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Celebrating Christmas at 77 degrees north

Per Johnson (left) and Odd Lønø sitting by the table in the cabin Christmas Eve 1964. FOTO: Per Johnson

Celebrating Christmas at 77 degrees north

'We have browned four eider ducks in the iron cauldron. They're standing and cooking in the sauce. Freshly baked Christmas cakes and coffee. Christmas presents.'

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During the winter of 1964-65, I overwintered as a trapper on the east coast of Svalbard. My buddy Odd Lønø and I were transported up on a sealing vessel to Tjuvfjorden at Edgeøya in August 1964. The agreement with the skipper was that they would come back to fetch us next summer at about the same time.

Three long shocks of the ship's whistle and there we were left standing by ourselves. All that was needed to sustain life for one year lay in a giant pile on the shoreline: provisions, tools, raw materials, a stove, skis, sleds, a small boat and kerosene. Six powerful Greenland dogs stood bound in a long chain. The plan was to engage in hunting polar bears and foxes, but first we had to get the old hunting lodge in order. Windows and doors were knocked out by bears and storms. There was a meter of ice and snow inside on the floor.

We're now going a little ahead in time: it is Christmas. Drift ice is coming and with it the bears. We have already captured 33 bears. Daylight has disappeared. At midday we see only a slight lightening over the sea in the south. We have long prepared ourselves for Christmas. Filet of bear is carved out and pounded on the chopping block. Eider, goose and grouse are hanging on the porch along with the meat of deer and seals. A wide variety of Christmas cakes are baked.

From the logbook:
"There is a northerly gale and driving snow. An incredible racket from the dogs when I chop up frozen bear meat. Now they're eating in deep concentration. We have browned four eider ducks in the iron cauldron. They're standing and cooking in the sauce. Fresh Christmas cakes and coffee. Christmas presents. They came with a pine twig that we we burned in the room. The smell of burning pine, soap and smoldering candles has formed the perfect Christmas atmosphere. We have taken the lead dog "Pelle" in for mutual enjoyment. He is so happy that he leaps around on the floor. It is not entirely possible to avoid thinking about the family. They always have gathered for observances and traditions on this night. Got "Nytt Land" by Otto Sverdrup as a gift from mom and dad. Home-knitted mittens from grandma. Now I'll go out with a treat for each of the dogs. They have genuinely earned it. It is blowing so much now that one must shovel one's self out of the door.

I would call this an evocative and peaceful Christmas Eve. Far from home, but finding it tolerable. Good radio reception from Norway. We hear wonderful music from areas where people socialize. During the evening the wind increases. There is a tremendous pressure on the cabin. The entire place trembles and shakes. We've sat and stuffed in us seven different varieties of cakes. (To be honest, it's the same dough, just in slightly different forms.) We have also hung up some Christmas decorations. There is a feeling of ambience with a little glitter!

This was my first Christmas away from home. It will probably not be the last I celebrate on the Arctic seas, if I know myself right. It is strange to think that here we are sitting in a cabin of three-by-three meters and listening to the storm, while people worldwide are enjoying themselves together. Soon we will crawl into the sack. The only light is from the flickers of the oven. The cabin has been here for many years. Crooked and gray. What has happened? What joys and sorrows have taken place within these weathered little walls?"

Afterward:
A few days before Christmas, we heard a local radio broadcast on the long wave from Tromsø. A message from the 330 Squadron at Andøya was read. It was reported that a military Albatros plane would seek out stations and trappers before Christmas. They would throw down mail. We were asked to prepare three bonfires shaped like a triangle around the cabin. The fires were lit when we heard the plane. Suddenly we hear engine noise. At a low level of altitude the plane came around Negerpynten from the south. There was great activity among us. I ran around with the prepared paraffin bottle and lit the markers. The plane made a big arc, swerved and disappeared towards the south again. Huge disappointment!

When I came home in the summer 1965 and met my mother again, she could narrate the following: The agenda was to announce the Air Force would send a plane to the different inhabited places on Svalbard. Family and friends could through the mail dispatch items sent to the Andøya Air Station. These items would then be thrown down to the respective addresses. My mother sent letters, cakes and lots of good food.

On the evening of the day the flight had taken place, she called Andøya Air Station. She told them that she had sent a Christmas package to her son that was trapping in Tjuvfjorden on Edgeøya. Her question was whether the items had been delivered. The officer she spoke to asked her to wait while he talked with the pilots. After a while he was back with the following message: "The pilots said that when they saw no signs of life at Tjuvfjorden they took the package back again. Where can we send it in return?"

Poor Mother! All winter she feared that we at Tjuvfjorden were injured. It was only when we received a visit from a fishing boat in the spring of 1965 and were able to send a telegram that she received assurances all was in order.

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