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In 2006 I began to hear rumours that Finland, famous for its Reindeer, saunas and rally drivers, was also emerging as the World Wolverine Watching Capital. I have long thought that Wolverines are a fabulous mammal - and they've been near the top of my "to see list" since long before the X-Men movies. In the USA and Canada they are immensely hard to stumble across. Outdoors people I spoke to in the Yukon and Alaska reckoned they see about one a year on average. But then I heard about Finland.
For several years a few Finnish photographers have been leaving animal and fish carcasses near hides, as a way to assist bear and wolf photography. A bit of a tourist industry has sprung up around the bear watching in particular (See Wild Brown Bear for example). But Wolverines have also become regular visitors to some hides. And in March 2007 I spent the weekend there to try to see one. I failed, but I was very unlucky and resolved to try again soon. I went back in July 2008.
Although Finland was not a super cheap country to travel in, it was a bargain hunter's paradise compared to Norway, which is just ridiculous. And the accommodation in rural areas was a real bargain (by European standards not just Scandinavian).
Where and when to go
There are also a network of people who can help. They earn a living doing a variety of wildlife stuff from photography through guiding and each seem to own several hides. But Eero Kemila, my guide in 2007, said it is a Turkish bazaar with each of the guides referring clients to others if they are busy etc and using one another's hides depending on what animal you want to see and when you go. Although we didn't see a Wolverine in 2007 I have no reason to regret my choice of Eero and will travel with him again if I can when I return. He was good company and knowledgeable, spoke excellent English and tried hard to find the animals.
After talking to a few people in Finland I am still unsure of the optimum time of year to visit if you want to see a Wolverine. The two factors at play are the level and pattern of Wolverine activity and available daylight. Of course daylight is pretty limited in the winter months. But it seems the good season for Wolverine watching begins from about late February. It continues through to mid August, when the hunting season begins and there is so much disturbance in the forest that it becomes much more difficult to see the animals.. Wolverines are active day and night, but are more active in the evenings. My guess is the very best period to look would have to be mid May through July when there would be nearly 24 hour daylight. this opinion has been backed up since by others. Although the Wolverines might not be any more active or common then, you would at least have the daylight to mount a 24 hour watch which would increase the chances of seeing one. Brown Bears of course hibernate over the winter and don't emerge until April.
Lieksa - July 2008
Era Eero claims to be the only lodge in Finland where the “big 4” – Bears, Wolverines, Wolves and Lynxes have been seen. The latter two are rare, but a Lynx that visited in May stayed around for almost 2 weeks. If only I had known….
The lodge has been run as a wildlife place for the past 5 years. Eero Kortelainen, the owner, grew up in the area and is keen to run the place in keeping with Finnish traditions. There is a sauna of course, and no electricity (though that wasn’t a problem because they could arrange to charge my phone). The wildlife viewing hide is about 6km away, and overlooks a lake and a primary-forested slope. Eero sets bait all around.
Era Eero is a small lodge and so they can cater to individuals well. I dealt with Juhani Heiskanen, the lodge's wildlife guide, who was extremely helpful and speaks perfect English. Not only did he look after me at the lodge but he went out of his way to help find people who could find me other species.
The usual routine is to travel from the lodge to the hide at about 4pm and leave at 6am the next day. The hide is very comfortable – reclining seats, and camp beds, inside toilet etc. They also have a powerful microphone set up so you can hear most rustles for over 100 metres. A german film crew were set up in a smaller hide next door and they were filming a documentary on Wolverines. Apparently Wolverines had come for the past 9 nights consecutively. Bears had been less regular but were also seen or heard most nights. My confidence remained.
The first night was long and frustrating. Juhani expected a Wolverine would come before about 8pm. By 23.30 the light was fading into the twilight of mid summer but we stayed awake. It was day again at 2.30. Still nothing. We left at 7.30 – tired and emotional…. Juhani and Eero were surprised at the lack of anything mammalian and I was touched by their genuine disappointment.
Back at the lodge I slept and then set some small mammal traps before lunch. Then back to the hide and this time I was staying there alone. My confidence, along with my watching companions, had deserted me.
The night was long and slow, punctuated only by coffee and donuts. At 5am I was starting to pack up my gear, convinced that I was cursed never to see a Wolverine. At 5.30 I glanced out of the window one last time ... and a Wolverine was in front of me. She stayed for an hour, moving around the various bait stations and through the swampy area in front of the hide. What a fabulous animal. What a wonderful hour. And I'm glad it took so long to arrive ... it made the moment all the more special.
I guess it it possible that there are better places in the world to see Wolverines. But I haven't heard about them.
Oulu - March 2007
The next day started with breakfast at Eero's place (with a Red Squirrel on his bird feeder). ANd then we went to Kumho and met with a Finnish nature film maker who is a friend of Eero's and owned the hides that we were going to use first. We saw both a herd of Reindeer and a Capercaillie at the side of the road.
After several hours of faffing around, including a trip to some government offices to get a permit to enter the buffer zone along the Russian border, we made it to the hide about 1pm. It was raining and this did not bode well for Wolverine watching - they don't like moving when the snow is soft. But there were fresh Wolverine tracks on the 15 minute trail to the hide. The snow was still deep and so we had to use snowshoes.
The hide was cramped to say the least (about 3m x 1m) but the amount of Wolverine tracks around the pile of dead pigs suggested that the discomfort was worth it. Later in the afternoon the sun came out and a Goshawk turned up. But no Wolverine and we left about 6.30 as the light was fading. Eero remained confident that we would succeed the next day.
I spent the second night in a cabin in the forest close to the Russian border about 60km south east of Kumho. The elliott traps I set in the woodshed had a few Bank Voles the next morning, which had a narrower and more pronounced band of red band of fur on the back than those I an used to seeing in Western Europe (so much so that I thought they were Grey-sided Voles to begin with).
And then it was back to the hide. We got there at 7am, a couple of hours later than we could have arrived (the sun comes up about 5). The night had been cold and so the snow was much firmer than the day before. And this hide was also larger than the day before's (at least 4metres long) and kitted out for photography rather than film making which was a bonus. A fresh Elk carcass had been delivered the afternoon before, and there were Wolverine tracks across the top of the trail the Skidoo had made when it delivered the deer. So both Eero and I were optimistic. Eero explained that the last person to use the hide and been a Finnish photographer a couple of weeks before me. He had spent two days there and seen a Wolverine (or Wolverines) several times on both days.
12 hours, about 100 games of brick-buster on my cell phone, and 1kg of biscuits later I was less confident. We decided to spend the night in the hide. There was just about enough light to see what was going on around the deer carcass until about 8pm and after that the starlight and reflection from the snow was enough to spot movement, provided I put my head out of the hide window. I woke up every hour or so to check through the night and began watching again full time at 4am when the day started to break.
We left at 9am, Wolverineless. But there were fresh tracks (less than an hour old) crossing the road that took us the 5km back to the cabin. I am not sure if this helped or worsened my disappointment! Perhaps the delivery of a fresh carcass the day before I arrived was a mistake. Wolverines are notoriously skittish and the disturbance may have spooked it.
Oh well. I want to return (and I did the following year). There are several other animals that one can apparently see quite easily in the summer including Flying Squirrels, Water Shrews, and Northern Bats so I hope to get back. On the way back to the airport we stopped near Eero's place to see Ermili (he used to be Emily), a wild Grey Hawk Owl that has been hanging around for two months and has developed a taste for being hand-fed rodents. That was kind of fun.
I had just a weekend to try to see a Wolverine. But Eero was confident that it was "80%" guaranteed. On reflection we should probably have tried harder than we did earlier on. Next time I know better.
Other People's Trip Reports
Estonia, Finland and Arctic Norway, 2012: Dominique Brugiere, 3 weeks & 17 species plus another 3 dead, including Wolverine, Brown Bear, Wolf, and Reindeer.
Finland, 2011: Mark Hows, 16 days & 26 species including Wolverine and lots of rodents.
Finland, 2011: Steve Morgan, 5 nights and lots of Wolverine watching, plus Brown Bears and a Wolf.
In 2009 John Dixon visited Finland and saw Wolverines easily a bear hide run by Metsanvaki Oy/Forest Folk Ltd. Contact details are variable: e-mail email@example.com tel +358 (0) 13 687 2228 or Olli direct on firstname.lastname@example.org tel +358 (0) 50 060 1915.
Finland 2009: Derek Shingles, 2 weeks and 7 species including a Saimaa Ringed Seal and Raccoon Dogs.
Finland 2007: Michel Gervais, 4 weeks and 10 live mammals plus 4 more squashed (including a Wolverine)
Some tips from Elina Enho on seeing Saimaa Seals in Linnansaari National Park are here.