In the same way i repeated the Svalbard trip (see previous post), i also repeated a visit to East FInland to photography bears and other large mammals that abound along the Russian border, a positive collateral effect of over 40 years of Iron curtain. A No Man’s land a few kilometers wide was indeed established between both countries and became a wilderness heaven, which has largely been maintained since the fall of the USSR. The pioneer Lassi Rautiainen (http://www.articmedia.fi) started over 20 years ago to set up hides and bait to get closer views of brown bears for his own photography, then offered the service to fellow wildlife photographers and it progressively became a full time business for him and his family. Others followed suit and now close to 30 such businesses operate along the Russian border.
It is not all rosy however, and especially for Lassi there is an ongoing struggle with the local hunters who oppose his business and have in the past used dirty tricks to drive his clients away. Bears hunting does occur in Finalnd, under a quota system, and the bear population in Lassi’s area has suffered a significant cull over the last few years, not only reducing the number of animals but also making them very skittish to humans. The baiting practice is also often criticized (bait is usually salmon, dog biscuits and sometimes a dead pork), not only by hunters but also by some biologists and conservationists who claim that Wild-animals-shoud-not-be-baited. Well and why is that ? Should we then ban bird feeders as well ? Lassi’s experience over 20 years shows that a well-managed baiting procedure is sustainable and does not create any collateral hazard to human activities. Thousands of people have now visited Lassi’s, and others, hides and not a single accident has occurred. And more importantly, from a conservation point of view, these businesses give an economic value to live bears, creating local jobs and revenues from eco-tourism, and making a more convincing case for conservation than vague considerations of biodiversity, which hardly get any support from local populations anywhere.
Having said that, in Finland like in many other European countries, the hunting community is well established and influential, and it will take time before the “bear watching businesses” get the upper hand.
Lassi’s hideout is located 50km east of the small town of Kuhmo, and the nearest airport is at Kajaani (daily connections with Helsinki) a 2h drive away. His “basecamp”, tucked within the woods nearby a peaceful lake, provides basic but comfortable accommodation for… the day, since the night is spent watching animals from the hides ! “daily” schedule is typically : 4pm dinner, 5pm leave for the hides, 730am leave the hides, 9am breakfast and then… rest. In the middle of July when we visited, the “dark” period is no more than 4 hours, as the sun sets just before 11pm and rises before 5am, offering a very long “usable” time of viewing and photography. On the latter matter, an High-ISO capable SLR is certainly desirable (1600 and above), and lens-wise you will usage for any lens between 24 and 800 ! But more practically, an assortment such as 70-200, 300 (or 400) and 1.4x extender would be a good start.
A major draw of Lassi’s place is that it’s not only about bears : Wolverines and wolves are also present and sighted almost daily. Wolverines will do their best to avoid the other 2, but Bears and wolves often interact, sometimes spectacularly, as a pack of wolves will be bold enough to try to steal its food from a bear. When we visited, the wolves had been absent for 3 days in a row, a premiere during this summer probably explained by the pack killing a moose or another large animal in the vicinity, but they reappeared before we left and put on a great show during our last night, a male wolf coming standing right in front of our hide at 730am, just when we were about to leave…
The second place we visited is Martin Selkonnen’s (http://www.martinselkonen.fi/index.php?id=1&la=en), located roughly 150km (or 2h drive) north of Lassi’s. This place has became quite popular in the recent past and for a good reason : it is an incredible bear paradise. Just like at Lassi’s, 3 locations are proposed for the hides, “forest”, “swamp” and “lake”. At our first night at the “forest” hide, we counted that over 20 different bears visited during the night, including 4 females with cubs (and one with 4 cubs!). There was slightly less traffic at the other 2 locations, but still amazing views, especially at the lake where a calm (weather wise) evening will reward you with beautiful reflection shots over the water.
I can only recommend fellow nature lovers and photographers to visit those places, as the experience of spending a summer night in a wooden hut surrounded by bears or wolves is absolutely unique. Some UK nature tour companies offer it as a package, but it is just as easily self-arranged.