Go down to the woods in eastern Finland and you’re in for a big surprise. The deep forests, clear lakes and berry-filled swamps in this off-the-radar corner of the country are perfect for spotting Europe’s 'Big Five' – bears, wolverine, wolves, lynx and elk. Retreat to a hide for the night and you’ll get within a hair’s breadth of some of the world’s greatest predators.
A journey to the middle of nowhere
One look at a map of the Kainuu region in Eastern Finland tells you all you need to know. Nudging the Russian border, this sparsely populated region is truly out on its lonesome. You can drive for hours on country roads passing nothing more than endless tracts of forest, punctuated by glassy lakes reflecting the kind of big open skies only found in the back of beyond.
Immune to time and trends, this is a region where you can truly tiptoe off the beaten track, disconnect and click into a life more in tune with nature. And what nature! From spring to summer, these vast woodlands of tall spruce, Scots pine, fir and birch trees teem with wildlife. Lingonberries, cloudberries and mushrooms edge trails that lead through swamps and deep into the woods. It’s a scene ripe for a children’s bedtime story; you can almost sense beady eyes watching your every move from the cool silence of the forest.
Midsummer is prime-time for wildlife encounters, with the sun barely dipping below the horizon and near round-the-clock daylight allowing you to watch nocturnal animals in their natural habitat. The biggest draw is, of course, the chance to come face to face with brown bears, one of the world’s greatest predators. Even with males weighing in at up to a whopping 350kg and measuring two metres long, these remarkable creatures still have the cute and cuddly factor. Most bears in these parts spend the day in Russia, crossing the border into Finland by night to forage for food.
Besides bears, wolverine, elk and – less frequently – more elusive lynx and wolves can be spotted in the forest and wetlands on the Finnish-Russian border. The area is also a magnet for a rich variety of birdlife – willow grouse, hazel grouse, woodpeckers, capercaillie, great grey owls and red-flanked bluetails all thrive here. May to June is the best season for twitchers.
While it is possible to hike or kayak here alone without danger, you’re unlikely to see as much wildlife as you would from the hidden confines of a forest hide, as the merest rustle of a bush or splash of a paddle will send bears and other predators scarpering. A night or two in a hide is the way to go for the best chance of spotting animals behaving naturally.
The Wild Brown Bear Centre
One such place to get up close and personal with brown bears is the conservation-focused Wild Brown Bear Centre. A two-hour drive through pristine forest from the tiny airport in Kajaani, this former Russian-Finnish border control station is one of the few places in Europe where you can observe bears within close range in a responsible way. 'Sightings from the hides are almost guaranteed during the season from spring to autumn,' says wilderness guide and all-round bear expert Sabrina, who has worked at the centre for more than a decade, and whose passion for bears shows no sign of waning.
Walks to the hides lead through boggy forest, where it’s often possible to spot fresh elk prints and the giant anthills where bears snuggle away for their long winter sleep.
But everyone’s heard the tales about bears, so just how safe are the hides? 'There’s no need to worry, the bears here never attack humans. They are less aggressive than their North American cousins, the grizzlies.' Sabrina reassures. 'We just need to keep the noise down and avoid sudden movements so as not to scare them off. Their eyesight is poor but they have a keen sense of smell and hearing.'
Hide and seek
Silence rules in the clapboard, tin-roofed, communal hides, but when a bear does rock up, you sure know about it – you can’t miss the great creatures as they swagger out of the forest, often coming within just a metre or two of the huts, close enough to hear their ragged breathing and snuffling. There is no need to worry about making too much noise, as in that slow-mo moment, frozen to the spot and face to face with a bear, it’s as much as you can do to press the 'click' button on your camera.
Very lucky wildlife-spotters might also be afforded a glimpse of the critically endangered wolverine, of which there are only around 50 mature individuals left in the country. Inhabiting only remote, wild areas and belonging to the same family as weasels and badgers, these inquisitive creatures are skilled climbers and tireless wanderers. Always on the quest for their next meal, they can smell an elk a mile away.
At one with the bears
If you’re seeking a more intimate bear encounter, it's possible to stay alone in a hide. These poky hides are not as comfortable as the bigger communal ones, but they offer an unparalleled chance to witness bears in close quarters. Nothing gets your heart pounding and the adrenaline racing like coming face to face with a bear pawing around your hide, so very, very close that you can hear its every grunt and squelch. At that moment, all the logic about the hides being safe goes out the window and fear kicks in – you feel thrillingly close to death and more alive than ever.
Kerry travelled to Finland with support from Explore (explore.co.uk). Lonely Planet contributors don’t accept freebies in return for positive coverage.