|Sunrise at the Russian Border, Finland|
A dark chocolate-coloured bear emerged from the forest and plodded into the clearing in front of us. He lingered briefly by a dead tree, the bark of which had been stripped leaving it scarred with open wounds. The bear sniffed the air with his mouth slightly open, his strong white teeth clearly visible as he ambled around the long coarse grass until he picked up a scent. Facing us, he pushed his muzzle into the ground and clawed at the land with a large powerful paw. Bones cracked loudly as he masticated his find, crushing it with his puissant jaw.
|Early Morning Moose Safari|
Our day had started at 4am with a moose safari and a picturesque sunrise over misty ethereal lakes. Haunting eerie cries from a pair of cranes echoed across the fields like the screeches of prehistoric creatures and drew our attention to a well camouflaged moose and her calf. It felt like fireworks were exploding inside me when we saw them; it was difficult to remain calm and still but it was good practice for the challenge that lay ahead in the evening.
In the late afternoon, Sabrina, our French guide who spoke English and Finnish with a Scandinavian accent, enlightened us to what life would be like for 14 hours in a hide. We sat in comfortable seats in a cosy lecture theatre and listened as she instructed us on hide etiquette. There was to be no talking, shoes were to be removed when we entered the hide and our cameras had to be controlled to prevent them bleeping or flashing. Then she added; “Also, you can use a monopod or a treepod but in front of your legs, you don’t have so much of the space.”
“So we have to avoid speaking,” she whispered, “and if we have to discuss, we have to whisper. And also we have to be careful of BEAR! BEAR! BEAR!” she shouted, demonstrating what we’re likely to do when we saw a bear. And waking most of us up. So, we had been warned; no talking, no beeping and very little space for 14 hours.
The hide was a wooden hut with nine soft chairs on noise-absorbing carpet. A 20cm high panoramic window ran the length of the hide and below that, a head-sized rectangular camera hole loosely covered with thick stretchy canvas. Behind the seats were two sections with bunk beds and in another unlit windowless compartment, which was darker than it ever got outside, was a compost toilet.
It was uncomfortably hot inside the hide and the group was lively with some strong and humorous characters, who found whispering unachievable.
Our hide was on a small incline, largely concealed at the front by ten metres of low lying shrubbery and bushes. Beyond that, a clearing with clumpy straw-coloured grass, a few young fir trees, some saplings and cotton grasses all of which made an excellent bear stage. This arena stretched towards a small lake in the east, where six smaller hides were situated.
At 10:15pm, the bear appeared and after an initial burst of euphoria, the hide finally went silent. I could hear the beating wings of a pair of ravens and the bear crunching on bones in the warm night air.
“His name is Aules,” Sabrina whispered. A healthy 15 year old male bear was standing less than 20 metres from us, perturbed slightly by our presence in the hide but as the light faded, Aules became a shadow and gained in confidence. He lolled in the grass and pawed at fallen trees; we could even hear his heavy footsteps as he strolled towards the lake and the other hides. He disappeared into the forest following no obvious route but revisited the arena a few more times throughout the night.
It had been a long night and the next morning, as we walked back through the forest, we met two girls from the lakeside hide closest to ours. They greeted us with abundant excitement screaming, “We saw four bears! four bears!”
“No!” Sabrina said soberly, “You saw one bear four time.”
Sabrina had been a guide for over 10 years and had spent more than 400 nights in a hide. At breakfast, as I gazed at the prize-winning images of the bears that had visited the hides over the years, I realized that for Sabrina who had watched them grow from cub to adult, last night was just another day at the office. But for us, all the emotions and excitement that we had to suppress in the hide were being released in waves of effervescence over orange juice and coffee. It was a priceless wildlife encounter - but I’d never want to spend another night in a hide.
|Lake Erilampi at the Wild Bear Wilderness Lodge|