The Wombles on Wimbledon Common are the nearest thing my urban lad Angus gets to wildlife. So when I offer to take him bear-watching in Kuhmo in eastern Finland, the would-be nature boy jumps at the chance.
‘Can bears kill you?’ is the first of a gazillion questions he asks during the hour-long flight from Helsinki to Kajaani.
‘Well, yes they can,’ I reply. ‘But they won’t. We’ll be very safe.’
I did worry that at eight he’s perhaps too young for this sort of adventure, but my fears prove entirely unfounded – Finland has a long history of bear-watching, and over the past 10 years it’s become much more commercialised, without for all that becoming a Gentle Ben themepark.
The Hotel Kalevala is a traditional hotel shaped like an eagle on the shores of Lake Lammasjärvi in Kuhmo. We arrive close to midnight, but thanks to the area’s infamous midnight sun, the light sky bathes the lake in a dusky glow.
The first afternoon, we set off towards the Boreal Wildlife Centre in a former border station between Finland and Russia. After an early supper there, we’re taken through the house rules of bear-watching: talk only in a low whisper and do not leave the hide without a guide. We then head to the Taiga forest, a no-man’s-land straddling the two countries and the home of the European brown bear.
The hide is a little more than a large wooden shed with one long, thin window overlooking a barren clearing in the pine forest. It’s basic but well-equipped with bunk-beds (bear-watching is a hobby for those who are patient), a composting loo and the all-essential tea and coffee facilities.
Now, silence is not something that comes naturally to Angus, but he sits quietly scouring the landscape, and his patience is rewarded within just 15 minutes, when a comical duo of bears lumber onto the scene.
‘Whoaaah,’ he whispers, his eyes wide in awe. ‘Look Mum, bears!’
They’re much larger than I expected: big and stocky with mournful doggy faces and thick, coffee-coloured fur. They seem quite unaware of our presence as they snaffle the dog biscuits left out by our guide. Moments later, another lumbering fellow strolls into view and looks directly at us before wandering off in search of a tree to rub.
Angus is in his element, and with a dozen or so bears roaming our own stretch of wilderness, our four hours in the hide fly by. When the last bear slowly waddles out of view, our guide quietly shuffles us out safely.
Bear-watching aside, the Kuhmo region is jam-packed with family-friendly activities, including cycling, fishing and kayaking. On our last day, we take a canoe-safari on Kuhmo’s Lake Jämäsjärvi. We’re the only paddlers for miles, and as our oars quietly slice through the deep, cola-coloured waters, it feels like we’re the last people on Earth.
Read more about family holidays in Finland.