The trappers used what they had and their creativity in building cabins was immense. Normally, one brought with him a window, an oven, a stovepipe, some rolls of cardboard, nails and tools.
The first cabin for a Norwegian overwintering as a trapper was built in 1794, with trapping at its most extensive just over a hundred years later. It was precisely that activity their weighed heavily when Europe's major powers "gave" Svalbard to Norway in 1920.
The men behind the collection of facts are both well known in Svalbard and very well traveled in the archipelago. Oddleif Moen from Balsfjord was a trapper as well as a longtime seaman on the governor's service vessel. Per Kyrre Reymert from Tromsø is an archaeologist, Svalbard historian, and has many years experience as cultural heritage adviser to the governor and as the curator at Svalbard Museum. Together they have a burning interest in the small and humble, but vital, trapping cabins. No homestead is too small, no building too large.
The trapper's cabin on Gnålodden was built in 1907 or 1908, and is maintained by the Governor. The lady in the picture is Trine Krystad. FOTO: Ole Magnus Rapp
"It is important to know that all cabins built before 1946 are protected cultural heritage monuments," Reymert said. "Some can be used in emergencies. All maintenance shall be performed by the governor's experts."
He asked people who use those trappers' cabins to remove all ashes from stoves when they leave, not leave food, and ensure the boardings are in place in front of the windows and the doors securely closed.
It's been 40 years since Moen and Reymert first set foot here, and they have "collected" trappers' cabins almost the entire time. The enthusiasts have sought out, documented, photographed, measured, read diaries, studied maps, listened to other famous people, and organized their own and others' pictures at the various sites. The result is a new 710-page book in A4 format with detailed information about all Norwegian trapping structures from the first in 1794 to the present. There are approximately 1,300 photos, both of the cabins today and a number of unique historical photos from the time the trapping stations were in use. The book also contains maps with exact location of all the cabins.
The book will be a godsend to trapping history geeks and other Svalbard enthusiasts. Readers can learn about the lengths and widths, whether they had flat or pointed roofs, the window sizes, locations with GPS coordinates, who built them, who used them, their current status and other key information.
Take, for example, Raudfjordhytta in Alicehamna at Bruceneset in the northwest part of the archipelago. It was first occupied in 1905 by a trapping expedition led by Erik Zakariasson Mattilas and funded by Andreas Dalsbø of Tromsø. They arrived by motor vessel Petrell. The cabin is 4.13 meters long and 2.17 meters wide, with the door and window facing the sea.
"This and most other cabins are brilliant examples of creativity and an exceptional courage," Reymert and Moen write. "Many are built of logs and other materials they found on the shore. The important things one had brought from the mainland were tar paper, nails, a window, an oven and a stovepipe."
The two trapping enthusiasts did their work without pay. Svalbard Museum is responsible for the publication and will receive any profits.
Isbjørnhamna at Hornsund. FOTO: Ole Magnus Rapp
The men reckon the collection is complete, but are open to more registrations coming in. Of the 317 structures recorded, about 100 cabins are classified as in good status today and many of them are in use. A total of 85 are ruins that are about to fall apart and 103 are barren dwellings. Twenty-nine of the cabins that are described in the trapping tome and other sources are gone, probably washed out to sea.
Creativity was needed when cabins were built. Here are both whalebones and an old blubber oven been used. The cabin called Gåshamna in Hornsund was built in 1906 by Oskar Grondahl from Tromso. Now there are only ruins left, and they are protected. FOTO: Ole Magnus Rapp
Some cottages are easily accessible and used regularly by the governor. Others are used by various organizations. All cabins before 1946 are protected and cannot not be maintained without government consent.
A trapping station that received many visitors is Camp Mansfield in Piersonhavna at Blomstrandhalvøya. Englishman Ernest Mansfield established a marble mine there, which caused one of the first bubbles on the London Stock Exchange. The cabin was used by trapper Peder Pedersen Ullsfjording and his son Peder Åsmund was born there in 1930. He is still the Norwegian who was born the furtherest to the north.
Overwinter trapping largely ended in 1940, before which there was a total of about 400 trappers in Svalbard. Thirty of them were women.
"Most of them came from northern Norway," Reymert said. "It was the desire to make money, joblessness and adventure that drove them. Most were just here one winter, very few were here for many seasons."
The trapper with the most seasons is Harald Soleim at Kapp Wijk, where he remains today in his 39th season. In the "old days," Hilmar Nøis overwintered 38 times between 1909 and 1973, with his wife Helfrid accompanying him during many of them.
One of the biggest polar bear hunters in Svalbard was Henry Rudi. During his years in the archipelago he killed about 750 bears, including 115 bears during his best season. Rudi was also a diligent cabin builder and many trappers later used his buildings.
Russian trapping lasted until 1850. The most famous Russian trapper is Ivan Starostin with 39 overwinters. Fifteen of these were in one stretch.
The men and women hunted foxes and polar bears. Some hunted seals and occasionally walrus, and collected down and eggs from eider ducks.
According to Reymert, nobody got rich trapping. Trapping overwinters were bone-chilling hardships. Perhaps an occasional merchant in Tromsø earned some money, but the trappers themselves rarely departed with lucrative profits.
Eiderdown and providing live polar bear cubs to the world's zoos were the most valuable items a trapper could deliver. A few wrote books about their experiences, with some earning more from the publications than the actual trapping.
"The one who benefited from this activity was Norway," Reymert said. "The European countries in the late 1800s were deciding who Svalbard should belong and the efforts of those trappers carried great weight. Much thanks to them, Norway would in 1920 gain sovereignty over the huge archipelago."
Second only to the approximately 900 graves in Svalbard, the trapping cabins are the largest group of protected cultural monuments in Svalbard. Reymert and Moen assert there should be more research about the cabins, and envision students engaging in an effort to elicit as much knowledge as possible about that aspect of Svalbard's history.
In addition to trapping stations with a bit of space inside, a number of satellite stations, smaller shelters for emergencies or places to be while going round to check spring-guns and fox traps were built.
"It was important to build with minimal cubic meters indoors," Moen said. "There was rarely full standing height and, by building a flat roof, one spared air space that needed to be heated. A fire, but at the same time sparing, was an important part of trapper life since they spent much time finding driftwood on the shoreline."
Tommy Sandal has spent several years as a trapper, including in Mushamna, a cabin in Woodfjorden. FOTO: Ole Magnus Rapp
One of the more special trapping cabins is in the heart of Tromsø today. It was built in 1911 by Anton Eilertsen and Gustav Fors in Purpurdalen, and funded by trader Claus Andersen of Tromsø. It is 2.9-by-3.7 meters in size, built of notched driftwood logs and has a flat roof. It was removed in 1936 under the leadership of Anton Hoel who was director of what later became the Norwegian Polar Institute. The cabin was moved to the Norwegian Maritime Museum in Oslo and in 1941 was part of the Hålogaland Exhibition in Oslo. It came north sometime around 1983 and became one of the attractions at The Polar Museum in Tromsø.
"That cabin tells a lot of history," Moen said. "We highly recommend it be studied. Every detail is thought through. The reason that they do not cut the length of the driftwood logs, for example, was to save the saw blade."