The once-flourishing Norwegian culture of arctic hunting has vanished.  The animals are now protected by law, much of the hunting territory is now designated as national parkland, and Norwegians have found other more profitable and less risky pursuits.  But in 1955, every polar bear and every seal was fair game without limit.  And men risked their own lives in the pursuit.

I had several opportunities to learn something of the activity while aboard the sealing vessel Godønes in the summer of 1955, as follows:


About two in the morning I awakened to much rattling and shaking.  The Godønes was ramming its way through nearly continuous pack ice.  The ship bumped repeatedly and also gave sidewise jerks as it glanced off the larger floes.  In my bunk in the bow of the ship, I idly mused over the possibility of a large chunk of ice suddenly appearing in the cabin.  After all, less than a hand span’s thickness of wood was keeping it out.  But there was nothing to be done; so I repeatedly put my faith in God and the good Norwegian shipwrights, rolled over, and fell asleep – to awaken again upon nearly falling out of bed at the next violent bump or jerk.  By ten in the morning the Godønes was making good progress.  Though much ice was still around us, we could easily avoid it through broad leads of mirror-smooth water.

Presently there was a bustle among the crew as a large male polar bear was sighted on one of the ice floes ahead.  Kaare, the chief engineer, rushed up with a rifle and took a seated position at the ship’s bow.  The engine slowed more and more as we approached the bear; 300 yards, then 200 yards.  The bear grew nervous.  Then, at about 100 yards he clambered over the edge of the ice and splashed into the water.  Could he have dived deeply as a seal, this would have been his escape.  But, strong swimmer that he was, he was trapped at the surface where he could not survive.  The ship bore down on him until its prow hung almost over his head.  As close an enactment as I have ever seen of the old phrase, “shooting fish in a barrel.”  I recall the turning of his head to give a look back over his shoulder just as two shots were fired.  The water erupted in a geyser, then another; then it turned bright red.

A looped cable was quickly passed under the armpits and the body was hoisted onto the forward deck.  Fast work with sharp knives, and the skin was removed along with a 3 to 4 inch layer of fat, which they called spekk, still attached.  Within a few minutes the bloody Sv2Bearcarcass was hoisted again and dumped into the sea.

Not being a hunter, I was stunned by the whole procedure.  True, I had often fished, but always in the strong belief that killing for food is somehow acceptable in the order of nature.  This bear died not to furnish food but to grace someone’s den with a rug.  I felt compelled to say something, yet was fully aware that a sealing vessel would not be a rewarding stage for a tirade on animal rights.  So I blurted out the query, “Why let the carcass go to waste?  Why don’t we eat it?”  I was both invoking my killing-for-food principle and tossing an insult toward our regular shipboard cuisine.

But my subtle ironies were lost on all who heard; ’twas probably for the best.  Bjarne took my questions at face value and responded matter-of-factly, “We never eat bear meat.  Trichinosis.”  An astounding revelation, this, which hardly fitted my concept of the pure and pristine Arctic.  I was aware of problems with eating a bear’s liver, owing to excessive concentrations of Vitamin A, but this was different.  When back home, I would surely have to do some research on it.

One further question occurred to me about this killing.  I am no connoisseur of furs, nor do I know what wonders furriers can perform.  But it seemed to me that, if this bear’s destiny was to become a rug, he should have made a good rug of thick, lustrous winter fur.  His fur in July seemed dingy, thin and ragged.  I hoped it would not turn out to be a waste.

During the course of the afternoon several bearded seals were sighted on the pack ice and shot.  The chief difference from bear hunting was that the seal had to be shot dead while on the ice.  In the water, this excellent swimmer would instantly make its escape by diving.  The seals always rested near an open lead or water hole into which they could slip quickly if threatened.  The hunt then became a contest to see how close the hunter could come before alarming his prize.

Kaare took his sitting stance as before.  As the vessel approached within 150 yards, the engine was cut off completely and we continued drifting forward.  Usually at about 100 yards the seal would perk its head up, and then CRACK! and it was all over.  Kaare was near fifty years of age, but his eyes must have been very youthful.  One bullet, one seal.  Not only did he never miss; he never missed the particular place on the neck where a bullet was quickly lethal, yet least damaging to the value of the fur.  From the hole in the neck a fountain of blood would spurt for several minutes while the ship pulled up and several crewmembers stepped onto the ice to skin the carcass.  But before skinning began, there was a curious ritual.  Kaare, the hunter, would stoop down and drink the spurting blood.  This was a common practice jokingly explained as a means to get a quick shot of vitamins, much needed in the absence of fresh food.  But I speculated that it was a tradition with ancient roots and a more mystic purpose.


It took about five minutes to skin a seal, after which the pelt was hoisted aboard with a 2 to 3 inch layer of spekk attached.  With sealskins as with bearskins, shipboard processing consisted first of removing the spekk from the skin.  This was a laborious operation akin to the cutting of a fish fillet, followed by much scraping.  The spekk was stored in a barrel on deck; it would fetch a handsome price at the rendering plant.  The skin was sprinkled liberally with salt crystals to preserve it until it could be gotten to a tanner; it was folded and tied up in a neat package, and stowed in the hold.  After all this, the deck would be slippery with animal fat for many days to come.

In all their handling of seal pelts, the men had to exercise great care not to cut themselves.  The pelts frequently carried a gonorrhea-related infection that would enter a wound to cause a condition called spekkfinger.  This was an infection that refused to heal, continuing to fester as it spread slowly over the hand, attacking bone and muscle as well as skin.  Modern antibiotics could handle it, but in the old days a finger or two were often lopped off to stop the spread.  Kaare showed me an extensive scar on his right thumb and forefinger where he once had a case that was finally cured by antibiotics.  Strike two for my concept of the pure and pristine Arctic.

Normally, seal carcasses were left on the ice where they were skinned.  But on one occasion a slab of meat was brought aboard for the evening meal.  We were assured that the spekkfinger bug did not inhabit the meat.  So I was open-minded enough not to pass up an opportunity for fresh meat, especially if eating could help justify a little bit of the killing.  As we gave cooking orders, I heard Fritz go for extremely rare: “Just restore the body temperature, please!”  I wasn’t as open-minded as that.  As the saying goes, I might have been crazy but I wasn’t stupid.  I ordered mine well done.  It was a pleasant meat, dark and fine-grained and with a somewhat strong taste.  Reminded me more of beef liver than anything else, although it was not at all rubbery.  After my return home, I read a bit on trichinosis in polar bears; seems they caught it by eating seals.  I wondered whether Fritz ever came to regret ordering his meat rare.  Strike three and out for my concept of the pure and pristine Arctic.

Sv2CubLate in the afternoon we sighted a young bear, scarcely 3 years old and probably not long independent of his mother.  He hadn’t yet learned to fear mankind.  Standing motionless on the ice, he watched with interest as the Godønes drew within 50 yards of him.  Bjarne stepped down on the ice carrying a slab of salted, dried cod, and the bear ran forward to meet him.  Prudently, Bjarne made a hasty retreat and spent a while close to the ship before moving out again.  When the two were about 30 feet apart it was Bjarne, not the bear, who decided that this was close enough.  Bjarne gave the cod a mighty toss and then reboarded the Godønes, leaving a very happy bear behind.


Sv2HuntHutAlong the western shore of Forlandsletta we visited a hunter’s hut that had recently been used.  (The author is shown standing by the hut.)  Lace curtains at the windows strongly suggested a woman’s presence in the not too distant past.  But the most recent occupant was a lone male hunter/trapper who had left a note as he departed some 20 days before our arrival.  He indicated that he was rowing to Ny-Ålesund, his boat loaded to the gunwales with blue fox, bear, and seal pelts, spekk, and eiderdown.  He had left an additional load of eiderdown under the cot, and would appreciate it if anyone headed for Ny-Ålesund would bring it along to him.  The down was not under the cot.  Apparently someone had already picked it up.  What stunned me was the journey he was undertaking in an open rowboat.  The shortest route, totaling roughly 65 miles, began with nearly 40 miles northward along the rugged mountainous west coast of Prins Karls Forland, exposed to the open ocean; the remainder was in reasonably well sheltered fjords.  A southerly route would reduce his open ocean exposure to about 10 miles, but would increase the total to about 85 miles.


After the Godønes was disabled, another sealing vessel, the Blåsel, towed her back to Tromsø, a difficult and dangerous procedure that required ten days for the 600-mile distance.  After one day spent zig-zagging through pack ice, the remaining days were spent in rough seas under gale or storm conditions.  A small sample of that weather experience, with its implications for Arctic hunters, follows.

We rode out strong winds and heavy fog in the shelter of Halvmåneøya (“Half Moon Island”) for more than 19 hours.  Then, though the fog continued, the wind slackened and we moved out shortly past noon of the fourth day under tow.  We set our course for Bear Island, which we hoped to pass within two or three days.  For some hours we made excellent progress, but by 9 in the evening the storm had returned or a new one had overtaken us.  This time there was no sheltering land nearby, so the Blåsel just kept chugging ahead as best she could.  The wind came on with a howling fury, but its direction out of the west allowed us to keep up a bit of southward progress, about 2 knots.  Few aboard the Godønes managed to sleep that night; the rolling and pitching of the ship were more extreme than I had yet seen.

Next morning, as the wind tapered off and visibility improved, we sighted Hopen Island off the port stern.  A quick check of the map showed that in 22 hours we had progressed 65 miles from Halvmåneøya, but were already blown 30 miles eastward off our course.  A new course was set, and with slackening winds our speed was back up over 3 knots.

That evening we heard a radio report that another sealer, just off North Cape at the tip of mainland Norway, had nearly capsized in the same heavy weather.  Aboard were two hunters returning from a two-year stay on Edge Island.  In the crew’s frantic efforts to save the ship, all deck cargo was thrown overboard.  This included the entire catch of bear, seal, and fox pelts, eiderdown, and spekk that the hunters had collected in two years.  It also included their team of dogs, presumably kenneled in crates on deck; the dogs were shot before they were thrown overboard.  Aboard the Godønes, spirits were indeed low that evening.


After we arrived in Tromsø, I had the opportunity to see other aspects of the hunting culture.  The Blåsel had already completed a successful hunting expedition before taking us in tow.  There were many sealskins and bearskins in their hold, most of which were eventually traded to a couple of our American party in return for cash and whiskey.  One of the bearskins represented a mother bear who was found with her two small cubs.  The cubs were still alive, caged on deck in stout wooden crates, frequently being fed evaporated milk by crewmembers, and destined for sale to a zoo.  These were considered a special prize; one of the experienced sailors estimated their value in port at 5,000 American dollars (as of 1955) each.

(The above is based mainly on my book The Cold Coasts.  For readers of Norwegian, an excellent and thorough description of the hunting culture, and of the men and ships involved, is presented in the series of books by Odd Magnus Heide Hansen, titled Ishavsskutenes Historie – Fangstkulturen som ble borte.)


North Carolina Governor McCrory recently (January 29, 2013) said that funding for public colleges should be based on employment, not enrollment. “It’s not based on butts in seats but on how many of those butts can get jobs.”

A familiar sentiment.  Getting a job is important.  But training solely for a first job, while sacrificing preparation for a lifelong career, is shortsighted.  Higher education must develop abilities to continue learning through flexibility, curiosity, innovation, and resilience, in an unpredictable world.

McCrory’s comments echo those of other governors – in Texas, Florida, and Wisconsin – questioning the value of liberal arts degrees at public colleges.  Their positions have started to coalesce into a potential Republican agenda on higher education, emphasizing reduced state funding, low tuition prices, vocational training, performance funding for faculty members, state funding tied to job placement in “high demand” fields, and taking on flagship institutions.

Now, we have Michael Reagan attacking lower levels of public education (Waynesboro News Virginian, July 7, 2013).  His “poster child” is a high school senior, of Haitian/Dominican working class background, daughter of a Haitian immigrant, allegedly emerging from public school as a “train wreck,” lacking basic skills.

Reagan’s solution?  “If I still had young kids to educate, I’d send them anywhere but public school.  Catholic school.  Private school.  Home school.  Online schools.  I’d hire tutors.”

Does Reagan believe that an immigrant family, unable to see that their daughter learned basic things despite gaps in schooling, could solve these problems in his preferred settings?  Could they afford private school or hired tutors?  His prescriptions are for the well-off constituency that he so often represents.  They would weaken the public school system.

Yes, the term “liberal” has become troublesome in certain political circles.  But “liberal arts” have always been about freedom, not politics.  They embrace the knowledge that citizens need if they are to govern themselves effectively in a free country.  A growing movement against these arts, and against public education, is ominous and raises fears about ultimate motives.

(Modified version of a Letter to the Editor, Waynesboro News Virginian, published July 8, 2013.)


In his January 30, 2011 column, William Collins tells how he learned that land, labor, and capital are a company’s major costs, and that there are strategies to minimize each.  In today’s political rhetoric, we also hear that government is an obstacle to wealth creation.

Of an older generation, I learned a different theory of wealth creation, based on a vital partnership of capital, labor, and government.  This theory was severely tested during events like the Great Depression, but the American Dream flourished apparently better than it does today.  The old theory deserves revisiting as we wrestle with current economic difficulties.  For those who forgot or never learned it, the gist is:

Capital provides investment needed to establish enterprises and furnish the land, facilities, and equipment they need to do their work.  Fair return on investment is an essential incentive for obtaining capital, given the risks involved.

Labor acquires knowledge and skills, and devotes personal time and energy, sometimes risking life and limb, to perform human tasks.  A fair share of rewards provides incentive for professionalism and innovation, and enables consumption of the products of business.  Labor shares the risks of capital, but at a personal level where adapting to change is more difficult.  Sweatshop-level competition deters professionalism, innovation, and ability to purchase products of business.

Government supports capital by providing infrastructure, supports labor through education and social safety nets, and supports the entire enterprise by providing regulatory guides, defense, and domestic law and order.  The interstate highway system, air transport facilities, the Internet, and aerospace research and development are recent examples of enormous opportunities for wealth creation resulting from government action – undertaken at times of higher taxes than we complain about today.

Support of this threefold partnership brought us the world’s strongest, most innovative economy.  It raised our standard of living.  It created a sense of national unity, of people working for common cause.  All are sadly in decline today.  When we diminish labor and government, seeing them only as costs to be minimized, we endanger the vitality of our economy and of our republic.

(Published as a Letter to the Editor by the Charlottesville Daily Progress, Feb 8, 2011.)



As a young geologist, I once did some library research on the terrain and climate of Iran.  I came across an interesting fact.  There is a small city named Bandar Abbas, located on the southern coast, that has the most dismally awful kind of hot weather I had ever heard of.  Daily highs, not just in summer but through most or all of the year, are typically 120 degrees Fahrenheit.  In its desert location the city lacks sheltering vegetation and is exposed to frequent dust storms.  Thanks to the warm waters of the Persian Gulf, Bandar Abbas normally experiences humidity of 90 percent.

In those years my friends and I were all newcomers to the Washington, D.C. area, and we often vilified the hot and humid local climate.  Armed with my little gem of information about Bandar Abbas, I was able for years to take the lead in every conversation about wretched climates.

But in 1967 I got a comeuppance that, I suppose, was richly deserved.  I went to Iran on a project sponsored by the American Military Mission to the Imperial Iranian Gendarmerie.  Just after spending more than a week in Shiraz, a cool garden spot in the mountains, I found that duty called me to make a short visit to, yes, Bandar Abbas.  A visit long enough to look over the surrounding terrain and to interview the local Gendarmerie officials about the problems and threats they faced, and the nature of their field operations.  I picked up two new tidbits of information about Bandar Abbas before setting out.  The first was: “Don’t drink the water there.  If you do, little black worms will crawl out through your skin.”  And the second was: “You can expect everything to go wrong with the Gendarmerie there.  It’s a punishment area where they post their misfits, incompetents, and mischief makers.”

For me the stakes were high.  Considering the miseries of the place, it was essential that I get there, do my job, and get out FAST.  I would need a vehicle with driver for the terrain reconnaissance.  I would need some time in the commanding colonel’s schedule for an interview, and also an interpreter for that interview.  Finally I would need transport in a Gendarmerie aircraft to my next stop in Kerman, because there was no service by Iran Air between the two cities.  Leaving nothing to chance, from Shiraz I sent a telegram to Bandar Abbas asking if all these things would be available.  The answer came quickly that everything was GO, and that I would be expected soon.  Too bad – I had sort of hoped, secretly, that there would be problems enough to cancel the visit.


As our flight from Shiraz touched down at Bandar Abbas, a cheery announcement from the captain rang out in English: “Welcome to Bandar Abbas!  The time is 11:02 am.  The temperature is 116 degrees Fahrenheit.”  As my colleague Fritz and I walked down the steps from the plane, we saw the “Welcome….” echoed on a sign assuring us that the unthinkable had actually happened.  Here we were in this dreadful place!  We hurried into the shade of the main terminal building — a flat canopy perhaps 15 by 25 feet, without sidewalls, which kept the sun off the ticket sellers and baggage handlers and the waiting (and standing) public.  A short distance beyond we saw another similar structure, apparently the cargo terminal.  And beyond that, it was reassuring to see a Gendarmerie plane, a four-seat Cessna, which presumably would be our transport out of this place and on to Kerman.


We had expected to be met by a gendarme, but no such luck.  After about 20 minutes one drove up in a jeep.  He spoke no English and he clearly was not looking for us.  Showing him our Gendarmerie photo-identification cards, we got the message across that he should take us to his leaders. After an hour at the headquarters, being interviewed by numerous functionaries who did not speak English, we found ourselves back in the jeep headed across town to the Gendarmerie officers’ club.  This was a brick-walled compound with open gardens and, along two sides, sleeping rooms fronted by a portico.  The rooms were all equipped with window air-conditioners, but none seemed to have any electrical hook-up.  So we sat in the shade of the portico.  We saw only one person, an attendant in white waiter’s jacket.  Lunch did not seem to be forthcoming, but he frequently offered large pitchers of ice water.  At the second offering, considering the temperature and humidity, I decided to accept his water.  I would worry later about the little black worms.  Fritz did the same.  Thus we passed a long and uneventful afternoon in the heat.

About 6 pm, who should come in but our nemesis, the young Gendarmerie pilot Ali!  He who had abandoned us two weeks earlier in Bushehr, another unpleasant town on the Persian Gulf!  With his usual smile (or smirk, as I saw it) and a twinkle in his eye, he asked what the HELL we were doing here in Bandar Abbas.  After hearing our story, he sympathized.  No, we couldn’t talk to the colonel – he was out in the hills fighting bandits.  Nor could we use that plane we saw at the airport.  That was Ali’s, out of the general’s headquarters at Bushehr.  The colonel did indeed have a plane here in Bandar Abbas when he telegraphed us, but the next day it was sent to Tehran for routine maintenance.  Too bad!  Ali suggested we go downtown for dinner.   Afterwards he would see to it that the acting commander, a captain, would come over for our interview.

Ali picked an open-air restaurant in which we sweltered as the humidity climbed still higher into the evening.  I sort of picked at my meal because the diarrhea, which I’d had since Bushehr, was still a frequent visitor.  I did eat lots of raw red onion like an apple.  I’d heard it was good for the diarrhea, but something had gotten lost in translation. It was good for prevention, not cure, and it really aggravated an established case of the runs!

Back at the officers’ club, the captain arrived as promised and, with Ali as our fluent interpreter, we disposed of threats and field operations in less than half an hour.  Then we were about to move into the really important subject – how the devil we could get out of Bandar Abbas and on to Kerman – when fate struck a cruel blow.  The official interpreter arrived, speaking only a smattering of what seemed to be Pidgin English.  Ali yielded to him completely and, still smiling, listened but said no more that evening.  After the interpreter took over, there was little mutual understanding and certainly no agreement on anything.  We caught the general drift that the good captain might send a telegram to Bushehr asking permission for us to use the general’s plane.  Only one thing had become completely certain: We would be spending the night in this place.


Fritz and I moved cots into the open courtyard to get as much air as possible.  After a grueling day we actually slept quite well until just before dawn.  By then the temperature had fallen to a chilly 95 or so, but the humidity seemed to have surpassed 100 percent.  Throwing off the sheets, I learned that clouds of flies had moved in.  They didn’t bite but they were most eager to explore – and tickle – every inch of exposed skin.  So for the next hour or so I took turns between suffocating under the sheets and entertaining the flies.  Then it was time to get up.

Fritz went for an early swim in the Gulf but returned quickly, reporting no refreshment at all – the water was at body temperature.    Then the man in the white jacket served a surprisingly good breakfast of scrambled eggs.  Ali’s arrival in time for breakfast might have had something to do with it.  Next began our morning’s work of hourly checks with the local headquarters to see whether Bushehr had given us permission to use the plane.  In this dicey situation, a field trip for terrain reconnaissance didn’t even deserve mention.  By noon things were looking grim, so I called Iran Air and was thrilled to learn that a plane would be departing for Shiraz at 2 pm; I made reservations instantly!

Before leaving the club, I drafted a telegram to the American Military Mission in Tehran explaining that we would have to depart from the agreed itinerary.  We would be taking Iran Air to Shiraz instead, because the general in Bushehr had not given permission to take his plane to Kerman.  Ali promised to send the telegram.

As two o’clock approached, we arrived at the airport, bought tickets and checked baggage, and then watched with pleasure as the plane landed and taxied up to the terminal.  Deliverance was at hand!  But at the same moment, a smart-looking sedan drove up and out popped – the colonel, who was supposedly fighting bandits in the hills!  The telegram, with its potential for embarrassment at the highest levels, had ended up on his desk and had scared him out of hiding.  He announced with a flourish that the Gendarmerie plane would fly us to Kerman.  He went on to say that Bushehr had no problem with this at all.  The captain had simply failed to ask them, and for this he was already in the stockade with court-martial proceedings scheduled for next month.

My first reaction was to refuse with some sarcasm.  I had been burned by these people too often.  The colonel’s promise was a bird in the bush, but my Iran Air ticket was a bird in the hand.  However, Fritz talked sense into me – our target was Kerman, and flying to Shiraz now would entail large delays in our schedule.  Trust the colonel!!  So it was agreed, and the colonel smiled with relief that the crisis had been resolved.  He sent his driver back to pick up Ali, who would be our pilot.  The driver soon returned empty, and there was much screaming and gnashing of teeth between him and the colonel.  Then the whole performance took place again, with the same result.  Ali, a second lieutenant, wasn’t going to take orders from a mere driver.  For the third attempt, the colonel bade us bon voyage and rode back to town himself.  And soon afterward Ali appeared, smiling and cool as a cucumber.  “I hear you want to fly to Kerman!   Well, it’s too hot now.  The ride would be very bumpy.  We’ll take off first thing tomorrow morning.”

My highest goal now was not to spend another night in this place.  So I summoned up maximum belligerence, reminded him of the colonel’s promise and the colonel’s reputation at stake, and warned of untoward international incidents if we didn’t leave this very day per schedule.  He gave in, but would need an hour or so to prepare the plane.  We’d best wait at the officers’ club.

Driving back, as we passed a seedy-looking hotel I saw familiar baggage out in the street.  It belonged to Rinkel and Marciniec, two other members of our party who had been traveling separately from Fritz and me.  I entered the hotel and found them in heated argument with assorted Iranian officials including one gendarme, two members of the National Police, and one member of the Savak, the secret police.  Our colleagues were glowing both with rage and with painful sunburn.  The story emerged that during the previous night they had suffered enormously trying to sleep with rats in a Gendarmerie outpost.  Then they had ridden some 70 miles in the back of a pickup truck over bumpy roads ‘neath the searing sun.  Arriving in Bandar Abbas, they discovered a luxurious air-conditioned hotel where they enjoyed a steak dinner.  Then they attempted to check into a room at the hotel.  At that moment all these officials descended upon them, physically wrestled them out of the hotel, and brought them to this fleabag where they were curtly instructed to check in.

As party chief I felt compelled to call upon my belligerence once again, and was in the process of protesting when the colonel drove up and took me aside. He explained that the fine hotel my friends wanted was not really reputable. Rich men from the neighboring Arab states came there to meet lady friends, and they actually rented rooms by the hour rather than by the day. No end of embarrassment would result if Americans, while working on a project for the Gendarmerie, should get into any trouble in this house of ill repute. I couldn’t fight this issue, so I told our colleagues the sad facts of life, wished them a happy stay in the fleabag, and went on my way.

We did fly that afternoon to Kerman. Shortly after take-off, I looked down at dome-shaped dwellings just outside the city, apparently an encampment of nomads. I marveled at their ability to endure such heat and humidity. As we flew on, the ride was indeed bumpy, but Dramamine did its work; and new adventures awaited.

T5ir1F4 300

As feared, this jaunt seemed to have resulted in everything going wrong that could go wrong. But there was one major exception. Only after returning to Tehran did I learn that the story of the little black worms was out of date. Bandar Abbas boasted water of the finest quality from a new and modern system.