Overnight in a garden shed with a bear

Bear in Finland
Photo: Brown bear in Finland's Wild Taiga. By Karel Bartik

The Wild Taiga in eastern Finland borders Russia, in between the two is a narrow strip of no man’s land where access is forbidden for security reasons. Russian Brown Bears and wolves move through this land, safe from hunters on the Russian side.

My wife and I had arranged to visit a Bear watching hide one evening. Beforehand we sat in a small auditorium for a basic briefing on bear ecology from someone who’d very apparently done it 1000 times before, before moving down to a substantial purpose built viewing building with about 20 others.

Before long a Bear appeared in the distance, which we watched through binoculars before returning to the reception area. It was great to see the Bear, but not that great an experience. We had no real sense of the animal itself - how it looked close up, smelt or sounded; its energy or power...

Two days later we met a wildlife photographer. He was an eccentric chap who clearly loved what he did. He was unbelievably expert in both ecology and conservation. Against the odds, and with numerous threats from bear hunters, he’d persuaded the government to set aside a small area for bear conservation where hunting was not permitted.

He explained that all he really wanted to do was photograph and help conserve the bears, but that he couldn’t earn a living from it, so he invited a few tourists to join him in his hide with the possibility to stay there overnight on your own. We booked.

That evening we were taken to his hide, which turned out to be garden shed. Literally the think you buy from B&Q. Inside was a bench, a bunk, mobile phone and a bucket. We were told to remain totally silent, not even to whisper, to call him if we were in trouble and to pee into the bucket. He said goodnight and left.

Bear hide
Photo: Example of a typical bear hide. By Ulvar Käärt

About four hours later I needed a pee. As the bucket startled to rattle, my wife said there was a small horse coming out of the woods. Closer inspection revealed it to be a very large bear. We sat transfixed as it approached the hide to within 3 metres to find some food left for it. During this time we broke the breath holding world record and then retired to the bunks thinking our night was done, only to wake at three in the morning knowing that something very huge was very close.

I could hear very loud breathing directly outside the shed, with the occasional stomach rumble. Every sense in my body was alert, Heidi was awake too and we felt the raw fear of powerlessness that man has mostly ceased to feel from wild animals over the past 500 years.

Moving imperceptibly slowly I peered through a round hole in the shed designed to poke your camera lens through. All I could see was fur, not even the edge or outline of the bear. In the morning we learnt that a bear known as Goliath was seen visiting us. He weighs 600 kg or over 90 stones.

Find our more about bear watching in our bear watching guide