Michael Gebicki discovers the bears are great in Finland but the mozzies are not.
Although I've been driving for most of the day, the sun barely dips below the horizon in the summer night sky above Finland. There are still several hours of daylight left when I arrive at Lentiira Holiday Village, in the country's central eastern region.
Petri Heikkenen, the son of the owners, suggests an excursion to see bears. A kilometre or so from the Russian border we stop in a forest clearing at the house of Ari Saaski where we meet Tero Poukkanen. A teacher who spends his weekends and holidays photographing the wildlife of the area, Tero is a bear aficionado.
He puts on a slide show for my benefit and his pictures are strikingly wonderful. They show bears romping, bears fishing, bears in the snow, bears foraging for summer berries and lying sleepily in the grass, scratching their bellies in a foolishly lovable bearish way. Tero has names for all the local bears, which number about 30 - a relatively high population density. Finns are allowed to hunt them but the bears seem to know they are safe within the narrow border zone.
We leave the house and drive along a forest track, park and put on boots for the squelchy walk through the bog. We pass a row of signs with red letters which probably say we are entering the border zone and not to expect to be rescued from the Russians if we are foolish enough to venture further. These we ignore. Actually, I do have an official permit with a mug shot and lots of stamps - which probably says not to expect to be rescued should I be so foolish as to venture into the Russian zone.
Within seconds, we are surrounded by mosquitoes. Smaller and less meaty than the southern hemisphere variety, the Finnish mosquito packs a wallop by way of its blood-sucking capacity. The Finnish forest is also home to another winged torment that likes to burrow into your hair and gnaw off a chunk of scalp, leaving an itchy welt that lasts for a week. Finland has only five million people in an area larger than Italy. The reason is these two-winged sadists.
I am trying hard to be manly about the whining cloud that is doing its best to suck every last corpuscle from my body. The Finns never swat, seeming to regard the act as a sign of mortal weakness. Each time my arm scythes through the brutes, I seem to detect lifting of eyebrows. I imagine my companions saying later, over a quiet ale, "That Australian fellow, nice enough, but he swats."
The Finns also have a sublime sense of humour.
"My name," says Ari, as I whirl away like a dervish.
"What?" I ask, as I try to avoid opening my mouth too wide.
"My name," he repeats. "Ari Saaski. It means 'Ari Mosquito'." I realise Ari has just made a joke because he's smiling. Actually, it does seem funny but I am feeling light-headed from loss of blood.
We approach the tiny hide where Tero will spend the night. Ari uncovers the rotting carcass of a cow about 15 metres from the hide. The smell is unbelievable. This is bear bait, nectar to the ursine nose.
Ari tells me he is building a series of commodious hides to allow visitors to eavesdrop on the bears, wolverines and wolves of the region. Seizing the opportunity, I suggest that mosquito netting might be a good idea and I do believe the novelty of this proposal struck a chord. Tero's hide is far more basic, a plywood box mounted on skis so it can be towed into position in winter, when the going is easier.
There are tiny windows on all sides and circular holes covered by fabric sleeves through which Tero can photograph bears. The hide sits on the edge of a small lake, where he will wait for bears which might or might not come. Tero looks delighted at the prospect, although the cramped quarters, the smell, the lack of liquor and womanly company do not promise a diverting evening.
Luckily, there is no sign of bear and so no reason for me to hang around. With unseemly haste, I make my farewells and bolt back across the bog, arms windmilling, to the mosquito-free van.
The writer was a guest of Visit Finland.
The only practical way to reach this part of Finland is in a hire car. Roads are excellent and driving conditions are good.
Lentiira Holiday Village is on the edge of a lake about 45 kilometres from the town of Kuhmo. A comfortable, self-contained cabin for two starts at €105 ($150) a night, but a two-night minimum is required during the peak summer season. See lentiira.com.
visitfinland.com; Bentours, bentours.com.au.