Finland - Just Brown Bears! by Julia Walshaw

The summer days in Arctic Finland were certainly not without their pleasures. The hours passed swiftly by as we scanned the pristine lakes for birds, munched contentedly on reindeer stew, paddled in crystal clear waters and walked through pure forest to the Russian border, where a Golden Eagle swooped dramatically in front of our group.

Brown Bear

However, it was as the long days drew towards their close that the true excitement of this short holiday really began to mount. The signs were there as we walked in silence through the dense taiga towards our destination: scratches gouged into the flaky bark, clumps of dark fur hanging from the tendrils of the lichen and, most tellingly, large lumps of scat full of barely disguised glistening berries.

By the time we approached the hide, the excitement was palpable. Our first views of the European Brown Bears did not disappoint. As we were quickly ushered into the wooden hut, I suddenly became aware of their bulk and power just metres away from me. Once enveloped in the safety and comfort of the hide, we were able to settle down to watch their every move and expression. The bears were so prolific and active that at times it was hard to believe we were not watching a television show. Only the sound and the smell of the breath of those who dared to forage right beneath the windows of the hide reminded us that this was indeed reality. An almost meditative state of calm and intensity descended as we all became completely absorbed in watching, photographing and marvelling at the spectacle unfolding before us.

Over the next hours, we became familiar with the individual characters and personalities that came and went through the clearing in the forest. Those that stick in the memory include the smallest and palest cub in a litter of four, whose engaging spirit and determination seemed to bode well for his survival, somewhat against the odds. Or a vast, lumbering male, whose every scratch and scar told a story of years of battle amidst the deep, dense forest. Or the bunch of ‘teenagers’, prowling the area with a surly air of arrogance and cool that quickly evaporated at the arrival of a feared, or maybe revered, elder!

The second night brought new experiences, when a swift change in weather and atmospheric conditions heralded a transformation in the bears. The appearance of a glowing, mustard yellow light over the forest signalled the threat of storms in the distance. Sharp gusts of a cool and sinister wind funnelled their way through the trees. Straightaway, the bears were on guard. Every low rumble of thunder in the background brought the bears upright on their hind legs, alert and aware of danger. The playful atmosphere of the evening before quickly dissipated. By the time the heavy rain descended, most bears had gone into hiding, except for one foolhardy mother who persisted in trailing her confused cubs around. We watched transfixed, until the eventual darkness led us to our bunks.

In the eighteen months since our adventure, my mind has frequently drifted back to the bears of the Finnish taiga, imagining them sauntering through their forests, hibernating, maybe breeding, and hopefully surviving and thriving in their wildly pristine environment.

To find out more about our 'Finland - Just Brown Bears!' tour, click here.