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Untamed Forests and Curious Brown Bears
in the Wilds of Estonia
BY BETTY REED
August 6, 2021
Not many families would hike through the wild woods of Estonia, clouded in humidity and mosquitos to observe brown bears at the height of summer in August. But mine did. Call me an intrepid traveler or an overly-curious cat who counts on extra lives, just in case the latest adventure doesn’t work out—either works. My family has other monikers for me.
image: Julius Jansson/Unsplash
13:45 We are at the TOPS supermarket in Tartu, the last modern-day trading post of civilization before we venture into untamed forests that cover fifty-five percent of Estonia. I suggest we use the restrooms as the cabin does not have a flush toilet. Daniel, our seventeen-year-old son, stops in the snack aisle, mouth agape, his eyebrows furrowed into a frown.
“Oh no. Not another—”
He doesn’t continue. He doesn’t have to. In the speech bubbles above our heads the three of us picture the odiferous compost toilet in our eco-tent on St. John’s. We did have a shower, a sprinkler head attached to a hose that pumped out a spray of solar-warmed water. We will not have that luxury tonight. There is no running water.
We stock up on food. Who knew you could buy vodka chocolates in Tartu? Afterall, Vodka didn’t seep into Estonia through osmosis. The Russians’ fifty-year occupation from 1940-1990 did that. We buy plums, apples, nuts—wait a sec. We will observe the bears, not turn into them. I select cheese-filled pastries and yogurt.
14:45 Uli, my German husband, does all the driving. He can handle European express drivers, pocket-sized parking spots and two-way mountain curves that are barely wide enough for a couple of goats. We pass Lake Peipsi. I wonder if the popular drink’s name originated here. Isolated clusters of four or five wood houses sprout from the roadside. Half of the peeling-paint structures, including dilapidated barns, are abandoned. Occasionally a rusty observation tower topped with a bent and battered metal hut protrudes from the thick vegetation, reminders that people lived under glass magnifiers for five decades. Lake Peipsi is the fourth largest lake in Europe, but the area is sparsely populated. The younger generations migrate to the cities. It’s easy to see why. There’s nothing out here except the lake. While that might entice outdoorsy tourists, the azure waters framed with golden cane and marsh rushes are still recovering from Soviet-era agriculture-related chemical runoff pollution.
16:00 For an hour we pass signs for small towns. One sounds like a housekeeping list, Tudu. Google Maps commands us to take an unmarked exit off the cracked asphalt route onto an unsealed (loosely paved) potholed road. It feels as if we’re on a spy mission. Our destination has no name, no address. All we have are the coordinates, given to us by our contact named Peep, an improbable but typical one-syllable Estonian name. He is our contact at NaTourEst, a company offering overnight stays in the woods since 2009, in custom-built cabins to observe brown bears and other wildlife.
The gravel pavement deteriorates into dirt and the dirt decays into deep ruts. There are no signs, no wooden arrows pointing us to our destination. We drive two kilometers, barely seeing anything through our dust-encased car. Not that there’s much to see other than window-high weeds and the flanks of the dark forest. We stop at a red sign forbidding cars and people from that point on. Although we can’t understand Estonian and have butchered every attempt at pronunciation, most signs use international language—picture icons. After all, IKEA was founded in Sweden, just an eight-hour jaunt by boat across the Baltic Sea.
Uli: “This can’t be right.”
Me: “I put in the coordinates they gave us.”
Daniel: “What coordinates are they?”
I give him my phone.
Uli angles the car five times to complete a U-turn.
Daniel: “Yep, this should be it.”
It’s comforting to know that my unreliable technological knowledge has not screwed this up. We find a narrower dirt road that leads to a narrower nowhere. Another U-turn, this one in eight points.
16:15 Not panicking yet, I text Peep. We are following Google Maps, but we don’t see any sign of the Brown Bear Hideouts meeting point. Is there a sign anywhere?
Me: “Let’s go back to that sign. According to Google we didn’t drive far enough.”
Uli: “But cars are forbidden—”
Me: “We’ll have to drive beyond it.”
Daniel huffs in the backseat. “This is the middle of nowhere.” He’s right.
No reply from Peep.
16:30 Beyond the sign and after another kilometer of bumps and bounces the road ends at a round, matted-grass parking area with a carved wooden statue of a brown bear. Eureka. I text Peep that we found the sign. Later he responds with a thumbs-up emoji. We exit the car and fall prey to a swarm of mosquitoes. We slap on bug spray while swatting at the vicious insects. We collect our backpacks. Smeared in DEET we sit in the shade at a roofed picnic table, next to the bear.
16:45 A guide arrives. She’s a university student at Tartu and helps NaTourEst in the summer. A van pulls up with seven Germans and another guide. Uli’s observation is correct. The more remote the place, the more Germans you find. At the top of a dead volcano in Panama, at the Mayan ruins in Mexico’s Palenque’s jungle, at a scraggly market in an outpost town in Irian Jaya, who did we meet? You know the answer.
His fellow countrymen unload tripods, telescopic cameras, and wear lunch-box-sized binoculars around their necks. I think about my puny opera glasses that will double as a wildlife observation tool. I’m glad we have one proper, giant set of binoculars and have rented a pair from Peep for seven dollars. The last two tourists have been delayed, so the student stays to wait for them. The rest of us follow the wild-bearded guide into the woods. He points out pawprints from a wild boar in the mud and trees where bears scratch to sharpen their claws, their version of a manicure. After a kilometer the trail is blocked with posts and a chain. He explains that in 2017 NaTourEst bought 86,2 hectares of land, situated between the oldest National Park, Lahemaa, and the youngest, Alutaguse, formed in 2018. The area is comprised of taiga forest, a biodome consisting mostly of pines, spruces, larches, bogs and grass meadows. The habitat is a home for brown bears, flying squirrels, wild boar, elk, deer, otters, wolves, lynx—LYNX? He assures us they are rarely seen. Everyone’s voice drops to a whisper.
17:40 We reach a clearing with two brown cabins. Each accommodates eight people. The German group takes one; we take the other. Inside the cabin there are four bunk beds on the windowless left and right walls. In the center is a walled-off, dry (not odiferous at all) toilet. One and a half meters above the floor, the front and back walls have three stretches of meter-long, thirty-centimeter-high windows with a running shelf to prop up our elbows and aim our binoculars. On the chairs we find two sets of binoculars, a bonus that allows my opera glasses to retain their dignity.
17:55 A pleasant young couple from Australia arrives. We lock the door to the outside. No one is allowed outside the cabin until morning. Who would want to? We chat. We eat. We search the woods for signs of life.
18:10 I watch a bullfinch pick at the ground, flying back and forth to a nearby tree, its red breast divulging its location. A common rose finch, with its signature disheveled red head, and a spritely gray nuthatch flit from branch to branch. How fascinating birds are, especially when there are no other visible signs of wildlife. I consider becoming a birdwatcher. Nah. You have to get up too early.
18:30 Aussie guy asks what time our guide said the bears come out. We heard 17:30 and 2:00. They heard 19:00, 21:00, 5:30.
Uli: “Did I hear that someone wants to set an alarm?” Groans from all sides.
One person keeps watch on the back side of the cabin where there is a slender stream running through a boggy meadow. Right now, Uli is on duty. I trust my husband, but I’m not sure how close an animal would have to be for Uli to see, given that his binoculars are on the shelf and he is only “glancing” at (reading) the newspaper. I sit with him and search for bears.
19:00 Daniel taps my shoulder and whispers, “Something’s out there. I think it’s a mongoose.” Daniel is probably still thinking about St. John’s where mongoose run rampant and stole his granola bars. Uli and I rush to the seats on the front side. The cutest black-ringed eyes stare back at us. We watch the animal eat what looks like a giant orange mushroom.
Me: Oh. It’s a badger!
We reminisce about the millions of times we read Bedtime for Frances, a perennial favorite of children and parents.
19:30 The badger looks bigger than what we imagine. He leaves. The Aussies tell us it’s a raccoon dog, a first sighting for us. My stomach growls. It sounds like a lion. I open the paper bag containing the sandwich. It sounds like a clap of thunder. When you’re trying to be quiet, everything is louder. I chew. It sounds like metallic baking trays crashing on a tile floor.
image: Tarmo Sammal
19:45 Another mongoose-badger-coon-dog arrives, then a smaller one. Coon dog Number One joins them. Occasionally it stands on its hind legs with its ears perked, and freezes. What does he hear? What other animals lurk in the woods? A bear perhaps? The trio finishes supper and departs.
19:55 Someone yawns. It’s still light outside. Sunset is at 21:04. Someone’s knuckles crack. I see an enormous ant and am about to call the others but am saved from embarrassment when my stiff shoulders remind me that I’m still hunched at the window, looking through the binoculars at an ant on the windowpane.
20:55 Daniel reads. Uli reads. The Aussies are eating something loud and crunchy.
Daniel: “What if the bears don’t come out?”
We make a pact that we’ll lie.
The raccoon dogs return. Everyone returns to their seats, elbows planted on the shelf to hold up the twenty-pound binocs. Okay. They weigh three pounds. But they seem to gain weight as the evening progresses.
20:30 The coon dog family leaves. I eat a plum.
20:45 I’m wrapping the plum pit and handwipe in our take-in-take-out trash bag when my husband comes to get me.
Uli: “There’s a bear!”
In the dusk a giant dark shadow plods to the forest’s edge. Ecstatic whispers.
“It’s a bear.”
“This is terrifying,” whispers the Australian woman.
The bear’s pointed snout appears, then two front legs, a muckle of shaggy dark brown fur and the massive hind legs. It sniffs around, routs out roots, and turns rocks over. It’s about eight meters away. The sharp teeth and long snout share no resemblance to the plush teddy bears our kids own. The bear pulls up tree roots and digs with his razor-sharp claws. He pounces on a pile of logs over and over and buries his head in a hole. He plods away, snorting and sniffing every surface, returns to the log, jumps again like a wrestler’s body slam and finally dislodges whatever is holding the hidden bait. He emerges with a fish in its mouth and runs off.
Uli: Isn’t it kind of strange to find a fish in the woods?
He knows it’s planted. NaTourEst provides jobs to locals. We wonder aloud who gets the job of walking into the woods with a bunch of fish and hiding them without getting mauled by a hungry bear.
“That was fantastic.”
“I can’t believe it—a real one.”
“He looked so menacing.”
“Now we don’t have to lie.”
21:20 Another, larger bear appears. Brown bears are enormous. In North America they’re called grizzly bears. They are rivaled in size only by polar bears. This new bear has matted, light-colored fur and a large extrusion on his back. It’s the bear’s version of a neck. His head is huge, like a nuclear medicine ball, but with a pointy protrusion. Hind legs lumber powerfully around the edge of the woods. He has no belly, only muscle. He sniffs around, digs, searches, tries to move something we can’t see. His head disappears in the ground, over and over until he emerges with a fish and runs off with it. During the Soviet era hunting decimated the brown bear population to an estimated two hundred. In the years since the bears were declared an endangered species, their numbers have grown to a count of seven hundred.
image: Tarmo Sammal
21:40 The bear returns. Again, and Again. We’re mesmerized, fascinated, ecstatic to see bears in the wild, not in a cage. We are in a cage, but it feels right. We are visitors in the bears’ home.
21:40 It seems that the show is over. We are unrolling our sleeping bags on the bunk beds when Daniel says in a quiet voice that sounds as if we’re in a horror movie, “Mom, look behind you.” I turn, frozen in ice-cold terror to the back side of the cabin and see a black outline of a ponderous bear, trudging through the bog into the moonlit forest.
22:00 Like the Waltons, we say goodnight aloud, but not too loud.
7:30 The alarm blares. We pack up. Aussie girl reports on the wildlife. She didn’t sleep all night, panic-stricken by every noise. She saw a bear outside at 1:30 and 3:00, an elk at 4:10 and a bear again at 5:00. She asks when the guide will pick us up?
Me: There is no guide. We’re supposed to walk back on our own.
With a slight tremor in her voice, she asks if we don’t mind waiting a few minutes so we can hike back as a group. Of course. We bid farewell back at our cars. Uli drives down the pitted path that passes for a road. We’ve eaten up our food rations. We’re hungry. Hungry as bears of course. Like the bears, we, too, will probably have fish, the delectable, marinated herring Estonians love. But the only open café is thirty-one miles away. I wish I’d bought those vodka chocolates.
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Elizabeth Reed is a musician, political activist and traveler. She is writing a memoir about surviving leech attacks in the Sumatran rain forests, trekking in Irian Jaya and riding the rollercoaster of marriage and parenting. She and her husband have been to 46 countries, most of them with one or two children in tow.