ARCTIC HUNTING: SVALBARD, 1955

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:

1. AN EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT

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.

Sv2KaareSv2Seal

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.

2. THE HUNTER’S HUT

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.

3. THE RADIO REPORT

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.

4. A VISIT ON BOARD THE BLÅSEL

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.)

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