After several cancellations during Covid, I eventually returned to Finland just after Easter, with the aim of photographing the Brown Bears (and anything else that fell to the camera) in the snow. We were to be based near Kostamusti, Vartia on the Finnish / Russian Border.
All went well with the flights, arriving at Oulu to meet the rest of the group (all called David, who were to become known as Canon David, Fuji David and Nikon David) and Kyle Moore – our leader from Bear Photo. From Oulu we set off for the 3 hour drive to the Wild Brown Bear Centre, which was to be our base for the week. Passing through snow covered fields, frozen lakes and forests, we cam across whooper swans, curlews and lapwings feeding in the fields but fields but little else. Arriving at our base we were shown our rooms before an evening meal and a well needed sleep, ready to start our photography the next day.
Breakfast was served at 08:30 after which Kyle gave us a briefing on what to expect the week, and a summary of recent bear activity. We were then left do our own thing for a few hours prior to the evening briefing. We headed to the bird, but although it was well stocked with food, there was very little activity, especially when compared with my May visit – pre Covid. The odd blue and great tit paid visits and two great-spotted woodpeckers chased around the trees.
The ”evening meal” was served at 15:00, which sound early but we wanted to be heading off to the hides at 16:00 so that we were settled in before any bear action. We re-assembled at 16:00, collected our packed midnight feast and set off to walk the 500m to the Hides. We each had our own two berth hide for the night, equipped with bunk beds and paraffin heater (well it was going to get below freezing and we were in the hides until 08:00 the following morning). We were soon settled down cameras at the ready, flask and sandwich for when hunger struck.
On our first night we drew a blank, but it was great opportunity to photograph herring, common and black-headed gull on the snow and ice - a challenge for the metering system on the cameras. At 08:00 we left the hides and headed back to base for breakfast and showers. The day was spent catching up on sleep or photographing some of the birds at the bird hide.
After our “evening meal” we set off again making sure to follow the compacted snow tracks made by the snow-mobile. Even then were there had been some thawing, the odd step went into knee-deep (and beyond) snow. We were in a different set of hides for night 2 and 3, still equipped with a paraffin heater, bunt beds and toilet pail. We had much more success these nights with a male bear, known as Nose Job, paying several visits. This particular bear has a damaged nose and was first seen around 2015 This bear visits in April, but by the time the dominant bears and females appear in May, he has moved through the area. A second larger male bear also appeared, this one (due to his size) had been named Mini-Brutus and stood well over a metre high at the shoulder. Once Mini-Brutus appeared, Nose Job made a quick retreat. In the mornings the temperature was around 4 degrees below freezing – the thermal base layers and 700 down fill jacket proving their worth. The pattern was repeated the following day and on each morning the cold morning light produced some superb photo-opportunities, when a pair of great-spotted woodpeckers alighted on the birch trees in front of the hide, providing some hi-key photos.
Most of the days were spent processing images from the night before or having a stroll along the tracks round the base camp, where black grouse and capercaillie occur. After our evening meal it was a trudge through the snow to another set of hides for what was, for most of the group, one of the most exciting nights. Almost as soon as we had sat down Nose Job came down from the forest and started feeding, accompanied by hooded crows and ravens who were after any scraps they could get. Later Mini Brutus appeared along with a third male who had pale patches on his shoulders. Due to a poor phone signal, I missed a wolverine right in front of me, but did it see bounding through the snow, but to far away (and quick) for any photos. Bears were still active after sunset (around 21:30 and we could still see them at 23:00. As previous evenings I bedded down in the sleeping bags waking about 06:00 and then waiting to see if there was any morning activity before returning for breakfast.
For our last night we again stayed in the hides we used on nights 2 and 3. Nose Job and Mini Brutus joined us, passing close to the hides (as on previous evenings) on several occasions the 400mm f/4 and 1.4x extender were too long, and I was using the 100-400mm f/5.6-6.3 at the lower end of the zoom range – talk about a close encounter!
Our flight home was uneventful, except for the Helsinki sprint – getting from one end of the terminal to the other in 30 minutes AND going through passport control!! I’m returning in August 2022 and no doubt in June or July in 2023 to photograph the bears with their new born cubs.
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