Martinselkonen Nature Reserve
One of the absolute best of the various places that offer the possibility of photographing brown bears (Ursus arctos) in Finland is Martinselkonen Nature Reserve. Situated close to the Russian border in the municipality of Suomussalmi in Eastern Finland (150 kilometres from Kuusamo, 170 from Kajaani, 180 from Kuhmo and 270 from Oulu), this tranquil wilderness location is highly recommended – on occasion up to 20 bears and 8 cubs have been seen in a single night.
The Best Time of year
The bears usually wake from hibernation around mid-April. At this time of year there is still plenty of snow, so it is possible to photograph them against a background of snow until early May. However localised spells of warm weather in spring can affect this, as brown bears do not hibernate fully so are woken easily. The first bears are usually seen around the end of March, and by early May they start to forage voraciously. During their long hibernation they use up large amounts of body fat, so at this time of year they are lean and hungry – but their coats are in excellent condition – which makes them highly photogenic.
Rutting normally starts in the last week of May. At this time you are unlikely to see large numbers of bears at the feeding site, but they are very active. You may see adult males vying for superiority, which can cause individuals to get extremely aggressive with one another. Each year some lucky visitors witness bears mating and capture amazing images. Although bears have been observed mating as late as the first week of July, experience suggests that best time to have a chance of seeing this is from the end of May through until the end of June. The long summer evenings at this time of year are perfect for watching wildlife.
Once the mating season is over, the bears start to forage again with gusto. Although there may be occasional fights between adult males, the forest is generally a more peaceful place in July. At this time of the year over a single night at the hide you may see as many as 20 or more individual bears. Females with cubs usually start to appear at the feeding site sometime in June, although some years they have been seen in May, and in others not until early July. However, as a general rule, it seems that July and early August are the best times to photograph females with small cubs.
Safaris to watch brown bear started in this area in 1996. At first few bears were seen, but over the years sightings have steadily improved to the extent that they are now frequent. During the summers of 2005 and 2006, for example, bears were spotted on each safari. Since 1999 the practice of leaving out carrion has attracted even mothers with cubs, who are usually extremely nervous of human presence, to the site many times. Some bears that appear have been seen regularly since first being seen as long ago as 1997. The bear-watching site is located in sparse coniferous forest beside a small bog, where bears can be seen from as close as five metres away. Forest is a more suitable environment than open bog, as bears feel more comfortable when there is some tree cover that offers places to hide, and thus safety – especially for cubs.
The forest around Martinselkonen offers opportunities to see woodland birds such as woodpeckers, and rare eastern species such as Siberian jay and rustic bunting. The black kite, which is very rare in Finland, nests in the area and visits the carrion that is laid out to lure bears on an almost daily basis. Another frequent visitor is the white-tailed eagle (four were once seen together!), while a rarer visitor is the golden eagle. A feeder in the lodge garden attracts bullfinches, siskins and great spotted woodpeckers, plus the odd red squirrel. Nesting boxes have attracted Tengmalm’s, pygmy and Ural owls (ten species have been spotted in the area, from the diminutive pygmy own to the magnificent great grey owl), and passerines such as Siberian tit and pied flycatcher.
Martinselkonen Nature Reserve
The hides are located some two kilometres inside the forest, around 10 minutes drive from the lodge. The only access is on foot, so you need to be reasonably fit. Two purpose-built, wooden, main hides occupy a fantastic position in a forest clearing: the larger one has ten comfortable coach-style reclining seats, while the adjacent smaller hide has seats for nine people. Conditions are basic: each hide has bunk beds where you can rest (sleeping bags and pillows are provided), and a dry toilet; pro-hides (see below) have no proper toilet, only a bucket. In June and July there are a lot of mosquitoes, but these are generally not a problem inside the hide. Both hides are equipped with sound amplifying systems so you can pick up external noises easily, and camera ports that allow unobstructed photography.
If you wish to take photos of the highest quality, you can book one of six professional hides on payment of a supplement. Due to limited availability, these must be reserved in advance:
200 metres from the main feeding site is a boggy area, where the oldest pro-hide – for up to three people – is located. Roughly 100 metres away is a second pro-hide, also for up to three people. Each hide has six camera holes. From here you can photograph bears in a more open area against a background of old-growth forest, which offers better lighting than in the forest. In early spring, the snow remains longest on the boggy area – so this is the best spot to photograph bears in a snowy environment.
The newest pro-hide, which takes three people, is beside a small pond in an open boggy area, around 30 metres from forest cover, so lighting is good. It stands on a route bears use to approach the feeding site, around one kilometre from the two main hides, but only half a kilometre’s walk from the drop-off area.
The forest site has one pro-hide for two people, and another for three. Both lie roughly 50 metres from the main feeding site in coniferous forest consisting of pine and spruce trees. The smaller pro-hide has four camera holes, whereas the bigger one has six. Visibility is up to 40-50 metres.
The first bears often appear soon after 17:00, so you need to have an early dinner to have sufficient time to get to the hide and settle in. In spring and summer this leaves plenty of daylight for photography. The bears may stay around until the following morning, so you cannot leave the hide until around 07:00 – as you have to wait for them to disappear into the forest. Your local guide will come to advise you when you can emerge.
Photographing the Bears
Photography: the bears get very close to the forest hides, so anything from a wide-angle up to a 500 mm telephoto lens will do; a 70-200 mm telephoto lens is good choice. In the hides beside the bog or the pond, you don´t really need a wide-angle lens – the best choice is probably a 70-200 mm telephoto, or longer lens. There is no need to bring a tripod, however you may wish to bring a tripod head – which you can attach to a board in the hide. There are bean bags in each hide.
Enquire about this tour
From £900 per person dependent on group size.
Departures are flexible and available from the beginning of May through to the end of July.
4 days and 3 nights.