Bear watching in Finland: A very close-up adventure

If you go down to the woods of eastern Finland today, you're sure of a big surprise, says Juliet Rix

A huge brown bear is lazing on the forest floor in front of us. He is munching contentedly on his supper, so close that we can hear him chew, hear his heavy breathing. He is less than 10 metres away. But we are not in any danger: we are safe inside a bear-watching hide in the remote forest of eastern Finland.

This 300kg mega-beast is not the only bear we can see. Beyond him are six or seven other bears: lithe young males, slightly smaller females and mothers with cubs. The babies are rough'n'tumbling exactly as bear cubs are meant to do and they are (from the safety of the hide) exactly as sweet as they are meant to be too. It's an extraordinary sight and explains why this place is considered to offer the best bear-watching in Europe. It's hard to see how it could be bettered.

We are staying in the Martinselkonen Wilds Centre near the Finnish-Russian border a little-known peace dividend from the ending of the Cold War. The guesthouse is an old border guard station and Markku Maatta, who runs it with his wife and son, is a former border guard. Many of the bears we see have wandered across from the 60-100km strip of no-man's land on the Russian side, which is untouched, uninhabited and unhunted.

To get to the bear hide, we leave the guesthouse at 4pm sharp the timing, we are told, is crucial. We drive a few kilometres before setting out on foot along narrow paths through the ancient taiga forest of pine, spruce and silver birch, with a rich green floor of moss, lichen and berry plants. Soon our guide stops and points to a tree with its bark ripped off. Bears. Then he points higher, above our heads, at a large claw mark. Big bears.

We come to a damaged anthill. Brown bears get some 20 per cent of their nutrition from ants, the guide explains. A little further and there is a tree with sticky sap all down its trunk and bear hairs stuck to it. We pull one off as a souvenir. Then, in the mud by the path, we see a perfect bear paw print. "Is it new?" asks Luke, 13, a little nervously, "No," says the guide. Luke breathes more easily. But... We have been told that the first sign of bears approaching the hide will probably be the croak of a local raven. Now, still on the path, we hear a raven calling loudly.

"Does that signal bears?" we ask. "Yes," says our guide. "I have never seen a bear on this walk," he adds reassuringly, "they know the routine. That is why the timing is important. But, yes, there are bears very close."

Fortunately, it is only a couple of hundred metres to the hide. As we enter, somebody asks how long we should expect to wait before seeing the first bear. "Five minutes," comes the astonishing reply. It is less. No sooner have we settled into our seats and started quietly unpacking cameras and binoculars than bears begin to emerge, seemingly from every corner of the forest, wandering unconcernedly into the clearing to consume the salmon laid out for them by our host. The kids watch wide-eyed and so do I.

This is real wildlife watching. Not the "see it and tick it off" kind. The bears first appear at 5pm and for the next four hours there are never fewer than five or six of them in sight. Having organised bear-watching in the area for 11 years, the Maatta family have come to know the individuals who reappear summer after summer. The huge bear who arrived first was Bodari, an old chap in his mid-thirties, first seen here a decade ago. For years he was the undisputed alpha-male, until Nousukas (meaning challenger) a younger darker male identifiable by a white stripe on his shoulder, who appears a little later took his crown. He and Bodari now give each other respectful space.

Everyone else gives way to them too, although Bodari is indulgent towards younger bears because, we are told, most of them are his cubs. Elina, a grey-headed 18-year-old, is the group matriarch and mother of Utelias, who appears trailing her own triplets. The various cubs are endlessly entertaining. One mother tries in vain to stop her little ones scrapping, only for them to jump straight back onto each other the moment her back is turned.

Our guide comes round with sandwiches, tea and cinnamon biscuits. We had our main meal salmon as it happens at 3pm. This is snack supper, as once inside the hide you have to remain there until morning. There are bunks (though, it must be said, not always enough to go round!) and a pile of sleeping bags. By 10.30pm we have been bear-watching for five-and-a-half hours (the kids admittedly mixing it with iPods, books and electronic games) and the number of bears is dwindling. Time to turn in.

Bears have a special place in the Finnish psyche there are dozens of words for "bear", which are traditionally used to avoid naming the most dangerous predator in the forest. But there is other wildlife worth seeing too. We have already met reindeer on the road. They aren't strictly wild, as this is a reindeer-herding area, but they are wilder than Willie, the Maattas' pet reindeer, who is tame enough to stroke. My birdwatcher husband spots Siberian jays, rustic buntings and rare woodpeckers in the forest, and we see black kites and a white-tailed eagle from the bear hide. We also go on a delightful canoe trip on one of Finland's 180,000 lakes and Luke and his father see a huge elk grazing beside the water.

Hoping for more sustained views of these shy giants, we spend an evening in a new elk hide with salt licks to attract the animals. Elk are seen here on about three out of four visits. Unfortunately, we seem to be the fourth. We have better luck further south near Kuhmo, where we go in search of beaver. Staying at Ultima Taiga, which is another former border post, we are met with a warm welcome and fabulous food, much of it caught or collected in the surrounding lakes and forests. All the staff speak English and are extremely helpful. The guesthouse is the only habitation on the edge of a large lake and we canoe around it seeing three beaver lodges, some small dams and one beaver's head not to mention two golden eagles.

We lunch on fish soup and potatoes cooked over an open fire (very Finnish) on an island in the lake, before going berry-picking in the forest (and the blueberries we collect become a delicious addition to the next morning's breakfast). We still want to see more of the beavers though, so, after a sauna topped off with a dip in the lake, our guide for the day, Urpo Piirainen, takes us to his beaver hide some 50km away. As we creep inside, he throws a poplar branch into the stream in front of us. The hide is in a beautiful spot so waiting is no hardship and after about 50 minutes we are amply rewarded. A huge beaver with the famous big flat tail clearly visible just beneath the water swims towards us, shortly to be joined by her baby whom she nuzzles lovingly.

I find myself smiling like an idiot as I watch these delightful creatures gnawing at the poplar, holding the little twigs with their paws and chomping away at the leaves. The boys are equally transfixed. Mother beaver dives, coming up with a chunk of the branch in her teeth. She swims off a little way with it before settling to eat again, still in full view. The baby copies her, carrying a little twig all the way back to the lodge before returning and hopping out onto the bank for a wash. We watch them for about 20 minutes before, having eaten their fill, they wend their way off up the stream.

We also wend our way back to Ultima Taiga, where we are greeted with a candlelit second supper which we happily eat and the offer of another sauna, which we reluctantly decline. We have to head back to the other world of the city in the morning, but we are all agreed that the Finnish wilderness, and especially the beavers and bears, will be long remembered.

Traveller's guide

The author and family travelled with help from the Finnish Tourist Board (020-7365 2512; www.visitfinland.com/uk), flying to Helsinki then taking the train to Kajaani. The bear-watching season runs from 1 May10 August. The family booked through Naturetrek (01962 733051; www.naturetrek.co.uk). Three-night packages (from 29 May) including flights, transfers, food (two meals, plus sandwiches) and two nights bear-watching cost 850 for adults, 530 for children under 13. Ultima Taiga (www.ultimataiga.fi) was booked through Mighty Fine Company (0845 0720 090; www.mightyfinecompany.com). Packages from the UK from cost from 650 per adult and 450 for children under 12.

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