“Do the cloudberries fall from the sky?” asks one of the children, between bites of lohipastaa, or fresh salmon pasta. We are dining by the superfluous light of a full moon on a midsummer’s “nightless night” in north-eastern Finland. Our base, the Hotel Kalevala, is a wooden behemoth, like a heroic-age ship run aground on the shore of Lake Lammasjärvi.
We had collected the amber-coloured berries growing in cloud-like clusters – wild raspberries, blueberries and mushrooms too – on a nature trail earlier in the day. Suvi Tauriainen, our wilderness guide, says they are a bear staple but people eat them too, smeared with leipäjuusto, a local cheese, and lots of cream and sugar.
In Finland, it’s said there are two kinds of people: bear people and elk people. Tauriainen is clearly in the former camp: she beams as she talks about her work with bears and shudders at the mention of bear pâté, a regional delicacy. We have come to this no-man’s-land of boreal forest on Finland’s border with Russia for an encounter with Ursus arctos, one of the world’s largest land-based predators, and I am hoping that we may turn out to be bear people too.
Averaging 300kg, with the strength of nine men, the European brown bear can bring down a moose with its paw. It has claws that grow to 10cm and it can reach bulk-belying speeds of 56km an hour.
But Tauriainen says Finland’s national animal, with its heart-shaped face, is shy, soulful and intelligent. In the past century, only four people have been killed by a bear in all of Scandinavia and no woman has ever been attacked. Ancient Eurasian tribes worshipped the bear; its ability to walk on two legs led them to believe it was a forebear or brother. More recently, there have been reports of bears grieving after the death of a relative and sitting in contemplation of scenic vistas. Legend has it that they can count to nine.
Before the bear watch, scheduled for the last afternoon of a three-day trip, Tauriainen leads our party of three parents and three children on day trips in this haven of nature and “centre of Finnishness”, where a revival of the traditional culture of the Karelians, a Baltic people assimilated into Finland and Russia, is under way. At the local cultural centre, musician Minna Hokka helped the children turn reeds into flutes, the ancient instruments of the Kalevala, Finland’s national epic poem.
We went fishing on Lake Ontojärvi and afterwards heaped wooden plates with fresh whitefish cooked on an open fire, accompanied by rye bread and röntönnen, the typical Karelian pies filled with rainbow trout, lingonberry or reindeer meat and encrusted in thick bread.
We also canoed across Lake Jämäsjärvi, which translates memorably into “Leftovers Lake”. I hadn’t held a paddle in 25 years but something primal in me remembered what to do. The rhythmic motion made even the two eight-year-old boys solemn. Our voices ricocheted off the forested shores and, on reaching our island destination, the children scrambled ashore Indiana Jones-like to help our guide prepare the fire. We cooked sausages on a stick, drank cocoa and ate heavy, heavenly cloudberry pies, before washing our cups in crystalline water.
For 7,000 years Finns have worshipped at the altar of the sauna, seeing it as a space for reflection and spirituality. We were shown how to thrash our bodies with vasta, bunches of birch leaves, which have been used to cleanse skin since before the invention of soap.
And then finally it’s time to go in search of the bears. As we speed past a hypnotic expanse of forest and lakes, Tauriainen is in full bear-person mode. The Finns have no fewer than 200 nicknames for the bear, she says, many originating in the Kalevala, compiled by Elias Lönnrot in the 19th century from ancient oral poetry. It is the story of creation, “replete with the most fascinating folklore about the mysteries of nature, the origins of things, the enigmas of human tears”, wrote its English translator John Martin Crawford. And it contains traces of arctolatry, or bear worship, featuring Otso the bear, aka Honey Paw of the Mountains, Pride of the Thicket or The Fur-Robed Forest Friend.
Near-silence is required in the bear hide and Tauriainen has the children “practise being quiet” during the drive. Now, tramping through the woods towards the cabin where we will await the bears, there are excited whispers: “What if I sneeze?”, “What if I hiccough?” and “What if I need to go to the loo?”
Inside, we are seated behind slit-like windows extending the length of the hide. There are a few bunk beds, a kettle and a toilet. We peer out on to a clearing surrounded by ranks of tall pine and spruce. Our cameras poised, the sun appears through clouds as if to light up a stage. We succumb to silence – and pure anticipation.
It is August, almost the end of bear-watching season, which starts in April when the animals emerge from hibernation. September is hunting season. Until the 1970s, the state still paid hunters if they shot a bear. Its hide and meat were prized and, in ancient times, the penis bone was thought to have healing powers. (“They still look for them today,” says Tauriainen. “Some kind of male thing.”) But thanks to a resurgence of folklore and reverence for nature, hunters are no longer heroes. Bears are protected – only a few can be killed each year – and, after centuries of decline, they are thriving in this remote region near the town of Kuhmo, home to about 1,000 brown bears out of 200,000 worldwide.
“Mum, when are we going to see a bear?”
“Could be five minutes,” Tauriainen replies. “Or five hours.”
Time seems to stand still, like the infinite forest around us. In the clearing the odd butterfly is buffeted on a breeze and, incongruously, white seabirds have alighted, forming a circle like a Stone Age configuration. Inside, the wood creaks; an insect buzzes; someone stifles a sneeze.
The children begin trying out the beds, shades of Goldilocks, while the adults peruse a book of photographs of Finland’s wildlife – elk, wolverines, flying squirrels, big birds of prey, wild forest reindeer and bears – and wonder if it might be the closest they get to seeing one.
Then, a collective intake of breath – two lugubrious masses are lumbering our way. The bears stop – our hearts do too – about 10 metres away. They lower all their rippling brawn to the ground, extend their front legs, bury their snouts and begin to chomp concertedly.
“Today the menu is dog biscuits,” says Jani Määttä, the hide host, who has put out the food earlier. “Sometimes it is salmon or elk,” he says. But the bears – omnivores who subsist mainly on ants, berries and fish – feed mostly in the wild.
The lip-smacking luncheon continues until the larger bear heaves up his heft and makes directly for the hide – another intake of breath – before suddenly charging off to the side and round the back of the cabin. We move en masse to the side windows, a chorus of clicking cameras. The bear is sighted coming out the other side and we rush to follow. It resumes feasting with its chum.
Presently, the smaller bear excuses itself from the table, staggers replete to a nearby tree, sinks on to its bottom and performs a postprandial back scratch. The other bear ambles over and we laugh as the pair roll on the ground, stumpy legs in the air. They eventually lope off into the woods.
The children have been rapt. My son is drawing, the usual superheroes and monsters morphing into bears. But it is hard to reconcile the mystical creature of ancient times with these indolent animals who seem interested in little beyond spectacularly gorging themselves. In the folklore of the Finns, the bear is not just “king of the forest” but a celestial symbol of tribe and family. In the west, the bear has less gravitas but perhaps our sentimental parade of cuddly caricatures – Baloo, Yogi, Pooh, Paddington – assuages a primeval fear.
The birds are shrieking, then dispersing. Two new honey-pawed friends have appeared and are devouring an elk carcase. Or could they be the same bears? The afternoon plays out in a blur of fur and thrusting muzzles, as apparently different bears enter, ensconce themselves before mounds of food, then exit the clearing. We leap from one side of the hide to the other in pursuit and, after two hours, we have counted six bears.
Tauriainen tells us about a researcher who collected faeces to examine the bears’ DNA, which would reveal whether the same or different ones were returning to the site. The samples were kept in her refrigerator – which was a bit of a shock to her visiting sister, in search of a late-night snack. The children are suitably impressed with this unorthodox “Poo Bear” story.
Three bears frolic amid distant trees; a mammoth bear brushes uncomfortably close to the hide; another strides by our window, inexplicably sopping wet … As Määttä brings us tea and sandwiches, meagre sustenance when compared with the bears’ marathon meals, we clock our 11th specimen.
“Do they even know we are watching?”
Tauriainen smiles: “It is an exchange. They agree to let us watch.”
By evening, with the sun still high in the sky, there have been 15 sightings.
Or have there? Back in the van, Tauriainen breaks the news: seven bears is the official count.
“Sometimes it all feels like a dream,” she says. “We’re never really sure if we saw any of them.”
Wild Taiga (www.wildtaiga.com) offers a range of wildlife-watching tours, accommodation and other outdoor activities, from a few hours to 10 days. A three-night trip like the one described would cost £599 per person. Rosalind Sykes flew with Finnair (www.finnair.com), which offers flights from London to Kajaani via Helsinki from £229 per person. Doubles at Hotel Kalevala (www.hotellikalevala.fi) cost from €99 including evening sauna and breakfast