Finland is a beautiful clean country seemingly devoid of people and cars…..well almost !
It is approx.1.5 times the size of England but with only 5.5 million inhabitants. The land mass is 80% rivers, lakes and forest, so going out from the major towns Mother Nature beckons in all directions.
For us wildlfiers, it is a paradise. Not being pushed along by other car drivers, and being honked and hooted because you needed to stop to photograph something wild or to just admire the stunning scenery. One tends to start at the one major international airport, Helsinki, and then fly internally to either Kajaani, or Olou. A hire car is then required to get you to the Taiga forest…..
This dense forest covers the Eastern side of the country and spans the border with Russia. This where there are more animals than homo sapiens and in particular…. big brown bears. Yes, the Eurasian Bear is doing quite well here. They are very much like the North American grizzlies but three quarter size. There is no physical border with Russia so the bears are able to roam freely between the two countries; so of course they are multi lingual and have dual nationality !
A number of enlightened people have converted old border posts into comfortable lodges where local naturists are employed to guide you to purpose made hides deep in the forest and swamp areas. Our last trip saw us take in three different centres that are now established as some of the best places in the world for viewing these huge creatures. Part of the thrill is the journeys between, with the road mainly devoid of traffic in these remote parts. It is easy to lose track of time when continually stopping to photograph Moose, Elk, Forest Reindeer and Ptarmigan just ambling along at the side of the road. White tailed eagles and owls are not uncommon. All the animals seem habituated to us humans; they rarely run away.
Our first port of call was the most famous Martin Selkosen centre, where there are quite comfortable facilities and good wholesome food. It is not 4* and doesn’t pretend to be. The daily scenario is totally different from any other wildlife trip. The daytime is yours to wander, explore, even a hot sauna, which is a speciality in such a place, until 3-4pm when you have an early supper. Then you are driven off to a remote edge of the forest, followed by a 20 minute trek to your base for the night. There is a large communal hide taking 10/12 people and a number of smaller one/two-man jobs for serious photographers. Here you stay from approx. 5pm until 7am the next morning.
It is the land of the midnight sun; it never gets truly dark in the early summer months and, apart from a few hours in the middle of the night, there is enough light for photography.
In our photographers hide there is barely enough room for two, with a simple bunk bed and a convenience bucket in the corner…. But, having photographed a dozen different bears over the period and action almost continuous with bears as close as 10 yards away at times, it was an almost unreal experience. Of course the bears are tempted with food placed strategically around the surrounding area. They would never be seen otherwise, but they are truly wild and there is no guarantee with sightings and they come and go as they please. Two nights spent in different hides gives you the opportunity to get a wide variety of shots, forest, lake and swamp. Seeing a bear bathing or cubs climbing trees is a delight.
But, whilst the primary target species was the bears, other more elusive furry friends were on the photographic menu as well. Our next stop was the Wild Bear Lodge, co-owned by the same family as Martin Selkosen, but some 85 miles and a 21/2 hour drive away. Again, an ex-border post converted to accommodate mad wildlifers like ourselves. Enroute we encountered forest reindeer traversing the road at their own pace and not in the least bothered by us. These enigmatic creatures are endemic here and viewing them quite close up, it is easy to see why Santa employed them.
The daily format is much the same, taking in local culture and landscapes during the day and overnight in the hides. One is always caught between catching up on sleep and site seeing.
Apart from the obvious change of scenery, the two nights here had a different emphasis…..Wolves and wolverines, as well as bears. Whilst bears are nowhere near as forthcoming here, we had to be patient for other creatures of the night. A wolverine can be best described as an oversized stoat. They are very dark in colour and rarely show themselves. Being omnivores, they do catch smaller furries and will tackle much larger predators when confronted. They are ferocious fighters known to see off even a wolf. We were fortunate to photograph two together, a rare opportunity. No wolves here..
Along to our final destination, Kuikka Lake and lodge, yet another 21/2 hour journey with more wonderful scenery and occasional wildlife. As with the other lodges this one skirts the Taiga forest and equally remote. We had noted just two other cars enroute. It is even more rustic and challenging that the previous ones. Another two nights in different hides gave us some magical moments, not in numbers but in ones surely never to be repeated. Yes, we did get a few really unique bear shots, but one creature had eluded us for five days….the wolf. This sub species, one of the largest, is now protected and becoming more prolific. It is the arch predator, a carnivore feeding on moose, deer and any of the other ungulates. And yes we did see one!
It was early one morning and some 50 yards away on the far side of the lake. We stared in amazement as he stalked along in the wet grass border; mesmerized, we almost forgot to photograph this magnificent animal. He glanced our way just once and disappeared.
So mission well and truly accomplished. We will return.