Tromsø is really far north. It’s a beautiful city centered on an island in northern Norway, about 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The Polar Museum in Tromsø, run by the University of Tromsø, has its focus even farther north: Svalbard and the North Pole.
Europeans’ early ventures to the High Arctic mostly had to do with the animals that live there and how to kill them. Svalbard has at various times hosted whaling stations and walrus hunters. Some Norwegian trappers still overwinter there, living in tiny cabins and making their living on fox furs, ptarmigans, and reindeer.
Hunters used to be allowed to kill polar bears, too. Look how they did it.
A curious bear sticks its head into the trap and hits a tripwire. The gun inside goes off. Boom. Dead bear. This isn’t sport hunting; trappers didn’t care about being fair. And not only do polar bears have gorgeous, valuable fur; they are also seriously lethal. But, if I may speak from a 21st century perspective: Yuck.
If he killed a mother with a cub, the trapper would feed it through the winter–the museum has pictures of men playing with the adorable baby bears, even one snuffling around inside a cabin. In spring, the youngsters would be sent back to Tromsø and sold to zoos around the world.
Killing polar bears is illegal in Svalbard today unless you reach a point where it’s either you or the bear.
Norway’s interactions with the poles aren’t all about killing fuzzy animals; they’ve also sent quite a few explorers out. Roald Amundsen led the first trip to reach the South Pole, in 1911, then flew over the North Pole in the airship Norge in 1926. I’ve read a lot about this airship recently and was thrilled to see some actual artifacts from it: a few pieces of the envelope and a chair.
It’s not an especially attractive chair, but it made me happy. Pictures show us that the folks who crossed the pole on the Norge did not have rope imprints on their thighs; the chairs were decked out in cheerful striped cushions.
The really odd thing about the Norge is that it’s the first expedition on which everyone agrees the people definitely set eye on the North Pole. Various other expeditions claimed to have reached it earlier, and some may have, but their accounts have since been questioned. And the Norge didn’t land. The first people to indisputably set foot on the sea ice at the pole were some Soviets who went there in 1948. (Of course, the closest land is a couple of miles straight down; the Russians have been there, too, in submersibles, in the 2000s.)