About 14 years ago we did a road trip through Norway, Sweden and Finland. We took the highway to Trondheim, then took the scenic road along the coast, all the way up to the North Cape, then visited Santa Claus in Rovaniemi and went back home through Finland.
While in Finland, we discovered that, close to the Russian border, there were still a number of brown bears living in the wild.
As we both love to check out wildlife we decided to book a hide and observe these big teddies in their natural habitat.
Back in those days my weapon of choice was a simple point-and-shoot camera and the pictures we were able to take were merely snapshots to be used as evidence that we saw “a bear”.
Now, armed with some upgraded gear and a lot more knowledge, we wanted to go back to these magnificent animals and try to get some better images.
At around 5pm local time we were debriefed and brought to our first hide in the woods, a short 900 meter walk from the Wild Brown Bear Center. After setting up all the camera gear, arranging food and drinks and preparing for a long and cold night, the waiting began.
At about 11pm, after 5 and a half hours of waiting we saw a young bear appearing. Very carefully and keeping as much cover as possible it came out of the dense woods and ventured in the more open space. There we were able to observe this young bear’s behavior and take some pictures, before it ran off in the woods again.
Excited by this first encounter we peered through the hide’s narrow window, hoping to see other bears.
The night passed by without any further activity but right when we were going to pack up and prepare to leave the hide, we had another visitor. From the far left a wolverine made its appearance and ran all the way around the pond in front of the hide.
The wolverine (Gulo gulo) are the largest land-dwelling species of the family of the otters, martens and ferrets. They are stocky and muscular carnivores with the reputation for ferocity and strength out of proportion to their sizes. They can easily kill prey that is much bigger than themselves.
After the wolverine disappeared again, we waited until 7 o’clock in the morning and then left the hide to go back to the Wild Brown Bear Center for a good day’s sleep.
After too little sleep and after studying the map of the hide locations, we packed our gear and headed out into the woods to install ourselves in our new hide.
The hide we chose for our second night of bear watching was located in the more dense wood, which resulted in even lower light conditions than the previous night, where we were already shooting at ISO 3200, with shutter speeds as low as 1/125th of a second.
Again we had to wait until the sun had set and again around 11pm a bear appeared.
This time an adult female bear was slowly making her way through the trees, heading straight to the hide we were in.
Although this high up north it never really gets dark in summer, we still had to crank up the ISO’s to get usable shutter speeds. ISO 5000 @ f/2,8 gave us 1/400th of a second, barely fast enough to freeze the slow but continously moving female.
A little later the female bear got the company of a huge male, but by then the light was so dim that taking pictures was not happening anymore. None of the cameras’ AF systems were able to focus on the bears and my attempts to manual focus resulted in nothing but blurry images.
The remainder of the night the only activity we saw were some gulls fighting and a woodpecker banging his head in the distance.
At 7 o’clock we packed up and headed back to our base camp.
After talking to the locals and checking the weather reports, we found out that there was a high probability of rain this night.
This would further reduce the amount of light and the chances of making good pictures, should we be lucky enough to see some bears.
With this in mind, we decided to head back to our first location at the pond, hoping the bears would come out of the woods and into the more open space again.
By the time we got to our hide the predicted rain started to fall out of the sky and with the sun setting the available light was reduced to nil.
Continuously checking the surroundings of the hide for any activity, we had to wait until 2:30 in the morning for the first bear to appear. It was the same female we saw yesterday and again she was accompanied by the huge, dark male.
As we had hoped, they came out of the woods and approached the edge of the pond.
Unfortunately the rain and the nightly hour forced us to bump up the ISO’s even more than the night before and we were now shooting at ISO 6400 and underexposing up to 2 stops. Shutter speeds were ranging from 1/50th to 1/125th of a second.
A quick second checking the back of the camera left me worried about how the pictures would turn out, but we decided to keep on shooting and make the best of it.
After about half an hour, the bears disappeared back into the woods and the rest of the night we would be looking at an empty pond and a very dark and wet forest in the background.
By 6 am the rain finally stopped and at 7 we left the hide to go and get some sleep at our base camp.
We hope you enjoyed the story and the pictures and feel free to comment.