Eastern Finland is considered the best bear viewing, and some say best wildlife experience in Europe. A lot of thought has gone into the service that Martinselkonen provides, and it’s paying off now as word spreads about this once little-known enterprise.
Strange though, that as so many photographers are flocking to the Finnish forest, there’s surprisingly little information about the place available online. Ahead of my visit, I struggled to find much advice from previous visitors or photographers. So having now been myself, I figured that I might as well have a stab at filling in some of the blanks about this popular but mysterious European gem, whilst at the same time crow-barring in a few of my favourite shots from my time in the hides…
Sorry to start with a brag, but I should point out that I was only fortunate enough to visit Finland courtesy of Wildlife Worldwide, who sponsored the Marwell Wildlife Photographer Of The Year competition, which I won last autumn, and who donated this amazing prize. So a huge and heartfelt thanks to both Wildlife Worldwide and Marwell Wildlife, without whom I would not have had the opportunity to go. I couldn’t believe my luck when I was offered the chance to go to Finland, having already been aware of the reputation and popularity of the Finnish bear watching tours, but knowing nothing about how to get there myself.
My trip consisted of two parts; first staying at the more popular Martinselkonen, with two nights in the hides, and then moving on to two nights in predator hides at the Boreal Wildlife Centre (BWC), which is run by the same family around 100km further south. The hide times were spread over a week, with other small excursions mixed in on non-hide days.
The bears in Finland are European brown bears. As I understand it, these are essentially the same species (Ursus Arctos) as the grizzlies in North America, but over there they have the large and nutritious salmon boosting their diet significantly, to the extent that they now grow larger than their European cousins. I haven’t fact-checked that, but that’s my understanding.
Bears are hunted in Finland during a strict season which starts in mid August. For this reason, they’re quite wary of people. They were noticeably more shy than the bears I saw in Canada. Their experience with people has led them to become almost nocturnal. During the daytime, they vanish into the forest. So to see them requires the use of an overnight hide. Although I don’t agree with bear hunting myself, it’s a well-managed system. The bear population is still slowly rising, and it does help keep the bears from straying into towns and areas where they come into conflict with humans. Conditions in the hides are obviously not ideal for a luxurious holiday, but the opportunity to see bears trumps the need for my own creature comforts, and a few nights in a cold shed are well worth the reward.
The difficulty (or frustration) I have with hide photography generally, is that it’s tough to get photos that feel like mine. You’re basically being taken to a location, put into a hide, and given subjects to shoot – all of which are the same as everyone else who’s visited that site. So getting something unique is difficult. To some extent, I’d say it’s actually out of your hands. If the bears do something different or interesting, and you’re quick enough to catch it, you could get something rarely seen or photographed. Similarly, if you get some interesting weather, or spectacular light. Otherwise, it’s a case of shooting what’s in front of you, from the angle and height you’re given, and trying to do that in an original and creative way when possible. This is particularly difficult for a first-time visitor, as you feel you have to get some solid results in the bank before gambling on more creative shots. To give Martinselkonen credit, they do move their hides to keep backgrounds fresh, and to make the most of seasonal features, such as flowering cotton grass. That’s a really positive and valuable initiative. However, I’ve seen plenty of bear photos in the last few years, and it’s quite easy to identify the Finnish ones as being from the same few locations, which takes the edge off the impact for me. Some good photos, but they do all look pretty much the same, based on the size & shape of the bear, and the type of surrounding woodland.
Originality aside, the potential for getting great photos on a first visit is still significant. If you plan beforehand, arrive with ideas in mind, and are flexible to work with whatever lighting and activity you get, you can still get great photos.
The key to the success of Martinselkonen is its location right next to the Russian border. On the other side of the border is a vast forest, free of people and roads for over a hundred miles. So the bears have the Russian forest all to themselves, with no fear of hunters. They only need stray a mile or so over the border to reach the baited grounds of Martinselkonen. 10 days before the Finnish hunting season starts, the bear viewing season ends, and food is no longer left out for them. They soon get the message, and return to Russia until the spring.
Martinselkonen offers a large hide for perhaps a dozen people, overlooking an opening in the woods, which is laced with salmon and carrion. This is the main feeding site. This offers the best views (most bears, cubs, interaction), but the worst background for photography. This is aimed mainly at wildlife watching, more than photography. It’s heated, there’s a composting toilet, and there are plenty of comfy beds. I’d like to try it sometime though, as it has the best opportunity to photograph cubs up trees.
They also offer ‘professional’ hides, which are smaller (2-person), and better suited to photography. For these hides, you have a choice of locations…
The woodland pro hides are closest to the main feeding site, and see more activity than the others. But the light can be lost earlier, due to the trees.
The swamp hides overlook an open area of marshland, are slightly further from the main food supply (so see slightly fewer bears), but affords great views/visibility. This is the original photography site, the one that made their name, and the one that most of the top photographers prioritise.
The third option is the pond hides, which overlook… a pond. It’s furthest from the main food site, sees fewest bears, but has the greatest potential for playing with golden sunrise/sunset light, misty water, or mirror-like reflections. It’s the most high-risk (relying on good light + fewest bears), but potentially the greatest reward.
Having only two nights in the Martinselkonen hides, I chose to play the percentages, and miss out on the pond hide. Their reputation was built on the success of the swamp hides, and I like to see bears in the woods – they are a forest creature, after all. So swamp and forest it was for me. As it happened, I was happy with my choice (for once). The weather was cloudy all week, and I would never have had the light required to make the most of the pond hide. Visiting in mid-June, the sun only set for a couple of hours, so it didn’t get truly dark. But on most nights, it was too dark to shoot between around 11:30-02:00. Without the cloud, I suspect that would have been a shorter time. I do lament the lack of good light I got, as it really can make all the difference. But I still got some nice shots, so I shouldn’t complain. After all, there has to be a motivation to go back and try again.
A NIGHT IN THE SWAMP
My night in the swamp hide was great fun. From the little I was able to find online, it seemed like longer focal lengths (300-600mm) were the preferred choice for this hide, so I started with a 1.4x teleconverter on my 300mm lens. In actual fact, it wasn’t long before I decided that was too much, and reverted to just 300mm. I felt that was ideal for the shots I wanted to get, and the extra stop of light helped enormously with focussing speed / accuracy and shutter speed, in the dim evening light. So I was happiest with 300mm f/2.8, and a 70-200mm f/2.8 on standby. A couple of other photographers there preferred 600mm, so I guess it’s down to personal taste really. I would suggest though, that if your choice is extra length or extra stops of light, I’d prioritise the f-stop, as you’ll be shooting in some low light through the night.
Once dropped off at the swamp hide, the first bear turned up before I even had my camera out of the bag! I saw around a dozen individual bears on my night in the swamp, but it gets hard to keep track of multiple visitors. At times there were 4-5 bears in view. It was busy from 5pm-8pm, then less so, but still activity from 8pm-11pm. After that the light faded significantly, and so did the bear activity. I slept from midnight to 3am (woken briefly by the surreal sound of a bear splashing through the swamp beside me), but didn’t see much from 3am until I was picked up from the hide by our guide at 7am.
The hide experience itself wasn’t as bad as I was expecting, and the thrill of seeing bears so close up was a distraction from the very basic conditions. I was fortunate to have a two-man hide to myself, which probably helped. The hide had holes for the camera lens at each end, and 3-4 along the front, all at around a metre or so off the ground for a comfortable sitting height. This was a frustration though, as I really would have preferred to shoot from ground level.
I could see the bears as they emerged from the woods perhaps 100 meters away, and they came up to around 5 metres from the hide.
We had some heavy rain that night, and the swamp really lived up to its name.
A NIGHT IN THE WOODS
Next time out, I was in the forest, and had been allocated the so-called ‘suicide hide’. I’d heard reference to this somewhere online before I went, without really knowing what it was, so I was slightly apprehensive. Of course our jovial guide joked about the dubious nature of the hide beforehand, but when we got there it was really hardly any different from the other hides. It just had an opening at ground level, which is just what I wanted! In fact, it was brilliant. Why they haven’t added ground-level shooting space to all the hides is a mystery, but until they do, I will always want this one.
They will come within a metre of that ground-level window, but they’re gentle giants, and they don’t want to pull you out of the hide and eat you, so there’s really nothing to worry about. The more time you spend with bears, the more you realise that they have their own agenda, society, and concerns, and they don’t really have any interest in you.
Ok, so the bear-claw marks on the inside wall were disconcerting…
With no information about this mysterious special hide before I visited (other than a vague sense of foreboding), and no idea I’d be in it, I didn’t pack my wide-angle lens. Of course I was kicking myself, but I couldn’t bring everything, so that one goes down as something of a regret. To make the best of it, you’d want something in the 20-50mm range. But the widest I had with me was 70mm, so I had to do my best with that. Still an unusually wide-angle for bear photography, and when this large male came close to investigate, I got a few shots to be proud of…
Anyway, I loved this hide. Seeing and photographing bears in a woodland setting is amazing, and I hardly slept a wink that night. I would also wager that I’m the only person to have used this ‘professional’ hide wearing Jungle Book themed Baloo The Bear socks, such was my childish excitement.
As before, activity peaked early on, and continued until around midnight. I was just about to get some sleep when a mum and two cubs turned up. As with the swamp hide, I had around (a vague guess) 20 or so bear encounters, with many of them repeat visitors.
In the morning, we had some amazing light, but alas, no bears. Not seeing any bears in this light was probably the greatest frustration of my trip.
It’s a shame I couldn’t try the pond hide too, but I might do if I ever manage to get back there. It’s hard to pick a favourite between the forest and the marsh. The marsh is easier to get photos, as the view is greater, and it’s easier to get a clean background. But the forest is a much nicer environment in my opinion, and if you do manage to get a bear in a nice light in the woods, then that’s really a much more satisfying result than one on the marsh – I think. But it is subjective. Hopefully, from the information here, you’ll be able to make the decision to match your own preferences and priorities.
THE BOREAL WILDLIFE CENTRE
Well, after the night in the woods, we were taken to the Boreal Wildlife Centre, a little further south of Martinselkonen, near the town of Khumo. BWC was a similar setup to Martinselkonen, but newer, and so less developed. It felt very much a younger brother of Martinselkonen, but one that I’m sure will continue to grow. The advantage of BWC, and their location is that it’s in a border zone. This is an area of land part of Finland, but on the Russian border, with movements strictly controlled (we saw Finnish border guards on 2 of our 3 days, and they were checking papers, names, etc on one of those occasions). Hunting is prohibited here, and thus their viewing season runs through until the bears hibernate in the autumn. Apparently, once hunting season arrives, the number of bears in this area rises significantly. I guess that like they learn what time of day food is left out at Martinselkonen and BWC, they also learn when it’s wise to head to this protected border zone.
We visited in mid-June, two months before hunting season, and bear numbers were low compared to Martinselkonen, but still well worth going to see. We saw only 4 individual bears there each night, but they did have the place to themselves, so they stayed around for longer.
The BWC hides overlook another swamp/marsh area, which is nice and open. If the sun had managed to find a gap in the cloud cover, we’d have been treated to a perfect side-lighting or back-lighting, depending on which hide you’re in. The location they have is great, and I liked some of the angles available to see the bears in either the marsh or the trees and bushes. The hides are the same as at Martinselkonen (one large, 3 small), so I didn’t take a photo, but this is the view out the front of one of them.
A big draw of BWC is the opportunity to see two of Finland’s other large carnivores: Wolves and wolverines. It must be said that I didn’t see either of them, but a wolverine was seen quite close up the night before we got there, and the other members of my group did see a pair of wolves on our last night in the hides – as I slept in the adjacent hide! A sad miss for me, but ho-hum. We did get some really great views of white-tailed sea eagles though. I’ve never seen one before, so that was great. They were perched high in the tallest tree beside the marsh, and would occasionally swoop down, pteranodon-style, and collect some of the salmon intended for the bears. In truth, I needed a longer lens than 300mm for the sea eagles, but my priorities were the bears, so I’ve had to crop the sea eagle photos to get much from them.
BWC has a bit of a problem with seagulls. They’ve cottoned on to the fact that the bears will leave bits of salmon, and there were perhaps 50-100 of them dominating the marshland all evening. They frighten the younger bears, and they ruin photos. There were plenty of times when I was unable to get a photo without gulls in the shot. I’m not sure what the solution is there, but it was an annoyance. Martinselkonen had some gulls around too, but not to the same extent.
I also spent some time photographing the ravens that frequent the marsh, and managed to find a simple composition that I really like…
At both sites, the large hide is intended more for casual viewing, and you have a guide in with you to help spot wildlife, and identify individual characters. The guides were all really friendly and helpful. All interesting characters too.
All of the ‘pro’ hides have windows on 3 sides, so there’s only one direction you can’t shoot in. The large group hides only have windows at the front. In all the hides, there are large holes for lenses, each with a material cover to fill the gap between the window frame and the lens. These are large enough for any lens you could wish to use, including space to pan from side to side. Above the lens windows, there’s a small row of (dark-tinted) glass windows, so you can see out when not looking through the viewfinder. Under the lens windows is a shelf to rest the camera & lens on. To support the lens there are beanbags provided, or heavyweight stands for tripod heads. I had two lenses with me, so brought a tripod head for the largest one, and used a beanbag for the smaller one. The tripod supports (large round weight with a protruding screw-thread), work really well though, and saves needing to pack a tripod. With a large lens, this is certainly the smoothest support. Bean bags give you a little more flexibility with smaller lenses.
All of the hides have a lock on the inside, and I felt totally safe the whole time.
Both sites also shared the same daily schedules and food provisions:
Breakfast is served at 8am – (porridge, bread, salad, fruit juice).
Coffee and cake at midday.
Lunch at 3pm – hot meal, mostly typical Finnish food. We had meatballs and mash, a shepherd’s pie type affair, chicken & pasta bake, schnitzel, salmon (better than any salmon I’ve had back home!). Ooh, and I almost forgot the handmade blueberry cheesecake at BWC, made with blueberries freshly picked from the surrounding forest. Yes, I like my desserts.
At 4pm, you’re taken to the hide. At Martinselkonen, this involves a 20 minute drive, and a 20 minute walk. At BWC it’s just a 5 minute drive, and 30 second walk.
Then in the hide, you’re provided with sandwiches, biscuits, and a hot drink. And on the subject of hot drinks, I was asked on the first day if I fancied a hot drink. I said no thanks, as I don’t drink tea or coffee. I guess he pegged me for the man-child I am, as he suggested hot chocolate. Great I thought, I’ll go for that. After this, I found hot chocolate in my picnic every evening in the hide, without ever having to be asked again. To my surprise, even after we moved on to BWC, hot chocolate was produced for me. “I asked what you were each drinking when I picked you up” claimed BWC’s Yani. I include this slightly off-the-point aside really just to illustrate the extent to which these operations are run so slickly.
Anyway, so, you stay in the hide until 7am, and then it’s back for breakfast at 8am.
It runs like clockwork, and everything is seemingly always on time. As a man of routines and schedules myself, I really admired this simple reliability.
The accommodation was clean and comfortable. Martinselkonen had a handy drying room for clothes, and a good wi-fi signal across the two buildings. Boreal Wildlife Centre doesn’t have wi-fi, as there’s no internet connection in the remote area. We still had a mobile phone signal there though (but not usable speeds for data).
During the day, you can go for walks, see the forest and lakes, try to photograph the birds and squirrels visiting the feeders, or try to catch up on sleep. I was largely prioritising the latter, taking frequent naps to make up for the nightly photography, but it would be a crime not to get out and see the surrounding area too. We had a couple of guided walks on our tour, which was great, as the local guides were a font of knowledge. We were shown a bear’s winter den (not currently in use!), and an active buzzard nest, complete with brooding female.
Ahead of my visit, again with only scant information gleaned from a couple of blogs elsewhere, I was led to believe that Finland would be hot and humid in the summer. I pictured the hides as almost sweat-boxes, with stifling humidity. I thusly packed for weather in the 20-30C range. Indeed, I was told that it was 25C a couple of weeks before I arrived. However, nobody had mentioned that the climate there is in fact as fickle as the Great British Summer. We probably experienced a max temperature of 15C during my week there, going down to 3-4C in the hides some nights. I was very much relying on the thermal sleeping bags provided. So amongst the shorts and t-shirts, do pack a couple of jumpers and warm legs too. Especially if you’re as weedy and prone to the cold as I am.
One aspect that did live up to the billing was the mosquito invasion. In the common room of Martinselkonen, they were selling t-shirts proclaiming them as the “Finnish Air Force”. Rather than take nasty insect repellent spray, I’d packed Avon Skin So Soft, which is a moisturiser famed for its mosquito-repellent qualities. I think I could almost hear them laughing at me as they sniffed it and dived right in for mealtime. Next time I’m taking the strong stuff. They weren’t a problem in the hide, but anytime we were outside, they were an absolute menace. Though, as Yani kindly pointed out, the cloud of mosquitoes were providing easy pickings for the pied wagtails making their nest in the roof of the hide, and their presence is the platform of the local food chain.
Though the experience wasn’t as spectacular as my bear viewing holiday in British Columbia, the photography potential was much greater. I struggled with the harsh daylight, and untidy backgrounds in Canada, but it’s tough to match the thrill of drifting down the river as bears are fishing around you, or hiking through old growth forest knowing that a bear is just downstream of you. Just one request for Martinselkonen and Boreal Wildlife Centre: Please more hides with openings to photograph at ground level.
Martinselkonen is open from April to mid-August. The bear numbers start low, with just the males out first, and increase as spring continues. After the mating season (early June), you start to see mums with cubs, and into July and August it’s a race to put on weight before autumn.
Snow arrives in December, and melts in early May.
Boreal Wildlife Centre is open until October, as the hunting season doesn’t interrupt play there. Numbers are lower there than at Martinselkonen, but increase dramatically over the summer.
I’ve really written an awful lot now, but I want to give as much info as possible, as there was so little around when I looked prior to my trip. So almost as an appendix, here’s a list of all the key species we saw on the trip…
Great Grey Owl – Probably my favourite bird, and absolutely enormous. Didn’t have time to get my camera out, but we saw it fairly close up, perched relatively low down in a tree. He looked us over for around 10 seconds, and then glided off into the woods. Wow.
Hawk owl – Apparently they’re quite numerous.
Common crane – On roadside meadow farmland.
Woodpeckers – At the bird feeders in Martinselkonen, and in the woods.
Red squirrels – At the bird feeders in Martinselkonen, and in the woods.
Woodland birds (bullfinch, siskin) – At the bird feeders in Martinselkonen, and in the woods.
Reindeer – Saw a couple from the car. They’re semi-domesticated, and are easy pickings for the large lynx population.
Ravens – At BWC’s marsh hide. Large, interesting, and characterful birds.
Buzzard – On a nest in the forest, during our guided walk with BWC.
Moose – A brief sighting of this forest royalty, but always a joy.
White tailed sea eagles – Numerous excellent sightings at BWC, and well worth considering in terms of lens choice.
(Wolves) – I slept through the wolf sightings, but the rest of my group saw them at BWC, interacting with a curious juvenile bear.
I don’t think I got any amazing photos, personally, but I’m happy with a few of them given the circumstances. I’ll basically pick holes in any photos I take, and I don’t often come back thinking I’ve done a trip justice, photographically. I guess that the greater potential a trip has for photos, the less likely I am to see myself reaching that potential and getting as good shots as I could have. And the potential here was really incredible. We were unlucky to have no decent light, and that makes all the difference in my eyes. It’s hard to make an interesting shot in such flat light as we had. I also didn’t see much interesting behaviour (bears standing up, interaction, cubs, etc). And not having a wide-angle lens for the woods was a real shame. I’m pleased with 2-3 of the photos I got, and I enjoyed the experience, but I do think that with such great potential, it would have been nice to come back with something a little bit more special.
I’d love to go again, but with so many places in the world to see and limited time available, I don’t know when I’ll get the opportunity. I really hope to get back there for another trip one day though. As you may have gathered, I thoroughly recommend the experience.
Martinselkonen (my first destination) is certainly the most established place to see wild bears in Finland. In addition to that you have the option of the Boreal Wildlife Centre (the second part of my trip, with an additional range of Finnish wildlife on offer), and the Wild Brown Bear Centre (which I haven’t been to).
To get there yourself, you can book independently, with a travel company, or there are several photographers running workshops. As I said earlier, my trip was with Wildlife Worldwide, who were thoroughly excellent in their organisation and helpfulness, and I’d recommend them wholeheartedly. As someone who usually books things separately, it was a dream to have everything sorted for me, and simplified what would have been a logistically difficult trip to organise myself. We flew from Heathrow to Helsinki, and then took a connecting flight to Kajaani, which was two hours drive from Martinselkonen or Boreal Wildlife Centre. We had all transport and transfers included in our trip, and all our meals. You can check out their tour here, and their information about Martinselkonen here.
If you’re interested to see more of my photos from Finland, I have a growing Flickr album of them here.
If you’ve managed to read all this so far, then you must be keen, so I hope you manage to get out there sometime. And if I’m lucky, maybe I’ll see you there :-)
If you have any questions, comments, corrections, or advice of your own, please add to the Comments section below. Apologies to anyone who commented before August 2016 – I’ve since moved my blog to a different platform, and I lost your comments. But the good news is that I can now reply to comments, which should make them much more useful!
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To end, here’s one last photo of that huge male, in the classic ‘A-frame’ posture, which I think defines the species so well…