Written by Annie Caulfield

Misc

Hiding from the Bears

Good things (and wolverines) come to she who waits. Or so Annie Caulfield discovered while bear watching in Finland.

Bear and cubs

All pictures by explore.co.uk

At some point in the night, three of us adults started a “who can eat their yogurt slowest” competition. We had been sitting in the same place, only able to whisper, for over four hours. We were no longer right in the head.

There were 10 of us spending the night in a confined forest hide. Our chairs were comfortable and we were supplied with coffee and snacks by a stern, but cheerful, wilderness guide. We’d been promised bears would appear at any moment – but we did seem to have been watching an empty clearing for a long time.

Close to Finland’s border with Russia, in the middle of hundreds of kilometres of forests and lakes, we waited to see if the bait of salmon, hidden in tree stumps and under rocks, would bring a bear or two as a reward for all this staying up late. Although it didn’t feel late. The sky was shiny grey. An arctic summer night as bright as day.

We’d played slow eating with cheese baguettes, biscuits and yogurt. We had caffeine starey eyes. I realised, in desperation, I’d taken a ridiculous number of photographs of the clearing, to set the scene. Perhaps that would be all I’d go home with. Sometimes, the guide had warned us, despite the whiff of salmon, the bears just had pressing business elsewhere and there was nothing to be done.

Hope had lingered for a long time because the evening’s viewing had started so well. Almost as soon as we’d settled, the guide had pointed to the distance, hissing; “A wolverine.”

All pictures by explore.co.uk

Wolverine

No, I didn’t know it was a real animal either. But this fat, furry dog style beast lolloped out of the trees looking like a creature thrown together from pieces of left over from other animals. A concoction made by someone who’d heard about typical forest animals but never actually seen one. The wolverine had the body of a beaver, the face of a bear, the tail of a wolf and the feet of a sloth. The only thing it didn’t look like was Hugh Jackman.

It was searching for something and wasting a huge amount of energy with its high bouncing walk – apparently a great walk for thick snow. It’s jumping through huge drifts, while less agile animals are hiding in their caves or dying. The wolverine also survives the harshest winter because it isn’t fussy what it eats, storing scavenged meat in holes for a snowy day, months in advance. The wolverine has a jaw so powerful it can lift a hunk of reindeer three times its own size. It can get a lot of mouldy meat stashed quickly.

Seldom near any place humans might be, the Labrador-sized wolverine, is so scary even a full-grown bear won’t fight one. Possibly, it’s the dead meat breath that does it.

Able to bounce, climb, swim and act scary, the endearingly charmless wolverine survives.

This one didn’t find whatever it was looking for and left. With a sigh, the Australian slow-eating champion next to me declared. “I guess one wolverine doesn’t make a summer.”

Behind us were rows of small bunk beds with tempting sleeping bags. I was heading for them, after a trip to the strange toilet at the end of the hide – an eco-friendly contraption that involved scooping sawdust into the bowl instead of flushing. When I came out, everyone was on their hind legs, clicking cameras and making quiet exclamations. There were bears in the clearing. Five of them.

The adult was a celebrity bear known as Tatiana. She had four, year-old cubs with her. A litter of three is usual but this was Tatiana’s second litter of four. She bossed the cubs to dig out the salmon, frequently getting on her back feet to sniff the air. Bears don’t have great eyesight but they can hear and smell across long distances. Nevertheless, she kept looking in the direction of the hide. She seemed to have decided a good salmon dinner was worth the risk but she knew something wasn’t as it should be. Perhaps she kept catching a whiff of our sawdust toilet.

European Brown Bear

All pictures by explore.co.uk

The cubs were so cute they must have been doing it on purpose and Tatiana had the taut expression appropriate for a tough single mother who’d roamed the Russian borders raising eight young through cold, lean times.

Suddenly Tatiana made a series of deep grunts, the cubs fell in line behind her and plodded back to the trees. One too many things had bothered her and she was off.

A wolverine and five bears was good enough for me. I retreated to the bunks knowing one more cup of instant coffee, or yet another slow eating contest, would tip me into permanent insanity.

At around four I was shaken awake by the Australian. Tatiana and the cubs were back. I leant out of the bunk and could see the bears from the comfort of my sleeping bag. The cubs were digging and eating right by the hide. Tatiana was sniffing and squinting in our direction. She allowed 15 minutes, then hustled her cubs away. This close she really did seem to have a world-weary look in her eyes.

Tatiana came back in an hour and back again two hours later.

It was then I realised what Tatiana and family were doing. A slow-eating contest to liven up their night.

Brown Bear trips in Finland available with www.explore.co.uk
and www.responsibletravel.com

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Written by Annie Caulfield

Annie Caulfield is a dramatist, travel writer and broadcaster. Originally from Northern Ireland, she lives in London or a Spanish cave. www.anniecaulfield.com