Bearing in Mind by Gill Murphy

At 4.30am I was slumped on a cold steel bench in Terminal 5 at Heathrow idly observing a fellow early bird drape his long form in corrugations across the intervening armrests. By mid-morning I was bowling along an open road in Sweden with a small, disparate group of other hopefuls on my way to Vargas Wilderness Centre. That’s how easy it was.

Brown bear

‘No perfumed shampoo, shower gel or deoderant tomorrow if you want to see the bears,’ Hakan warns us later as we tuck into juicy salmon steaks in a creamy dill sauce. ‘Seeing’ and ‘bears’ in the same sentence has yet to fully impinge on my consciousness but the homely Lodge with its sweeping views across the lake and rustic, candle-lit wooden cabins, each with its own log-burner, already has me in thrall. And that was before I tasted Eva’s cinnamon cake …

After a cool, wet day spent rambling or fishing we finally shoulder our packs, jigging with excitement. The trail up to the hide is narrow and slippery, meandering through thick emerald banks of spongy moss and brown muddy pools. Wooden planks span the boggiest hollows, fallen trees and bowing branches juggle for space with their upright cousins. Unnervingly quiet and terminally still in the shrouding mist, this forest exudes a fey watchfulness we all sense. ‘It is a ‘troll forest’ a fellow Swedish guest jokes but nobody laughs ... or falls behind. Hakan occasionally stops, gathering us around a set of heavily indented prints and pointing to clusters of deep, weeping slashes in the nearby bark, unbelievably high. Happily we reach the hide without incident and settle down to wait. Everyone has a comfortable chair, camera and viewing slot and a bunk to crash in overnight. Hakan disappears, spreading a mixture of fruit and oats between various tubs dotted around the grass: honey and yoghurt a tempting dessert only a few feet away.

Royally fed ourselves, we are into brandies when an urgent whisper: ‘Bear’ prompts an eager scramble for binoculars. Breathlessly we watch an adolescent amble out of the gloom and dive into the largest trough only to leap back seconds later, nose lifted and twitching, before shuffling off. A hulking shadow slips into the clearing and explodes after him, powerfully intent and industrially fast. We are anxious for the youngster but our irascible new diner quickly returns with a satisfied swagger. The heavy wooden trough is ripped from its resting place with razor-sharp claws and rolled a few times as he scratches and snuffles through the contents, a faint were-light flickering about his swaying head and chomping jaws. We are mesmerised and tense muscles only unlock when he has melted into the treeline, but subsequent yawns and murmurs are premature. A surprised hiss has us back at the viewing slots. Wow! This is a Mythical bear, a Norse bear – a warrior of Odin returned from Valhalla bear! He is so shaggily arrogant, so supremely ‘the boss’ that he scorns any instinct to warily scan whilst mowing around the scattered offerings. We want to stay with him for as long as he stays with us but alas, without infra-red our eyes are only pricking the dark and soon we have to give up. Yet even warmly curled in bunks and close to sleep, his massive unseen presence dominates the night.

A frowsy dawn brings new life to the clearing: mobs of flamboyant jays and gangs of aggressive ‘hoodie’ crows street fight along gouged alleyways after escaped loot, clouds of feisty chaffinches darting in between their squabbling feet. Surveying the carnage a

red squirrel flicks an anxious tail and is gone. Eventually, stuffed with a filling breakfast, we tumble from the hide dishevelled and dazed, and trudge down the path. Although the trees weave a softer, more forgiving spell in daylight, a lingering air of wilder magic shimmers in a million silver cobwebs.

Reality seldom matches hype, but seeing my first bear in such a forest, briefly sharing the landing stage deck with a Goosander family after an early sauna then skinny-dipping alone in a loon-haunted lake was pretty much the living stuff of dreams.

For more information on our 'Sweden's Bears' holiday, click here.