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The ghost of the wilderness the search for "wild wolves"

Running with the wolf

Introduction

For as long as I can remember, I have had an affinity with the natural world, I was fortunate enough to grow up in the lush rolling green hills of southern England. I was always out in the open air looking for creatures, reading books and dreaming of far off encounters with new animals.

One animal always stood out, and I would always go back and look at the pictures and re-read the pages. You guessed it; it was the wolf!

The tiger and the lion may be more powerful but the wolf does not perform in the circus (Anonymous)

Fast forward a few decades, I decided it was time to realise a dream, observing and photographing wolves in the wild!

Research tells us that the wolf is the most widely distributed of all the land animals, but where to begin? These are shy, elusive creatures that have vast ranges.

I ruled out the obvious choices, the likes of Yellow stone, Denali, simply due to time and budget, but don’t worry these will feature in future travels.

I narrowed the search down to Europe. The good news is that wolves have made a significant comeback, despite still being persecuted and hunted. This is another story that I will write about, so check my blog regularly.

After carrying out detailed research I compiled a list of locations the best place to observe and photograph wolves:

  • Côa Valley, Portugal
  • Carpathian Mountains, Romania
  • Kainuu Forest, Finland
  • The French Alps
  • Ernstbrunn, Austria
  • Białowieża Forest, Poland
  • Pindus Mountains, Greece
  • Sierra de la Culebra, Spain

After much deliberation, I settled on Finland. The simple reason that I had never been to that country and I heard that there were good sighting, with the added bonus of seeing bears and wolverines. I was sold.

I made the relevant enquires, booked my flights and secured five days in the Finnish wilderness.

I was so excited my wildlife photography adventure was in motion. I have to explain this all happened in January, my trip wasn’t until July, so it was now just a waiting game.

Taiga from the fire tower

The night before

Time seemed to stand still, an agonising 5 ½ months away, how was I going to cope? Clock watching was my daily activity, utter torture! needless to say, I made it as all nature photographers have an abundance of patience.

Fast forward to the night before the trip. I don’t know, but if you are like me, I’m full of mixed emotions. Excitement, about the pending adventure, seeing a new subject “fingers crossed”. Nervous apprehension, have I packed everything I need, is this the correct lens selection, is my alarm set.

A word to the wise, as I have made a few of these trips now, make a list and pack everything well in advance, and the day before repack everything, and put a resounding tick next to the list items.

Norra Propplane

The Journey

Like a time-lapse, the day panned out like this.

  1. Get up, coffee, shortish drive to the airport
  2. Board a flight to Helsinki
  3. Short stopover, 2nd flight to Kajaani
  4. 2 – 3 hr drive to basecamp.

All in all, when you add these items up is a good 10+ hrs of travel. Yes, it’s totally worth it.

I didn’t know what to expect, once you take off and head north from Helsinki, you are immediately taken aback by how green the country is. A large mass with a small population, this is definitely a pocket of the earth where wildlife will thrive.

Affectionately known as the land of a thousand lakes. Now just to clear this up, Finland has an estimated 187,888 lakes, totally amazing, this alone is a compelling reason to visit this magic country.

Another first for me was flying in a prop plane, that’s a story for another day, as so many lessons were learnt, thankfully the flight wasn’t busy, and the flight attendants were in a good mood that day.

It was a short flight to the destination airport (1hr give or take) coming into land we skited over the pine forest and touched down on the tarmac in Kajaani.

It was mid-afternoon, I grabbed my bags and strolled outside, I inhaled deeply; the air was so fresh and clean, I thought to myself, we are so close, only another 2-3hrs drive.

Lake after lake zoomed by the window, trees everywhere, I couldn’t believe how quiet the roads were. All of a sudden we turned off the tarmac to a dirt road (forestry road) bumping up and down in my seat I eagerly peered out of the window, this was super remote, will I see a wolf dart across the road in front of me, what about a bear?

My mind was racing full of anticipation, left, right and gradual bend, then a sharp right the dust was flying up around us, totally disorientated. All I knew is that I’m in the Finnish wilderness, the land of wolves.

We crested a small brow and descended into basecamp and old forestry station that’s the last stop before the untamed wilds. This will be my home for the next five days.

Surrounded by a lake, the area is perfectly still, the silence may unnerve people, but this is heaven to me. You and nature, birds chirping, the wind swirling through the trees, the water lapping at the shoreline, utter bliss.

There was not rest we had only a few hours before heading to the hides, so it was a quick bite to eat and sort the equipment out.

No man’s land

Hopefully, the scene is set. It was time to realise my dream of seeing a wolf in the wild.

I bundled into the 4x4 with other like-minded nature photographers, the engine rumbled to life, and we rolled out of basecamp, heading to the unknown.

After a short 20-minute drive, we arrived at our destination close to the Russian border. An area called “No, man’s land”. it’s a strip of land that’s a buffer zone between Finland and the Russian border. I kept thinking if there is one place wolves were going to be this was it.

I jumped out of the 4x4, threw my camera bag over my shoulder as we set off to the hides. The host put his hand to his mouth to indicate that we needed to be utterly silent. I must confess, this first walk, my senses were on high alert, lots of scenarios, and what if’s running through my mind. I know stupid right?

After the short walk along a makeshift road through the trees, the area opened up to reveal a beautiful clearing surrounded by coniferous forest, affectionately known as “Paradise”.

A few hides were scattered along the edge of the forest all looking towards a clump of dead trees.

The host pointed and whispered, “that’s your home for the night”. A little compact wooden hut, with basic amenities. I opened the door, slid off my boots and started to unpack and settled in for the duration, yes you sleep out overnight in the hides.

This was my first experience of truly being in the wild with wild animals around you. Your senses are heightened every shadow, sound seems to be intensified, it’s camping on steroids.

After a short time, I settled down and started to focus on the task at hand, surveying the scene in front of me, studying every inch trying to spot any signs of a wolf.

At first, you think the area is barren and devoid of life, but then you hear the eerie calls of the raven’s the small birds searching for insects in the grass. The juvenile sparrow hawks practising its dive bombs

Several hours had passed with no sighting only my mind playing tricks on me thinking the rock or bush was a wolf. That same rock and bush hadn’t moved, but I was desperate to see a wolf in the wild my mind convinced me this was a wolf, sadly no, just a bush.

I thought I have another 10+ hrs in the hide, so I poured myself a coffee and unwrapped a sandwich I made. Suddenly something caught my eye far off in the distance along the treeline; it must have been about a kilometre away, just a dark mass blending in with the shadows.

Fumbling around, I grabbed my binoculars to get a closer look and identify what it was. A wolf, please let it be a wolf, the hairs started to rise on my arms as the anticipation grew. Not a wolf, it was bigger, I had to reset and focus my binoculars.

A bear! A big, beautiful male was trudging slowly along the edge of the forest—my first bear, an unforgettable moment that I will cherish forever. I followed him for a good 5-10 mins until he finally disappeared out of sight.

I slumped back into the chair, with the biggest smile on my face. A wild bear that is free, master of his own destiny, unhindered by humans, just magical.

My first evening in the hide was brilliant; I had five different bear sightings and a pair of white-tailed eagles. It was about 1 am, and the sun was setting just dipping below the horizon, my head started dropping I was overtired, sleep was enveloping me—time to turn the camera off and get into the sleeping bag for a few hours of rest.

It was midsummer, so you have 20+ hrs of light, the phone alarm (vibration) dragged me out on my slumber, it was 4 am, I poured myself a lukewarm coffee, turned the camera on, and started my vigil.

I had a few more bear sighing’s, but the mornings tend to be a little quieter, it was 7-45, we were being collected in 15 minutes. Begrudgingly I packed up my gear and donned my boots. I opened the door to be greeted with the host's friendly face.

Everyone was exhausted, but the ride back to basecamp was an exciting exchange of stories recounting the activities of last nights encounters.

Did you see that, what about the bear that appeared from there, the mood was infectious.

I didn’t see my wolf the first night; I did see my first bear that was a magical encounter. I had another four nights to realise my dream. Patience and persistence are paramount in wildlife photography; sightings fleeting and are never guaranteed.

This was back in 2015; I haven’t looked back ever since and now go back to Finland every year. Below is a small selection of images from my first trip camping out in the Finnish wilds.

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Alpha female
The Art of concealment
Bear1
Slow-Mo
Wolf Bear
Follow my Leader
Whitetail
Golden Flight