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30 Apr 2014

A walk in the woods

After returning from what can only be described as a perfect night in the hide, a welcome change of pace was needed, both from the excitement from the back-lit beasts and the back wrenching seating arrangements (by the time you arrive I will have fixed this situation!).

Two Spanish photographers were staying at the lodge and had hiked a few trails earlier in the week, they discussed trying a newer path over breakfast and I thought it sounded like a great idea, to help walk off the night spent in the chair. As we had all filled our quota of wildlife the night before, we were not after any particular species, but took our harem of 70-200's out nonetheless. 
The route cut into the taiga forest and past areas of new pine woodland, where moose tracks were abundant. The trail we used is an active boarder control route for the Finnish-Russian boarder, and when they are not frequenting our espresso machine, they patrol the line using jeeps, snowmobiles and even helicopters. 




After a few kilometres of frozen track, stopping often to listen out for the mating call of black grouse, we took a right turn deeper into the forest, heading towards the boarder. Over time the snowmobiles had slowly carved out a deep path and the tracks were still obvious from recent use. Arctic hare and Red Fox tracks littered the pathway as we hiked on through sunlight patches of moss and pine.

We came across an ants nest that Oscar and Marc showed to me, a species that I would not know off by heart, but extremely abundant in this area. After this natural landmark the track passed directly in-line with no man's land and ran parallel for at least 1 km. This border line, as Oscar vividly remembers, is strictly enforced by the regional authorities. On the spot fines are freely offered to the customers if they don't regard the official warning signs!

26 Apr 2014

"The best April in 15 years" - Ari Sääski

Last night was nothing short of spectacular. As the title suggests, Spring this year at Wild Brown Bear has been incredibly active, with Brown Bear, Wolverine and even a Wolf sighting giving visitors photography opportunities to die for. For many guests the images they have made greatly exceeded their expectations, and last night was no different. The night of the 25th/26th April carried this trend forward, and for everyone it was most definitely a night to remember and not one to forget. 

After emerging from hibernation, a steady flow of new characters and personalities have been filling the surrounding wetlands and forest. For the first few weeks only a solitary male seemed bold enough to venture into the open, although recently however, 4-5 others have joined, and are becoming regulars in the hide area.  



The opportunity to photograph multiple bears, all demonstrating unique and personal behaviour, in evening, sunset, moonlit, sunrise and morning mist conditions is something that can take months of tenacity and determination to achieve. Last night 9 photographers, luckily including myself bared witness to just that, a perfect display of nature and wilderness all rolled into one epic 12 hour photography marathon.

As the day transitioned to dusk, the light was magical. The first young individual arrived early at 16:50, and although I was still setting out my equipment, I still managed to take a few frames as the bear waded through the wetland towards me. After a brief exhibition, the bear left and all was quiet on what is left of the winters grasp.
It was a short two hour wait until the wilderness revealed all, in one non-stop 12 hour firework display.
Two large and dominant males pounded the ground just as I was considering jumping into the 'bag' for the night, although the light was poor at this time, I was able to document the dominance of the largest male as he walked proudly around the area 'marking' his territory. The other male then continued to follow, re marking and announcing his disgust. Although out of view and mostly out of light, the confrontation heightened to a few moments of blatant aggression between the pair, which reverberated around the sleeping pines and deep into the valley. I usually prefer a light jazz in the evenings but you get used to it.



The entire experience was breathtaking from start to finish and I have never felt compelled to take more frames in one sitting ever before. Although the conditions are promising as I write this, I opted for a night away from the bears and withdrawn from the wilds. As much a I love it, my back is bent over double, and my left eyeball is still recovering from 12 hours spent jammed against the non-ergonomic viewfinder of my camera. Until tomorrow. 

23 Apr 2014

Kajaani



After announcing a valid drivers license I have been first pick to drive the 250Km round trip to Kajaani, to receive customers and run errands. The scenery is much the same, rolling hills covered in thick spruce pines and broken only by frozen lakes and the odd, very odd, red timber lodge. Yesterday I drove to collect two Spanish photographers who were flying in from Helsinki on the 18:35. They were coming up for a week in the hides, and as usual I was eager to find out more about their hobby and where it had taken them.

On the route home the sun was beginning to dip towards the horizon and the light was incredible, shining a soft golden light over pines as we sped along. At this time of the year it is possible to see Elk (Moose) and Wild Forest Reindeer roaming the forest openings in the evening, and I was keeping a keen eye on the blurred landscape. About half way into the journey I spotted two 'Reindeer' and the photographers agreed we should turn back as the light was good and the subject matter potentially even better. As we drew alongside the 'Reindeer' they in fact turned out to be a pair of Common Cranes, although a little disappointed, the light was indeed perfect and I snapped a few frames nonetheless before heading back for a warm broth.  


16 Apr 2014

Joey doesn't share food



Okay, his name is not Joey, nor is this photo 'tack sharp', but you get the idea. Last night a new kid was on the block, although we suspect this is a much older male than the regular male Aulis. The previous night an English photographer had heard a fierce confrontation between these two massive males, and as a result the two were not present at the same time in the same place last night.
Aulis let the 'new' male emerge first from the Russian forest and explore the surroundings, he seemed constantly on edge and weary, a sort of confirmation of the the dispute between the two big males. He also appeared quite aggressive which was not the most comfortable emotion for me to see displayed, but fortunately enough he seemed more concerned by the hooded crows than by my awkwardly loud shutter. 


Without coincidence, Aulis moved forward onto his lookout post, whilst other male retreated back towards the trees guarding his carrion. The size difference between the two males was clearly evident; Aulis stood larger at the shoulder, and in muscular proportion the two males couldn't be further apart. He lightly picked his route down the rock face and onto the valley floor, where he began to taste the air. The scent from the older male must have been overwhelming, however, it did not take long before mine too drifted towards him. His gaze slowly fixed onto me and through my binoculars or the 300mm lens, it felt as though he could see right into my pupils. Naturally I hid behind the camera and captured the moment. 



I dusted off my beloved 40D and set up my time-lapse rig. It was around 5pm and I knew that with the added chill in the air, the bears could arrive earlier than expected. This capture was over 2 hours, and shows the males moving through the area and changing light on the Finnish taiga. I have named it 'speedy bears'. 

14 Apr 2014

9 Apr 2014

Big skies and late night drives


Last evening, one of the photographers and I explored the surrounding area, trying to find some nice compositions to use as the foreground for the sunset. The vast majority of open water is currently still beneath thick ice and the view out across many of the huge lakes looks quite similar to the photograph above. Due to this we were both pleasantly surprised to come across this small back-country bridge, which had a small open river flowing underneath. 

The light was dropping close to the horizon, and as a result the suns rays hitting the far bank were extremely rich in colour. A mixture of yellow and magenta light reflecting in the icy water created a great image, I quickly shot two exposures to balance the natural light between the sun and shadow regions and then masked them in post later on.



On our return leg we spotted two giant Capercaillie displaying seasonal mating rituals, and although we had on hand Canon's latest sensor technology, the light was far to poor to get a shot worth exhibiting. This will be a month of firsts I am sure.    


7 Apr 2014

Day 3-4 - Fresh tracks


After a long night in the hides, activities were exchanged for sleep and re-cooperation, this gave me time to work through my raw files, which seems to be an ongoing operation for me, as I always have a backlog of images that I have taken and not reviewed.






Sunday began early with a fresh inch of snow that had fallen overnight, completely transforming the landscape once again. A local Finnish photographer had spent the night in the hides and would be returning for breakfast, where we were eager to hear of what the night had brought.  




He told us that the same bear had returned a total of 4 times throughout the night, twice in the evening, once in the night and the fourth in the early hours of the morning. Despite the bear being spooked once by a patrolling White-Tailed Eagle, he said that he had a great chance to photograph the bear with a light covering of snow on its hide, a image many will never see.



< Due to the fresh snow covering, it was a perfect opportunity to hike down to the hides and check for fresh tracks. I led the German photographer down, passing fresh Arctic Hare tracks on the way. As the cloud cover had been minimal over the night, the temperature was well below freezing and and the trees were covered with a layer of ice crystals, shimmering in the morning light. As we approached the hides we saw a fresh set of tracks, most probably originating from the bear which had passed through just hours before.


The rare combination of recent bear tracks, bright sun and the frosty thin layer of new snow, enabled us to really appreciate the size of this bear. The paw prints were roughly twice the width of my size 12 boots and about a length and a half long. Apart from being a terrifying size, these paws allow the mammal to move more easily on the snow and spreads the weight evenly, this allows the bear to also cover large distances comfortably, a necessity in the winter months as forage is scarce. >


6 Apr 2014

While you wait


The predators here are wild animals, they can arrive, depart at any time during the night-time, not to mention move through without being noticed. While you wait you can be creative with the landscape or shoot some of the smaller mammals like the Red Fox which frequents the area, or some of the bird species around.



The low light levels allow a sufficiently slow shutter speed to be attained, it is then simple to create this effect, all you need is time to perfect the slow vertical panning motion, and before you know it, the bears are back! 


Day 2 - Hey Teddy

Friday 4th April, -4 Celsius, Kuhmo Finland



After an early dinner, I led the renowned German photographer, Günther Spillner, 1 km or so through the snow covered spruce pine forest, towards the group of hides we would be using until the morning as our cover and safety. A light flurry of snow fell as we dragged a sled brimming with Canon's whitest and finest down towards the hides. Normally bordering a smallish lake, the hides are currently situated amongst a great expanse of brilliant white, over a foot of cover had fallen only 8 days previously and with the low daytime temperatures there was no sign the landscape would change any time soon.


I was fixing my equipment onto the ball-head at roughly 17:00, the sun was still high above but was beginning to dip towards the rear of the hides. The air was perfectly still, as I have become accustomed to in this area; no wind, no sign of life. An hour passed before a small flock of hooded crows came into view, slightly larger and different colouring from the species I have seen before. Although not quite an apex predator, a good sign of activity nonetheless. Two large ravens, presumably male and female, were tied in a ritual of the season, chasing each other, combing steep dives with tight turns amongst the winter woodland. At 19:30 the sun was beginning to drop towards the horizon, leaving behind a golden light which was lingering on the landscape opposite. The photo below was taken at 19:46. I was on about the 4th or 5th photo in a panorama when I noticed that the last frame had something abnormal about it, I grabbed my binoculars and sure enough the outline was unmistakable, it was a brown bear,  and more importantly it was my first bear of the year.   


I was very concious of the thin netting, and what could only be described as 'matured' 2-by-4 which was separating me from this 5 year young, hungry male, a bear that weighs over twice a 'Shaquille O'Neil' and could break into a light sweat to comfortably outrun Usain Bolt. Waking at 5am, shaking uncontrollably in -8 Celsius cold, by the creaking of ice and the breathing noise from this bear at under 10m away, was not a highlight by any means. However, it was an incredible experience which a relative few get to experience and with 180 days remaining I am sure that I will be in a cold sweat again soon.  

3 Apr 2014

Day 1 - Finland

03.04.14



An exciting day at Wild Brown Bear Lodge. Waking in a new location for the first time, new sights and new sounds. Today was spent mostly writing material for the new website which needs to be published ASAP before the season kicks off. Ari Sääski (pictured) took me on the 1KM journey to the area where the hides are situated. Due to the fresh flurry of snow in the last few days, the tracks of wolverine and bear could be seen weaving around the trees as we walked to the hides.




Tomorrow will be an early start. A German photographer arrived late today and the bird hide will need to be prepared for him in the morning. There is the possibility of photographing from the bear hides in the evening and night-time tomorrow, which would be my first European Bear encounter.




2 Apr 2014

A room with a view



10 below and bears running free
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