Wild bears and river rhythms

Kuusamo in Northern Finland has 5 unique National Parks. This post is about our visit to Oulanka National Park, which beautifully balanced an exciting encounter with the King of the Forest with relaxing (if a little wet) canoeing. Experiencing wild bears was one of our strongest nature experiences of 2017, and it made for the perfect balance between the softness of the colourful autumn forest and the raw reality of nature. In this blog post you can read about our Oulanka adventure and at the bottom of the post you can find a handy collection of links if you are planning a visit to Finland. 

Wild bears in Finland

Wild bears in Finland

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This post was made possible with help from the Slow Adventure in the Northern Territories (SAINT) project. Read more about our fantastic new sponsor here!  Although this post is sponsored, all opinions are our own.


The music of your soul

When travelling from Finland's Oulu airport towards the region of Kuusamo, you begin to realise the expanse of the forest surrounding you.

Kuusamo itself is spread over 5,000 square kilometres, and has over 4,000 lakes. When we asked Tanja - our guide and regional expert, about the sensation of having our horizons so suddenly broadened and the silence it carries, she mentioned a popular Finnish saying, that translates to:

"Silence lets you listen to the music of your soul"

Thea taking in the morning air at Basecamp's lakeside location

Thea taking in the morning air at Basecamp's lakeside location

Winding down at Basecamp

We spent the first night at Oulanka Basecamp, on the eastern side of Kuusamo - close to the border with Russia. Tired from travelling, this idyllic spot was the perfect way to re-energise and let where we were sink in. Our stay there was short, but it looked fantastic for anyone looking for slow adventure right from the guest room. A kind of all-in-one wilderness retreat that's steeped in slow adventure philosophy.

A journey of Slow Adventures

We woke early and explored the lake's shores by foot, snacking on the wild blueberries before our breakfast at Basecamp.

Having travelled to the Oulanka National Park centre, we got to know the park in more detail, learning how its helped conserve a huge natural area that was once threatened by energy companies wanting to exploit the powerful river. 

We'd be focusing on Oulanka's river "Oulankajoki". First we'd explore its rapids set against their backdrop of red bedrock and deep Taiga forest, then later by the stillness of a canoe.

Spellbound by paddle song

We met with our canoe guides for the day, Aappa and Joni. They helped us with gear, and took us down the slow river, a distance from the drama of its rapids.

For the first time we were on a river with an absolute boundary. Not a foaming white rapid or the breakers of the sea. Instead, this river has an absolute ending at the Russian border. A place in nature you are not allowed to cross. The Russian border area allows for wild animals to come and go as they please - but real consequences await anyone trying to cross without a visa, especially by canoe!


Paddling down the Oulankajoki

It was wet at first, but soon became peaceful and calming once we accepted it and fell into the paddle's rhythm.

We took a break to stretch our legs and explore the forest. Birds like the Siberian jay, mushrooms, berries and a waterfall were great rewards for exploring by foot. 

Wild bear feasting on reindeer

As we landed on shore and started our hike, we stumbled upon on a reindeer carcass. It had been taken by a bear, with fur and bones marking out the story of what had happened. Thea was surprised by the size of animal a bear can kill and it was an interesting reflection to see the realities of nature so close.

Our two guides explained how reindeer are particularly vulnerable for bear attacks because they're kept close to people during winter (as the farmers feed them). This somehow dulls their wild senses and makes them easy prey for large carnivores.

Lunch and Sauna

As the weather worsened, we decided to land and get lunch going. Only the strong will to dry out by a fire, made it possible to get the wet logs going. After a 30 minute struggle, warm yellow flames licked the stones neatly forming the fire pit. Aappa and Joni brought out a lunch they had prepared. Thick and juicy sausages with rye bread sandwiches was more tasty than ever before.  

Old fashioned coffee prepared on a fire.

Old fashioned coffee prepared on a fire.

Struggling to light the fire in the wet conditions

Struggling to light the fire in the wet conditions

Meeting the King of the Forest

Finland celebrates the bear as the King of the Forest, and it's easy to understand why. We had the opportunity to visit a bear hide deep in the woods. Setup by Pekka, who used to work on the Finland-Russia border as a border guard, he sets out salmon skins as we wait patiently for the forest to stir.

After just 15 minutes, a huge male was the first to enjoy the free feast, followed by a group of smaller males. 

It was all tantalisingly close to the hide. You could see that the bears knew we were there, but special glass meant they couldn't see us. Canvas lined holes in the wall were made to let people take photos. We frequently held our breath, mesmerized by these magnificent wild animals. 

The essence of Slow Adventure

Sitting in the hide not knowing when or if you're going to see any animals, must be one of the most fundamental slow experiences we've had. As you sit there waiting, you open up your senses. Listening to the forest, watching every branch for a slight movement, and then the thrill of excitement when your waiting pays off - finally resting your eyes on the soft brown body of a wild bear. That tension and reward almost can't be explained. 

Bears have a very shy nature and they are rarely seen, as they move away from people long before we're even aware of their presence. Most people we talked to about bears say the same thing: You will never see a bear, but there are many bears that see you!

Wild bear at  Karhu Kuusamo  during sunset. 

Wild bear at Karhu Kuusamo during sunset. 

Evening light

After the male bears had cleaned up the salmon skins, leaving one by one, we gathered ourselves to what we'd just experienced. It felt like the end of the evening until Pekka suggested "if we're lucky, now will come a female with her cubs". We couldn't believe him - thinking that would be beyond our luck. As we refreshed and settled back in for a 20 minute wait or so, right there came mummy bear and her cubs, to the absolute delight of everyone in the hide.

Wild bear mother with three cubs at  Karhu Kuusamo .

Wild bear mother with three cubs at Karhu Kuusamo.

Connecting landscape and local people

Oulanka National Park provided a way for us to learn, experience and absorb the local ways of connecting with nature, to slow life down to what's important. As we tune back into the normal life, it's easy to miss Finland's forest stillness and treasures.

Check out a few handy links below

Arrange a bear watching visit that you'll never forget with Pekka, visit Karhu Kuusamo.

A place to stay where you can listen to the silence: Oulanka Basecamp

Are you looking for a different canoeing experience, with the thrill of paddling towards the Russian boarder? https://www.rukapalvelu.fi/en/

For more information on the area check out http://www.nationalparks.fi/en/oulankanp

Looking for a place nearby to stay and explore further? Check out Katja and Sirpa in Kuusamo: 

We'd like to thank SAINT, the Northern Periphery and Arctic Programme, and the European Union for their support in making this post happen!
The SAINT project: www.saintproject.eu