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HomeSpits­ber­gen infor­ma­ti­onHisto­ry → Nor­we­gi­an trap­pers

Wintering trappers

History of Spitsbergen

Wan­ny Wold­stad (midd­le) and sons in the 1930s in Horn­sund

Wanny Woldstad (middle) and sons in the 1930s in Hornsund

The Pomors stay­ed for seve­ral cen­tu­ries, until they did not return to Sval­bard any­mo­re in the midd­le of the 19th cen­tu­ry for reasons not enti­re­ly known; the eco­no­mic­al situa­ti­on at home will have play­ed a role, as the hun­ting grounds in the north remain­ed good and soon attrac­ted Nor­we­gi­ans. Their pri­ma­ry tar­get was to catch as many polar foxes and bears as pos­si­ble and to sell the fur in Nor­way. Addi­tio­nal­ly, down of Eider ducks were coll­ec­ted and some­ti­mes they also hun­ted Belugas. Other spe­ci­es such as reinde­er, seals and ptar­mi­gans were most­ly taken for local use. The reason to win­ter was the fact that only the win­ter fur brought good pro­fit, whe­re­as the sum­mer fur was com­pa­ra­tively wort­hl­ess.

Modern trapper’s hut in Bell­sund

Modern trapper's hut in Bellsund

The Nor­we­gi­an trap­per cul­tu­re (if you want to call it that) on Spits­ber­gen goes back to seal­ing from small ships during the sum­mer. This had alre­a­dy been done for quite a while and remain­ed always eco­no­mic­al­ly more important than hun­ting on shore. The first Nor­we­gi­an win­tering in Sval­bard was 1795-96, pro­ba­b­ly in the Isfjord. 1822-23, 16 win­te­rers fol­lo­wed in the Kross­fjord, thus estab­li­shing the tra­di­tio­on of win­ter hun­ting. After seve­ral tra­ge­dies, fur­ther acti­vi­ties remain­ed occa­sio­nal for quite ano­ther while, until 1892 a boom of win­tering expe­di­ti­ons star­ted. Lar­ge­ly inter­rupt­ed only by the second world war, pro­fes­sio­nal hun­ters remain­ed in Sval­bard until 1973, when polar bears beca­me total­ly pro­tec­ted inter­na­tio­nal­ly. Today, only a few adven­tur­ous indi­vi­du­als prac­ti­ce this old-fashio­ned pro­fes­si­on.

Trap­per hut Bjør­ne­borg on Halv­må­neøya, sou­the­as­tern Sval­bard

Trapper hut Bjørneborg on Halvmåneøya

Accor­ding to the regi­on, eit­her polar fox or polar bear could be more important. The fox was trap­ped with woo­den traps which kil­led the fox with a hea­vy weight of stones in order not to dama­ge the fur. Polar bears were hun­ted most­ly in eas­tern parts of Sval­bard, whe­re sea ice is abun­dan­dt. They were hun­ted with self-shots, with poi­so­ned bait (alt­hough this was soon dis­ap­pro­ved) and, when­ever the occa­si­on aro­se, with the rif­le. When­ever pos­si­ble, young bears whe­re cap­tu­red ali­ve to be sold to zoos for good money. The Nor­we­gi­an sys­tem of trap­ping was to live in a rela­tively lar­ge main sta­ti­on and to use a num­ber of smal­ler huts during the regu­lar hun­ting trips in the polar win­ter to enlar­ge their ter­ri­to­ry.

Polar bear skulls, Halvmåneøya

115 polar bear skulls: The result of a sin­gle sea­son. 1937, Halv­må­neøya, sou­the­as­tern Sval­bard

Vir­tu­al tours to some of Svalbard’s most famous trap­per sta­ti­ons:

  • Fred­heim: Hil­mar Nøis’ home in Tem­pel­fjord.
  • Bjør­ne­borg on Halv­må­neøya has been one of the most famous places for hun­ting polar bears.
  • Heimøya, Ryke Yse­øya­ne: one of Svalbard’s most remo­te trap­pers’ huts.
  • Hyt­te­vi­ka: home of Wan­ny Wold­stad (and others) north of Horn­sund.
  • Gråhu­ken: built as “Kapp Hvi­le” by Hil­mar Nøis, but today pro­ba­b­ly bet­ter known as “Rit­ter hut”.
  • André­e­tan­gen: the hut that “Isbjørn­kon­gen” (the polar bear king), Hen­ry Rudi, built on Edgeøya in 1946.

Hun­ting expe­di­ti­ons during the ear­ly years of the 20th cen­tu­ry com­pri­sed seve­ral per­sons, often 4 to six, whe­re­as later the ten­den­cy went towards smal­ler par­ties with two per­sons or even one sin­gle man who win­tered on his own. This mark­ed the chan­ge from an indus­try which was orga­nis­ed by trade­men in nor­t­hern Nor­way to a life­style of indi­vi­du­als with a well-deve­lo­ped desi­re for per­so­nal free­dom and a calm social envi­ron­ment.

‘Polar bear king’ Hen­ry Rudi with young polar bear at Bjør­ne­borg

Polar bear king - Henry Rudi with young polar bear at Bjørneborg

Figu­res like Hil­mar Nøis, Arthur Oxaas, ‘Polar bear king’ Hen­ry Rudi as well as very few women such as Wan­ny Wold­stad, who win­tered seve­ral times in the Horn­sund with her child­ren in the 1930s, achie­ved some­ti­mes legen­da­ry sta­tus and are well-known until the day today. Their tales influence the idea many (most­ly Nor­we­gi­ans) still have of life in the Arc­tic. Recent years, new edi­ti­ons of the old dia­ries of trap­pers have been published as well as a num­ber of modern books about the ‘Fang­st­mans­pe­ri­ode’.

Polar bear self shots on Hopen and at the west coast of Spits­ber­gen (1)

Polar bear self shots on Hopen and at the west coast of Spitsbergen (1)

Polar bear self shots on Hopen and at the west coast of Spits­ber­gen (2)

Polar bear self shots on Hopen and at the west coast of Spitsbergen (2)

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last modification: 2021-01-05 · copyright: Rolf Stange
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