Brown Bear Watching in the Wild in Estonia

Did you know that it is possible to observe bears and other animals in the wild in Estonia, organized by a company NaTourEst, specializing in nature tours? For us, Latvians, Estonia is just several hours of driving away, and we were so excited when we found out about the hide, that just four days later, we were already on our way. This was our first trip outside the country since the borders were reopened, and we were somewhat anxious about how that would go. However, no stops, no checking of our documents – just genuine joy at finally being able to go outside the country again. We even wrote a shopping list of Estonian-made sweets and dairy, to buy on our last day there! 

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After a five hour drive, we arrived in the village of Palasi, in Ida Viru county. The county is in the northern part of Estonia, between the city of Rakvere and Lake Peipus. So why Estonia? Well, over here in Latvia, it is not fully known whether we even have a permanent bear population, and whether sows (female bears) & cubs spend their winters here or migrate somewhere else. According to the Latvian Nature Conservation Agency,  there are about 20-30 boars (male bears, not hairy swine) that wander into Latvia in search of new territory. However, until it is confirmed that the bears reproduce locally, it is not considered a permanent population. Young sows usually stay in the same area that their mothers lived in, which is why bear populations migrate very slowly. Meanwhile, over in Estonia, there is a confirmed population of around 800 bears, half of which live in the region that we visited!

The bear population in Estonia is now doing well – historically, they were almost hunted to extinction locally, but with targeted measures to prevent this, the bears have recovered. In Finland, which is just a two hour ferry ride away from Estonia, the bear population is 2000+ animals, however, the country is also over 8 times larger, so the chance to see one in the wild is higher in Estonia.

Here are some more of my articles about Estonia:
The 5 day journey across northern & southern Estonia, and other sights near the bears!
Hiiumaa island
Saaremaa island

Tips & Tricks in Planning your Brown Bear Watching Adventure

You can book a stay at the bear-watching hide here. At the time of our visit, the prices for a full day’s visit, on weekdays, were 60 EUR for adults and 35 EUR for children, with the prices increasing to 75 EUR and 45 EUR on weekends, respectively. Children are allowed starting from the age of 7, and you can only book the trip directly with NaTourEst.

Great, so how do I get there?

Going by car, you can expect an approximately five hour drive from Riga. The roads are good, and the only stretch of gravel road is the very last kilometer, when you have to drive off the main road. They send you the exact parking coordinates once you book a trip, but it is located in Palasi. A guide will then take you from there to the actual hide.

The only way to get there via public transport departs from Rakvere, so I would recommend taking your own car, instead.

pigeons in the wild

What to Bring With You on A Bear Watching Trip

  • Food – we brought sandwiches, some fruit, protein bars, instant soups and tea. Some water, both regular and hot (in a thermos).
  • Some warm clothing – there is no heating in the hide, and nights can be rather chilly. I had three overcoats, warm socks, and slippers, so that my feet would not get cold when sitting.  
  • A sleeping bag and binoculars – for an additional fee, you can rent these on the spot, if you book them in advance, or just bring your own.
  • An outlet splitter – there is one electrical socket in the hide, into which the speakers from the microphone are plugged into. If you bring a splitter, you’ll at least be able to charge your phone or camera as well, though probably not more than that.
  • Mosquito repellent – near the parking lot, as well as on the way to the hide there are swarms of mosquitoes. Do note that it is only allowed to apply mosquito repellent out in the parking lot, not inside the forest, and certainly nowhere near the hide.
  • Lots of patience! You’ll be spending 15 hours in the hide, but you’ll likely actually see animals for just a couple of them.

Other tips

Remember that seeing a bear is not guaranteed, as this is not a zoo – though it is highly likely that you will see them! In the possible but unlikely event, that you indeed do not see any bears, the company offers to stay another night for free. NB: However, this offer only applies if you didn’t simply sleep through the encounter – there are surveillance cameras on the premises, and they’ll know whether a bear showed up or not. This is why I recommend heading there on a weekday – if you do not see any bears, it’s more likely that you’ll be able to book the next night right after, as weekdays are less busy than weekends.

I would recommend going with at least one other person – that way you’ll be able to each watch one side of the forest. If you go with more people than that, you can take turns sleeping while the others keep watch.

Bear watching season is from May to October.

Where to Eat Near the Hide

The Jaama Trahter cafe, which currently only offers takeout, has a nice terrace. A proper dinner for two (snacks, seconds, drinks) cost us 13 EUR.
Aldae market – a tiny shop, where you can buy some bread, some pastries, snacks.

Other nearby places to check out

You can read up on nature trails in Estonia here

  • Seljamäe õpperada trail – 7km long, through a bog. At the time of our visit, the entrance to the main part of the trail was closed off, however, there is an alternate entrance to the trail – driving past the restrooms and the grill, after about 600m you can turn right, and you will soon see a parking lot. After that, go through the forest, until you see the wooden walkways start, same as within  the swamp. There is also a grill with firewood and a restroom in that part of the forest.
  • Tudu metsaonn – this trail goes near lake Tudu, and consists of about 700m of wooden pathways, at the end of which is a free night shelter. On the edge of the actual lake there are paths too, as well as a place for swimming and a toilet. You can find this trail by driving the same way as you would to Seljamäe õpperada, except, shortly before you would arrive there, you can turn left, off of the gravel road (you will see a sign), and there you will find the road going towards the lake. You can also drive there from the city of Tudu.
  • Kotka matkarada – here we parked near the Rüütli swamp, where there is a tower (Kotka matkaraja vaatetorn), after which we completed the short lap of 1.6km. You can also enter from the side of the Information Centre, from there the trail is longer.

All of these trails are located in Alutaguse national park, but you could also visit the Laahemaa national park, or one of the many locations that I wrote about in my 5 days across northern & southern Estonia article – such as Alam Pedja, Endla trails, Aidu quarry, mining museum, Narva, and others.

Learning More About the Bears

We arrived at the parking lot precisely at the arranged time, where Peep Rooks from NaTourEst, the owner of the hide, was already waiting for us. Other than us, there were two more people who had arrived at the parking lot that morning. I asked Peep whether the hide was mostly visited by photographers, Peep replied that no – usually just regular people wanting to see some bears. Before, there were lots of tourists from Austria, Germany, The Netherlands, where nature tourism to Estonia is apparently quite popular, but considering the current world situation, that is not quite possible (at the time of our visit, it had only just been announced, that, starting from June 1st, the borders would be open to some more countries). It turned out that the hide is actually not well known among Estonians themselves, but mostly is visited by foreigners!

Before going to the hides, Peep gave us a tour of the bear knowledge trail right by the parking lot. There, we saw a replica of a bear den (there are real ones deeper in the forest, too, but they are too far from the road to be shown to visitors), as well as very real marks in the trees, left by bear claws. Bears use these markings to determine how large & strong the bear that left them is. There were also toppled century-old apple trees and beehives, since the territory was a homestead, long ago.

Over in Latvia, the damage done by bears is also gradually going up – mostly bears vandalizing the property of beekeepers and fruit farmers. Peep told us that if a bear craves something, it will destroy whatever is in its path, to get it. In Estonia, there is an EU-funded program that covers half of the expenses spent on setting up preventative measures, but if a bear has already destroyed an apiary or garden, then all expenses in restoring it are covered.

Hunting is permitted, though Peep said that the law was aimed more towards bears causing problems – since the bear population is growing, there are more cases of young bears approaching humans. Within the context of the rest of the EU, the law can seem bizarre – bears are an endangered species. We also asked Peep about the fate of the Tallinn sow (a few days prior to our trip, a video had gone up of a sow, along with her cubs, running across the road right in front of the police). He replied that it had not been caught yet, and may have found some quiet place to hide out in. May-June is mating season for bears, and boars endanger the lives of cubs, so sows are especially frightful during these months. Cubs stay with their mothers for up to two years, hence why, during this time, sows avoid boars. From a beat watching perspective, though, Peep said, mating season is great – there is a lot more movement all throughout the woods, and the chance to see bears in the wild is much higher. Prior to our trip, we had asked what were the actual chances of seeing bears, and had received the response that, so far, this year everybody apart from one group had seen them. We decided to stay two nights, just in case, to be absolutely sure we see the bears!

After finishing the bear info trail, it was time to head to the actual hides. We walked for approximately 2km, accompanied by a swarm of mosquitos the whole way through. About 300m from the hides, Peep told everyone to stop talking, as we were entering an area where the bears could hear us. This year’s first bear watcher had seen a bear here on the 28th of April – this is their territory, and they traverse it freely. Soon after, we started seeing animal footfprints in the mud – moose, deer, and a few minutes later, Peep showed us a bear paw print as well. He said that the particular animal must have not been very large, as he had seen much wider paw prints. During winter, you can also see lynx paw prints here.

The Set Up of the Bear Hides

We arrived at the hides just before five ‘o clock. The hides themselves are two small houses with windows for viewing, as well as square holes for the camera-lens, for professional photographers. Each had special fabric installed, meant to wrap around the camera lens so that air does not flow past it. The hides are completely safe – proper buildings, not tents, and can be locked from inside, so you do not have to worry about a bear getting in. No wonder that it is mostly regular tourists that come here – it is certainly very comfortable! The ventilation piping for the cabin goes 8m up into the air, to vaft out any human smells high up into the air, near the foliage of the trees. Inside the cabins was a dry toilet, about the use of which we received instructions –  separately about “Number 1” and “Number 2.” A dry toilet was installed because it creates less noise. Each cabin has 9 beds in it, though with the ongoing pandemic, they recommend bringing your own sleeping bag. You can rent them, too, though since they have to be cleaned much more thoroughly, the price has been increased. You can also rent binoculars. Since we planned the trip at such breakneck speed, we did not have time to go and get our sleeping bags, so we opted to rent them there, and Peep carried them all the way to the cabin for us, after seeing that we were overburdened head to toe with bags – two huge bags full of photo equipment, and several more full of food, coats, wool socks, slippers, and, of course, a thermos. My husband and I got one cabin, the other two tourists – the other.

From the moment that Peep took us to the cabins, everything happened very quickly. He quietly, yet rapidly, told us all the essential information, such as showing us where the animals usually walk and where the cameras are, we arranged which lens-holes to leave open, and were told that we would be picked up around 8-9 AM. We opened our bags, so as to not spook the animals later with all the noise, and began to set up. We had not even finished assembling all the photography equipment yet, when we got our first visitor – a raccoon dog! It showed up from the rear side of the cabin, walked across the lawn by the house, and went on its way back into the forest.

The grass was just tall enough to fully conceal it, leaving us with only a vague guess of where exactly it was walking, but it did sit down, for a moment, to stop and watch its surroundings. Fifteen minutes later, the raccoon dog returned and spent 15 minutes in the lawn. It was at this point that we started writing our watch-log – writing down which animals, where, and when we saw. Outside the cabin there is a microphone, connected to a speaker inside, letting us know what was happening outside. The birds were singing so loudly that it seemed like we could not hear our own thoughts! We assumed we would hear the other animals, too, though that proved not to be the case – the ground-bound animals moved so quietly that we could not hear them at all, only see them. The speaker is connected to the only electrical socket in the cabin – which we had found out before the trip, hence why we brought an outlet splitter. There’s enough power to charge a phone or a camera, but not much else.

What to Expect from the Night in the Bear Watching Hide

When we told people that we were going bear watching, we heard the occasional response of “Whoa! What an adrenaline rush!” – however, the trip was the polar opposite of that. You need to be able to sit in silence, with only your own thoughts to listen to, for prolonged periods of time. Light scares the animals, so no browsing our smartphones. No noise, because animals have excellent hearing. We were each on our own side of the cabin in order not to miss anything, and did not speak even via whispering. After the raccoon dog had gone, a squirrel briefly made an entrance & equally swift exit. Around 7 PM, at the front side of the house, about 70 meters away, a crane showed up.

It seemed to hear even us shuffling around in our chairs, because it turned its head and stopped eating every time that we did. We continued waiting. It was getting darker, and the last golden rays of the sun were falling onto the tree trunks. There were less and less birds – before, there had been finches and other small forest birds, out in the clearing. I sat and dreamt, of how a bear would walk out into the sunny rays – but alas, that did not happen.  There’s plenty of time to delve deep into thought, a real chance to truly be alone. Occasionally, we crouched down to the floor, to check our phones on the minimum possible brightness. Yes, there is internet in the middle of the woods, in Estonia, the state tourism agencies were telling the truth about that! Still, every couple of seconds, I glanced at the lawn – what if some animal shows up? I also regularly scanned the area through the binoculars, it seemed as if something was moving in the distance. Still nothing, though, only branches swinging in the wind. Soon enough I had memorized the forest horizon that I could see, and was confident that I could walk through it blindfolded, if I needed to.I was sitting behind a green net, that was hung up in front of the window, in order to hide humans from the animals, though, as it got darker, we parted it slightly so that we could see behind it. Around 9 PM, I saw some movement on the left side of the cabin. I quietly whispered to my husband, beckoning him to come and see. He tiptoed next to me, and started tinkering with his photo equipment.The bear walked into the lawn, inspected the nearby trees, stopped for a brief moment, and near instantaneously disappeared into the woods again. I only barely got a chance to look at it through my binoculars!  That’s it?! Thankfully, fifteen minutes later, the bear returned, and, this time, stayed in the clearing for around twenty more minutes. It laid down near a tree and started digging (we were later told that it was likely looking for ants), then walked over to some rocks and rubbed its behind all over them. All of this in complete silence. If we hadn’t been sitting by the window with our eyes peeled, we could have easily missed it, especially the first appearance.

As we were snapping pictures, the sound of the camera shutter closing seemed like a miniature thunderclap every time it happened, since it was so loud compared to the silence surrounding us – we were really hoping that they would not scare the bear away. We managed to take some good pictures, and were feeling delighted – we had only been there for 4 hours out of the allocated 15, and we had already had two bear sightings!

A while after, the darkest time of the night began. Well, as dark as it can get in the Estonian north, at the start of summer. Both at the front and back of the cabin, there were occasionally raccoon dogs running by. Forest pigeons cooing their mating call, the crane still walking around the clearing, away from the cabin. At around 11 PM, we struck gold again – another bear! It was darker & slimmer than the first, but looked more threatening nonetheless.

It stopped by the same tree as the first bear, and laid down. After a while, it got up, and walked towards the cabin, stopping a mere 10 meters away, and sniffing the air. I am certain that it knew we were there. The bear walked by the right side of the cabin, and adrenaline was pumping – it was so close that we could hear it breathing in the microphone! It then walked to the other side of the clearing, crossed the small ditch surrounding a dirt island of sorts, and spent an hour there. It was already too dark to take pictures, but we could still see it with the naked eye. We kept watching the bear, until we saw something moving 100m away from the cabin. A moose! Standing, ears perked up. There was a block of salt left for him, high up on a tree, which he approached and licked. The crane was not a fan of this visitor, and kept looking at him every now and then. The moose, in turn, seemed cautious of the resting bear. But shortly after, all three were gone.

largest animal in Europe mooseIt was time to have a bit of sleep. We took turns sleeping – an hour one, an hour the other. Up until 4 AM, there was no further activity anywhere, until the moose showed up again, picking something out of the tall grass, licking some salt, munching on some bush leaves, then some more salt. This back-and-forth happened for around an hour, until it disappeared again. We quietly had some breakfast, the water still being at least somewhat warm in the thermos, and waited to be picked up.

As I wrote before, the plan was that we would be picked up around 8-9 AM, depending on if there was any wildlife near the cabin. There have been times that the bears are active nearby as late as 7:30 AM! We were picked up by Bert Rähni, another owner of the company. We quickly packed up what we wanted to bring with us, and headed out of the quiet zone. Once we had left, and there was no longer a risk of bears hearing us, we could finally talk to Bert & the other two visitors, about what we had seen! Our neighbors had seen much of the same – except they had chosen to set up the lens-holes on the “wrong” side of the cabin, where not much happened this time. They still took pictures through the windows on the other side, which were some of the cleanest  windows that we had ever seen. We excitedly talked about how the animals behaved & showed one another the photos that we had managed to get. Bert looked at our photos of the second bear and told us – that is a boar, no doubt!

What to Do During the Day – Seljamäe Bog Trails

We now had plenty of free time – until 5 PM. It is forbidden to stay in the hides during daytime – you can only leave some of your things, if you are staying several nights in a row. We decided to spend the time looking at some of the nearby nature trails, and asked Bert for recommendations. The whole region is surrounded by Alutaguse national park, which is the sixth of its kind, and newest, in Estonia, established in honor of the country’s 100 year anniversary. It is different from a typical national park in that it is not one big chunk of land, but is rather split into several smaller regions. Bert suggested having a look at some of the nature trails surrounding lake Tudu, the Seljamäe swamp trails. His other suggestion was to drive to Lahemaa national park. The latter we decided to tackle on the next day.

We started with the Seljamäe swamp trail, stopping at the informational sign. Here on one side of the trail is a restroom and grill, on the other side, some signs marking the start of the trail. A notice is hung up, in Estonian, which seems to be a COVID-19 warning, same as with our Latvian nature trails. We began walking, but the wooden paths, for some reason, were half submerged in water. “Huh. Weird.” I thought. After such a well kept restroom & grill space, it was surprising to see the state that the trail itself was in. My husband had gone on a bit ahead, and said – that’s it, the trail ends there, there’s only water further ahead. As if knowing what would happen soon after, I moved my phone to a pocket in my coat, and closed the zipper, and 30 seconds later, I was in water up to the ankles. One of the planks, loosely attached, moved, and I lost balance – one foot slipped into the swampy water, and the other followed. I stood there, shoes soaked through and through. Luckily I had brought along another pair, but it was clear that we would not be able to walk this trail, at least not from this entrance. While I was putting on my other shoes, we saw other cars heading deeper into the forest. Perhaps there was another trail? We tried to find it on the park website’s map, but could not find it. None of the maps set up in the forest had a “You are here” mark – either some kind stranger saw fit to remove it, or maybe there hadn’t been one in the first place. No luck with Google Maps, either – because on there, it seemed as if we were supposed to just go straight into the woods, where only a small, animal trail led in real life, incomparable to the wooden walkways usually set up at trails. The website map marked the start of the trail as the same walkway where I had just soaked my shoes. We just drove on ahead, and, sure enough, soon saw some temporary signs put up, and a makeshift parking lot in the middle of the woods, so we parked there. The other cars that we had seen before, were nowhere to be seen, though. Where was everybody? The surrounding forest was beautiful, but we had no idea how long we would have to walk. Turns out – not too long, after 15 minutes, we emerged out into the trail proper, with walkways and all. It was a beautiful, quiet day, no other people in sight, unlike the crowded trails back home. As soon as we stopped to take a picture, though, two cyclists raced by. So much for no other people!

We continued walking, sometimes the way was just a path through the forest, then back to the walkways again. We had initially planned to walk for around an hour, because the village cafe opened at noon, and we had planned to grab a bite of something to eat. It was now half past 12, we didn’t have any food or drink with us, and we were starting to get a bit worried – where will we even emerge from the trail? We kept comparing what we saw to a map of the trail, and the point where our car was. However, it turned out that we were walking the trail backwards, and at the point that we thought that we were way past half way done, the opposite was true. We later saw that where we had originally wanted to enter, had been blocked off. Some swamp revitalization project, that section being returned to nature. On the way back, we saw a lot more people – most greeting us with tere, which reminded me of our trip to South Korea, where everyone was also very polite with their greetings. It is a small thing, but still feels nice!

We decided to leave the other trail for later, for when we would have had some food. We drove to “Jaama Trahter,” a cafe in Tudu. Due to the ongoing pandemic, food was only available for takeout. We were sitting out on the terrace and eating, while my shoes and socks were drying on the hood of the car. The food was delicious and very much affordable. We also asked for some hot water in our thermos, for the night ahead. On the other side of the terrace, sat Bert with his family – his wife Triin Asi, and children. Triin also works in the family & friends owned business, handling the French & German language tours, and this time it would be her that would take us to the hides.

Triin asked whether we liked the trails, and after hearing of my misadventure with the soaked shoes, confirmed that indeed there is a renovation project going on, revitalizing nature. She also suggested we visit the lake Tudu trail, which is also nearby. The trails had been officially unveiled just a couple of weeks ago by the Estonian president. Indeed, we recalled that, as we drove earlier that day, we did see a sign indicating the start of another trail. Triin says that they have more visitors now than they used to – the place is located about an hour and a half away from both Tartu and Tallinn, and people are currently seeking out trails that are further from home. She also showed us some pictures of the abandoned Peressaare village, and suggested it as another place to visit. We arranged a time to meet, to go to the hide, and drove to the store for some snacks, for the night. The wind was getting stronger and stronger, to the point where our phones even started showing warning notifications of dangerous weather.

As we arrive at the meeting parking lot, two Estonian cars have just arrived. The hides are more crowded today, since it is the weekend. One family is late. If someone is late, then everybody has to wait for them, as everyone needs to go together.  The faster you get to the cabins, the more time you have, the higher your chances to see some animals. While we have to wait anyway, I use the time to ask Triin some questions; How did this unusual business come to be? She answers that they founded the company 14 years ago, with some friends – biologists, veterinarians, and other nature enthusiasts, and it is still going strong. I also found out that this is the second location where the hides have been built, the first, located on rented land, became unusable after the surrounding woods were cut down, a tale that she still tells seemingly with almost tears in her eyes. The current property was bought with some help from foreign investors – it used to be the location of two homesteads. One of them they currently live in, and bears regularly wander into their backyard! We asked her about the chances of seeing bears, too, and she gave us the same answer – it is not guaranteed, as this is not a zoo, but rather simply wild animals. But there are lots of them here, and the probability to see them is high. She also told us that, in may, it is actually allowed to feed the bears a little bit – just a bit, mostly just so they catch the scent and approach the cabin. If it is a small amount of food, they will not be satisfied with just that, and won’t get used to coming to the cabins for a full meal, which is purposefully done in some of the hides further up north. She tells us that the chances of seeing a bear, however,  are pretty much the same in August or October, when feeding is prohibited.

While we were walking toward the cabins, Triin showed us where she had once met some bears while walking on her own. She simply talked to them calmly, until they ran back into the forest. The bears in this region eat a mostly herbivore diet or berries and sprouts, though they won’t say no to ants and carrion as well. They are generally not aggressive towards humans, but it is still best not to provoke or even approach them. If you see a sow with her cubs, you should certainly not get in between them, as then the animal could react unpredictably.

For a change of scenery, we chose to stay in the other cabin. With the experience of the night prior, we prepared differently – arranged all of the chairs so that walking by them could be done easily, checked which of them squeak and which do not, which are the most comfortable. Then we unpacked our food, and started the waiting game. We have some neighbors in our cabin as well, this time – each contains two “apartments” and the other has four people staying in it. One soon goes to sleep and slightly snores, the others are watching the rocket launch live from the USA, turning on the sound several times by accident, or a text loudly arriving. We heard a whispered “sorry about that,” but as it turned out, the raccoon dogs didn’t really care about these minor noises, and they were still walking by the cabin just the same. The wind was still strong, though.

The crane showed up at the same time that it did the day before, and soon after, we saw a deer run by not too far from the cabin. No bears showed up before dark, this time. We took turns sleeping/keeping watch once again. The birds were quieter than yesterday, their songs drowned out by the wind, and there was no other animal activity save for a noisy, intense fight between two raccoon dogs.

In the morning Bert picked us up, and, having checked the cameras, confirmed that there were no bears that night – we had been worried that perhaps we had simply missed them. Why didn’t any animals show up? Who knows. Perhaps the wind wafted the human scent all over the place. Perhaps our loud neighbors scared them off. I asked Bert whether those who visited the hides for the first time that day would be able to get a discount – and he replied that, not just a discount, but another free night! They guarantee that, if there were truly no bears, and you didn’t just sleep through all of the sightings, you will be able to stay another night – either immediately after, if the hides are not booked full, or some other time. He also reasserts what Triin had said – this is not a zoo, and the chance to see animals is not guaranteed, even if it is very high. 

Seeing the Trail Around Lake Tudu

Though we had originally planned to drive to Lahemaa, we decided to stay in the surrounding area, instead. There were plenty of nature trails around us, whereas Lahemma seemed to be worthy of its own dedicated trip. So, instead, we drove to lake Tudu. Here, too, there was an ongoing renovation/swamp revitalization, and a different walkway had been constructed for getting to the lake – with accommodation for people with mobility issues. Triin also suggested that we should try SUPing on the lake some other time – she and her family had already been, this year, but recommended saving it for warmer weather.

At the end of the trail, we saw several people – two staying in a tent, four more in the cabin at the end of the trail. The cabin is well furnished, with room for four people (but you do have to bring your own sleeping bag), a furnace, some dishes, a grill, and even some firewood – all completely free! I asked the Estonian campers, how one could stay at the cabin. They responded that it works on a first-come first-serve basis – if you’re the first to show up, you’re who gets to stay in it. The campers had already packed everything up by about 10 in the morning. We walked around the lake, marveling at the blooming cloudberries and the hatching dragonflies, and when we returned, the campers were gone.

Visiting the Abandoned Village of Peressaare

Our next destination was the abandoned village of Peressaare, which had been recommended to us by Triin. We drove along the gravel road, with the blooming apple trees serving as clues as to where houses used to be. Peressaare was founded during the first period of Estonian independence (1918-1940). For a symbolic rent free, people were given land, and in the thirties, about 130 homesteads sprung up, here. A school was also built, intended for up to 170 students, a railway station, a brick factory, and two shops. All the buildings were designed by Estonian architect Erika Nõva, and they were all similar looking, practical constructions. Unfortunately, around WW2, most of the inhabitants of Peressaare were sent away, to Siberia, and though many of them returned from exile later, that did not breathe life back into the village. In 1964, the school closed due to a lack of students. In 1972, the trains stopped going through Peressaare, and the station was closed. According to the 2011 census, there were just three residents left in the village, all over 60 years old.

We parked by one of the houses. It appeared that somebody had recently been there, also by car, because there were tire tracks left in the mud. The apple trees were in full bloom, bees buzzing. The scent was wonderful! The apple trees are near a hundred years old, and with broken branches – so there have indeed been visits by bears. Lawns, reclaimed by nature – full of weeds. Houses with half-collapsed rooftops, and windows swinging open and shut, in the wind – it was a rather grim sight, so we elected to move on. There was a car left by the side of the road – some sort of forestry management work going on. We continued onwards, and saw a well kept house, even with a mailbox still – this must be where the three remaining residents live. If not for the blossoming apple trees, it would be hard to tell that there are houses hidden behind the trees, when they are really located in a simple pattern, with a couple hundred meters between houses. Just like modern neighborhoods, except with far more space in between. As we were already preparing to leave, we noticed a larger building to our left, and stopped there. It was the Peressaare school, which had been very modern for its time. There were still some signs remaining by the trees, as well as by the bench. It even looked like somebody mowed the lawn there fairly recently. Unfortunately, the roof has collapsed, and trees are now growing inside the building. Inside – a tiled floor, in some of the classrooms there is still some old furnishing left, closets and doors. We also walked up to the second floor, where there is a view of the surrounding area. It must have truly been a grandiose building at one point in time.

Kotka matkarada & conclusion

Our last stop of the trip was the Kotka matkarada nature trail. There are several trails in this region, with both short and long routes available, but our main point of interest was the Rüütli watchtower, since it looks very different from the ones that we are used to. There were just a couple of cars parked by the entrance, and so in we went. Thanks to the information signs, we found out that there had been a badger at work here – that explained the small holes that we had seen dug out every now and then. We stopped at the tower for a short while, which turned out to be significantly smaller, than we had imagined, and went on to the swamp trail – this one also has a toilet, a firepit and a small cabin, though in this case the cabin looked less like something you could sleep in, though it would still do if you needed to wait out the rain.

We completed the short route of the trail, 1.6km in length, though it seemed like it was longer due to the strong wind, that seemed like it could sweep us off our feet. We were also simply tired – two nights spent in the hide cabin, instead of proper sleep, had taken their toll. Still, no regrets! We saw so many things in just two days! Not just bears, moose and raccoon dogs, but the beautiful swamp lake that will be just the thing for swimming, come summer proper, the conversations with Triin, Peep, and Bert… .Our first drive outside the country since the opening the borders was most certainly a resounding success!

We thank NaTourEst for their support in the making of this article!

Here are some more of my articles about Estonia:
The 5 day journey across northern & southern Estonia, and other sights near the bears!
Hiiumaa island
Saaremaa island


  1. This experience seems so cool! I would love to do something similar in the future. And your photos are stunning, especially those from the bear watching hide.

    1. Thank you for your kind words! I hope you get a chance to visit this place some day 🙂

  2. Wow this sounds like such an incredible experience! I had no idea this even existed, thanks for sharing!

  3. Wow what an amazing experience. I have only visited Tallinn, so I can’t wait to explore more of the country!

  4. That is what I love – observing animals in their natural habitat not in ZOOs! Bravo! Beautiful are and photos!

    1. Thank you! I believe the owner have done an amazing job to show these beautiful animals in their habitat and also educate people about what they are, and not only see them as scary large furries who eat honey and destroy hives!

  5. This is so cool. I’ve seen grizzly bears In Alaska but not from a safe little house. I like the locked hide idea. 😆 I love all the photos of other wildlife too. What is that blue and orange bird?

    1. Nice! I have seen black bears in Shenandoah park, and really wanted to see polar bears in Svalbard, but turns out such a beautiful bear watching activity was almost in my back yard!

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