caribou!
I really didn’t want my time with the bears to end. It was definitely a different experience for me, sitting in a hide for 75 hours and trying to manage the low light conditions with my camera. With the bears being mostly dark and the light only being good enough for about 3-4 hours it was tough to expose for sometimes and naively I thought being large, heavy animals they would be moving slowly, stopping often, sitting etc.. How wrong I was. When a bear entered the area it was pretty much on the move the whole time. All bears walk plantigrade meaning they walk on the whole foot so this moves their body in a different way, almost making them swing from side to side so focussing on one spot was often tricky.
I would like to return to work on more bear images, perhaps in a different season. There are images in my head that I would like to achieve so I believe this may be a work in progress. The encounters I had here I will never forget and huge thanks to Bear Photo Ltd for such a great trip. Check out their website if you would like to visit and photograph these wonderful animals. https://www.bearphoto.co.uk