Bear-watching

Bear necessities

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.

Eco-volunteering –

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)

Greece – 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

Finland

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.

Sweden

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

South-eastern Europe

BulgariaBears and wolves

RomaniaBear-watching and Transylvanian castles – May – September

SloveniaHiking & bear-watching. Two perfect days to dive into the area of Kočevsko forest. Spend time in nature in search of wildlife and enjoy local delicacies. May – October

Slovenia –

Greece

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.

Spain

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

Finland: Hiidenportti National Park

According to legend, Hiisi was a devil giant living on Vuokatinvaara Hill. He hated the sound of the church bells ringing (when Christianity was first brought to Finland), and threw large rocks at the church. When this didn’t stop the noise (or the church) he gathered his livestock – a pack of wolves, bears, wolverines and lynx – and moved to the backwoods through the gorge of Hiidenportii (the Giant’s Gate). 

You can still walk through the gorge today, and gaze down on the dark, round, mossy ponds at the bottom of the gorge that are said to be Hiisi’s eyes.

Location: Hiidenportti National Park is located in the southeast corner of the municipality of Sotkamo, on the boundaries of the municipalities of Kuhmo and Valtimo.

Geologically, the gorge is a massive rupture valley, formed by the folding of the earth’s crust, and later moulded by the ice ages. It is 1km long, and has vertical walls up to 20m high.

The national park was established in 1982 to preserve the region’s wilderness. The 45 sq km encompasses a mosaic of mires and dry forests. No logging has taken place since the early 20th century, and much of the woodland is in a near natural state.

The Porttijoki (joki = river) alternates riffles and still, dark ponds. It’s fed by a system of rivulets from boggy ground and mires. The whole national park is an important wetland, though the open waters can appear dark and barren as they do not support much vegetation.

Tufted Loosestrife Lysimachia thyrsiflora and Common Reed Phragmites australis can be found on the shores, while ponds surrounded by pine mires and open bogs may support White Water Lilies Nymphaéa cándida and Spatterdocks or yellow water lilies Nuphar lutea. The natural fish population of Hiidenportti National Park include Perch Perca fluviatilis, Pike Esox lucius and Roach Rutilus rutilus.

A Mosaic of Mires

The mires in Hiidenportti National Park are in their natural-state, forming wet corridors winding through ravines and valleys.

Dwarf-shrub pine bog is the most common mire type, dominated by pines and Marsh tea Ledum palustre. These pine bogs often surround more open boggy areas which form long strips in the middle of forests. The largest are Kortesuo Mire and Urposuo Mire.

Spruce mires are usually located by streams and in narrow steep-sided ravines and are a mix of myrtillus spruce mire, cloudberry dominated spruce mire and wood horsetail spruce mire. They can be quite lush on slopes with springs, and on the shores of streams. Downy Birch Betula pubescens, Grey Alder Alnus incana, Goat Willow Salix caprea, and ferns are found here.

Although the Hiidenportti mires are quite barren and the vegetation is sparse, there are a few surprising rich spots in the middle of mires, spring areas, seepage areas, and fens. Demanding plants which grow at these lush spots are Early Marsh-orchid Dactylorhiza incarnata, Broad-leaved Bog-cotton Eriophorum latifolium and Common Twayblade Listera ovata.

Cottongrass growing on a mire
Cottongrass

Old-growth Spruce Forests and Hilltop Pine Forests

Forests cover two-thirds of the national park. In the past, the forests were used for slash-and-burn agriculture and for tar burning. The last logging was in Portinsalo at the beginning of the 20th century, so today the forests are approximately 100 to 150 years old. They are practically all spruce and pine forests in their natural-state, and are in sharp contrast to the commercial forests surrounding the area.

Moist pine forests cover the tops of fells, while spruce predominates on the slopes by spruce. The marked trail from Urpovaara Hill to Hiidenportti Gorge takes you through the most splendid of these dark forests, and in the midst of the large spruce trees there are some grand aspens.

Generally, the forests are not herb-rich, except for one area with plants such as Bearded Couch Elymus caninus, Mezereum Daphne mezereumRosa majalis and the Baneberry Actaea spicata.

Inhabitants of Old-growth Forests

The backwoods of Hiidenportti National Park are quiet and undisturbed. Bear, wolverine, pine marten and lynx are permanent inhabitants. Wolves visit occasionally. Beavers make their homes in the streams, and there is a large Eurasian elk (moose) population.

Tradition – Kovasinvaara Hill

The most valuable traditional landscapes are on the grounds of a former wilderness croft on the slope of Kovasinvaara Hill. On some parts of the slopes birch trees grow – a reminder of slash-and-burn agriculture. These birch forests are much like herb-rich forests: lush and varied. However, spruce forest is starting to invade. The area is actively managed by the use of grazing animals, and a small area has been subjected to recent slash and burn (including the planting of traditional crops) to maintain the more open habitat here.

Field Scabious is a perennial of calcaereous and neutral grassland, found in rough pasture, open hedgerows and on roadside verges, waste ground and railway embankments.

There are many interesting plants at Kovasinvaara Hill, including Alpine Bistort Polygonum viviparum, Field Scabius Knautia arvensis (above) and Moonwort Botrychium lunaria, as well as the regionally near threatened Brown Knapweed Centaurea jacea and Leathery Grape Fern Botrychium multifidum. The threatened Clustered Bellflower Campanula glomerata and Creeping Bellflower Campanula rapunculoides can also be found.

In addition to dry and wet meadows Kovasinvaara also has large areas where raspberries and Fireweed Epilobium angustifolium grow amongst Couch grass Agropyrum repens and Tufted Hairgrass Deschampsia cespitosa.

Birds of the National Park

The majority of bird species in the Hiidenportti National Park are indigenous to the east and north. The most common in summer are Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs, Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus, Siskin Carduelis spinus, Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata and Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis. The Wren Troglodytes troglodytes is the only southern species – its clear song can be heard in the lush hillside forests of Porttijokilaakso River Valley.

Many species require old-growth forests in order to survive. These include Goldcrest Regulus regulus and Wood Warbler Phylloscopus sibilatrix, Goshawk Accipiter gentilis, Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus and Siberian Jay Perisoreus infaustus; this last species is very curious and will watch humans from tree tops – often coming in for a closer look. The most common game birds are the Western Capercaillie Tetrao urogallus and the Hazel Grouse Bonasa bonasia.

Great grey owl, Strix nebulosus, in northern conifer forest, where it is well camouflaged. One of the three largest owls in the world, it is found across the boreal forest zone of the northern hemisphere.

The Great Grey Owl Strix nebulosa is the emblem of the park.  It is common and can be seen especially in years when there are many small rodents such as voles around.

The mires do not attract many species, but the wood sandpiper Tringa glareola is the National Park’s most typical wader.

Butterflies, Moths and Beetles

A lack of intensive farming has left Hiidenportti National Park and its surrounding areas ideal for invertebrates. Species are typically those of middle boreal coniferous zone and also from further south.

Burnished Brass moth

A study done in 1992 found 164 species of large moths and butterflies, and 186 species of micro-moths in Hiidenportti National Park. Among these were Swallowtail Papilio machaon, Burnished Brass Diachrysia chrysitis (above), Eurasian Emperor Moth Saturnia pavonia and the threatened Xestia sincera.

Dead wood: The short summer and cool temperatures mean that dead wood rots slowly – providing cracks and crevices for invertebrates.

Finland: Hildenportti resources

The canyons of Hiidenportti are an impressive sight. Along the path leading to the main gorge you can experience shady spruce forest, a flowery meadow and woodland that used to be cleared periodically by slash-and-burn farmers. The park has many fascinating places and stories for anyone interested in cultural history to discover. 

Hiidenportti Narional Park Website – The canyons of Hiidenportti are an impressive sight. Along the path leading to the main gorge you can experience shady spruce forest, a flowery meadow and woodland that used to be cleared periodically by slash-and-burn farmers. The park has many fascinating places and stories for anyone interested in cultural history to discover.

Getting there – Hiidenportti National Park is located in the southeast corner of the municipality of Sotkamo, on the boundaries of the municipalities of Kuhmo and Valtimo.

Activities to enjoy – Trekking, admiring the sights and the views, photographing the scenery

Hiking – 30km of trails – For hikers and trekkers looking for peace and quiet. Also well-suited to inexperienced hikers, groups of students and other group trips. Not suitable for the disabled. 

Rules for visitors – the DOs and DON’Ts for visitors to the park

Travelling in Finland – advice for those unfamiliar with the country

Videos

Three days hiking in the Hiidenportti NP – with English subtitles

Books

Useful guide to sites south of the Arctic Circle, but sadly not to Hiidenportti

Lluontoportti – NatureGate

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