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February 17, 2010 1 Comment

Fishing for Amber in the Sea in Winter on the Vistula Spit

by Eyrk Popkiewicz

       Fishing for amber in 1964  Irena Skibowska

During the winter storms, amber has greater buoyancy in the sea, because the sea’s salinity is increased (and thus the seawater’s displacement). It is then that the Baltic storms easily wash up the Gold of the North onto the shore together with twigs, known as “flotsam.” Falling snow quickly covers the entire beach together with the amber nuggets. All you need is to take a hoe (like a potato digger) and break through the snow and the thin layer of frozen twigs to get to the nuggets. (When the twigs rot, they produce heat, which is why they only freeze on the surface.)

When the storms came, the people who would wait for the amber in the quiet of the dunes would light up bonfires to keep warm. They would also help themselves to liquor to withstand the wind, cold and humidity. They would use a wash net to fish for amber in the winter; a hoop with a mesh fixed on a pole as long as 6m; pine poles with a double hoop were the best, because the mesh fixed to them would not wear through as fast. The floe which appeared on the sea would often be washed up onto the shore. Sometimes the twigs with amber got hidden under the ice at the very shore so axes were used to make holes in the ice.

Next, the amber fishers would take landing nets with long poles, known as sztyce, to get to the amber lying deep on the sea floor. In the winter, when the temperature held at about -20oC for a dozen or more days, the floe would form a beach of ice stretching as much as 200 metres into the sea. If a storm came at this time or shortly after the freezing weather, the floe would pile up by the shore, forming high ice hills of up to 5 metres. Sometimes flotsam with amber would gather at the foot of these ice hills. Then the amber fishers would climb onto the edge of such a hill and reach for the amber mixed with the twigs with their nets. Sometimes they would slip and have dangerous falls in the process. If the sea was calm and there was no floe in front of the ice hill, such falls would usually end in a mere bath in icy waters and slight bruises for the amber fishers.

However, if the weather was stormy and the floe came hitting the icy scarp, it could be very, very dangerous. All this time, the amber fishers had to skilfully and reflectively manoeuvre the landing net in order not to lose it. If the pole got in between two chunks of ice moved by the undulating sea, it would be crushed and cut off instantly. When the sea was calm and the floe was very large, several people would ride it out into the sea but only as far as they were able to push themselves off by reaching down to the sea floor with their net poles. When riding the floe, they would also use anchors to immobilise the floating ice, but also to drift on it along the shoreline. They would use their landing nets to fish the twigs from the sea floor out onto the floe. Next they would rummage through the twigs and pick out the amber. Every now and then they would push the heavy wet twigs back into the sea from the ice sheet, in order to maintain the stability of their ice-raft. Any tilting of the floe put the people on it in danger of falling into the sea, which would often mean death in the icy water.

The locals tell stories of how, in the 1960s amber was extracted together with flotsam from the depths of seaside Mikoszewski Lake to its frozen surface. Oral reports indicate that no large nuggets were found, because the twigs had come from the sea and were previously sifted through. Sometimes, the twigs would form large heaps on the ice, which would bend under their weight and that spot would be soon flooded by freezing water.

Recent winters have been mild and therefore less abounding in amber. Perhaps soon a more severe winter will come to allow better amber fishing. Who knows, maybe even this winter?


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