A far too early start in the morning. My alarm went off at 4am, only a few hours after I’d finally managed to fall asleep in my overly warm hotel room. As the flight to Finland was due to depart from Heathrow at 7.30am, I’d driven down the night before to stay at an airport hotel.
I took a taxi to Terminal 3 and arrived by 5.30am. There I met two of the people who were also booked on to the trip. We worked out how to use the self-service check-ins and bag drops, then made our way through security and in search of some much needed coffee.
The flight to Helsinki was around 2 ½ hours. We then spent over three hours at the airport before boarding a much smaller plane to Kajaani. I had a window seat, and enjoyed the views over lakes and forests.
We were met at the small airport by our local guide. The luggage for one of our group hadn’t come with us, and she filled out forms in hope.
Our guide drove us in a minivan to the Martinselkosen Wilds Centre. The drive took just over two hours, along very straight roads with plenty of views of trees and lakes. We also saw the occasional reindeer, ears tagged with the details of the owner.
The Centre is set in woods near the Russian border. My room is a twin, basic but very clean. Dinner was salad, chicken and rice, and some strawberry jam thing for dessert. We were all terribly excited to see a red squirrel at the bird feeder. We were less enamored of the mosquitoes buzzing around.
An early night. It was a long day!
The bed was very comfortable, and I pretty much slept from 10.30pm to 7am, when my alarm went off. Mind you, Finland is two hours ahead of the UK, so I was in need of coffee by the time I went to breakfast.
After breakfast, we set off for a three hour drive in the area. We saw more domesticated reindeer on the way to a lake which featured a bird tower. A bird’s nest had been built near the top of the stairs, and obviously abandoned when people started to visit.
We saw plenty of black-headed gulls and two sea eagles. Our next stop was at a large lake, where we saw a few more reindeer and wagtails. Mosquitoes accompanied us everywhere. When we stopped in the woods for a toilet break, the chap in the group said to us women, ‘I hope you’ve put insect repellent on your bums and legs!’ I nearly asked him if he’d done the same for the bit of anatomy he’d be exposing to the world, but decided to bite back my words.
At noon we returned to our accommodation for coffee. I sat by the bird feeder for awhile, doing my best to dodge mosquitoes whilst photographing the bullfinches and siskins. The greater spotted woodpecker also made an appearance.
Our combined lunch/evening meal was at 3pm. An hour later, we boarded the minivan and were taken down a bumpy road to a trail head. A stiff 1.5 kilometre walk later (although I swear it was longer than that) brought us to the bear hides. I had paid extra for a single person hide overlooking the swamp. The guide placed me inside, then opened up the coverings which protect the lens holes when the hide is not in use.
The small hide had a seating area/bed down one wall, a chair, and a bucket toilet. I fixed my tripod head onto a stand by one camera slot, and settled in.
A number of bears were already in the area, attracted by the food put down by the site owners. For the rest of the evening I alternated between photographing bears, killing mosquitoes, and plotting out the rest of my latest novel. I obtained some good shots of two bears having a tussle, and two younger bears wrestling.
The light dimmed around 10pm and only solitary bears were roaming across. I decided I’d try to sleep. The hide offered two sleeping bags. I used one as a pillow, the other as a blanket. The bed was nothing more than a sponge mattress on hard board, so not entirely comfortable.
I managed some fitful sleep before rising at 6am. The guide returned at 7am. The mosquitoes were out in force. We had a slower walk back to our vehicles, and I had time for a shower before breakfast.
Although I’d paid for a night in another one person hide, this one near the forest, I decided to forgo it. The rest of the group were going to a hide for just the evening, before returning to the main building after 11pm. I decided that I needed a good night’s sleep, so I arranged to go to the evening hide with the rest of the group.
At 11am, we boarded the mini van and were taken to a nearby lake. The guides attached portable battery powered motors to two small boats, and we split ourselves between them. The motor in one boat promptly failed. The guide in ours attached a rope to the other boat, and we pulled it behind ours as we set off across the lake.
It was very overcast. Two people were handed fishing rods, but all they caught were weeds. We saw a sandpipers and a cuckoo before pulling up at some cottages at the Finland/Russia border. A large sign warned us not to cross over into Russia, and trees were daubed with yellow paint to mark the border.
We had coffee and cakes before visiting the compost toilet. Then back to the start, enjoying the sound of waxwings and spotting a couple of cranes.
Lunch again at 3pm. At 5pm we headed off for the hide. This was down a shorter walk, with tricky planks to walk on to take us across the boggiest bits. The hide was set up for observers, as the windows were at eye level from the seats. This meant the opening for cameras was lower down, which meant a rather uncomfortable crouch in order to take photos.
A number of bears were already eating in the area. The activity was less interesting than the night before. Bears wandered in, ate, left. The younger ones, with their stippled fur, were more photogenic than the older, rather scruffy ones. They all showed signs that the mosquitoes were bothering them, and I felt a deep sympathy. I had a number of bites on my scalp and ankles.
We were collected at 10pm and taken back to the accommodation. Several of us bought drinks, and sat up for awhile to talk. Then off to bed.
Breakfast at 8am, then at 10am the guide took me on a two hour drive to the site of the second part of my stay. The Boreal Wildlife Centre is more basic, but offers a much better opportunity to see wolves and wolverines.
We went past mile after mile of forest and lakes. My guide explained that many people are abandoning the countryside to find work in the cities. So many of the houses we saw were no longer occupied.
We arrived at the Centre just after noon. I had a sandwich and then a nap in my room. At 3pm was our combination lunch/dinner, some form of stew, and then to the swamp hide. This was a very short walk from where the vans parked. The owners spread the bait. One large bear, who has been named ‘Yogi’, was already waiting.
The swamp hide holds ten bunk beds and ten photo stations. Nine of us were spending the night inside, which was a bit cozy. The loo, although once again a dry compost one, was in a larger area and much easier to use. Two of the women kept talking, although we were warned that wolves and wolverines are timid and will stay away if they hear humans. The women had to be asked several times to keep the chatter down.
Several bears came and went during the evening, along with plenty of seagulls, ravens, and an eagle. We had a glimpse of wolf in the evening. The wolf decided to make his/her main appearance, however, at 2am, which was a rather dark time in the early morning. But quality of photos wasn’t as important as actually having seen a wolf!
We were collected at 7am. After breakfast, I went to bed. Although I’d had some sleep in the surprisingly comfortable bunk bed, I was ready for more. After about four hours, I rose, downloaded photos, and did most of my packing.
Again 3pm meal, and 4pm to the swamp hide. Only five of us inside this time. We saw three bears, and the eagle, but otherwise a much quieter evening. The excitement came around 10pm, when a wolverine put in an appearance. No one managed to obtain any good photos of the fast moving creature, but the appearance was distinctive. The wolverine bounded across the marsh, moving like I’ve seen weasels move, undulating across the grass.
At 11pm I went to bed. More bears appeared, but the light was poor and I have plenty of photos in much better lighting. It was very cold, and I covered myself with two sleeping bags. At least the cold, and the outside wind, kept the mosquitoes away.
We were collected at 7am. I had breakfast and a shower, then packed. At 9am the Centre’s owner took me on a thirty minute drive to a taxi. My bags were transferred, and we started our three hour drive to the airport. This part of Finland seems to be little more than forests and lakes, and I found myself dozing off regularly.
The airport was very small. I checked in, went through security, and boarded the first of my two flights in good time. At Helsinki, I transferred to the flight to London. Then a two drive home for a night in my own bed!
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