If you’ re lucky, you may get to see a bear – if you’ re unlucky, you may not be able to tell about it.Anonymous Eastern Finlander, 2020
As I continue driving east, the habitation gets more and more scarce. Eventually, there’s just forest and lakes around. Tarmac roads are full of potholes and soon enough, the tarmac ends altogether and I continue on dirt. Once I zoom out my navigator, the Russian borderzone peeks at the edge of the screen.
It’s raining and temperature drops close to zero. I decide to sleep in my car instead of setting up a tent for the first night. It’s supposed to be four sunny days of pedalling ahead – let’s see how it one turns out. I fall asleep listening to the raindrops on the roof of my car and thinking of bears.
Next morning is indeed a sunny one! I attach all my gear on the bike and start pedalling – four days of fatbiking ahead!
My plan is to cycle along the Bear´s Trail (Karhunpolku in Finnish), which is a 130k(ish) hiking trail in Eastern Finland along the Russian border. Along the trail, there are several shelters and places for campfire. As I wanted to give a proper field test for my wild camping gear, I mostly avoid them spending my nights in the wild.
Even though the trail has a reputation of being well marked (and it was), I had the full route loaded to a couple of gps devices making sure I didn´t get lost.
Before the trip, I learned that the area is one of the most probable places in Finland to actually get to see a bear. On intellectual level, I’m fully aware that bears are typically harmless and really afraid of people. On emotional level though, I found myself equally afraid of them and really hoped our paths wouldn’t come to cross.
First day, I ride for hours in constant sunshine passing serene lakes, desolate swamps and endless pine forests. At around dinnertime I arrive to a shelter up a hill overlooking a lake and decide to stop for some cooking. Sitting there in sunshine, stomach full of pasta, lounging at the shelter overnight starts to feel like quite a tempting option. Luckily, the sight of a fisherman setting up a tent nearby nudges me to continue. It’ s already 6PM.
I keep riding on, feeling energised after my short break and don’t even notice how the time passes. Soon enough, it’s already 10PM and the sun is starting to set behind treetops. It’s completely quiet.
This time of the year, it doesn’t really get completely dark at this latitude. Still, as the shadows creep in, my imagination puts a bear or a lurking wolf behind every other tree or bush I pass along the way.
Finally, at midnight, I arrive to my planned campsite next to a half-frozen lake and set up my tent next to a wartime dugout and tank barriers. Surrounded by noisy wildlife and wartime memorials I sleep like a baby! At night, the temperature dips below zero.
Over an extended weekend, I manage to cover the southern half of the Bear’s trail biking about 130km in the process. For the most part, the trail is well rideable even with a fully loaded fatbike.
There are a couple of detours marked on the map for bikers to skip the trickiest parts of the trail. Personally, I didn’t take the detours on the way south and definitely regretted it enough to actually use them on the way back up north.
Water is easily available from the numerous streams and lakes along the way. I was carrying only a couple of litres on the bike and using Katadyn BeFree for purification just to be on the safe side.
Regardless of the ominous name (Bear’s trail), I didn’t end up seeing any bears over the weekend. On my last day though, I was pushing the bike on a lonely forest road minding my own business when my brain registered something was off.
I reversed my steps for a couple meters as my eyes were pulled to a very visible footprint in the middle of the road.
I stopped for photos assuming the bear had just crossed the road and continued on – until less than a mile further, on the same road, there was another spot full of bear footprints looking a lot like an adult and a baby bear heading to the same direction with me.
Luckily, I didn’t see the actual bears, or any other person for that matter, for the rest of the day – a lonely fatbiker singing out loud in the middle of the forest might have left an unforgettable impression for either!
Typically, my travels take me outside of Finland and the lack of local language skills make it difficult to source good information on the destination. This time however, the tables were turned, as everything needed for planning was readily available in my native language!
Summary of the best online sources I was able to find (mostly in Finnish)
Patvinsuo National Park https://www.discoveringfinland.com/destination/patvinsuo-national-park/
Route description and maps: http://www.vaellus.info/reitit/karhunpolku/
Videos and description of mountain biking the trail: https://mtbreitti.fi/reitit/karhunpolku-mtb-reitti/
Excellent summary of Northern Karelia outdoor possibilities by my friend Endorfiininmetsästäjä (who kindly coached me for this trip as well!): https://endorfiininmetsastaja.fi/pohjois-karjala/
Downloadable gps track: https://www.traildino.com/trace/continents-Europe/countries-Finland/trails-Karhunpolku