Walking through a wooded patch you may not see the elusive and shy Finnish Brown Bear. But waiting patiently all night in summer can yield a glimpse of these animals. In July 2017, I spent 7 days in a wooden cabin over looking a pond waiting for the Brown Bears, an experience like never before. Read on to find out what happened over the week in the far northern corner of Finland.
Bears fascinate a large audience. Having seen the Sloth Bears in India, I always wanted to see and photograph their European and American cousins. In April 2017, the idea to travel to Europe came up. After a lot of research, reading up, talking to people and travel companies/lodges in Finland, I finalised to make a trip in July. Kajaani was the closest airport, 3 hours away from the lodge. The next task was to figure out on how to get there. Kajaani airport was connected to Helsinki on a daily service by Nordic Air. After quite a bit of searching, I decided to fly on the trusted Qatar Airways out of the National Capital. Coimbatore-Delhi-Doha-Helsinki-Kajaani.
I opted to take a 15 hour break in Doha before connecting to Finland. On July 13th, I attended 2 hours of college and boarded a flight to Delhi. Spent the night near the airport and on 14th, boarded a Qatar Airways Dreamliner 787 flight to Doha at 10:00 am. In about of 4 hours we landed in the Hamad International Airport, Doha. After immigration, the hotel representative received and transferred us to the Concorde Hotel, not too far away from the airport. Summer was in full swing in the gulf and temperatures were soaring above 50° C, not too pleasant for anyone. But if you are a lover of kebabs and Shawarma, you are sure to have a feast. After lunch and spending sometime in a mall, we were back at the airport to board our connecting flight to Helsinki. During the early hours of 15th, we took off and landed in Helsinki, what a picturesque city and scenic landing it was!!!
After immigration, rested awhile in the airport hotel and in the evening at 4:00 pm, boarded a Nordic Air ATR 72-500 aircraft. ATRs are night mares for photographers because most camera bags don’t fit into the overhead bin. I had 3 pieces of luggage, Nordic Air refused to allow the third piece. So ended up holding my 300mm f/2.8 lens in my hand through the 1 hour flight. (Will discuss how I packed my Gear at the end). The lodge’s car was waiting for us at Kajaani. In about 3 hours we arrived at the Bear Lodge in Kuhmo. The lodge is set in a breathe taking location by a lake. After a good dinner I just lounged by the lake, enjoying the mist as it rose from the water. The below photo taken at 10:45 pm (In the Night).
Rested the whole night, the rooms in the lodge were well insulated and a bit too warm. The next morning, we met the rest of the guests who spent the previous night in the hides waiting for Bears. Now wait. What? Hides? Waiting for Bears? Yes!! Photographing bears in Finland is a game of patience. Sitting from dusk through the night until morning is probably the best way to see and photograph Brown Bears. Spent the day waiting until after lunch time before we headed to the Bear hides ourselves.
The Bear Lodge that was once used by border control forces
Meanwhile, the lodge has a small bird hide frequented by a few birds and squirrels. During the day, you can spend sometime in the hides.
A 300mm on a full frame camera is more than sufficient for the birds at the hide. Using a tripod is not convenient in the hides. A monopod works well. More images from the bird hide below.
After an hour or so at the bird hide next to the lodge, walked up to the bear hides to see how they were positioned and how the angle of light was before moving in for the night. After lunch at 14:00, the lodge staff briefed us about the dos and don’ts, and general rules and etiquette to be followed in the hide. At 16:30, with a snack pack, I headed out to the hides and setup my cameras. The lodge provides a fixed wooden plank in the hide which has a provision to mount a Gimbal head and a telephoto lens.
It was a warm night inside the cabin. I had to pull off all my sweaters and socks to stay comfortable. Yet it was warm. At around 20:00, we had the first glimpse of the bear. But it was only a glimpse. I saw him among the woods and eventually moved away. That is wildlife and patience is a key to getting your good images. After about an hour, thee gulls on the tree went into a frenzy. I least expected them to react so much to a bear. Some of them flew right at the bear and it seems to move away when the Gulls do so.
After foraging around, the bear walked away. He returned later at night. Though there is visibility for 24 hours, for about 3-4 hours between 22:00 and 3:00, the light is a bit insufficient for photography. He kept coming back several times that night.
The first night at the hide was pretty good. As we packed up to head back to the lodge the next morning, a cub passed by the edge of the lake.
This is the dirt road through which we walk for anywhere between 600 meters to 1 kilometre to reach the bear cabins.
In the edge of the water, there are quite a variety of birds close enough for a 600mm lens on a full frame camera. Suddenly there was some movement on the rock, too small for a bear and large enough for a squirrel. Looking through the lens, it was a Wolverine. I was so excited to see one. Barely a few hundred individuals live in the wild and Finland has a major hold.
Two adults visited the hide on Day 2. The light was a bit better than the previous day. But the weather turned icy cold. There are provisions with a mattress and sleeping bag within the cabin to sleep. I ended up sitting inside the sleeping bag to keep myself warm.
Sitting for long hours in the hide can get pretty boring at times. So keeping a book and checking out of the openings regularly can help while away some time. 4G connectivity is pretty good. But since you are very close to the Russian border ensure that Data Roaming services are turned off; because occasionally, it would connect to the Russian network and drain your usage.
It was a foggy day and the bear activity was quite low with just one individual who walked by.
After 3 nights in the cabins by the lakes, I moved to the cabins in the forest area. It was a sunny day when I started from the lodge. Within 2 hours of settling down, clouds drew in and light just faded away. Added to it, there was also some rain which turned the weather pretty cold.
When the first bear arrived, it was almost dark and an ISO 0f 8,000 had to be used to get adequate shutter speed. This occasionally happens in the forest cabins with light being insufficient. The second bear arrived at about 6:30 the next morning when there was ample light after sunrise. But he didn’t stay for too long. It was time for me to leave the cabin and walk back to the lodge, about 600 meters away. I decided to wait for a bit longer before I returned because I didm’t want to meet Mr. Bear on foot. Looking through the opening, he headed in the same direction of the lodge. After half an hour, when some other guests crossed by cabin on their way back to the lodge I joined them too. Near the lodge, a large number of trees had been cut and stacked to be transported and on top of this pile, this guy stood smelling something. In the commotion, he moved away and into the backyard of the lodge. The lodge staff did the necessary to ward him off the premises.
The sun played truant again and the light was pretty low. It was also pretty misty and these two youngsters took over for the night.
But the mist does add to the beauty of the image.
And the Wolverine visited again.
Must be wondering what these cabins actually look like on the inside? You would have to spend atleast 14 hours inside these cabins and thats what has yielded these images. The beds provided can spoil your photography since they are so comfortable that you don’t want to get out once you tuck yourself in. Caffeine is the only solution to stay awake for as long as possible. If you’d have to use the loo, there is a make-shift container with a toilet seat. Exiting the hide will disturb bear activity and this is the only option.
Bears can come pretty close to the hides too. The closest a bear came to my cabin/hide was about 2 meters.
Decided to spend one more night at the forest cabin in a different location. No bear came by until an hour before we packed up to leave. To the far left of the angle of view from the cabin was a huge rock and least did I expect that a bear would come on there. For a moment when I first looked at the bear, my heart skipped a beat.
It was the last day in the Bear Lodge. I decided to sit in a cabin at the far edge of the lake which had openings on four sides. I had a series downloaded on netflix which I watched in mute (with subtitles) and every 1-2 minutes look out to see if there was any movement. At one such instance, the bear just walked out of the forest and stood waiting to come further in the opening. He walked on to the cotton grass and into an open area. The sun wasn’t very sharp and hence to photograph with back light wasn’t really possible. And finally the bear went around the lake and looked back towards my cabin before it moved away.
It was time to leave the The Bear Lodge and head back. After breakfast, we drove back to Kajaani and boarded the Nordic Air Aircraft back to Helsinki. I took an uber to the Helka Hotel in the heart of the city. We spent 3 nights in the quaint city looking around its many historical monuments and sites including the Helsinki Cathedral and Suomenlinna Sea Fortress. Also went on a segway tour in the outskirts of the city. I dined in some nice restaurants and the seafood in the city was really good. On 26th July, I boarded a Qatar Airways flight back to Doha and connected onward to Delhi landing in the early hours of 27th. I have many of my school friends studying in Delhi. Spent another 2 days with them before I finally returned home on the 29th after 16 days of travel.
I travelled across Finland with my dad Ramnarayanan. During the hours we spent in the hide, we took turns to sleep while one watched out for Bears. The weather at this time of the year (July) was very pleasant comparatively and a light fleece jacket with a sweater, gloves and socks were sufficient. Shoes aren’t allowed inside the cabins to prevent them from getting muddy as you walk all the from the lodge through a swamp.
Regarding equipment, I used a Nikon D4s and Nikon D700 for all the above images.
Lens: I had a 600mm mostly which I used prime and sometimes with a 1.4x TC. A 300mm f/2.8 which I highly recommend for it is very handy in lowlight. 70-300mm definitely need range particularly in forest hide. I just wish I picked up the 70-200mm 2.8 before the trip. This would’ve had an upper hand in low light. A 16-35mm and 24-120mm were the wide angle lenses used.
Ensure to carry a good backpack to lug all the equipment to the cabins from the lodge and back.
Author: Gaurav Ramnarayanan