An entire life as a trapper on the island of Svalbard

An entire life as a trapper on the island of Svalbard

Trappers went north with dreams of the big catch, the free life, and adventure in the vast wilderness.

The primary goal for the Norwegian trappers was to catch as many arctic foxes and polar bears as possible, and to sell the fur in Norway. The reason to hunt in winter was the fact that only the winter fur brought good profits – the summer pelts were comparatively worthless. In addition to hunting for fur-bearing animals, the hunters and trappers made use of all the resources available in the Arctic terrain: seals, eggs and down from seabirds, including ptarmigan and geese, as well as driftwood for firewood and building materials.

Depending on the region, either arctic foxes or polar bears could be the more important prey. The fox was trapped with wooden traps, which killed the animal with heavy stone weights in order not to damage the fur. Polar bears were hunted mostly in the eastern parts of Svalbard, where sea ice is abundant. They were hunted with spring-gun traps, with poisoned bait (although this was soon banned) and, whenever the occasion arose, with rifles. Whenever possible, young bears were captured alive to be sold to zoos for good money.

Hunting expeditions during the early years of the 20th century often comprised parties of as many as four to six hunters, The tendency later was for smaller parties of two people, or even one single man, wintering along. This marked the change from an industry, which was organized by tradesmen in northern Norway, to a lifestyle of individuals with a well-developed desire for personal freedom and tranquility. Figures like Hilmar Nøis achieved legendary status, and are well-known to this day. Their tales influence many people, mostly Norwegians, to pursue their dreams of life in the Arctic.

Photo by Karin Beate Nøsterud / VG

Tommy Sandal – one of the few remaining hunters on Spitsbergen. Polar dogs, such as Greenland huskies, were an important part of the trapping culture on Spitsbergen. Not only did the dog teams allow for faster transportation during wintertime, they also provided an alarm system warning of polar bears. For trappers living in total isolation for most of the year, these loyal dogs also provided some much-needed company during the dark season.

The hunters and trappers organized themselves, with main cabins known as base stations. In addition, most had several small huts that served as secondary stations. These were set up one or more day’s march from the base station. The landscape became a loose network of huts and trapping equipment, where paths or ski tracks formed fragile but tangible connections.

Those who wintered alone in the wilderness seldom became rich. The achievement of surviving all the dangers, coping with the isolation and loneliness in order to return home as an Arctic hero, was the main reward. The money earned from from the catch often came a distant second.

Photo by Kirsti Ikonen

Trapper’s station – replica of the old Trapper’s stations on Svalbard

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