Wednesday 7 December 2016

'The bear is coming!' Into the wild in Europe's hidden wilderness

Finland's bear necessities

Published 18/09/2015 | 07:50

Eurasian Brown Bear, Kuhmo, Finland. Photo: Staffan Widstrand/wild-wonders.com
Eurasian Brown Bear, Kuhmo, Finland. Photo: Staffan Widstrand/wild-wonders.com
A bear and wolf in Kaainu. Photo: Ikka Niskanen
Finnish cabin in the evening light.
A wolf in the Finnish wilderness. Photo: Ville Heikkinen
Thomas's rental car in Finland.
Evening on a Finnish lake. Photo: Elina Sirparanta
Thomas immerses himself in nature!
Into the Wild, Finland.
Berries in downtown Helsinki. Photo: Miset/Matkailupalvelut

Thomas Breathnach ventures to Kainuu in Finland for an unforgettable encounter with Europe's brown bears.

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Nordic thrillers come with various plot twists.

As I cruise through the highways of central Finland, an armed swat team surrounded by flashing patrol vehicles has suddenly brought traffic to standstill. Across from me is the culprit, a young runaway moose galloping towards the refuge of woodland.

It's a good thing that rent-a-Volvo of mine has passed the elk test.

I’m making my way towards the great European wildernesses of Kainuu; a Finnish region much overshadowed as a destination by the capital interest of Helsinki and the Rudolph-kitsch of Rovaniemi. Close encounters with stray ungulates go with the territory up here, but that aside, it’s a calming, cathartic ride north.

Finnish landscapes are  more hypnotic than they are dramatic, and my journey is a constant calendar of evergreen forest backdrops and cross-lake shortcuts aboard fare-free pontoon ferries. You could say there is a certain air of New England to the topography here: perhaps a flat-packed Maine or Vermont with less hipsters, more truckers.

Evening on a Finnish lake. Photo: Elina Sirparanta
Evening on a Finnish lake. Photo: Elina Sirparanta
Into the Wild, Finland.
Finnish cabin in the evening light.
Thomas's rental car in Finland.
Berries in downtown Helsinki. Photo: Miset/Matkailupalvelut

700km and a few latitude lines later, I finally cross into the remote frontiers of the Kainuu. A dusty forest track leads me to a fairy-tale red timber cottage deep within a silver birch labyrinth. A welcome chorus of husky barks? Yes, I’m in the right place alright. I’m staying at Routa, a dot-in-the-wilderness eco-lodge whose live-in guides enjoy the unplugged Finnish dream - and invite their guests to do the same.

Once settled in, I begin by joining my hosts, Aki and Suvi, on their daily rounds. First off: fishing. Lapping oars against the mirror glass waters of Tervajärvi lake, we punt off to inspect fishing traps for the day’s catch. Around us, the late evening sunrays filter trippily through the lumber. It’s a scene of utter tranquillity which is rather fittingly disrupted by the signature Nokia ring tone from Suvi’s mobile.

Could there be a more quintessentially Finnish moment?

When it comes to dining, foraging seems to have firmly bypassed the farm-to-fork movement at Routa. With Aki wearing the toque, I’m served up a delicious supper of fragrant pike meatballs, dill-flecked new potatoes and a frothy cream sauce made with freshly plucked forest mushrooms.

Meal-times also offer an intimate insight into my hosts; from close encounters with wolverines in the wilds to self-deprecating chats about the Finnish character.

“This is part where we all sit in silence for three minutes,” Suvi jokes, referring to her nation’s notoriously taciturn nature. And that's exactly what we do.

A wolf in the Finnish wilderness. Photo: Ville Heikkinen
A wolf in the Finnish wilderness. Photo: Ville Heikkinen
Into the Wild, Finland.
Thomas immerses himself in nature!

Come evening, the greatest Finnish ritual of all awaits: sauna.

Plied with a wicker basket of woodland goodies, I wander off towards Routa’s lakeside hut in scene titled between Grimm Brothers and Nordic noir. Being Finland, this would be an au naturel steam room experience; meaning no pan-piping spa soundtracks, no stuffy etiquette and no threads. There’s something awesomely primal about going in the buff in the boreal wilds; from the earthy aromas of birch branches sweltering on hot coals, to the pungent lather of traditional pine resin shampoo. You could call this the ultimate man-of-the-woods treatment.

Then, once suitably broiled, I pummel down jetty outside, plunging into the lake with a body-shock roar. “Shout as loud as you like!” was the advice from Aki. “After all, there’s nobody out there…”

Following three soulful days of sauna-rinse-repeat, my onward journey lures me even deeper into the wilds. I’m venturing eastwards and northwards to the vast enigmatic environs of the Finnish-Russian border zone. No natural feature buffers either country, so this 1,340km band of impregnable forest serves as veritable no-man’s-land between both nations – and I’m here to meet the locals.

Brown bears are said to hold dual citizenship in this neck of the woods and a midnight sun excursion from the Boreal Wildlife Centre is said to be the best way to spot one.

With passport details wired off to Russian border guards, our guide Jani 4X4s our small group of a few French photographers and myself into the deep. I’m now in the world’s largest biome, a pan-continental Taiga forest which stretches all the way to Mongolia.

Already the atmosphere is building. Beyond the diesel grunts, the cry of ravens on the search for carrion echoes ominously through the ether while above, a white-tailed eagle harries the skies. Soon, we reach our base; a primitive observation cabin on a bleak bog clearing where we’d be facing lockdown until morning.

A bear and wolf in Kaainu. Photo: Ikka Niskanen
A bear and wolf in Kaainu. Photo: Ikka Niskanen
Eurasian Brown Bear, Kuhmo, Finland. Photo: Staffan Widstrand/wild-wonders.com
A wolf in the Finnish wilderness. Photo: Ville Heikkinen

Now, there’s little to do but wait.

For hours we hunker down in bated silence, each time-lapse yielding dishearteningly minimal fortunes. Unlike their grizzly cousins, European brown bears are notoriously timid and, as the hours time-lapse by, so too, it seems, does our optimism. Nature has a habit of rewarding patience however, and no sooner have I surrendered to my bunk for a watchman’s nap, I get the wake-up call of my dreams.

“The bear is coming!” gasps our guide, Jani.

I leap from my slumber with an explosive dismount. Peering across the marsh, there he is: a magnificent 300kg alpha-male, cumbersomely edging towards us via the spoils of a deer carcass.

To the chatter of camera shutters, I gape in awe as a midnight feast is gnashed and ripped before me. But soon, and quite miraculously, a French whisper announces an even more dramatic twist: “Regard! Un loup!

A grey wolf, one of Europe’s most elusive predators, joins the smorgasbord.

It is the most remarkable sight: a Nat Geo moment worthy of a Jean Sibelius music score. The silver-maned wolf prowls through the cotton grass towards his larger rival as suspense palpitates through the pines. As the two near, there is no stand-off, no flight, no apex attack: the pair approach, scent and nuzzle each other like reunited pack mates before disappearing into the thickets together.

Whether they were forest friends or lone hunters seeking some brotherhood in the bleak, I just didn’t know what could top this moment. This was still Finland, however. I’d learned to expect the unexpected.

Getting there

Finnair (Finnair.com) fly from Dublin to Helsinki from which Kainuu region lies a six hour drive north. On the ground, Hertz (hertz.ie) are currently running a 25% off Autumn sale with car rental rates for Finland from €40 per day.

Where to stay

Routa Travel (routatravel.fi) offer a seasonal range of packages from day-long husky-safaris for €80 to all-inclusive wilderness weeks for €998pps. At the Boreal Wildlife Centre (viiksimo.fi) wildlife observation excursions take place throughout the year. April to October are the best months for bear-watching (€150 incl. supper).

For more, go to visitfinland.com and wildtaiga.fi

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