Liv­ing the life of a trap­per in the spell­bind­ing Arc­tic is­lands of Sval­bard

Join three cen­turies of ad­ven­tur­ers and for­tune-hunters by trav­el­ling to Sval­bard and, like them, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the Arc­tic wilder­ness in its purest form

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‘No, the Arc­tic does not yield its se­cret for the price of a ship’s ticket. You must live through the long night, the storms, and the de­struc­tion of hu­man pride. You must have gazed on the dead­ness of all things to grasp their liv­ing­ness. In the re­turn of the light, in the magic of the ice, in the life-rhythm of the an­i­mals ob­ser ved in the wilder­ness, in the nat­u­ral laws of all be­ing, re­vealed here in their com­plete­ness, lies the se­cret of the Arc­tic and the over­pow­er­ing beauty of its lands.’ Chris­tiane Rit­ter, A Woman in the Po­lar Night (1938)

One roast­ing July day in 1934, dressed in a ski suit and hob­nail boots, Chris­tiane Rit­ter bid farewell to her fam­ily and ser­vants, stepped off the dock at Ham­burg and boarded a ship bound for the top of the world. She had an ap­point­ment to keep with her hus­band. For the past three years, Her­mann Rit­ter had lived as a fur-trap­per in Sval­bard, a group of Nor­we­gian is­lands that, in all re­gards, lie a great deal closer to the North Pole than to the cou­ple’s com­fort­able home in Vi­enna. Her voy­age to him would take sev­eral weeks, but at the end was the prospect of a homely cabin, and days spent read­ing, writ­ing and paint­ing, snug and safe by the fire. The jour­ney to­day is some­what less chal­leng­ing, though the first sight of Sval­bard is likely un­changed since Chris­tiane’s day. The view from the plane, three hours af­ter leav­ing Oslo, is of an end­less white, with tri­an­gu­lar white peaks ris­ing above broad white val­leys all the way to the hori­zon. There is no sign of hu­man life, nor even a patch of land where hu­man life might rea­son­ably sup­port it­self. But still hu­mans came. The heady whiff of money, catch­ing in the nos­trils of the brave and gung-ho across Europe, first lured them here. Since Willem Bar­ents dis­cov­ered the archipelago in his search for a north­ern sea pas­sage to China in the 16th cen­tury, sailors had re­turned home full of tales of a po­lar Eden, whose lands teemed with po­lar bear, Arc­tic fox and rein­deer, and where a man only need dan­gle an arm into the sea to pull out a seal or wal­rus. It prompted a rush of hunt­ing ex­pe­di­tions so suc­cess­ful that the waters were cleared of the Green­land right whale in a mat­ter of decades. By the time Chris­tiane dis­em­barked her boat at King’s Bay on the is­land of Spits­ber­gen, Sval­bard’s ap­peal had shifted: the prize no longer lay solely in the furs des­tined for the sa­lons of Paris, Ber­lin and Lon­don, but in the ad­ven­ture to be had along the way. ‘I was not plan­ning to come to Sval­bard,’ says Piotr Dam­ski, clos­ing the door to the wind thrash­ing about out­side, his boots leav­ing a trail of snow on the rough floor­boards of the cabin. ‘I was meant to go to Panama, scuba-div­ing, but I was of­fered a job here and changed my mind.’ Work­ing as a dog-han­dler and sled­ding guide at the Trap­per’s Sta­tion six miles out­side the cap­i­tal Longyear­byen, Pol­ish Piotr re­sponded to the same im­pulse that car­ried in Chris­tiane Rit­ter: the ir­refutable call of the Arc­tic. The sta­tion is a re­cre­ation of an orig­i­nal cabin, built from drift­wood and lined with felt. It’s a con­vivial place, with hides on the benches, lanterns in the win­dows and its wonky din­ing ta­ble of­ten sub­merged

be­neath plates of rein­deer stew and waf­fles, in feasts de­signed to dis­pel the worst of win­ter. It was rarely so pleas­ant for the trap­pers. Many died from scurvy, starved from poor hunt­ing, dis­ap­peared into crevasses in the ice, or were at­tacked by po­lar bears. Oth­ers, worn down by the un­end­ing cold, dark and soli­tude, suc­cumbed to ‘ishavet kaller’ (‘the Arc­tic calls’) – an ir­re­sistible urge to walk into the ocean and sink be­neath the waves. Chris­tiane, in a frozen, leak­ing cabin many days’ travel from any other hu­man, of­ten felt the pres­ence of a phan­tom ris­ing noise­lessly from the bay be­hind the hut, come to drag her back down the shore. The 12 months she spent on Sval­bard, grap­pling with the po­lar night and pro­longed hunger, were not quite what she had in mind when she packed her trunks in Vi­enna. ‘It’s harsh. It’s a con­stant strug­gle,’ says Piotr as he pours us cups of cof­fee, his breath form­ing clouds in the air de­spite his prox­im­ity to the sta­tion’s hiss­ing stove. ‘But I like that what­ever hap­pens here, I can rely only on my­self. The best ex­pe­ri­ence is to test your lim­its, to be out in the wilder­ness and out in na­ture.’ Out­side, snow piles up against the win­dows and races in gusts around the yard. Three seal car­casses swing from a wooden A-frame, a sort of macabre Wild West warn­ing to other seals that might pass this way. Once dried, they’ll be di­vided be­tween the 100 dogs that live and work at the sta­tion, tak­ing vis­i­tors on short scoots in the sur­round­ing hills, or on ex­pe­di­tions last­ing sev­eral days. As Piotr leads a stout Green­land husky to a sled and drops him into a har­ness, a merry hell is un­leashed around us. Dogs strain at their chains, leap to the top of their ken­nels to bet­ter ob­serve pro­ceed­ings, and set about in a tremen­dous fit of howl­ing, yip­ping and yelp­ing. They are keen to get out. ‘In the trap­pers’ days,’ says Piotr, check­ing the reins of the fi­nal dog on his team, ‘the dogs were ev­ery­thing: their only friend, their trans­port, a warn­ing sys­tem for po­lar bears. It’s the same now – when you are out, you put all your trust in them to bring you home again. Be­yond the gates of the yard, as a snow­storm builds, there is noth­ing for the eyes to cling to, just a vast blind­ing empti­ness of sky and land, and no dis­tinc­tion be­tween the two. ‘Look at it,’ says Piotr cheer­fully. ‘You get the feel­ing hu­mans re­ally were not meant to be here.’ With that, he re­leases the brake. The sled lurches, and the dogs and he are off and out, rat­tling into the val­ley.

Nils Ing­var Ege­land is from south­ern Nor­way. He has pale blue eyes, a gin­ger beard, and a tall frame wrapped in a brown woollen jumper and ski trousers held up with braces. He also has the type of hand­shake that can break bones. With a var­ied em­ploy­ment his­tory that in­cludes both trawler­man and Green­landic trap­per, he is just the sort of per­son you’d like in front of you on a 140-mile trip through the Arc­tic on a snow­mo­bile.

‘Then comes un­peo­pled land. The whole day through, moun­tains, glaciers, blue rocks, white ice.’ Chris­tiane Rit­ter, A Woman in the Po­lar Night (1938)

The storms of the pre­vi­ous days have cleared. The sun, which has re­cently ap­peared to the win­ter-weary in­hab­i­tants of Longyear­byen for the first time in five months, is shin­ing. Sval­bard is sud­denly re­vealed – and it is golden, gilt-edged and daz­zling. We travel through a broad glacial basin, moun­tains swoop­ing up on ei­ther side, their peaks crisp against the bluest of blue skies. At the top of one moun­tain range, an­other im­pos­si­bly wide val­ley spreads out be­fore us, and be­yond that, fur­ther moun­tains, fur­ther val­leys. We bump over the ridges and hol­lows of a frozen river delta to­wards tiny dots that even­tu­ally form into Sval­bard rein­deer, a pe­cu­liar, short-legged vari­ant on the main­land species that looks two parts Mup­pet to one part real an­i­mal. They paw at the snow to nib­ble at clumps of brown grass, hardly both­ered by our pres­ence. ‘They are pretty tame,’ says Nils, slow­ing to a stop. ‘They haven’t yet learnt that hu­mans can be dan­ger­ous. They are marathon run­ners and po­lar bears are sprint­ers, so the bears don’t usu­ally bother them ei­ther.’ Climb­ing through a moraine to the top of Rabot­breen glacier, we skit­tle across ice blushed pink and yel­low by the sun and around blocks of turquoise ice as big as houses, their sur­face as smooth to the touch as sculpted mar­ble. Sus­pended within are tiny rocks and air bub­bles, sou­venirs from the last Ice Age. At the frozen sea of Mohn­bukta, the blue edge of the glacier rises six sto­ries, its sur­face scored black and white. ‘This was a pop­u­lar place for the trap­pers,’ says Nils, ri­fle slung around his shoul­der, alert to the pos­si­bil­ity of a po­lar bear crouched be­hind a boul­der, mark­ing us out as lunch. ‘The bears seem to like it here a lot.’ There are none to­day, which is for­tu­nate given the spell­bind­ing dis­trac­tions of the land­scape. In her di­aries, Chris­tiane wrote of ‘Spits­ber­gen ma­nia’ – the creep­ing abil­ity the is­lands have to hold you in their grasp un­til you are no longer ca­pa­ble of leav­ing. On days like to­day, the ma­nia rises with ev­ery mile trav­elled. Like Chris­tiane, Nils has been en­tirely caught by it. ‘I’ve been here for two years, so I’m stuck now. I can’t imag­ine go­ing back to the main­land,’ he says, pulling on his hel­met and tear­ing off across the ice once more. On the other side of the is­land, three hours’ jour­ney by snow­mo­bile, lies the cabin of a fur-trap­per who had such a bad case of Spits­ber­gen ma­nia, he spent 38 win­ters in it. Hil­mar Nøis built his first hut in 1912, and shortly af­ter brought his wife Ellen Dorthe over from Nor­way. ‘Maybe he was big-mouthed about the liv­ing con­di­tions here,’ says Nils. ‘He de­scribed this place as a villa to her.’ It is lit­tle more than a very draughty shed, sit­ting on the banks of a wide fjord. Here, in the mid­dle of win­ter, alone and in the dark, Ellen gave birth to their child. Hil­mar had set off on skis for Longyear­byen to fetch a doc­tor to help her through labour. ‘Be­cause of the bad weather,’ says Nils, ‘it took three weeks to get back.’ As soon as the ice had cleared suf­fi­ciently to al­low a boat through, Ellen left for Nor­way and never came back.

By the time Hil­mar and Chris­tiane even­tu­ally left, the golden age of the fur-trap­pers, and the tales of ad­ven­ture and der­ring-do that ac­com­pa­nied them, was all but over. A new wave of pi­o­neers had come to take their place, and their in­ter­est in Sval­bard lay buried deep within its moun­tains. The Rus­sian min­ing town of Pyra­mi­den was set­tled a year af­ter Chris­tiane sailed back to Ger­many. A hefty old trawler now takes peo­ple from Longyear­byen, lurch­ing across the tem­pes­tu­ous seas of Is­fjor­den

‘Per­haps in cen­turies to come men will go to the Arc­tic as in bi­b­li­cal times they with­drew to the desert, to find the truth again.’ Chris­tiane Rit­ter, A Woman in the Po­lar Night (1938)

be­fore chug­ging into the spec­trally calm wa­ter of Bille­fjor­den bay. Ful­mars and guille­mots trail be­hind the boat, and wal­rus as well as ringed and bearded seals plop from drift ice into the wa­ter on our ap­proach, round heads ob­serv­ing as we pass. Af­ter sev­eral hours, Pyra­mi­den hones into view, the con­veyor belts that took equip­ment and work­ers up to the mine, and coal back down from it, ris­ing up above a town of solid brick apart­ments and fac­to­ries. The ship jud­ders to a halt against the pack ice. ‘Wel­come to Rus­sia!’ shouts a guide stand­ing on it be­low. Lad­ders are low­ered and pas­sen­gers clam­ber over­board to join him. The Rus­sians ran their com­mu­nity here for over 60 years, be­fore pack­ing up and abruptly leav­ing in a sin­gle day in Oc­to­ber 1998. ‘This is an aban­doned city, a Soviet ghost town,’ says Kristin Jæger Wexsahl, re­splen­dent in goatskin trousers, as we wade through streets thigh-deep in snow. Kristin has been lead­ing tours here since 2009 – an­other ar­rival to Sval­bard who planned a short stay but found she couldn’t leave. In its hey­day, Pyra­mi­den was home to 1,800 peo­ple from the USSR. ‘It was easy to an­nex parts of Sval­bard then,’ says Kristin, ‘And the Rus­sians wanted to present Pyra­mi­den as the ideal life­style to the Western world.’ They built a li­brary, kinder­garten, sports com­plex, ho­tel, play­ground and can­teen, and brought with them pigs, cows and chick­ens, and fer­tile soil from Ukraine. It’s a Soviet utopia trans­planted to the Arc­tic. ‘It was harder for a sin­gle trap­per to keep him­self sup­plied over the win­ter than to keep this whole town sup­plied,’ says Kristin. There are no res­i­dents here now, bar Arc­tic fox and po­lar bear, and the kit­ti­wakes that nest on the win­dow ledges of the old dor­mi­tory blocks. It is oth­er­wise frozen in time. On the main street, the world’s north­ern­most statue of Lenin still gazes down to the har­bour. Chil­dren’s paint­ings hang in the cul­tural cen­tre, next to posters of tri­umphant sol­diers, ri­fles raised ready to rush an in­vis­i­ble en­emy. A grand pi­ano hulks on the stage in the con­cert hall, its notes, still in tune, ring­ing out to empty seats in the au­di­to­rium. Bas­ket­balls lie on a de­serted court, wait­ing for a match that will never start. ‘If you came to Sval­bard as a miner, you got a good salary, bet­ter than in Rus­sia,’ says Kristin, pad­lock­ing the doors to the cen­tre as we traipse out­side. ‘And ev­ery­thing was free. You can’t imag­ine liv­ing in a city in Siberia and hav­ing a heated swim­ming pool and bal­let lessons for the kids. If you were here, you had a good life.’ As we pick our way back to the boat, Kristin points to­wards the moun­tains, in the di­rec­tion of a trap­per’s cabin that’s still oc­cu­pied. Sval­bard’s long­est-term trap­per, Har­ald Sol­heim, has spent the last 40 win­ters there, in the shadow of this strange Rus­sian metropo­lis. I imag­ine him alone in his hut with the night kept at bay by can­dle­light alone, and, just a few miles away, a one-time com­mu­nity of men, women and chil­dren, with electric light and lim­it­less vodka at meal­times and free cin­ema in the evenings. Stand­ing on deck, on the re­turn to Longyear­byen, we watch as the ghost town re­cedes. Other relics drift past of ad­ven­tur­ous lives played out on this is­land far from home: the bones of a wooden boat long aban­doned on the shore, a hill­side cabin un­in­hab­ited for decades, and the last rest­ing place of Han­sine Fur­fjord, who fell ill and died one Christ­mas over a cen­tury ago and was buried in the icy ground by her hus­band. The black cross he planted to mark her grave re­mains vis­i­ble some time af­ter we pass, then is lost from sight in a fresh flurry of snow.

AMANDA CAN­NING is sad she didn’t run into a po­lar bear on this trip – and also slightly re­lieved.


A lan­tern in­side the Trap­per’s Sta­tion. LEFT Piotr Dam­ski tucks into waf­fles with fel­low dog-han­dlers. OP­PO­SITE Ken­nels out­side the Trap­per’s Sta­tion



Nils drives his snow­mo­bile on the frozen waters of Mohn­bukta, un­der a tongue of glacier ice

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