Natur and history of a fjord in northern Spitsbergen
Woodfjord is a large fjord on the north coast of Spitsbergens.
There are two branches on its western side: Liefdefjord and Bockfjord.
Woodfjord is a large fjord on the north coast of Spitsbergens. It is a actually a fjord system with several branches: Liefdefjord and Bockfjord are also part of the Woodfjord-area.
The west side of Woodfjord is part of the Northwest Spitsbergen National park, the island groups in the entrance to Liefdefjord are bird reserves (see Liefdefjord). The east side of Woodfjord is not a specially protected area, but the Svalbard environmental law is valid there just as everywhere.
View from north to south over the outer part of Woodfjord (Gråhuken).
Woodfjord cuts with several slight bends 60 km from north to south into the island of Spitsbergen. There are no major branches other than the two fjords on the west side mentioned above and there are only a few smaller bays. Some small capes structure the coastline and there are no islands (Stasjonsøyane and Måkeøyane are part of Liefdefjord, even though this may be a bit of geographical hair-splitting). Compared to other fjords that are more strongly structured by bays, peninsulas and islands, Woodfjord is a bit of a long tube.
View from south to north over inner Woodfjord.
The hydrology and geomorphology of the fjord itself is quite special: Woodfjord is almost everywhere pretty deep, 60-100 metres in the inner part and in the outer part, north of Bocksfjord and Verdahlspynten, more than a 100 metres. Even close to the shore it is so deep that it can be difficult to find suitable anchor depths (at least for smaller ships which prefer to drop anchor on 5-20 metres of water). It is usually either too deep or too shallow to drop anchor, there is mostly not much in between!
And when the wind is blowing in a north-south direction (or the other way around), then Woodfjord can be something of a wind channel with very strong funnelled winds. But on a good summer day, the landscape with its red slopes and green tundra can be almost painfully beautiful and it can appear to be kind of almost mellow and soft, at least compared to the rugged, steep mountains and huge glaciers in its western neighbour Liefdefjord. Woodfjord does not have any such landscape features, no glaciers anywhere near the shore. Andrée-Land between Woodfjord and Wijdefjord further east is indeed one of the least glaciated parts of Spitsbergen.
There are several pages on this website dedicated to individual sites in Woodfjord, with photo galleries, more background information and 360-degree panorama images:
Velkomstpynten the northeast point of Reinsdyrflya, with a ruin of a hut built by the famous trapper Stockholm-Sven.
Gråhuken in the north, where Christiane Ritter wintered (“A woman in the polar night”, see history section further down on this page.
Wigdehlpynten, a little peninsula with typical landscape features of inner Woodfjord.
The geology of the region dictates the landscape and it can really be an eye-catcher. This makes it worthwhile spending some thoughts on it, something that does not require any previous knowledge, just some interest in the matter. So let’s go ahead 🙂
You can also read the relevant section on the Liefdefjord page. The geology in Woodfjord is simpler than in Liefdefjord. In Woodfjord, the geological basement is not exposed at the surface, in strong contrast to Liefdefjord.
One term is enough to describe the geological building material of Woodfjord: Old Red. In (kind of) short words: the Old Red is a thick pile of sediment layers deposited near 400 million years ago. Shortly before that (well, in geological terms), collision of tectonic plates had created a huge mountain chain: the Caledonian mountains. Just as any mountain area rising above its surroundings, the Caledonian mountains where exposed to erosion as soon as uplift had started, and the eroded sediment was transported to and deposited in the surroundings lowlands. As these lowlands were subsiding at the same time, thick sediment piles could accumulate, with thicknesses reaching 10 kilometres and more.
In the early stages of this process, when the Caledonian mountains had just been uplifted so that the landscape featured huge differences in altitude within a short horizontal distance, the deposited sediment tended to be of coarse grain size and not well sorted: we are talking about breccias and conglomerates, often deposited in steep, torrential rivers, as slope sediment or alluvial fan: typical sedimentary environments on the fringes of any high mountain area.
Later, the difference in altitude became less pronounced and sedimentation accordingly calmer, more fine-grained and better sorted. Typical results include siltstone, often deposited as mud in wide lakes and lagoons, and even well-sorted dune sands, to mention two examples. At times, the lowlands were even covered by shallow sea.
Fossil finds are rather rare in Woodfjord. Imprint of a shell at Gråhuken.
In the warm and semi-arid climate of that time, chemical weathering produced large amounts of hematite, an iron oxide with a distinct reddish colour. Hematite, is, however, not present in the whole sediment pile. The red layers that gave the Old Red its name (the second half, that is) form the older (structurally lower) part of the whole pile. The time when these sediments were deposited was the Devonian.
Woodfjord: an Old Red landshape.
It is nothing you can take for granted that a sediment pile survives a period of time as long as almost 400 million years. It certainly helped that the sedimentation area subsided so that the accumulating sediment was protected from erosion (in contrast to uplifted areas = mountains which are exposed to erosion). Subsidence happened along faults (huge cracks). The resulting structure is a graben. This particular case is amongst geologists known as Andrée Land graben, after the land area of Spitsbergen between Woodfjord and Wijdefjord further east.
The red layers of the Old Red can be found many in inner Woodfjord. Further north, the rocks are grey rather than anything else (placename “Gråhuken” = Grey Hook). In the south, the mountains are red. A beautiful colour and a stunning landscape experience on a day with good weather and light!
Grey section of the Old Red (“Grey Hook formation”), Mushamna.
On the west side of Woodfjord, on Reinsdyrflya, you have the red layers of the Old Red also in the northern section of the fjord
Now we have covered about 99 % of the geology of Woodfjord. For those with some special interest it should be mentioned in addition that there was volcanic activity in the area during the Neogene (comment: younger Tertiary, as it was known before, but the term “Tertiary” is officially not in use anymore). In the Miocene, to be more precise, about 15 million years ago. Lava streams filled the shallow valleys of the landscape back then. This landscape was later strongly eroded. Then, the lava streams turned out to be more resistent to erosion then the surrounding Old Red. As a result, the former valleys, then filled with lava streams, now form some of the highest peaks in central Andrée Land – valleys were turned into mountain tops! This is called inverted relief by geomorphologists. You can see some remnants of those lava streams with columnar structures on mountain tops east of inner Woodfjord (east side).
Foreground: Devonian Old Red. Upper slopes in the background: Miocene lava flows.
There was more volcanism during the Quaternary (“ice age”). This is now evident especially in neighbouring Bockfjord, where there is an eroded volcanic ruin and some warm springs (don’t expect too much, they don’t compare to their relatives in Iceland and elsewhere). In Woodfjord, there is an eroded volcanic plug now known as Halvdanpiggen. It is a rock column standing out from a slope 800 metres high as a geological detail mentioned here for curiousity and the sake of completeness.
Halvdanpiggen (mid right), an eroded volcanic plug.
The large-scale landscape features are directly linked to the geology and the local climate. A fact that will quickly catch the attention of any curious visitor is the absence of glaciers near sea level in Woodfjord. In contrast, there is a couple of large, ice-free valleys, something that otherwise is pretty rare in most parts of Spitsbergen.
Verdalen, a large unglaciated valley in Andrée Land.
The northern part of Woodfjord, especially at Gråhuken and Reinsdyrflya, is surrounded by large coastal plains covered by series of fossil beach ridges due to postglacial isostatic land uplift.
Coastal plain with fossil beach ridges at Gråhuken.
Lowland areas are considerably smaller in inner Woodfjord and mostly restricted to some capes and some valleys with valley bottoms filled by braided rivers. Other than that, the mountain slopes are mostly coming close to the shore. Compared, for example, to inner Liefdefjord or the northwest corner of Spitsbergen, the mountains are less steep and jagged, with more rounded slopes. Another example of the geology taking control of the landscape, in co-operation with climate.
Lowland at Verdalspynten.
There are some special features here and there locally. The most well-known one is certainly the lagoon of Mushamna, which is separated from the fjord by a long, narrow spit that leaves just a narrow entrance to the lagoon itself which is one of Spitsbergen’s best sheltered and most beautiful anchorages for smaller vessels that can get in there.
Entrance into the lagoon of Mushamna.
For those with some special interest in geomorphology, there is a pingo in Verdalen, although it is certainly not Spitsbergen’s most spectacular specimen of this large permafrost phenomenon. But it is, at least, one of rather few pingos more or less close to the coast.
In innermost Woodfjord, glacial retreat has left a huge moraine landscape and the lake Jäderinvatnet with a huge meltwater river from the lake to the fjord. The red colours of this landcsape, on a good summer day with blue sky, are stunningly beautiful! Author’s opinion, that is 🙂
Flora and fauna
Polar bears roaming around anywhere in Woodfjord are certainly not rare, and reindeer can be found anywhere, although not in great density. But all in all, wildlife is not what makes Woodfjord stand out: there are no walrus colonies (you may of course meet the odd walrus or two resting on a beach anywhere) and no spectacular seabird colonies. But the northern part of Woodfjord, especially the entrance area, has a reputation for being an area that is regularly frequented by whales, including large finn and blue whales.
Blue whale in outer Woodfjord.
The lowland areas are to varying degrees covered by tundra. In the north, around Gråhuken, the coastal plain is very barren and polar-desert-like. There is more vegetation on the west side, on Reinsdyrflya.
Steppe vegetation in inner Woodfjord.
Further in the fjord both the vegetation and often also the soil surface make it pretty clear that the local climate is dry. Species like the mountain avens are common, and desiccation cracks and mineral precipitation can be seen many places, giving evidence of precipitation being exceeded by evaporation
Desiccation cracks, Wigdehlpynten.
It is said that there is a graveyard from the time of the early whalers on Reinsdyrflya, somewhere near Mullerneset. Other than that, there are no traces from those early years in Woodfjord – but some (Norwegianised) placenames including Mushamna (“Mouse harbour”) and Velkomstpynten (“Welcome point”). Pomors have certainly used the area, such as in Mushamna, where faint remains of a Pomor hunting station can be seen near the lagoon (on its north or rather northwest side).
Trappers in the “Norwegian period” of trapping used the Woodfjord field, which included Liefdefjord, often in the early 20th century. Especially the 1920s were a busy period, when Hilmar Nøis and other members of his adventurous family from Andøya (Vesterålen) built cabins such as the one in Mushamna (the old one near the shore), Vårfluesjøen (“Fiskebay”), Gråhuken, Worsleyneset (“Villa Oxford”) and others.
Old trapper hut (built in 1927). A real “Nøis-hut” (see text).
Next to Mushamna, the hut at Gråhuken is certainly the most famous hut in Woodfjord and beyond. This is where Christiane Ritter wintered together with her husband and Norwegian Karl Nikolaisen in 1934-35, an adventure that later resulted in the now famous book “A woman in the polar night”.
The Gråhuken hut was used for winterings also in later years, and there are actually two more published books of winterings at Gråhuken: “Vinterland. Glimt fra ei arktisk dagbok” (Bjarne Nordnes and Åsa Johansson, 1975) and “Gråhuken. Fangst og ferie på 80 grader nord” (Marit Karlsen Brandal, 2017, from a wintering in 1982-83).
The famous trapper hut at Gråhuken.
In 1987, the Norwegian adventurer and trapper Kjell Reidar Hovelsrud built his beautiful hut at Mushamna, which he later sold to the Sysselmester who used to lend it to interested people for winterings to keep the tradition alive for a while, but this has not been done anymore for some years. Too much effort, as they say … well, anyway. Read more about the history of the huts and trappers in Woodfjord by clicking on the linked names of the huts in the text above. There is a book (actually several ones) by Kjell Reidar Hovelsrud about his arctic adventures. Good read! If you read Norwegian, that is.
The hut built in 1987 by Kjell Reidar Hovelsrud. It is now owned by the Sysselmester.
Photo gallery – Woodfjord
A wild mixture of impressions from Woodfjord, from Gråhuken in the north to the innermost part of the fjord. Landscapes, wildlife, huts, …
Lofoten, Jan Mayen and Spitsbergen from the air - Photobook: Norway's arctic islands. The text in this book is German, but there is very little text, so I am sure that you will enjoy it regardless which languages you read (or not).
The companion book for the Svalbardhytter poster. The poster visualises the diversity of Spitsbergen‘s huts and their stories in a range of Arctic landscapes. The book tells the stories of the huts in three languages.
Comprehensive guidebook about Spitsbergen. Background (wildlife, plants, geology, history etc.), practical information including travelling seasons, how to travel, description of settlements, routes and regions.
Join an exciting journey with dog, skis and tent through the wintery wastes of East Greenland! We were five guys and a dog when we started in Ittoqqortoormiit, the northernmost one of two settlements on Greenland’s east coast.
12 postcards which come in a beautifully designed tray. Beautiful images from South Georgia across Antarctica from the Antarctic Peninsula to the Ross Sea and up to Macquarie Island and Campbell Island.