Trappers went north with the dream of the big catch, the free life and adventure in the vast wilderness. The fur of fox and polar bear provided the income whilst the Svalbard reindeer and ptarmigan were a welcome addition to the diet. The activity was at its height during the summer months, whilst in the dark periods it could be a life of total isolation. The animals that they hunted followed the same seasonal pattern. The light season is a time for reproduction; in the dark periods activity is reduced to a minimum. Whilst the animals do all that they can to reduce heat loss, some of the trapping cabins bear witness to the fact that the trappers were not as capable.


Seal hunting. Photo: Svalbard Museum

From the end of the 18th century trade in Finnmark was opened and the trading places were established. The economic conditions for the merchants changed owing to, among other things, increased trade with the Pomors.The contact with the Pomors gave first-hand knowledge of the Russian hunting activities in Svalbard. In addition the Danish-Norwegian authorities promised a reward for those vessels that would take up arctic hunting. However, it was not until the 1820s that the rich arctic resources really were revealed to the Norwegians.

The Buch trading house in Hammerfest equipped a 15-man expedition to be the first Norwegian overwintering in 1795/96. Four Russians took part in order to train the Norwegians. The activities followed a Russian pattern. We have no certain sources for new expeditions until 1822. This time too it was men from Hammerfest. 16 men wintered in Ebeltofthamna in Krossfjorden. A new team took over in 1823 and in the same season a team overwintered on Bjørnøya. Hammerfest was the leading arctic port until the 1850’s, at which time Tromsø became the centre for all arctic activity. Until 1892 there were in all 21 overwinterings, of which 14 were voluntary. During the first phase of overwintering walrus were the main prey in addition to fur-bearing animals and seals.

From the end of the 1890’s until 1941 overwintering trapping and hunting was in its heyday. Almost 400 people operated as hunters and trappers in these years, of which 6% were women. Together this added up to over 1000 overwinterings. The main prey was fur-bearing animals, but a good haul of seals, birds and down also paid off.

The value of the haul from overwintering hunting and trapping in the period 1924-1940 was 1.6 million kroner. The value of the seal hunt in the same period was 41 million kroner. Hunting and trapping whilst overwintering was of minimal economic importance. Yet it attracted attention, which can be said to be inversely proportional to its economic importance.

One question that arises is why some people left the mainland for an uncertain, isolated and risky existence in Svalbard. There were several reasons, but the desire to live freely, the dream of adventure and the hope of the big haul were probably the greatest driving forces. Helge Ingstad writes that the reason ‘had to do with the primitive instincts in man and the need for freedom’.


Scurvy Seafarers feared this disease. For several hundred years, it was known as an illness with deadly consequences. Johan Hagerup wrote in his diary from 1900-01: “We are somewhat scared that if daily life becomes too tranquil, that devil scurvy will pay us a visit. Many Russians were visited in the old days. There are enough skeletons outside our doorstep”.

The disease leads to lethargy, the gums swell up, bleed easily and eventually the teeth fall out. The disease attacks the connective tissue. The (internal) bleedings and swellings disperse to the rest of the body and lead, in the end, to death. In 1923 it became clear that the disease was caused by a lack of vitamin C. Experience had earlier shown that if one used a small shore plant; scurvy grass (Cochlearia officinalis), or had jars of preserved cloudberries one could avoid the illness.

Scurvy grass grows along the entire Norwegian coast as well as in Svalbard. The plant belongs to the Crucifer family and is 10-35 cm high. It is rich in vitamin C.


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A trapping cabin at Alkhornet. Photo: NP

The hunters and trappers organised themselves with a main cabin known as base stations. In addition most had several small huts as secondary stations. These were set up one or several days march from the base station. Between the main cabin and all the huts fox-traps and/or self-shooting traps for polar bears were put up.

In fox-territory trapdoor traps would be set up in the terrain between the huts. Even though the entire landscape was made use of, most of the fox-traps lay in the middle of low-lying areas. At the end of October the coat of the foxes reached a condition where the time was right to set up the traps. In the autumn the trappers would collect 30-40kg of stones for each trap. If they were lucky last year’s stones would lie clearly visible, nearby the traps. Often, however, polar bears would have played with the traps and repairs would have to be made.

In some terrain, both trapdoor and self- shooting traps were in use at the same time. The landscape became a network of huts and trapping implements where paths or ski tracks formed the fragile but tangible connections. In addition to the hunt for fur-bearing animals, the hunters and trappers made use of all the resources in the arctic terrain: seals, eggs and down from seabirds, ptarmigan and geese as well as driftwood for firewood and building materials.

Even if the overwinterers seldom became rich, the aim was to catch as much as possible during 10-11 months of the year. One would also have to survive all the dangers and cope with the isolation and loneliness in order to return home in good shape and with a good profit.


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Wanny Woldstad – the first female trapper in Svalbard. Photo: Svalbard Museum

When one sets up a trap the opening is left away from the prevailing wind so that it does not fill with snow. The traps measure approximately 1 x 1m in size. One side rests on the ground and a wooden lock made up of two vertical and one horizontal pin holds up the opposite side. Inside, at the end of the horizontal pin, a piece of bait such as blubber or a ptarmigan head is fastened. On top of the trapdoor stones are placed. When the fox takes the bait the lock collapses and the trapdoor falls, crushing the animal to death.

Self-shooting traps were built and set up in polar bear territory. These were placed on headlands and hills approximately 50m from the sea. A self firing trap consists of a sawn-off rifle or shotgun of no particular calibre. Placed in a crate with a small piece of blubber as bait, tied by a string to the trigger, this was a fast and effective weapon. Self-shooting traps were invented on Svalbard, but the method was soon taken into use in all polar bear territories.

By Marit Anne Hauan/Gerd Johanne Valen