Next Thursday is the launch of the book "Uten Nåde" ("Without Mercy") at Svalbard Museum. Author Birger Amundsen finds it hard to specify the time when he began to write the book.
"All the books I write I started in 1973, which was the year I first came to Svalbard," he said. "I have always collected everything possible, and it has been what the books are of."
Five human lives
In a separate article this week, Svalbardposten printed an excerpt from a polar bear story that has not been told before. The interview with Hilde made in 1997, two years after the tragedy that cost the life of a female friend.
"It seemed as if those nearest to her had avoided using the words 'polar bear,' because she really needed to know more about the animal," Amundsen said. "It was sufficient therapy for her to talk to someone who had knowledge of polar bears."
Only now the story appears in print. Amundsen said he has tried to fill in the gaps in the recent history of humans and polar bears.
"The goal is that it should not be possible to come out of this book if you know anything about polar bears in Svalbard," he said.
There have been five incidents that have cost people their lives in encounters with polar bears since 1971. Amundsen had as his thesis that polar bears do not hunt humans, and has therefore gone into every single event to see what led to the tragic outcome.
"The hardest was the Von Post incident in 2011," he said. "The governor and the state's attorney effectively blocked access. But that is a wrong decision. One can see at it as an accident investigation. If the public can not go through the material in a proper way, one can not learn from the incident."
Got to be with
We sat at the cabin in Todalen and talked. Outside lay small scattered pieces of bread and a snow bunting. Suddenly there emerged a polar fox. The bunting saw itself in a surrounding shadow, snatched in a couple of bites and hopped easily away.
"It is this that is the heart of Svalbard," Amundesen said. "You need not go on long expeditions for the good experiences."
Yes, snow bunting and the fox is a delightful encounter. But now it is a time for what the great man Amundsen has embarked himself on. Polar bears have a special aura among the animals on Svalbard, which one can not remain indifferent to. But how did the interest of the author begin?
"It started like so many others," he said. "I got a little finger in a door leading to a room I did not know. Someone let me get to be with."
The "someone" he's talking about was the central polar bear researcher Thor S. Larsen. In 1977, Amundsen was the operations manager for Norwegian Polar Institute station in Ny-Ålesund. But the desire to see more of Svalbard was strong, so he seized the opportunity when he was asked to join Larsen's summer expedition with the polar vessel Polarstar. The winter after he went out with Larsen again, this time to Nordaustlandet.
"The great joy was to get the polar bears visiting at the cabins," Amundsen said. "For then we could study how they behaved."
Not old truths
A large part of the book is devoted to polar bear hunting from 1946 to 1973, limited to the central fishing grounds in the southern part of Edgeøya and Halvmåneøya (see the article on the last polar bear hunters in Halvmåneøya). Amundsen said he will avoid recycling old truths. Therefore, the whole book is based on first-hand sources.
"There are many old trappers that I know or knew," he said. "Some of the interviews are ancient and I've got many pictures."
The title "Uten Nåde" can be understood on several levels. The most obvious is the polar bear's ruthless behavior when he exchanges a life. But equally it is about the relentless hunting take under pretenses, especially in the period just before the animals were protected in 1973 . Spring-guns were so common that hunters could haul in several bears a day without lifting the rifle itself.
"I sit again with the feeling that says thanks and praise that the polar bear was protected as it was," Amundsen said. "I don't think they knew where the local tribe was."