The bears don’t worry me. I’m following an experienced guide and my bear viewing will take place overnight, once I am tucked inside my wildlife-watching cabin, known as a hide. Or so I think. As we approach the hides, I glimpse movement. About 50 metres beyond them, three huge furry mountains are having a violent altercation. Suddenly there’s a fourth, just 30 metres away, but he’s as relaxed as I am terrified. Standing exposed in this clearing, I’m a bear snack personified.
“Oh, I see the bears are here before us today,” guide and wildlife photographer Lassi Rautiainen remarks casually. I’d met the 62-year-old at his lakeside Wildlife Safaris base camp, a former logger’s cottage, in remote forest 630 kilometres northeast of Helsinki. Wildlife enthusiasts in the know contact Lassi when they’re keen to photograph Finland’s top carnivores: brown bears, wolves, wolverines and, rarely, the elusive lynx. Before setting out for the hides, Lassi tells us Finnish brown bears are not dangerous, despite being the same species as the North American grizzly, which has caused fatalities. Finland has about 2,000 bears, and every year 150 to 200 are legally hunted, with the meat commanding a premium in high-end restaurants.
“In Canada and Alaska, the bears are protected in national parks and they do not care about vehicles or humans,” says Lassi. “But our animals will be shot if they are too close to houses or people. The more stupid bears that are not shy of humans will lose their life.”
We split into three groups for the overnight viewing – my group includes a couple from the UK and Lassi. Leaving us watching the squabbling bears, Lassi shows the couple to their hide before depositing us in ours. “Please do not come out until I come back at 7.30am,” he cautions. “I’m not worried about you, I’m worried about scaring the bears.” We watch him enter his own hide 20 metres away.
Our hide contains six bunk beds, an attached (and remarkably odour-free) composting toilet and a long viewing window. Under the window are camera-sized cut-outs in the wall, with fabric sleeves and drawstrings that tighten around the camera lens to exclude breezes and mosquitoes.
Beyond the window, a natural clearing is fringed with taiga, a subarctic forest of pines, birch and spruce. Fifty metres away, a carcass has been secured to a tree. The four bears, the largest of which probably weighs in the vicinity of 370 kilograms, bicker with one another while fending off majestic white-tailed eagles, insidious crows and, surprisingly, four types of seagull. From our primo seats, it’s an awe-inspiring show.
Many bears drift in and out of the feeding station through the light-filled summer night, and the action becomes almost personal. As everyone else in my hide naps, an inquisitive bear approaches the particularly rickety structure where Lassi is sleeping. It advances, sniffing the air. My breathing stops as the bear rears to its colossal full height, leaning on the roof and investigating the tarpaulin wall of our guide’s hide. I’m weighing up whether I should attempt to rescue him from the jaws of this predator, when the bear drops to its dinner plate-sized paws and lumbers away.
After midnight, a skittish, shadowy movement in the trees introduces Finland’s second-largest carnivore, a grey wolf. At 2.30am, the sun finally makes a brief shallow arc below the horizon and, for 20 minutes, the landscape dims. The wolf slinks into the clearing, feeding warily while dodging bear charges. Although no wolverine appears, when Lassi knocks on our door hours later, I am exhausted and deliriously happy.
Back at the Wildlife Safaris base, we’re invited to use the wood-fired sauna. More than just a novelty, for the Finns sauna is a cultural mainstay. They are traditionally taken naked, with time in the heat interspersed with dips in freezing water. Emerging in a cloud of steam, I prudishly run down the jetty in my towel, ditching it as I plunge into the bracing lake water. Invigorated and now awake, I’m ready to hit the road.
One hour’s drive to the west is Kuhmo, a timber town making the transition to tourism. Strolling the boardwalk along the tumbling River Pajakkajoki, we watch locals fly-fishing for salmon. We munch on korvapuusti, a cinnamon and cardamom pastry, before learning more about Central Finland’s wildlife at the Petola Visitor Centre. I learn why we didn’t see a wolverine – there are only 50 mature animals left in the entire country.
Aside from impressive carnivores, Central Finland’s other natural claim to fame is the Lakeland region, several hours south of Kuhmo. Here, glaciers carved out the landscape leaving thousands of islands, peninsulas and a spectacular forest-edged coastline. Lakeland is 25 per cent water, and we traverse the area using free car ferries, an extension of the road network.
The largest of Finland’s lakes is Lake Saimaa, and in a channel between two islands sits the hamlet of Oravi. Here we experience another Finnish tradition, staying in a lakeside cabin. Ours sits up a hill, with a path that leads from the sauna to the lake through birch forest and wild blueberries alive with iridescent butterflies. On the jetty we find a wooden rowing boat and explore uninhabited islets.
Ramping up the pace, we meet Tanja Heiskanen, who’s dressed in medieval garb and who whips us across the glassy lake in a speed boat to Hotel & Spa Resort Järvisydän. The Heiskanen family has owned these quirky lodgings for 11 generations, since 1658, when the original hotel was built on the ice path that facilitated year-round trading between Russia and Sweden. In a nod to history, the recently remodelled reception area sports a 200-year-old wooden boat hull protruding from the wall. These days, guests enjoy hiking and lake activities and, in winter, snowmobile and ice-skating tours explore the frozen lake.
The hotel’s Lake Spa building pays homage to its natural surroundings, its architecture featuring pine and birch logs up to 2,500 years old salvaged from the lake floor. The complex takes the concept of the sauna to a whole new level and I work up a sweat five different ways, from the gentle to the blisteringly hot. The weird and wonderful storm shower pummels me with water jets representing different seasonal rains, while a soundtrack of thunder and rain is mixed with storm-related scents. Skipping the plunge in the lake, I opt instead for a bucket of icy water dumped over my pre-heated head, leading to involuntary shrieking.
While I’ve come to the region to experience the lakes, an added drawcard is the Saimaa ringed seal, found only in this freshwater lake. With only around 400 individuals remaining, this is one of the most endangered seals in the world. Heading back to Oravi, I try to maximise my seal-spotting chances by joining a guided two-day kayak through the forested islands of Linnansaari National Park.
Oravi’s narrow channel opens to the lake’s wide mirrored surface, dotted with tiny granitic islets topped with tufts of pine trees. On the open water, our guide mentions that our five double kayaks should stay together through the navigational channels, lest we collide with a boat. I can’t help but laugh, as there are no boats nor any other trace of humans here for as far as the eye can see.
Our relaxed paddle passes nesting eagles and rocky passages. Occasionally we land and take short hikes to viewpoints. On Linnansaari Island, we’re accommodated in a basic red cabin and an elevated tent that’s suspended between three birch trees.
As dinner approaches we watch our guide prepare small lake fish known as vendace in a simple wood-fired smoker. They’re served with rustic potatoes and crusty bread and demolished at a communal picnic table.
Our allotted timeslot in the wood-fired sauna arrives and by now we’re dab hands at the technique. Adding a scoop of water to the hot rocks releases a cloud of steam and the temperature surges towards my melting point. With practised aplomb we hurl ourselves from the sauna’s small jetty into Lake Saimaa, duck diving to the freezing deeper water.
Sitting on the dock, I feel both invigorated and calm as I wait for the sun to set at 10pm. I’m savouring the silence when a dark blob ripples the surface. “It’s a seal!” I call out to alert everyone, before I realise we have this place to ourselves.
Soon enough, the Saimaa ringed seal makes a second and third appearance, catching its breath and scrutinising us with enormous black eyes before submerging to the tannin-stained depths. It’s no amazing photographic encounter, but it’s authentic and natural, like Central Finland itself.
Qatar Airways flies from major Australian cities to Helsinki via Doha. Once you’re on the ground in Finland, hire a car to get to Kuhmo, Lakeland
and surrounding regions.
Hotel & Spa Resort Järvisydän has a range of accommodation, including rustic-cool balcony rooms, lakeside villas and houseboats. Prices start about AU$330 a night for a standard room.
During summer, Wildlife Safaris Finland offers overnight bear-watching packages that include basic accommodation, meals and entry permits to No Man’s Land. Prices start at AU$445 a person. Oravi Village can arrange overnight guided kayak tours for about AU$470 a person.