Woodfjorden area's history and cultural remains

The Woodfjorden area was known to whalers early in the 1600s. In 1614, the English whaler Robert Fotherby, who worked for the Muscovy Company, named the fjord Wiches Sound . Thomas Edge, an English merchant and whaler who also sailed for the Muscovy Company, put the coastal areas and the outlet of the fjord system on the map in 1625. There are many 17th and 18th century graves of whalers on the long, flat Reinsdyrflya, by the outlet of Woodfjorden. These are the only traces left by whalers along the beaches of Woodfjorden. There are no remains of blubber ovens, tents or buildings that point towards the establishment of temporary or permanent whaling stations. This area was only used as burial grounds.

The Woodfjorden area is a good hunting area for fox. Polar bears wander around the fjord system, and there are reindeer scattered around the valleys. The islands in Liefdefjorden are good places to collect down. This is why, after the whalers had left the area, the Russian Pomors seized the area. Originating in the north-westernmost Russia the Pomors were overwintering hunters and trappers, well used to surviving in a cold and harsh environment. The remains of their hunting stations and other evidence of their occupation in the area can be seen in several places in Woodfjorden.

Norwegian overwintering hunting from the 1800s and 1900shas also left cultural remains in Woodfjorden. Tied to these remains are stories of dramatic overwinterings, and some are rather tragic. Some of the cabins from the era are in ruins today, but most have been well preserved.

Jon Grande Dahl standing in front of a small wooden sauna. Jon Grande Dahl was a trapper in Mushamna in 2004–2005, here in front of a newly buit sauna. (Image: Bjørn Fossli Johansen / The Norwegian Polar Institute) The trapping station in Mushavna with seal skins hung up to dryThe trapping station in Mushavna while it was still beeing used, with skins of ringed seals hung up to try. The meat stand can be seen in the backround. (Image: Bjørn Fossli Johansen / The Norwegian Polar Institute)

Trapping stations from the Norwegian overwintering trapping

One of the main stations for the Norwegian overwintering hunting and trapping in the 1900s was at Roosneset. The cabin, erected by Hilmar Nøis in 1924, was very popular with Norwegian overwinterers during the 1930s. Burnt to the ground by the Germans during World War II, the cabin was never re-built.

Mushamna was given its Norwegian name after the first name for the place – the Dutch name Muyshaven (Blaeu 1662) dating from 1662. Hilmar Nøis and Martin Pettersen Nøis built a satellite station here in 1927, which, according to Norwegian trapper Georg Bjørnnes, was destroyed by a polar bear in 1932. The cabin was later repaired, and is in good condition today. It is located by the beach close to the new hunting station in Mushamna.

The new trapping station in Mushamna was built by Reidar Hovelsrud in 1987. It is buit with driftwood and is unusually large compared to other older trapping huts in Svalbard. Tha cabin has an outer compartment for storing skins, a central compartment with workshop and an inner compartment with living room, kitchen and sleeping arrangements. The government bought the cabin in 1997 and from 2002 to 2009 the cabin was leased to trappers. Today the cabin serves as a service cabin for the Governor of Svalbard.

The cabin known as Texas Bar is said to be named after the state of Texas in the USA. This cabin was also built by Hilmar Nøis and Martin Pettersen Nøis in 1927. It is in good condition and is regularly in use.

Worsleyhamna – also known as Villa Oxford – is located on the northern shore in Liefdefjorden, in the vicinity of the islands of Andøyane. It was, built as a satellite station by Hilmar Nøis in 1924 Nøis furnished his cabin with the inside of a transport crate for a seaplane, left by George Binney – leader of a research and mapping expedition that took aerial photographs of Svalbard in 1924. This expedition was the first of its kind in the archipelago, and Worsleyhamna was the base for the expedition.

Gråhuken was called Castlins Point by Fotherby in 1614 and was later mapped and described under the same name by Edge on the Muscovy Company map from 1625. The Dutch had their own names for the place, and called it Gruwen hoeck (cartographer Doncker 1655), Swarte hoeck (1662), Dorren hoeck (cartographer Blaeu 1662) and Grawen hoeck or Flacke point (Valk and Schenk 1662, Gerard Van Keulen 1689). The actual cabin at Gråhuken was built by Hilmar Nøis’ expedition in 1928 as the main station, and was called Kap Hvile (Cape Rest). Several famous personalities in the history of Svalbard have spent the winter in Gråhuken, although the person that most people may connect to the place is Austrian Christiane Ritter. Through her book about her year in Gråhuken, she has forever made her mark on Svalbard’s history.

Between Raudfjorden and Reinsdyrflya – Biscayarhuken and Breibogen

Biscayarhuken and Breibogen are located on the coast between Raudfjorden in the west and Reinsdyrfløya in the east. The land was already familiar in the early 1600s, and in Biscayarhuken there are cultural remains from the whaling era up to the Norwegian overwintering trapping in the 1900s. There are several Russian hunting stations along this coastline, and there is much evidence that Breibogen was the last place in which the Russians carried out their whaling before it ceased in about 1850.

Historically, this coastline is full of drama – although one particular incident in the 1800s is what has made the area famous. James Lamont, a Scottish landowner who sailed along the coast of Spitsbergen in 1858, wrote:

”Off Red Bay we caught glimpses of the land…On shore was a ruined hut of some size, and around some lofty poles, terminating in crosses, explained its Russian origin. They are the remains of a party of Russians who attempted to winter here in 1851. Twelve graves bear witness to that terrible scourge – scurvy – for out of eighteen men only six survived the winter, although there was no want of provisions or comfort. The hut was purposely constructed, and brought from the White Sea.
We got the boat, with some difficulty, past Biscayer Hook, and then found an excellent wooden house on a flat tongue of land. It was the Russian hut we had seen from the yacht, and we were able to examine more closely the crosses which marked the graves of the unfortunate men who perished here. Each cross was about fifteen feet high, and had a larger and smaller cross-piece, fixed at an angle, and all were carved and lettered with Russian characters.” (Lamont 1876.)

Reported by the St. Petersburg press in 1853, this last known overwintering in 1851–1852 by Russian Pomors in Svalbard was a tragic end to 150 years of Russian activity in the archipelago. Eighteen hunters prepared for overwintering in Svalbard in 1851. They had planned to spend the winter in the Sørkapp area, but fog and drift ice prevented the expedition from reaching the hunting grounds. Eventually the ship made its way into a bay in the north-west of Spitsbergen. The area was completely unknown to the crew, but the decision was made to spend the winter there.

The main station was built quickly, and all necessary preparations for whaling and overwintering were made. The catch was good, and it carried on for 17 weeks until the polar night set in. The 18-man crew gathered in the station where they were trapped by endless snow storms. Soon some were ill with symptoms of scurvy, and by Christmas only six hunters remained healthy. The harsh cold exacerbated the poor condition of the afflicted. The first person to die went at the end of January 1852, and the last one at the end of May. During this time 12 of the crew perished, and of the six that survived, only three were fit to carry out any kind of work. The survivors were saved in July by Norwegian hunters who were hunting walrus on the drift ice around Svalbard during the summer months. At the end of July, the six survivors finally arrived in Hammerfest, mainland Norway. No more overwinterings by Russian Pomors were reported after this. An era of Svalbard’s history had come to an end.

Mattilas and the chef at Gråhuken

In her book about her overwintering in 1934, Christiane Ritter wrote about a lonely grave that lies by the sea on the edge of Gråhuken. She often passed this grave on her many walks around the area. This was where Mattilas was buried when he was found in 1873. The story of Mattilas and the chef and their overwintering in Gråhuken is one of the tragic stories from the area.

Winter arrived early during autumn 1872. The drift ice came from the north and blocked the north coast of Spitsbergen sooner than usual. This surprised six Norwegian whaling vessels and they ended up freezing in the ice in the middle of September. They had stretched the whaling in the north too far, and it now seemed they had to prepare for an unprepared overwintering. The situation was precarious as they were only equipped for the summer and had no rations or equipment to stay for a whole winter.

The same autumn A. E. Nordenskiöld stayed in Mosselbukta. The original plan had been to spend the winter in the archipelago of Sjuøyane, but he did not make it that far due to the ice conditions. Mosselbukta was chosen as the winter base for Nordenskiöld’s North Pole expedition, in which he would use reindeer to pull the sledges. The ships were trapped by the ice during a farewell party for two of the crew who had brought the expedition to Mosselbukta. This meant that three times as many people as planned had to spend the winter there. There were rations for 21 people, and now 67 were to overwinter. On top of this, they received the message of the six vessels that were trapped in the ice in Gråhuken.

Nordenskiöld had no possibility of providing shelter for everyone, nor had he the means to feed so many people. However, the same year he had erected a house in Isfjorden, where there was plenty of food for an overwintering party. In the first week of October, 17 hunters left the trapped Norwegian vessels and embarked across the ice carrying two small boats to make their way to Isfjorden and the Swedish house in Kapp Thordsen. A terrible tragedy in Svalbard’s history happened there during the winter, but that is another story.

In the beginning of November, the hunters in the north managed to break free from the ice with the two ships that lay by Velkomstpynten. The four sloops by Gråhuken were not so fortunate. They were surrounded by ice, and storm and drift ice had carried them aground. Two men – skipper Johan Mattilas and the chef, Gabriel Anderssen – remained to watch the four ships that were full of the catch. The skipper, Mattilas, had 42 years of experience of summer hunting in Svalbard. He had been lucky in life and had earned a small fortune. But he had lost his earnings. All he owned was now in one of the ships that were trapped in the ice by Gråhuken.

The two men in Gråhuken found shelter under two overturned boats during the cold, dark winter months. They managed to get most of the necessary equipment ashore before abandoning the ships in the ice. From land they could see the ships gradually being broken down by stormy weather and ice before they had to be declared lost. All that Mattilas owned disappeared right in front of his eyes and there was nothing he could do to stop it.

In the journal that Mattilas kept there is no mention of illness until January. Skipper Mattilas was the first to be stricken with scurvy, and the chef followed a few weeks later. They deteriorated rapidly and soon became unable to cook, get firewood or keep the oven going. The journal entries stop on 18 February, and it is unlikely that they lived for long after this date. Their bodies were found in May 1873 by a skipper from Tromsø who was so baffled by the discovery that he left without burying them. It was the Swedish, under Nordenskiöld’s lead, who eventually buried Mattilas and Anderssen, at the edge of Gråhuken.

Updated May 2015

The Cruise Handbook is also available in book form

Order now

Hard cover with numerous pictures - 249 pages - NOK 249.00

Norwegian Polar Institute
Fram Centre
NO-9296 Tromsø