We had just arrived at Kuusamo, a robust wilderness area in Koillismaa, Finland, and I was extremely excited. Despite this being my home country, I had never visited this part of it before. Kuusamo is famous for the large amounts of brown bears living in the area, and we had come to photograph them from a forest hide.

I had heard lots of stories about this area in my childhood. My grandfather and grandmother used to visit here every year, for as long as I remember. They loved fishing, and Kuusamo with its surroundings is also very famous for its excellent fishing possibilities on the many crystal clear rivers that run wild in almost every corner of this province.

After all those stories, though for other reasons, I was finally here. I’ve always loved the forests, and this area seemed like a perfect example of a classic wilderness with the pines, spruce, and forest ponds. I imagined almost seeing the bears already, observing from behind the trees. As it is said that most of the times, the bears can see you, even though you can’t see them. Despite being such big creatures, they are masters in hiding.

A portrait of a bear called Hittavainen, Kuntilampi, Kuusamo, Finland.

Driving to the Hide Cabin, Close to the Russian Border

We were picked up in the afternoon from our hotel. Our driver was Pekka, the owner of the bear photographing company – a fit man maybe in his late forties or early fifties, who had a cool hat like the Crocodile Dundee and a general presence of an experienced bushman. It was about 20-30 minute’s drive to the location of the hide, and we had a nice chat with Pekka during the journey. He told interesting facts about the bears and about how he had known most of the individuals we were probably going to see tonight for several years. It sounded like the bears were his friends, and I’m sure they were. He respected the bears, and he seemingly had a special bond with them.

The hide was a beautiful wood cabin in front of a small forest pond, only 2 km from the Russian border. There were photographing and sleeping spots for eight people. However, tonight there were going to be only three other people and us. We prepared our gear while Pekka went to pick up the others.

When everyone was ready, Pekka told that he was now going to put tonight’s food servings in place for the bears. Soon we saw from the cabin’s window how Pekka dragged a cow’s carcass with a quad to the other shore of the pond and spread a 10 kg bag of dog food all around the pond. More often the bears are served fish, but tonight was one of those fancier dinners. Everything in place, then it was just waiting for the bears to arrive at the scene.

Hittavainen the bear with her three cubs at Kuntilampi, Kuusamo, Finland

The Bears Came in Large Numbers

It wasn’t even for approximately fifteen to thirty minutes when the first bears arrived at the spot.

It was exhilarating to have the first sighting of a bear when it suddenly appeared from the middle of the pine trees. It raised its big, brown head and sniffed the air. The smell of the food had attracted it to the spot, and it went straight to check out the cow’s carcass.

Soon after this first male, came a bear we all had been waiting for: a beautiful female bear with her three, adorable cubs! Pekka had a name for her; Hittavainen. He had seen many litters by her during the 11 years he had owned the photography hide. Her cubs were carefully waiting in the bushes when she inspected the area, and when they emerged from their hiding to the open area, we just let our shutters sing on a continuous mode.

The evening had barely started, and we had already seen several bears – this was going to be a great night and an awesome photography opportunity!

Bears at Kuntilampi, Kuusamo.

Briefly About the Bear in Finnish Mythology

When the first bear walked out of the forest and went straight to the carcass, I could easily understand why the bear is so respected in our Finnish culture and mythology. The bear had such dignity, glory, and beauty in its presence that it has truly deserved its moniker; “the King of the Forest.”

The bear (Ursus Arctos) is also Finland’s national animal, and it has a significant role in the old mythologies; it is the oldest Finnish god known to be worshipped thousands of years before Christianity ever reached this far north. The bear was also connected to shamanism and sometimes thought to be the spirit of a shaman. I remember my grandmother, too, always saying that the bear is a magical animal. I honestly believe her now. She inculcated a deep respect for the forest into me, and maybe that’s one reason I still feel so unique and calm whenever I am in a forest.

The legends tell that the bear (karhu in Finnish) as a sacred animal, was born in the heavens at the Ursa Major (or Plough or the Big Dipper), the great star constellation in the Northern hemisphere. Finnish people are the tribe of the bear, and according to the old myths, the bear is our ancestor. During the centuries its role has faded, but today the bear is still respected in Finland, in many different forms. For example, just in Helsinki, there are more than fifty bear statues in approximately kilometer’s radius from the Senate Square.

This bear was called Mörkö (which means "Boogeyman" in Finnish). He visited us several times during the night.

Spending the Night at the Bear Hide

The night this far north in Finland during the summer doesn’t get dark at all. Earlier in the summer, the sun doesn’t even set at all. This gives perfect opportunities to wildlife photographers to take incredible pictures of the majestic forest wildlife.

At the cabin, we had comfortable amenities to just sit and watch one of the most spectacular nature shows around here. The cabin also had a tea/coffee pot and gas stove, so we could also make ourselves a cup of tea every time we wanted to.

I kept a sighting diary during the whole night and while writing this, I kept checking up my notes from the night.

Through the whole night, bears just kept coming to eat the meat and the pellets. On the best of times, there were totally of nine bears eating the carcass at the same time! During the night, many same bears kept coming and going around the hide. Pekka had told us the names of many of the bears and when they emerged from the forest we were almost always able to name some of them.

A bear enjoying a night swim at Kuntilampi, Kuusamo, Finland.

Hittavainen with her three cubs visited several times on the carcass, and we had plenty of great photo opportunities. Mörkö (which is a Finnish word for “boogeyman”) was another easily recognizable bear with a broad, blond fur collar around his neck and we saw him, too, many times during the night.

Also, in addition to the bears, all the time there were also several white-tailed eagles sitting on the treetops around the pond. They were observing and patiently waiting for their turn to feed. At one time I counted the white-tailed eagles sitting around, and I got sixteen of them altogether! The white-tailed eagle is a big and beautiful bird whose wingspan can be over 2 meters.

In the middle of the night, one of the bears decided to go for a swim in the pond. The scene was just magical – it was dusk, and just a little bit of fog was floating around the pond and the forest around us. And then there was the bear, swimming back and forth in the small lake, seemingly enjoying itself to the fullest!

I decided to sleep for a few hours when I just couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore, and I’m sure that I did miss some excellent shots while asleep. But then again, I had already got some superb ones, so I allowed myself a little rest.

And when I woke up very early in the morning, around 4 am, I woke up to the sight of yet another, a previously unseen bear eating away at the now almost gone carcass. After making myself a cup of tea, I continued to watch the bear, and I took a few frames, too.

At about 5.30 am Hittavainen came back with her cubs, too, and she bossed around a bit as to make the scene safer for her cubs. Around seven Pekka came to pick us up and drove us back to our hotel.

The experience as a whole was amazing. Even on those brief moments when there were no bears in sight, I enjoyed just sitting in front of the one-way glass window, drinking tea, and listening to the silence of the forest. It was just me and the wilderness around. And I have to say that this was one of my best birthdays ever! Not to forget that we saw well over two dozen bears during the night, it was nothing short of fantastic.

Hittavainen came really close to our hide and I'm sure she smelled our scent.

The Best Time For Bear Photography in Finland

Approximately the best time of the year to photograph the bears in Finland is around June and July. During the midsummer months, the cubs are still small, and the bears will willingly come to the feeding spots.

Later in the autumn the bears can be deeper in the forests eating berries and won’t necessarily come to the feeding spots in such high numbers. However, they do still come, as late as even to the end of September. I would still recommend going either in June or July, for the best possible opportunities. During the winter the bears are hibernating, but if you happen to be visiting in Finland and the Kuusamo area during the winter time, there are still plenty of things to do.

The bears mostly come from the Russia’s side of this wilderness area. Metsähallitus, a government organization of forestry in Finland, collared fifteen bears in 2009 as to study their living habitats and movements. During the research, they discovered that the area of Kuntilampi and Kuntijärvi, where the photography hide of Karhu-Kuusamo is located, was actually the westernmost location where the bears visited. So, this eastern borderland in the north of Finland is no doubt the best area for spotting the wild brown bears around these longitudes.

Seeing the brown bears in the wild was an exciting and an extraordinary experience for me. And I’m already looking forward to maybe returning one day and seeing how things have been for Hittavainen and her offspring.

And if you like wildlife photography, you will love this bear photography opportunity – I encourage you to come and experience it yourself!

PIN THIS STORY!

Photographing bears through the night in a hide in the Finnish wilderness in Kuusamo.

You May Also Like to Read:

Relax in Lankayan Island in Malaysian Borneo.

Best Lodges to Experience the Real Borneo, Malaysia

Explore the rainforests of Borneo, swim with turtles on a paradise island, spot orangutans in their natural habitat and stay in luxurious lodges, away from the crowds.

Read More

8 Best Tips for Successful Day Tripping to Tallinn, Estonia

Old Town, a Soviet-era prison, Patarei, trendy restaurants, nice craft beer scene. Our top picks for a great day in Tallinn, Estonia.

Read More

Watching leopards from zero distance in Serengeti National Park

How to Find the Best Wildlife Sightings in Serengeti National Park

Serengeti encapsulates the African safari experience. More than a million wildebeest roam through the endless plains each year following the magical beat of nature while the whole Big Five runs close. Get the box seat from this ultimate wildlife theater instead of fighting for the best sightings with the masses!

Read More

Our beloved dog is picking blueberries in Keskuspuisto (Central Park)

Picking Berries in Central Park, Helsinki

Wander with us through the wild forest in the middle of Helsinki in the hunt of Finnish superfoods like bilberries and nettle.

Read More

Street Food Market of Forodhani Gardens, Stone Town, Zanzibar

Forodhani Gardens Street Food Market, Zanzibar

At the time of sunset, Forodhani Gardens transform into a lively street food market, where locals and tourists alike stroll between food stalls to pick Zanzibari and Swahili delicacies.

Read More

Active sloth at the Tree of Life wildlife sanctuary in Cahuita, Costa Rica

Visiting a Wildlife Rescue Center in Costa Rica

Visiting a wildlife rescue center when you're in Costa Rica is a must-do. But don't forget to choose responsibly the place you visit. There is a good selection of non-profit places where the welfare of animals comes first.

Read More