Finland

Tuesday, June 27

Strike One!
After attending a ribbon cutting at Raven Rock State Park, we headed to the airport to begin our journey to Finland and a wildlife photo shoot with Hector Astorga.

Our flight was 20 minutes late leaving the airport, but we had enough of a layover at Dulles that we’d be okay. When we landed at Dulles however, our plane sat on the tarmac for more than 20 minutes making it difficult for us, but not impossible, to reach our gate in time. But to compound things, the proper gate driver, the person who brings the ramp to the plane’s door, was not available and we had to wait an additional 10 minutes. We had two minutes to get to our gate which was almost a quarter mile down the terminal. We arrived just in time to watch the plane pull away from the gate.

We looked to the gate agent and we’re told we would need to see customer service, back at the other end of the terminal, for rebooking. Having run the length of the terminal with 20 pound backpacks, we were exhausted. We made our way down to gate 20 to find that the line for people trying to rebook flights was nearly the length of the terminal! Dulles had been experiencing communication outages since Sunday, the FAA was short staffed, and weather was playing havoc with flights up and down the east coast. A perfect trifecta of issues.

We looked at each other and I suggested, that since we were traveling 1st class, that we regroup, take it easy, and figure out what to do in United’s lounge. We got to the desk at the lounge and the poor woman at the desk was frazzled, trying to help the people in front of her understand that they didn’t have the credentials to enter. They finally left and the next person gave her a hard time too. We approached, scanned our boarding passes, and gave her our sympathies. She looked at our credentials and told us we were good to go to the Polaris Lounge across the way instead, then winked at us and said it was a much nicer lounge and that they had customer service there with a much shorter line.

We trudged over and sure enough, it was a nicer, and larger, lounge, and there was indeed a shorter line, only about a dozen people. We plopped our stuff down and took turns standing in line. Because of one group taking two hours to rebook their flights, it still took us five hours to get our rebooking done. It would mean a night in Washington DC, again, but we would be on our way Wednesday. Our luggage, we were assured, would go with us all the way to Helsinki.

One we’d gotten to a hotel, I went on Viator.com and cancelled the tour of the city that we had scheduled for Thursday. A word about Viator – they make booking short tours like this incredibly easy, and even easier to cancel – as long as you do it at least 24 hours prior to the tour.

Wednesday, June 28

Strike Two!
Since our flight wasn’t going out until after 5:00PM, we slept in, enjoyed breakfast at the hotel, then took the hotel shuttle to the airport. I check our bags’ AirTags and they showed that they were at the airport. Good.

We took advantage of the lounge and had a light lunch.

As I sat and worked on my laptop on some FRARO items, a gentleman whom I had conversations with the day before as we’d stood in line for customer service together, approached me and said hello. He had left to catch a flight yesterday, but when I asked what happened, he told me that they sat on the plane for hours, then suddenly the flight was simply cancelled! So now, like us, he was back waiting for a flight out in the afternoon.

Later, as we made our way to our gate, we noticed that the customer service line was still there, but much shorter. We got on our plane, which was to Paris (our previous flight was through Munich, and relaxed. I checked our AirTags again and saw they were “with us” on the plane. Good.

We arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris on time and had four hours to kill. Some of that time was spent getting to our gate. I checked our bags and they were somewhere nearby at the airport.

When we boarded our plane and waited to take off for Helsinki, I checked our bags again. Alan’s bag was on the plane, but mine was showing it hadn’t moved from its previous location. Damn. My bag got left behind.

Once we’d landed in Helsinki we made our way to baggage claim. Alan waited for his bag while I went to make a lost claim. Fortunately, I had photos of our bags and luggage tags, so they were able to add those to the claim. I also told the agent where my bag was pinging in Charles de Gaulle Airport, and she added that to the claim.

When we got to our hotel I got online with the bag claim website and added more precisely where in the airport my bag was pinging. An hour later I received an email that they’d found my bag and it would be on its way shortly. It did arrive at the Helsinki airport that night, but too late for a courier.

Friday, June 30

Strike Three!
This morning, by 7:30, I had my bag. Thank you AirTags!!

We had a hiking tour of a national forest set up for today, and since I now had my hiking shoes and proper clothing, I could go.

We met our guide, David, along with two other hikers; Kitty, from France, and Anna from Germany. It would be a five mile hike with an opportunity to take a dip in a lake. About 3/4 of a mile in I fell. Badly. I felt a slight “pop” in my left ankle. I sat still for a moment and then let Alan and David help me up. Not good, but not terrible. I could stand on it and walk a little. Alan gave me his hiking pole and with those I could keep going, but it wouldn’t be for the remaining 4.25 miles. Anna gave me some Tylenol, and I assured David that I would be okay. He gave Alan the keys to his car and we made our way back – another half mile on a bum ankle. Ouch.

We waited a few hours for David and the girls to get back. Anna shared the pictures she took of the hike. I hate we’d missed it.

Since I could hobble on it, I knew it wasn’t fully sprained, thank God, but it was definitely strained.

Three bad things. Missed flights, lost luggage, and now a boo-boo ankle. That’s all that is allowed. No more, please.

David, sweet man, let us all off at our hotel, and we made our way to the pharmacy nearby for some help. One of the pharmacists got us set up with pain meds (Tylenol equivalent), wraps, and a walking cane.

We had a late lunch at one of the cafes at the train station, then went to our hotel room to rest and take care of this ankle. Alan went downstairs and requested a bag of ice and after a shower, I started elevating and icing it immediately.

For dinner Alan went to the local Subway and got us some sandwiches. I stayed in bed.

Saturday, July 1

We had the overpriced breakfast (€22 each) at the hotel again, then finished packing up and headed for the train station. Alan carried his camera pack on his back and mine on top of his suitcase. I managed my suitcase and other bag. We had a hell of a time finding our train’s platform, and we were early. It sprinkled a little bit while we waited but our train finally arrived and, with great difficulty, and Alan’s strength, we boarded the train and Alan stowed our bags.

The ride along the countryside was very pleasant. I’d gotten us double seats in the ekstra class which allowed us to put our camera bags on the seat next to us.

Finland has trains going everywhere. The trains are smooth riding, and best of all, quiet. Finlanders like their quiet. And everywhere on the train there were little graphic reminders to be quiet. Conversations were whispered or nonexistent. The noisiest it got was when we stopped at stations to allow people off or on.

After about six hours we arrived in Oulu. Through some scattered signage and guesswork we found the bus and taxi area for the station. We sat beneath a “taksi” sign and tried to figure out how to get a taxi when one pulled up. We thought it was for the family who showed up well after we did, but they said they didn’t order it and told us we were there first so to go ahead and take it. We did and within 15 minutes we were at our hotel for just €30. Not a terrible fee.

We check in and settle into our room. It had two cot-sizes beds, a desk and a sofa, which is where we plopped our bags. It has a large picture window which looks out over a lawn, and beyond that a bay on the Gulf of Bothnia.

Dinner was in the Spanish themed restaurant above the hotel; Da Mario Ristorante Pizzeria.

Sunday, July 2

Alan went out early looking for birds while I stayed put to elevate and ice my ankle. He came back a few hours later with several new bird photos to add to our ever growing list.

Somehow we miss the lunch our at the restaurant, so we grabbed a snack and made do with that.

In the afternoon we met a couple who were part of the workshop group, Carol and Patrick from Arizona. They are quite well traveled and very accomplished photographers.

Hector arrived and I joined him in the hotel’s bar along with another of our photographers, Micael. We chatted for awhile, then the sixth photographer, Robert, joined us. Our Finland guide, Perita, and the rest of the group showed up and we all went upstairs for dinner at the restaurant and got to know a bit more about each other.

Monday, July 3

Breakfast was at 7:30, and by 9:00 we were packed up and on the road toward our first lodge, Boreal Wildlife Center in Viiksimo. We made a couple of stops along the way for lunch and snack shopping.

After we’d gotten settled in at the lodge and had an early supper, we headed for our first of many blinds (or hides) at 4:00PM to observe and photograph grizzlies, wolves, and Alan’s desired target, wolverines.

Alan, Robert, Micael, Perita and I set up in the larger of the two Swamp hides. Hector, Carol and Patrick settled into the smaller hide. Right away we saw a small bear. Then came “Yogi”, a huge male. After Yogi came a very skittish skinny bear. We all got great photos.

Between bear sightings we watched a couple of black kites, an assortment of gulls, and some wagtails too.

For the next six to seven hours we watched about five different bears come and go. Then, around midnight two wolves showed up! They were careful to avoid the bears but it was obvious they wanted some food. An hour later one of them returned and faced off with Skinny Bear. He snarled and barked and nipped at Skinny’s feet to try and bother Skinny away from the remains of a carcass. They faced off like this for about twenty minutes. It was dark out so getting good pictures in this light was almost impossible. Finally they had a tug of war over the remains, and the wolf won, running away with his prize, Skinny in hot pursuit. Nat Geo type stuff. Wow!

Hours later the wolves returned and so did Skinny. But they kept their distance from each other. After they left a large common crane flew into the far field, and one of the kites returned. We saw a black woodpecker but missed getting a shot of it.

We are staying all night since the wolverines had been spotted in the morning vs evening, but we didn’t see any of them this night.

At 7:00AM we packed up and went back to the lodge for a quick breakfast before sleeping for a few hours.

Tuesday, July 4

Up at 1:00PM, I was glad of the five hours of sleep. We had dinner at 3:00 then left at 4:00PM for the Forest hide.

At the hides we broke up in groups; Carole, Patrick and Micael in one of the larger hides, Robert, Alan and I in the other. Hector and Perita each sat in a smaller hide. We watched three bears and a hundred gulls come in and decimate the bate with the first few hours. After that, nothing but a few great spotted woodpeckers and some more gulls. No wolverines. Dang.

We left the hide early, 1:00am and after showering and downloading images at the lodge, got to sleep at 2:30.

Wednesday, July 5

When the rest of the gang arrived back at the lodge at 7:30 for breakfast we heard that they had seen a wolverine, but only briefly before it headed off toward the pond hides where another group reported seeing it, again briefly.

We had breakfast then returned to our room for a little more sleep.

At 3:00 we joined the others for the early dinner, then took off for the Pond hides. Along the route we stopped for a photo at the border warning sign. Our hides were situated along the buffer zone on the border with Russia. An interesting bit of history is that Finland and Russia never signed a peace treaty with each other after WWII – so technically they are still at war.

We saw four different bears who would come and look for food, then leave only to return later for another look. Yogi, the biggest bear, walked behind our hide and settled himself down for a grub snack and some sleep right between Hector’s and the larger hides. He stayed there for several hours, then finally ambled off.

We also saw a green sandpiper (new), and a pretty common goldeneye (duck).

While we were here we watched a huge male approach the camp, wander about sniffing for goodies, then lay down just outside the other hide’s door, and fall asleep. Nobody from that hide went out to the toilet! Eventually he woke up and wandered off. On another occasion, I told Alan I was going to use the toilet, which was outside, and he grabbed my sleeve as I was turning to go and said I’d need to wait. Another big male was checking out our hide. I watched through the slot of our door as he walked by, then waited and sure enough, he walked by again, but this time he turned and walked away, far down the trail. Only then did I go out to use the toilet.

Alan and I elected to stay the whole night, as did Carol and Patrick. We each kept to our own hides and communicated, as needed, by walkie. Hector and the others went back for some sleep since he would be driving the next day. We only saw one more bear, but we smiled as we watched it jump into the pond and swim across.

Thursday, July 6

We got back to the lodge at 7:15am and dumped our gear and headed down to breakfast, but not before downloading images and backing up files. After breakfast we packed up then Alan got a 15 minute nap. At 11:00 the whole group was packed into the two cars and making our way to our next destination. Along the way we stopped for groceries, snacks, and I bought a fleece jacket because I had seriously underestimated the cold overnight in this region.

Our lodging for the next three nights will be at a nice hotel. The camp with the hides is about 45 minutes away from the hotel. Once we’d gotten settled in to our respective rooms we gathered for lunch. Afterward we hauled photographers and gear to the camp. We had time to shoot some birds at a small bird station near the lodge before we headed to the blinds. All six of us set up in the large blind which was comfortable but not very well laid out. We set up and after an hour Alan laid down for a long nap. We saw a white tail eagle and three bears total. Other than that, it was an uneventful evening.

Friday, July 7

This evening was not very busy. We saw only three bears, but they did put on quite a show with several standing up and some back scratching. The hides were not overly comfortable and the toilets less so. Since several of the hides had no cots, the decision was made to stay only until midnight. Good think too, folks were a bit cranky.

Saturday, July 8

This is our last day in this location, so we took the opportunity to photograph some small birds and squirrels at a feeding station near the lodge.

This evening we will be going to the forest hide. In the early part of the evening we saw two bears. After that… nothing. I had decided early on that I would be going back to the hotel at midnight, and I did. Alan stayed at the hides hoping to see a wolverine. Unfortunately all he got was no sleep.

Sunday, July 9

After a quick breakfast Alan laid down while I packed up some things then went to the lobby to pay our laundry bill and then use Wi-Fi while he got a couple of hours rest. The gang met up at 11:00 and we all rode to Martinselkonen Wildlife Center for the next two nights.

On our way out to the hides, the guide pulled a sled full of bait along. One of the bears who knows what to expect, came along to see if he could get something ahead of the other bears. The guide slowly reached into a bag and then tossed some salmon out past the bear to lure it away. That worked, and the bear ran off with his prize.

After dinner at 3:00, we gathered our gear and were driven to the hides where we were to spend the entire night because there were far too many bears in the location to leave any earlier. On the mile hike in to the hides, I slipped and fell into the muck and mud. Ugh. No injuries except for my ego.

The hide here was big enough for all of us with six bunkbed style cots, a rather full compostable toilet, and plenty of camera portholes for almost everyone to have two cameras each.

Not long after we got there the bears showed up. In all, about a dozen bears, plus some moms with cubs. It was a popular place. The cubs especially were fun to watch and photograph; constantly climbing up nearby trees at any hint of perceived danger. There were no fights between the bears, but there were some “get away from me” snarls and snaps. After about 4 hours the bears started to thin out, several people from our group bedded down on bunks, then slowly more got into the bunks. Since I was hoping for a wolf or wolverine (no matter how remote a possibility), I stayed up all night. It was amusing to listen to the symphony of snoring around me.

Monday, July 10

The lodge’s people came and got us at 7:00am promptly and we hiked the mile back out to the vehicles without incident to be taken back to the lodge. Because of the mile hike, my ankle hurt quite a bit more than usual, so I opted to not go out on tonight’s hike to the hides for an overnight shoot. Instead, there was an option for the day to go out with a guide to photograph great gray owls. I, and a few others at the lodge, went on this excursion.

Our guide picked us up at the lodge at 9:00am in his old Land Rover – it was amusing trying to get into this thing as it was way up off the ground with no extra helpful step.

He took us to his home then led us on a short hike into the forest, pointing out this and that as we walked along. We reached a spot in the forest and he spied and pointed out the owl; a female who had four fledglings nearby. She was beautiful. Our guide then instructed us to stay in place, not move much, and he took out a baggie with a dead mouse in it. He dangled the mouse, calling to the owl, then placed the mouse at the top of a short bush and stepped away. The owl sized up the mouse, then took off and landed on it, taking it into her beak and then flew to her biggest chick, who had plaintively been chirping to her, sitting in a tree by itself. She fed the chick, then flew off to another tree. This scenario was repeated six more times – she took another mouse to the lone chick, then took one to one of three sitting on a large branch together, then ate the rest herself. The process was fascinating to witness.

Once the mice were gone, we hiked to another location so our guide could tell us more about the owls and his work with them, then we headed back to his Land Rover and back to the lodge. Alan left with the others at 4:00pm for the night.

Tuesday, July 11

Alan got in at around 7:30AM and the first thing he said to me was, “Be glad you didn’t go”. These hides were very different from the first night’s hide. They were small, short (no standing up), and the toilet was a bucket with a toilet seat on top. From what I gathered the others were in similar hides and most had trees in their way, so getting a good shot was tough. Yeah, I was glad I hadn’t gone. At 11:00 we left the lodge to head back to Oulu and the same hotel we had arrived at the week before. Along the way we ran up on a herd of motley looking reindeer (winter molt).

It was good to get a shower and repack before our last supper together. Everyone shared funny stories and even some funny memes and shorts from the Internet. Afterward I tried to get online with British Airways to rebook our first leg of our flight out so that we had a bit more breathing room between flights. I could not for the life of me get through. So tomorrow I will try again and hopefully get it rebooked somehow.

Wednesday, July 12

I finally got through to a person at British Airways and he worked and got us on an earlier flight out of Oulu. What a relief. London, here we come.