We’d been in the hide for around five hours, slowly watching the summer evening envelope the view before us: a still lake fringed by forest.
The lake had begun to steam as the sun began to set – the hot day cooling – and mayflies flickered in the golden brilliance.
“Bear!” Chris whispered.
I couldn’t see it a first, then a snout peeked from behind a tree, followed by the furry bulk of a bear as it emerged from the forest to the edge of the small lake.
It took a moment to find the bear through the lens on my camera, I’m not used to using a longer lens. I pressed the shutter button. The bear was ambling hesitantly towards the hide; it edged around the lake before reaching a stop and looking straight at us. I fired the shutter again.
All of a sudden the bear was alert, spooked. It turned and headed back towards the forest. I realised I’d been holding my breath!
The bear meandered around the curve of the lake and came to a stop, snuffling at the water’s edge.
The sun had just dipped behind the forest leaving a golden glow filtering through the trees and the night had taken on an ethereal light. A mist danced over the still lake.
Sniffing the air, the bear was reflected in the watery mirror; I couldn’t take my eyes off the magical scene.
A second later the bear vanished back into the forest yet the magical moment hung there for a second: did that really happen?
We were in a tiny wooden hide deep in the wilderness – just a few kilometres from the border with Russia – at Wild Brown Bear Centre, a company in Kuhmo, eastern Finland, specialising in wildlife photography of wild bears and other wild animals.
After the bear had vanished back into the forest nothing much happened for the rest of the evening except a brief appearance by a red fox. I curled up in the lower bunk of the hide and read a book for a while before drifting off into a light sleep.
An hour after midnight Chris woke me: “There’s another bear!”
I crawled sleepily out of the sleeping bag and perched onto the chair, squinting into the twilight, my eyes adjusting to the semi-darkness.
The bear was walking towards us, and he was big!
He strolled casually past the hide, so close we could hear him snuffle.
I remembered my camera was still set up and I fired a few sleepy shots. The settings were all wrong and the photographs were woefully underexposed. It didn’t matter: I won’t be forgetting this moment for a long time.
To be so near to a wild brown bear was thrilling: just a thin plywood wall stood between us and this majestic carnivore yet I felt perfectly safe.
I’m sure those bears wandered through my dreams that night, I slipped back into bed and the next thing I knew it was morning. Sunlight was streaming into the hide and the view beyond the window had transformed with the dawn.
It had been an unforgettable night, woven with moments so magical that they seemed improbable in the harsh light of day.
The moments were fleeting yet enchanted: a fantastic story rather than a wildlife spectacle.
A few days later, I was walking through the forest in a Patvinsuo national park late in the evening, the low sun burned through the boughs as I gathered blueberries. I wasn’t alone in these forests, somewhere deep in its heart were bears, I’d now seen them with my own eyes!
As well as the wildlife observation hides, The Wild Brown Bear Centre has accommodation, however we stayed in our camper on site for a small fee instead and had access to showers and sauna.
The bears are completely wild, they are encouraged to wander into the vicinity of the hides with tiny amounts of food left in photogenically strategic places.
As well as photographing bears, there is also the chance of seeing wolverine, wolves, and lynx.
We visited Wild Brown Bear as independent travellers, through our own choice and paid for the experience with our own money as part of an amazing two month road trip around Finland over the summer of 2016.
This story was originally posted on my own blog www.vagabondbaker.com, I have re-edited some of the text for this post.
Wild Brown Bear Oy: www.wildbrownbear.fi