Bear photography in Europe, or more specifically in Finland, as this in my opinion at least is by far the most reliable location, is a bizarre, even surreal, experience. Locked in a small wooden hide for 14 hours overnight is on the face of it a dreadful prospect, and yet it’s strangely addictive. I’ve done up to eight consecutive nights in these hides in the past but the most recent trip was a quick ‘3-night-blitz’ so although my ageing back might not agree, this was a relative walk in the park.
Some of the animals I recognised from previous years and it’s rewarding to see bears that I first saw as tiny cubs now developing into young adults. I also caught up with ‘Greedy’ a big male that I first photographed for the Tooth & Claw book back in 2006. This time around this bear was very much in his prime.
I think that in spite of their universal popularity, there are certain places/species that any keen photographer should cover at least once. Norway’s sea eagles qualify and Finland’s bears qualify too. To be lying half-asleep in the half-light of a Scandinavian summer with only a thin sheet of plywood separating you from a bear squelching about in a bog, is an experience you will never forget. Problem is, it is addictive. There’s just something about bears.
My thanks to Julie, Alan, Russell, Robin and Charlie for their company on this trip.
OK it’s true that we happen to offer tours to photograph bears so yes, it’s true I have a vested interest in persuading you to do so. And yes, I have to make a living like everyone else; but just put all of that aside for one moment.
I remember sitting in a hide deep in Finland’s taiga forest probably ten years ago now. It was hot, I was sweating and if I’m honest, it was not enjoyable. I was accompanied by Chris who has gone on to become a long-standing guest of Northshots. Chris never swears. Even now he visibly winces at foul language. We sat in silence hardly daring to move. Nothing happened. The following night nothing happened again…until it was just getting dark. The sound of a snapping branch put our senses on edge and a few seconds later the shadowy shape of a fully grown brown bear emerged from the forest – fifteen metres distant. “F****** hell!” whispered the non-swearing Chris. Indeed, it was a ‘F****** hell’ moment.
There are more bear safari operators in Finland thesedays; there are more bears and there are more bear photographs; the bears have become less wary and Finnair are no doubt grateful for their presence. Following that first encounter I’ve seen and photographed many bears. That’s not the point though. We’re told bears are dangerous and although I happen to think that it’s good to be scared from time to time, you quickly realise there’s nothing to be afraid of. We’re also told bears are aggressive and again, you quickly understand that this is nothing more than media spin.
Bears are fantastic photographic subjects but more than that, the opportunity to photograph them – not in Alaska but here in Europe – provides an invaluable bridge between perceptions and reality. That’s why you should photograph a bear – so that like Chris, you can’t help but utter “F****** hell; so that you’re part of a growing army that have done so; a well-informed army that can tell their friends, parents, siblings, even the window cleaner, that the media reputation of bears is undeserved. A few photos and a story informed through personal experience is a powerful thing indeed. Just ask Chris.