When I was putting the finishing touches to my trip commitments for 2013 it dawned on me that this was going to be what my now no longer teenage son might call a ‘bear good year’. European Brown Bears in Finland, Grizzlies in Alaska and Polar Bears in Canada all in the same calendar year is certainly something that really whetted my photographic appetite.
To kick this off, I spent last week in the taiga forests of northern Finland, close to the Russian border with my good friends at Martinselkonen who I have visited and worked with for a number of years now, and if the rest of my bear sortees live up to this first week then I’ve got even more to look forward to than I could have hoped for.
It is actually three years since I last visited the bears here in Finland, so I was keen to see what had changed if anything in this time. One of my favourite hide settings in the past was by a small pool area: this has been moved to a new pool location with beautiful pristine trees and swamp surroundings, but although the evening light on my first night there was stunning there was just enough of a breeze to ripple the water: the setting was still picturesque enough to work with mind.
Almost immediately the sun had set and the silence of the empty taiga had really set in (aside from the odd call of Greenshank or far off nesting Cranes), the breeze finally gave up it’s effort and as a result as other bears visited during the so-called hours of darkness, the reflections were almost crystal clear.
I was really grateful for my new Canon 1Dx at this point – I was having to shoot at ISO 3200 which I have seldom been happy to do before, but the resulting images were as clean and detailed as I could have wished for, so when an ever-watchful mother and cubs passed through around 3am it meant I was still able to photograph the undoubted highlight of the night.
One of the nicer settings here is what is dubbed the swamp. In reality this is an area of classic wetland bog – peat based, covered in moss and interspersed with grasses, bog cotton and the occasional silver birch or conifer in an are surrounded by forest. It’s an area of open ground through which several bears will routinely pass during the course of the night.
It’s also a habitat in which the bears look very much at home, especially in patches of fresh spring growth, but its downside is a surfeit of mosquitos which bothered the bears as much as me it seemed – my first night here was so hot that I was down to t-shirt and shorts in the hide which was not a pretty sight at all but clearly the many bites I had by the morning may mean I underestimate my appeal, even if it is only to midges! I also didn’t have the same claws on offer to swipe them away as this young female did.
Given there presence at the pond the previous night I was really hoping that some of the cubs that were around in good numbers this year might put in an appearance and sure enough a cautious Mum eventually appeared out of the forest, naughty youngsters in tow and already up to their high jinks in the background.
Whenever they were around they simply couldn’t help but have fun – whether it was a poking out of the tongue (albeit using Mum as a safety shield) or just larking around with each other and splashing up as much water as they could muster in their play.
There were some yearling cubs around as well at times and they too were just as naughty as the little ones so clearly it takes a while to grow up for Bears too!
When however a large male appeared on the scene though then mother and cubs, after an initial and speedy assessment of things, would generally beast a hasty retreat into the forest so the cubs could take to the safety of the trees there. When this happened during the so-called night it offered the chance to play around with slower shutter speeds which is a style I have always liked: the streaks of the cotton grass really add to the sense of their pace and urgency.
On my final night though I was able to get an even closer appreciation of the size, strength and power of the male bears and just why the small cubs have to flee like this. I was offered the chance to use what is dubbed the suicide hide. In essence there is a ground level opening to photograph using short or wide-angle lenses and requires you to lie in the hide effectively looking up at extremely close bears. It was too good an opportunity to miss and as I lay there watching this male at home in his habitat just some 5 metres or so away then any concerns over mosquitos were completely dispelled: the words are often over-used but it was a truly amazing experience which I can only hope the images can do justice to.
This youngster just settled down in front of me: like all the bears he was well aware of my presence without any doubt – they could all see the lens move, hear the shutter going and probably my heart beating too.
The setting was pristine and the evening light at times perfect and the shorter lens really allowed the setting to dominate whilst allowing the bear to remain a significant part of the image too.
Of course the night here just had to be summed up by the cubs though – as they frolicked around the chance to capture some ground level portraits using a 70-200mm lens allowed for an intimacy and feel that I have not been able to achieve in the past.
So round one…tick. If rounds two and three can match it really will have been that bear good year.