It was only a footprint, but it was BIG. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise, and the adrenalin starting to pump. The only animal I knew of that size was bear, and bears certainly lived in the area, though at low density and rarely seen.
A second look told me the prints were not that fresh – maybe during the night, or even yesterday. The bear probably was NOT still close by. But we couldn’t help looking around, just in case. And talking loudly – bears usually avoid humans, so best to let them know you are around.
Bob tried to convince me that it was some human pulling a joke, but I think he was actually quite worried about it. Was it coincidence that, while trying to photograph the footprint, I managed to knock the tripod over and damage the camera – beyond repair as it turned out.
We were hiking along a public trail through the Urho Kekkonen in the Saariselka Wilderness area of Finland – a few kilometres from the visitor centre at Tankavaara. The same few kilometres from the road where we were expecting to get the bus back to Saariselka. We arrived back at the bus stop with 45 minutes to spare.
We certainly felt vulnerable – out in the open on foot. I had previously met black bears in America, but then I had been on horseback. A horse can outrun a bear on flat ground, a human can’t outrun a bear on any terrain – the bear has four legs and a low centre of gravity.
But it would be nice to see a bear properly – the bear in the wild, the humans in a relaxed/safe situation. It had taken years to see just the footprint, so what is the best way to see the actual bear?
The most obvious answer is to join a bear-watching holiday. These come in several sizes. Note that I have no connection with any of these places/companies. This is just a round-up of bear-watching opportunities advertised on the internet.
You’ll learn about bears and their environment from people studying them, and also contribute to conservation in that country. Greece, Romania, Bulgaria and Finland are good destinations, and Responsible Travel a good company to use. There is a lot of information about watching bears on their website.
Romania – volunteering at a bear sanctuary (see here for an account of visiting a bear sanctuary in Romania)
Italy – Bear conservation tour
Bear-watching trips –
A specialist trip, (or part of a more general nature trip) usually of a few days, designed to put you (with your camera if desired) in a hide for one or more nights in the expectation of seeing a bear at dawn or dusk. Usually, you are taken by vehicle to within a short distance of the hide, then on foot for the last fifteen minutes or so. For overnight stays, the hide will have bunk beds, basic toilet facilities, and perhaps a means of heating food (but not proper cooking facilities). In the morning, or at a pre-arranged time, you are collected, walk back to the vehicle, and driven to your accommodation, or the nearest town, etc. While nothing is guaranteed, a few nights in a hide is probably the best opportunity to see a bear, or two or three, plus some other passing wildlife.
Downloadable leaflet – How to behave in bear country
Martinselkonen Nature Reserve, located in Eastern Finland, is one of the best places in Europe to photograph brown bears. This tranquil wilderness location is highly recommended – on occasion up to 20 bears and eight cubs have been seen in a single night! And there is plenty of other wildlife to be seen. The location is popular with holiday companies and is included in many of the following tours.
Bear Centre – 29 hides for watching and photography – April – September
Brown bears near Kuusamo – May – October – further north than the centres listed above.
Bears and other mammals – suggestions from Visit Finland
Finland guided tours
Bears, wolves and Wolverines – April – August, self-drive trip – On this unique wildlife adventure in the boreal forest of Finland you self-drive between lodges, allowing you to explore the wildlife of the taiga at your own pace. We have selected three lodges with a network of outstanding hides from which to watch and photograph such iconic inhabitants of the far north as brown bear, wolf, wolverine and white-tailed eagle. Throughout spring and summer these overnight hides offer mammal-watching which is unrivalled in northern Europe.
Wildlife Worldwide holidays will also organise a bespoke tour, and many other companies provide something similar, perhaps especially for photographers.
Just brown bears – summer – a long weekend Brown Bear-watching holiday amongst the fine taiga forests that straddle Finland’s border with Russia.
Brown bear explorer June & July – Long evenings and early dawns allow incomparable opportunities to watch and photograph the wildlife of the forest on this 8-day tour in Finland. Staying at purpose built hides, night vigils with a naturalist guide reward you with close-ups of brown bears, wolverines and occasionally wolves.
Brown bears in Finland – May-August – An ideal short-haul break to a wonderful location for sighting brown bears in the Finnish wilderness.
Brown bear and elk adventure – May – September
Bear photography – June – Join wildlife photographer Tom Mason on a midsummer trip to photograph brown bears and wolverines, with four nights in specialist hides in the taiga forest of Finland.
Bear watching in Sweden – A 4-day holiday to an idyllic, rolling land of forests and lakes where we will look for Brown Bears from a luxurious purpose-built hide, and enjoy the natural history, beauty and extraordinary tranquillity of a magical place just five hours away
Bulgaria – Bears and wolves
Romania – Bear-watching and Transylvanian castles – May – September
Brown bear tracking in the northern Pindos – May – October – Track wild bears in a pristine mountainous corner of Greece: Northern Pindos. Back to nature with the friendly guides of wildlife charity CALLISTO to hear about bear research methods, walk in the wilderness, and witness traces of wild bears. Note – this is basically the same as the bear conservation tour listed under eco-volunteering, but with a different company.
Watching bears in northern Spain
A year in the life of a bear
March-April: bears emerge from hibernation, including cubs taking their first look at the outside world. All they want to do in spring is eat, to rebuild the reserves lost through the long winter sleep.
May to July: mating season, when males persistently follow females everywhere.
August-October: it is eating season again, as bears fatten up in preparation for hibernation.
More information about bears on the Euronatur website
More mammal-watching ideas
Watching Wolves in Europe
A selection of organised trips (eco-volunteering, guided vacations and single day/night opportunities) for watching wolves in Europe.
The naturalist in France in winter
France isn’t an obvious place for nature-watching in winter, but there are plenty of birds, and even some mammals to see. Here are some suggestions of where to find them.
Wildlife under the Matterhorn
How to enjoy the natural world in the shadow of the Matterhorn – where to go, and what you might see.
9 thoughts on “Bear-watching”
Years ago I would head to the mountains with my then-boyfriend. We would often see bears. There was a mama who would come around with her cubs. We knew it was the same bear because she had a bad foot. No matter how often we would see her and her babies, it never got old.
Thank you for reading and commenting. I spent several summers in the Allegheny mountains in the 1970s, and would hear people (older men mostly) talking about their exploits with bears and bear hunting. But when I asked about how how to go about seeing a bear, they all shut up. No-one would help me – just told me to steer clear of the critters. The two (black) bear encounters I had were when riding a sensible horse, and I was able to enjoy the second sighting (the first one was when I was guiding a group of novice teenage riders, so their safety was paramount). European brown bears are the same species as your grizzly bears.
Bears aren’t something we are familiar with, although I have seen many photos and videos. I never knew there were so many places you could go bear watching!
Thanks for reading and commenting. Encountering bears in the wild in Europe is much more difficult than encountering lions in Africa even in places where they are known to be. Providing the means for people to watch them seems to be a recent phenomenon – I didn’t find all this information when I first wrote the article some years ago.
I would actually love to go on a bear-watching tour. Never thought of it before, but you got me inspired 🙂
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It seems there are few opportunities to watch brown bears in Norway, as there are only about 100-125 of them left now. You would have a better chance in Sweden, but Finland certainly seems to be the place to go. I hope you manage it one day.
I was unaware of bears being in Europe. This would be a great experience to do a bear watching tour.
I would also be nervous if I saw a bear footprint – a bit like seeing lion spoor in Africa when you’re on foot! It must be an amazing experience to see bears in the wild, at a safe distance of course.
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The most wrrying one I had in Africa was being in a rhino reserve car park and the car not starting. Not a rhino in sight, but still scary. And it was muggins here who got out and pushed – though to be fair, that was probably more effective than me being in the driver’s seat with my other half doing the pushing;)