Ragnhild Røsseland and Frode Skar are sitting on the tundra in Bolterdalen, both with a dog in their arms. It's been slightly more than a week since they returned to Longyearbyen after two years at the trapping station at Austfjordneset.
"It felt sad to leave," Røsseland says. "At first there was little fuss about packing, moving out and moving down. But the other day, when we traveled for the last time, there was a lump in both of our throats."
They had four dogs that required mandatory veterinarian exams before being brought to the mainland. They are now staying in the kennels at Greendog Svalbard for few days before they have to say goodbye the trappers. Then they will return home to their owner, Marit Holm of Lakselv.
"It will be sad," Røseland says. "We were really attached to them. But it really helps to know that they are going back to a good home."
She and Skar have been sweethearts for more than ten years. Exactly how long they don't remember, since they lost track of the time when they came to Austfjordneset.
"To go as trappers was something we had thought about for years," Rosseland says. "We have always kept on hunting and harvesting in the wildnerness. Now we finally got the chance."
One doesn't get rich being a trapper, but there is money to be made selling reindeer meat, grouse, fox furs and eider down.
When they arrived in summer 2014, it was too late to start picking down from birds. A bear had been there before them. But last year they got a nice eider colony around the station. The nearest nests lay flush against the cabin walls, enveloping the cabin in a harmonious cooing. The birds covered their eggs, turned on them and the mothers started talking their with offspring before they hatched.
"We heard them piping at their eggs, so it seems that they have some kind of communication," Røsseland says.
Since there were a lot of polar bears in the area that would like to eat bird eggs, the couple looked after the colony in shifts around the clock. Meanwhile they fished, filleted their catch, smoked and salted the fish, gathered down, shook it out and dried it, and chopped firewood.
"I was impressed when we saw new mothers go into the fjord with a young flock, and so was seeing all the young ones devoured by gulls that we didn't always manage to keep away," Røsseland says. "But that's nature."
The eider ducks gave the trapping couple enough down for a quilt or two.
"We hope it will be enough for a double duvet," Røsseland says. "That will be a very nice memory."
They're reluctant to talk about how large their catches were, but they had more than enough to do.
"It went quickly when we had conditions that were good a few days in a row," Skar says.
"For example, we always had to hunt seals when it was flat in the fjord," Rosseland adds. "And reindeer hunting had to be intensive shortly before we had transportation of the meat to town."
Although there was a lot to do such as hunting, skinning, cooking and woodcutting, there was little stress.
"It was harmonious," Røsseland says. "We rarely did more than one thing at a time."
She and Skar are bringing seal claws, fox furs, reindeer leather, down and sealskins back to the mainland.
"We want to polish them a little more before we sell them, creating fine products ourselves," Røsseland says.
Dog in a bear's mouth
The thing the couple most feared during their stay was being forced to shoot polar bears.
"That really would not do, so we were lenient," Røsseland says. "It has helped to have such good watchdogs."
The most ardent was Aputsiaq ("little snowflake"), now enjoying herself close to the couple. One morning when they were eating breakfast a bear snuck into the station. They suddenly heard a commotion and saw Aputsiaq in the mouth of the bear. The bear had a good hold of her and was taking her out onto the ice. When Skar and Røsseland came out, they were able to intimidate the bear and free the dog.
"There was a lot of blood, but she was equally upset when the bear let go," Røsseland says. "She had to be stitched up a little and be treated with antibiotics that we had with us, and come out again."
After the first season, it was an easy decision to stay another year when they were granted leave from work.
"It was nice to have a year where we could benefit from the experience of the previous one," Røsseland says. "And then they were two different years in terms of the weather and snow conditions. The first year we thought that it was a bad ice year, until we got an even poorer one."
In addition to the ice not setting into Austfjorden until April of this year, there was very little snow. The conditions reduced their trapping opportunities significantly. They had 60 traps that all could be reached on foot.
"This year we have just driven the sled on the ice on the river to train the dogs a bit.," Røsseland says. "There has been much slogging traveling with the dogs. We have worn out two pairs of crampons each, nearly three."
The lack of ice also made it very difficult for people to visit Austfjordneset.
Was it difficult being so isolated at the station?
"It was a shame in terms of the catch, but nice following the area so closely," Røsseland says.
"We have experienced more of the land and experienced many nuances of the terrain since we have gone on foot," Skar adds.
Did they get tired of each other?
Ragnhild Røsseland laughs.
"No, we have thought of ourselves as well," she says. "We're a little surprised that it went so well. We have had a good time as a team."
This is the first time Svalbardposten is meeting to catch up with the couple. Former Editor Eirik Palm wrote in an editorial December stating the door of the trappers' cabin should be open to the press to show how traditions are being kept alive. The couple responded in a letter to the editor where they also talked about their activities.
"I think it's nice to continue the tradition by allowing the trapping station's heritage," Røsseland says now.
"Anyone who is trapping takes their trapper skills further," Skar says. "Many of the activities are easy once we know them, and we did them carefully and many times. So you learn it properly. One does not forget there."
They hope to pass on what they've learned and, perhaps most importantly, give youths an opportunity to experience and care for the wilderness.
But first the dogs have to brought back to the kennels, and Røsseland and Skar will pack up and go further south to what they have missed the most: friends and family.