In Search of European Brown Bears – Adventures in the Far North of Finland

by Michael Watson

I love motorsport and wildlife. In wildlife it’s mainly things with claws and teeth – animals in action. So with this in mind my latest photographic outing was planned a year ago and is now complete. Wild Eurasian Brown Bear to all who voted to leave Europe. European Brown Bear to the rest. So in mid June I stepped on a train to London and the journey began. Underground, hotel, up early, Terminal 3 and off with Finnair to Helsinki, a city so clean and well organised its OCD perfection. Catch a connecting flight to Oulu. Now at this point I must point out, I’m not the best person ever in a plane. This didn’t help when, approaching the runway, the wind changed, the excellent pilot hit the power and we shot back up into the air. “It’s probably the landing gear failed”, said Steve my fellow photographer. Cheers mate – that really put me at ease. After a quick circle we landed at the most perfect clean airport, got into the most perfect clean van and drove on the most perfect clean roads, past perfect houses for three hundred miles to a beautiful wildlife place in a forest right on the Russian border. Internet connection was excellent and so was my mobile signal. Finland is just perfect. Funny I can’t get a signal in Craster but I can sitting in a forest hundreds of miles from the nearest city in Finland. Hmmm…….

The photography? Well four different spots, one a swamp, one in a forest, one across a large pond and of course the “suicide hide” more of which later. The day went like this. Tea at 3pm, get ready, drive to hide. Walk a mile with heavy gear on a very hot summer day with mozzies trying to eat you for lunch. Sit in a very hot box for 14 hours, don’t ever get out unless you want to be eaten alive, a bucket for a toilet. Go back, have breakfast four hours sleep, repeat. After four days I was so sleep-deprived, I was talking so much gibberish I really felt sorry for Steve. Eight hours sleep is my minimum to maintain a semblance of sanity. Both of us decided no number 2’s in the hide. That’s not British. It was tough, you really do need to be able to sit inside your head for very long periods of nothing, sweating, getting bitten, concentrating and ready to go with no guarantee anything will turn up. It’s really full on when the bears do show up though. Light changes, constant checks and adjustments to settings. It really is a tough time so you need to know your camera and change settings instinctively as things change. The swamp was great, excellent light. The reflection pool I’ll always remember for the pics but also for the bear behaviour – for instance, a female rejecting the amorous advances of a male by sitting in the pond whilst he stood over her. That’s the rare behaviour I wanted to see. The forest with cubs playing and climbing trees where its more safe for the females as the cubs climb trees when the males turn up. It is odd taking pics at midnight when it’s still light.  And then there’s the “suicide hide”.

Perhaps an unfortunate name but given for a reason. It’s basically a box with very thin sheet metal/tin over it. 10 ft long, 5 ft wide, 4 ft high. It gets its name because when in it you’re on your own – in the middle of a forest, at times surrounded by bears, big bears. If anything goes wrong then I’m afraid no one will hear you scream. It was very hot, the bugs bit me to bits but it was a decent time. Ok it’s pretty secure but I did notice the back door was held on by a 50p latch. The light is awful so you’re shooting at high ISO and wide open aperture. It definitely isn’t ISO 100 and controlled light. Combine this with an ice cream box for a toilet, isolation, sleep deprivation, an unpredictable subject and it’s actually pretty full on. Depth of field is a nightmare to work out as you’re fully wide open and the animals are – lllooonngg! My lens broke (why now) so I could only shoot at 24mm, it rained so was pretty dark. Oh bugger I thought. So I went to sleep.

All alone in the woods…………………to be woken by a munching noise. Nope it wasn’t Goldilock’s friends gnawing on my leg in the absence of porridge. I woke; still half asleep, sat up, turned my head to a tiny window, and looked out to see………..the biggest alpha male munching on food with his head 1 metre from my face. As my underpants filled up he looked, sniffed, turned away and walked off. Unfortunately he walked round the front of the hide, lay down and started munching again. I lay down and poked my camera lens out of a tiny hole and got a few shots. A friend actually had bear cubs poke their heads in a year back.

Thankfully I survived to tell the tale. It was a great adventure; I got some great shots, learned more and will definitely go back. You really do need decent light, many visits and a good few days in the “suicide hide” to really do it justice. Yep, that’s for me!  You need a fast focus lens and get to know how to make rapid adjustments. You must be able to go periods without sleep and still function and have a constitution of…well….a bear to be able to crap in a bucket with a complete stranger sat beside you, stop, jump up and start shooting. Yep it’s crazy but fun and challenging.  I’m already planning next year’s adventure which, fingers crossed, will involve cold weather, Finland, birds/bears and lots of time, alone this time, doing wildlife. I can’t wait! And yes I can confirm one of life’s mysteries. Bears do crap in the woods.

Michael Watson June 2017

A gallery of Michael’s European Brown Bears also appears in Members Galleries   here

This article first appeared on the NewsBlog page

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