The winged slogan speaks of Finland as the Land of a Thousand Lakes. After completing the one-hour flight from Helsinki to Kajaani, I would add that it is also the land of a thousand islands. And after the experience of visiting the Bear Center, about a kilometer from the Finnish-Russian border, one more label should be added – the land of a thousand bears.
There are trips that the photographer looks forward to long in advance. He can’t wait and is carefully preparing to visit the dream place. I became a participant in the trip to Finland rather by accident. Photographing bears didn’t appeal to me at all. After all, I prefer to photograph birds, I find them more action-oriented and prettier. I agreed to participate mainly because I will spend a few days again in the company of nice people and get to know a new country again.
We already found out at the airport that we will not be alone with the bears from the Czech Republic. The famous Czech nature photographer Ondřej Prosický and eight other clients headed to the same place as our four-person photography group. They were all pleasant people and we were happy to meet new adepts in the field of wildlife photography. The accommodation was a little spartan, a room with windows that couldn’t be opened. One shower for a total of about thirty visitors to the center and two toilets did not offer much luxury. But that didn’t bother us. We were troubled by the fact that most of the places from where we could take pictures of the bears were already pre-booked together with the accommodation. Unfortunately, we didn’t know that, so we were relegated to the places that were left for us. But as it turned out, we were lucky.
This Finnish province is called Kainuu and is one of Finland’s 19 provinces. It is located in the eastern part of the state near the state border with Russia. It borders the provinces of North Savo, North Karelia and North Pohjanmaa. The administrative center is the city of Kajaani. The highest point of the entire region is the Iso Tuomivaara hill with an altitude of 387 m above sea level. Like other Finnish provinces, Kainuu has its own symbols from the bird kingdom, flora, animals, and fish. They are the Siberian jay, the heather and the European smelt, which is a type of fish that, like salmon, lives in the sea but breeds in rivers. But I would probably vote for the bear as the symbolic animal for this province.
About seventy kilometers from the airport in Kajaani to the Bear center, it leads to the east, where you will not find any larger settlements. Only a grouping of several homesteads. On a super-quality road, the path runs very pleasantly through a slightly undulating wooded landscape that is not dull at all. There is still something to look at. Another lake around every bend in the road, a flock of crows by the side of the road, stepping on the brakes for a running Mountain hare.
Bears must be hunted at night. If we want to see them at all, we have to be very quiet. Although we hear many horrifying stories from different parts of the world about how a bear attacked a person, local bears always choose to run away when they encounter a person. Therefore, every observer and photographer must be very disciplined, neither to himself nor to others.
The conditions for photography are rarely ideal. Bears appear around the lakes almost exclusively at dusk. If you add an overcast sky and steady rain to twilight, you really don’t get any light. Therefore, perhaps all images had to be exposed at high ISO values and for relatively short times. Photos of wet, rain-soaked bears would certainly be interesting. The problem was that even bears don’t want to walk too much in the rain.
The regime of spending the night in the shelters from early afternoon to morning made it possible to photograph other inhabitants of Finnish nature during the day. During the existence of the bear center, most of the local feathered animals got used to the presence of people. Therefore, it was not a big problem to take a picture of the Great tit (Parus major), the Willow tit (Poecile montanus borealis), the Crested tit (Lophophanes cristatus), the Eurasian jay (Garrulus glandarius) or the Great-spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major). The faithful guides of the bears were primarily Hooded crows (Corvus cornix) and their larger cousin the Ravens (Corvus corax). We also observed a typical representative of the Nordic avifauna, the Waxwings (Bombycilla garrulus). But it was not possible to photograph them. Like the Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis). While waiting for the bears in the early evening, the Ural owl (Strix uralensis) also called.
The “monkeys” of the European forests – common squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) – were regular visitors to the area around the Bear Center. It was enough to sprinkle a little oatmeal on a stump and there was no shortage of rusty models. My only dream on the way to Finland was very daring. See the Siberian wolverine (Gulo gulo). It really came true for me in the end. Early one morning, almost in the dark, a young specimen came to look at us for a few seconds. At least I took a documentary photo.
Although bears are not my photographic priority, I have to conclude that the trip was extraordinary. The magic of Nordic nature, endless forests, countless lakes and the immediate proximity of Europe’s biggest beasts. All this together created an unforgettable cocktail of experiences that will not be forgotten. We are already planning another visit in the spring.