January 2007 - Bears
Russia is always full of surprises and after six years of our adventures into the White Sea we have at last had close encounters with Brown Bears.
Few people wander through the vast forests of Russia so the wildlife is very wary of human presence because the only time that they come face to face is when they are hunted so the innate fear of the sight, sound or smell of the most dangerous predator nature has produced. As soon as the Moose Bear or Wolf become aware of our presence they run, not stopping to ask questions, fear driving them away from the threat. Because of this we only see spoor of the large animals of the Russian forest. Many is the time as we work our way in our off road vehicles across the rocks and through the rivers and bogs of this Northern land I spy ahead the traces of spoor.
For me the excitement never palls at seeing the spoor of a wild animal on the track and my infectious excitement as I announce its presence over the radio gets everyone tumbling out of their cars to see.
For the last five years all we have seen is spoor of Bears, Wolves and Moose and it is amazing what can be inferred from the tracks left. Very often as you follow the spoor a story unfolds. Without exception you can envisage the Bear walking quietly along the track moving from one berry bush to another enjoying the fruits of the forest. He or she then becomes aware of our coming, most likely the sound of our engines. The Bear stops and the tracks tell that it turned in our direction before running away along the track for a short while before plunging into the forest to give us the distance. I have tracked the spoor for a quarter of a mile or so but it is unwise to try to get close to a Bear in thick forest as if cornered then you will without doubt loose your life.
Before each adventure the route, border procedures and safety concerns are discussed with my clients so that everybody is aware of how to behave in the country that we are visiting. This is an essential part of the professionalism of Impala. I always stress the possible danger of Bears saying that when you go for a walk in the forest just be aware as I have already as soon as camp is set walked around to look for signs of large animal life. I always back this up with “I have been traveling to the Russian Forest for many years and have yet to see a bear, normally we see only tracks and sometimes fresh dung”.
What a difference this year we saw four bears, I actually got very close to one on foot as well.
As we left the town of Kandalaksha at the entrance to the Kola Peninsular on our way to Umba and an old coast road that is now mostly disused but ideal for our purposes as bridges are gone which makes for some interesting river crossings everyone was looking forward to a relaxed drive full of wildlife spotting opportunities as the bird life here is very rich from Sea Eagles to Whooper swans.
Our first night was spent at some new lodges put up by a friend of mine who runs a company out of Monchegorsk called Kola Travel and he greeted us with the news that he had just stumbled across a bear near the lodges. The Bears here are very frightened of people and he ran off along the beach but not before Frank had got a couple of photo's, exciting stuff. Our senses were heightened as there was a real possibility that we would be lucky too. Later that evening as we sat around the camp fire a fox came to within a few feet of us. I always feel very honored when wildlife graces us with its presence.
The next day was an exciting one for as we sped along the sand beside the sea and actually drove out a half mile to a stricken trawler that rumor has it was caught poaching and the crew ran her aground in their efforts to keep away from the police buy staying close inshore.
As evening fell I pulled the group away from the shore picking up a track that led us towards some dense forest. The weather was closing in so a sheltered camp was needed and the forest here was perfect for our needs. I mentioned over the radio that we would have to be careful here as I have always seen signs of bear here although never an actual bear. No sooner had the words left my mouth when two young bears leapt out of the long grass to our left and in a panic dashed for the forest. Their mother was nowhere to be seen but she must have been close so I decided quite wisely to drive for another half an hour to put plenty of distance between us and this potential danger. This incident highlighted why it is so important for me to walk around the camp site looking for traces of bears.
That evening the excitement of the group was very real although tinged with a modicum of apprehension. I warned everyone to be on their guard and not to leave food out overnight. The bears here are not like the American ones which are unafraid of humans and very dangerous. The Russian bears do not look for contact with us.
I could sense that there were bears around during my sweep around camp. The forest here was open so the chance of surprising one was very slight, although I walked silently because I wanted the chance to see one. I have tracked in the African bush and enjoy the excitement and possible danger of the track. This was the first time in Russia that I felt this!!
The night passed quietly without a sound. I was first up as dawn opened up the forest once more and within yards of our camp spotted fresh dung still steaming. I had only just missed the bear. Judging by the pattern of his dung he had run down towards the sea. I continued my walk and tried to think where the bear would have gone. Just above the forest was an area of glacial deposit without vegetation. It stretched for about one mile and was half a mile wide. I knew that I would be safe here because the bear would not feel trapped and as he feared us he would look to run away unless I got to close.
As the forest cleared the sea became visible and down to my right was a lone fisherman on a bike and in front running for all he was worth was a bear. He was running diagonally away and up towards my position so I made some quick calculations and ran on a converging course being careful to stay out in the open. After 100 yards or so I stopped and waited and was rewarded with the bear running 300yds away from me. Incredibly he had not seen me so I stood still as he leapt onto a rock panting heavily. He stood on his hind legs to see where the fisherman was before settling down to catch his breath. I was enthralled and just watched him and took some photographs. I toyed with the idea of creeping closer and could have used a tree as cover but thought better of it as I intend to line to be an old man!!
Eventually he looked over towards me and spotted me. The look on his face was one of disbelief and fear and he ran away as fast as he could go, leaving me feeling completely awed at his presence. After watching him disappear over the glacial rocks I walked slowly back to the camp and shared my experience with my clients.
I wonder if it will be another bear year next year only time will tell but I cannot wait.