Everything outside the small photo blind is silent except for the two ravens perched on the top of a dead tree cawing and a few flies quietly buzzing around. I’ve mounted the 500mm lens on the camera and pointed it towards the pine trees far away. My huge, directional Sennheiser microphone is aimed in the same direction.
I am in the wild Taiga of Finland, the home of brown bears and wolves, and these fascinating animals are the reason I am here. To photograph them and to share the behind the scenes videos on my YouTube channel and also, most importantly, to experience the beauty of this wild Taiga and get close to the animals living here.
I really hope to see a bear, and I wish so badly for even just a glimpse of a wolf…
I am pouring myself a cup of coffee while I let my eyes browse the meadow in front of me. I am excited. One hour passes. Then suddenly, I register a movement in my periphery vision. It is here.
The brown bear is walking along the edge of the forest some one hundred meters away and, even at this distance, it looks impressive. Its movements look as if it were in slow motion, and in my binoculars, I can see how the water drips from its large paws every footstep it makes in the wet, swamped tundra.
It is still way too far away to take a nice photo, and the light is still too sharp and flat to make a moody photo of this beautiful bear in its environment. I am watching the bear while I pour myself a cup of warm coffee. This is so cozy.
I arrived at the blind at 6pm and I have now been here for a few hours. Both the bears and the wolves are most active during the night, so I will have to stay awake. It is a strange feeling to have to turn the day’s rhythm around, even though I have been sleeping during the day, my inner watch still tells me that it is evening.
I look around in the blind and everything is nicely organized now. I have prepared lenses, batteries, and memory cards so that they are easy to get hold of if I should need them in a hurry. The coffee, water, and food each has their place, and so has the extra clothes and other equipment. It’s so comfortable to sit here and watch this bear slowly pass in the distance.
Kuhmo is located in the Eastern part of Finland close to the border to Russia. Actually, some of the photo blinds are located in what they call No Mans Land – an area between Russia and Finland that neither have the rights to use. The photo blinds are owned and managed by Wildlife Safaris Finland.
When renting a blind you usually stay at the Kuikka Base Camp where you sleep and eat and talk to the other photographers. There are usually between 3 and 4 locations to choose between, and each location has a number of photo blinds where you can either choose to sit alone or with one or more other photographers. It depends on the price you pay.
Most photographers come to see the brown bear, the wolf, and the wolverine but you will most likely also see the raven, eagle and other birds. It is also possible to rent a boat to go and see beavers. Some photographers have even been lucky to see owls.
The light is getting weaker now and the ISO is slowly climbing up. The mist gives the landscape a mystery look. It is so hard to capture this mood in a photo – even in a video. There are so many things that we can’t capture. The smell of the Taiga, the gentle breeze that hits my warm skin through the little window, and the feeling of sitting here, surrounded by wilderness.
I am torn from my thoughts when, suddenly, a movement in the forest to the left catches my attention. It is another bear, and this time it is closer – much closer.
I slowly point the 500mm in its direction and I snap my first photo. I love to shoot in manual mode with auto ISO as it is so flexible and fast. This method lets me take control of both shutter speed and aperture, while still letting the camera decide the exposure.
But in this situation, with this dark scene and the few light spots where the brighter evening sky shines through the treetops, I am shooting 100% manual and have full control.
Shooting at ISO values above 10000, I don’t have room for errors. I will not be able to recover much from an under or overexposed photo.
The bear walks behind some trees and I follow it in the viewfinder as it passes me no further than 30 meters from the blind. Such a beautiful animal.
There is something else behind these trees. I can sense a movement. Something bright, but I can’t really see it. It is moving towards an open area. It is so hard to see anything when the light is so weak. Then it slowly reveals itself in the dark, and I hold my breath… it is the wolf.
This is the moment I have been dreaming about ever since I was here more than 4 years ago – watching a wild wolf in its natural environment. In Denmark, where I live, we killed the last wolf about 200 years ago and, when the miracle happened a few years ago and this fascinating mammal once again immigrated to Denmark from Germany, it didn’t exactly receive a warm welcome.
The first female wolf has been illegally shot by a hunter and, despite the fact that it is protected by law, I reckon it won’t be the last. I wish that we, as a race, would somehow, once again, reconnect with nature and try to think of ourselves as a small part of nature, instead of killing things we feel threatened by.
But here in the wild Taiga of Finland – just outside my photo blind – is the wolf, and I feel truly humbled to experience this amazing moment. I manage to capture this experience – on photos and on film and, for me, watching the wolf was probably the strongest experience I have had this year so far.
My camera is set up to make stills right now and I am totally focused on achieving the right mood in the photo. I simply love these faint, almost washed out, colors of the landscape and then there is this wolf slowly walking over the tundra – almost like a ghost of the forest. I try to keep the ISO down, making a slightly longer exposure which means I have to pan to follow the movements of the animal – this also creates a slight movement which I like.
In the back of my mind, I feel that I should make just a short video recording for my YouTube vlog. Such a dilemma.
The wolf stops and puts her nose in the air to catch a scent. I quickly press the little movie button, turn the wheel a few clicks and press the live view button – I am now in movie mode with 50 frames per second and the dual pixel AF locks onto the wolf immediately. Once again, the wolf moves slowly, and I get my first recordings. This is simply fantastic. I mean, what more could I wish for.
The wolf slowly disappears into the forest, and here I am. Left in the small blind – suddenly I feel alone and slightly sad that I can’t just follow the wolf like an invisible spirit. I want to see where it is going and where the rest of the family are and how they are when they are together and what they do. It would be awesome. Just for a day or maybe a month…
It is now almost completely dark outside and impossible to photograph. I decide to take a one hour nap – just to be a little less tired when the sun once again rises in the east.
I wake up to the incredibly annoying sound of a very loud crow. I really have to change that alarm tone on my phone, but it is very smart because it doesn’t disturb or scare the animals around me when I am out. Ohh it is just so tempting to take another 30 minutes under the blanket, but it is getting brighter outside. Nothing to see and nothing to see. Nature definitely sleeps now, and so should I, but you never know.
A no longer warm cup of coffee and a loaf of bread is actually quite nice right now. Just sitting here watching how nature slowly wakes up. The fog starts to come in like a thick smoke over the damp grass-covered land. It’s so beautiful.
It is now around 3am and there is still about 5 hours until I will leave the blind.
Bear… It is there again. and then one more from the other direction. Two bears at the same time…
Wow. And just as I am looking through the photos, another bear is coming.
What I thought would be a long and quiet morning turned into something completely different. Three bears, a wolverine, an eagle, and some ravens.
And then suddenly it is 8am and I am in a hurry to get everything packed together before the pick up in a few minutes. Now it is time to get back to the Base Camp, get some breakfast, a trip to the Finnish sauna and, of course, a swim in the forest lake before a good long sleep.
What a night in the blind, what a day to come, and what a place this beautiful and fascinating wild Taiga of Finland is.
About the author: Morten Hilmer is a professional wildlife photographer, author and former special force soldier in the Danish military unit in Greenland – the Sirius Dogsled Patrol. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Hilmer uses his work to draw attention to the importance of taking care of planet Earth. You can find more of his photos on his website, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram.