Bearing witness to a rare gathering

Christina Pfeiffer treks through the wild to share a meal with the people-shy brown bear.

ALTHOUGH the brown bear is one of the scarcest and most difficult animals to spot, there is a forest hideaway in Suomussalmi, Finland, a stone's throw from Russia, where you can be guaranteed sightings of Ursus arctos, the brown bear.

Our guide Jani Maatta raises his hand motioning us to stop. He points towards the soggy mud at a fresh bear footprint, size 13 with super-wide fitting. I peer apprehensively into the forest but all is still and for the moment there is not a bear in sight.

After trekking silently through the Finnish forest for 30 minutes, I am relieved when we reach our log cabin. As we approach, Jani's father Markku is sitting on a tractor ready to scatter a trailer load of fish heads, tails and entrails from the local salmon factory into three large piles in a forest clearing facing our hideaway. "There may already be bears nearby," he whispers. At his suggestion, we shoot into the safety of the cabin.

I take my place on an old reclining car seat and place my camera on a long shelf with a lens peephole designed for photographers. Above the shelf there is a narrow perspex-covered window that runs the length of the cabin. In one corner of the cabin, behind a wooden door, there is a chemical toilet, while long plastic pipes extend beyond the roof to direct the human scents and sounds away from the cabin.

I am setting up my camera when someone whispers excitedly: "Look, there's a bear." Sure enough, about 10 metres in front of our log cabin is a big brown bear lumbering lazily towards a pile of salmon. Everyone grabs their cameras and there is a clicking frenzy through the peepholes.

The bear-watching day starts at 3pm with a generous Finnish lunch at the Martinselkosen Wilds Centre. An hour later, we pile into our cars and follow Jani to the edge of the forest where we leave our cars and trek through the forest.

Jani argues the bears are not a danger to people as they generally shun human contact. Scavengers by nature, they eat a wide variety of foods including leaves, berries, honey and sometimes reindeer or elk. He insists their natural instincts remain unaffected by the nightly luxury of fish served up to them between May and August.

But to make sure that their bears stay safe from hunters, the Maattas stop feeding them a couple of weeks before hunting season, when the creatures follow their sharply honed instincts and take off to the Russian wilderness to hibernate from October to April.

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"That's Bodari, Finnish slang for body builder. He's the king of the bears," whispers Jani, pointing towards the forest clearing.

Believed to be about 32 years old, weighing about 300 kilograms, Bodari is the alpha male of the pack. Jani and Markku have been tracking these bears for the past 10 years and have names for all of them. A set of speakers inside the cabin picks up the sounds of Bodari's enthusiastic crunching as he stuffs his snout with salmon. He is soon joined by 15-year-old 120-kilogram Elina and four-year-old 80-kilogram youngster Robin. When third-ranking male, Akseli, turns up, Bodari huffs and snorts as a reminder to the pack that he is still in charge.

Robin gets too close to Bodari and is chased away. Banished to a corner, Robin stands fully stretched on two feet with his arm hugging a tree trunk as he licks off the thick coat of sweet honey put there by Markku.

He hears a rustling in the cabin and turns to look. For a split second I am eye to eye with a wild bear. Uninterested, he resumes his licking. Over the next several hours, the bear traffic is thick, with a total of 11 bears coming and going.

As we are close to the Arctic, at 11pm there is still enough light to see the bears quite clearly. One of them keeps rubbing its rump against a tree trunk for a good scratch. At other times, a couple of bears decide to have a rumble and face each other, roaring loudly for a few minutes. ("It's all right, the boys are just playing," Jani reassures us.) One bear has too much to eat and flops down for a snooze. Jani says the most amazing thing he's seen is when Elina emerged one year with two cubs in tow.

At midnight the traffic thins out and some of us crash out on the wooden bunks at the back of the cabin while others lie on the seats. I rouse from a deep sleep to the beeping of Jani's electronic alarm clock and struggle up to peer out of the window into the soft morning light. At 3am, a lone bear wanders among the leftovers. A small animal rustles in the bushes, perhaps a lynx or a wolverine.

At 7am, we head to the Wilds Centre for breakfast. On our way back through the forest it occurs to me that I have no clue what to do if we should encounter a brown bear on the track. Jani grins and says: "You should get your camera out and take its picture. It could be a once in a lifetime opportunity!"

BEAR FACTS

* There are between 800 and 1000 brown bears in Finland.

* An adult male can measure up to 2.4 metres, and weigh up to 350 kilograms, though their weight varies greatly throughout the year.

* Bear cubs are born during the hibernation period and weigh 250-400 grams.

* Worshipping bears may have been a religion among ancient hunter tribes in Eurasia and even of Neanderthal man. Drawings of bear worship dating back tens of thousands of years have been found in caves in southern Europe.

Christina Pfeiffer travelled to Finland as a guest of the Finnish Tourist Board and the Finland Ministry of Foreign Affairs

TRIP NOTES

* Finnair flies to Helsinki with connections to Rovaniemi or Kuusamo. See http://www.finnair.com. MyPlanet (02 9020 5800; http://www.myplanetaustralia.com/tours) organises packages to Finland. Although Kuusamo is the closest airport, a trip to northern Finland should include a visit to the Santa Village in Rovaniemi.

* Martinselkosen Wilds Centre (www.martinselkosen erakeskus.com) has rooms, apartments and cottages. Bear watching packages cost EUR145 ($230) per person per night, including guiding services, transportation, sandwiches and coffee or tea.

* For more information, see www.visitfinland.com.

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