“Stop scratching,” I tell my dad. “You already look like a troll with acne.”
He glares and points at my legs. “Didn’t you already have measles as a child?”
I have counted 104 mosquito bites so far, but the growing itch on my back suggests my tally is incomplete. But there it is. If you want to find bears, the mosquitoes are guaranteed to find you first.
Lierne in middle Norway has plenty of both, and regularly makes headlines for shooting bears, wanting to shoot bears, and generally being less than happy about their furry neighbours – an attitude borne out of love for their suffering sheep flocks. Occasionally, the bears get their own back by reducing the headcount of the hamlet. With only 1,400 inhabitants, Lierne can hardly afford to lose any, but then that’s true of the bears too.
Lierne also has two national parks, a vague proximity to an unmarked Swedish border, and one industrial bakery whose delivery vans trek the same 180km to civilisation, and to Trondheim airport, which we have just taken. It defies logic, but so does my dad’s assertion that we somehow need cake in order to attract bears. We stop to add the necessary supplies, drive till the road runs out and enter a wilderness of straggly mountain birches, unripe cloudberries and bare mountains. After a few miles we find a boat and a lake, at the end of which is Fiskløysa cabin.
The cabin is one of fourteen rented out by the local wilderness association, Fjellstyrene i Lierne, who also administer hunting and fishing permits. It is more keen to promote the bears than the locals, and we find an information pack waiting for us, which tells us that they are shy, do their best to avoid humans and rarely attack. The local paper, which has also been left behind, contradicts this with a story of a hunter’s near-death experience.
We spend the next few days searching for bears. We bring fishing rods and worms, walking from lake to lake, looking for the deep pools in the rivers that connect them. The wind carries a smell of earth and moss, the insect repellent enveloping us in a chemical haze when it disappears. Both fail to keep the mosquitoes away.
We develop the gait of wilderness people – heavy, lumbering and solid, adapted to the ever-changing terrain of squishy marshes, rocks and twigs and roots. We catch trout and arctic char, fry them and take them down to the lake for dinner. It doesn’t get dark. All the while, binoculars are kept ready.
Fiskløysa means fishless, and is the name of both the cabin and the lake. This is either an example of the local sense of humour, or else an attempt at keeping visitors away, because the area proves to be anything but. Fish becomes our breakfast, lunch and dinner. Bears, on the other hand, are a different issue, and when not following the rivers, we climb the local peaks and watch the land for signs of movement. Lefse from Lierne bakery sweetens the wait, a soft flatbread spread with butter, sugar and cinnamon.
In the cabin, the guest book tells its story. There are entries telling tales of family winter trips (“dad won the ice-fishing competition”), snow-scooters, farmers herding cows on pasture, and boys’ weekends with hunting dogs, but limited sightings of grouse (“but the beer was good”).
The entries from the cloudberry season read like an accountant’s log; Sat 8th Aug, 13 kilos, Sun 9th, 21 kilos, Wed 12th, 17 kilos. There are no place names in these entries, no clues to location; the cloudberry pickers are prone to bragging, but do not give up their secrets. Bears like cloudberries too, and make appearances by way of paw prints, droppings and distant sightings, but there are no full-on furry encounters.
On the second day, heavy clouds roll in. By evening, thunder encloses the plateau and the sound of water is everywhere. Large, heavy drops gather and thud down on the decking from the cabin eaves. On the lake, a mesmerising pattern of circles dance across the surface. If there are any bears out there, they are not only wet, but also hidden by a wall of water. We retreat to the cabin, to a deck of cards, candles and a carton of cheap Swedish wine.
By day three we have spotted two eagles and a lost Swede, and have lost our hearts to the wilderness. But the bears remain latecomers to the party. We have yet to see a footprint. We give up.
On the way back we stop for petrol. I stretch my legs whilst my dad goes to pay.
“Bear!” My dad comes running. Can it be?
“Try some,” he says, munching happily on a piece of cured meat. “Much better without all that fur anyhow.”
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