If the story of Louise Arner Boyd (1887-1972) teaches us anything, it is that how you start a journey need not determine how you end it. Her first expedition to the Arctic was the self-serving and destructive act of a human possessing too much money and too little purpose. Her last was a triumph of human grit and will that penetrated where few were willing to tread and documented with rigorous zeal the forces dominating the world’s edge. Only twelve years separated those trips, but in them Boyd grew from a rudderless socialite to an unflappable leader whose services and knowledge were eagerly sought out by a world plunging into war.
For the first years of her life, Boyd had every advantage that position and money could procure. Her father was a part owner of a gold mine, and the family lived comfortably in the northern California city of San Rafael. Louise and her two brothers had the run of extensive grounds, and access to good education. When her brothers were in their late teens, however, they died within months of each other of rheumatic fever and her father, now lacking a male heir, drew her more and more into his business dealings. She learned how to handle money, and how to oversee its investment responsibly, skills that would prove invaluable later when she was equipping and managing potentially ruinously expensive scientific expeditions.
She did not attend college, as many daughters of the wealthy did not, and slid into the aimlessness of material comfort, as many children of the wealthy continue to do. She traveled by car across the United States and in the company of her parents throughout Europe, and when her mother died in 1919 and her father a year after, she found herself at the age of thirty two with the Roaring Twenties breaking out all around her, without any familial responsibilities, and with virtually limitless resources to see through whatever project might come to her mind. She took a trip to post-war France and decided to follow it up by an excursion to Spitsbergen, an Arctic archipelago lying between Greenland and Norway.
Her small visit there in 1924 opened her eyes to the imperious majesty of the northern latitudes, and she immediately set about planning a more thorough-going expedition for 1926. Hiring the sealer M.S. Hobby, she invited several friends for, of all things, a polar bear hunting expedition in Franz Josef Land, a remote archipelago to the north-east of Svalbard which would be claimed by the Soviet Union before the year was out. The would-be adventurers consumed massive amounts of resources, and only slightly less alcohol, to venture into nature and kill twenty-nine polar bears for the lark of it.
The 1926 expedition was morally vapid and egregiously wasteful, and if Boyd had continued down that path of burning wealth in the pursuit of the destruction of nature, she would have been merely one of a long line of heedless socialites born to consume and destined to disappear. Her 1928 expedition, however, brought her into contact with new people and a great purpose, an outlet for her significant stores of energy and gifts of organization whereby she benefited the world and not merely herself.
In 1928, she was ready for another expedition when the news arrived that the great Arctic explorer Roald Amundsen had gone missing. Instinctively, Boyd volunteered her chartered vessel for the search and in the process of her ultimately unsuccessful three month, ten-thousand mile quest for Amundsen she gained valuable knowledge of various sailing conditions in the Arctic and made the acquaintance of many of its greatest explorers. She took photographs wherever she went and realized somewhere along the way that, instead of another pleasure jaunt, she could devote her next expedition to a scientific exploration of the unpopulated and majestic fiords of East Greenland.
Using the most up to date photographic equipment, and experimenting with the virtues of different types of film to capture the details of Greenland’s extreme environments, Boyd found that she could document the geography of unexplored regions with unparalleled precision and rigor, and produce data about ice types and distribution that would be of profound interest to geologists the world over. In 1931, aboard the Veslekari, she headed out with six companions to investigate the East Greenland fiords lying between the 70th and 74th latitudes, taking thousands of photographs and discovering errors in the contemporary maps of the region. Using new methods of high relief photography, she produced with hitherto unheard of detail images of the region that were ready-made for cartographers and in fact in 1932 she found that a map produced by a Danish institute had named part of Ice Fiord “Weisboydlund” or “Miss Boyd Land” in honor of her contributions to mapping and understanding the region.
1931 was a proof of concept that showed beyond doubt the scientific value of detailed photographic studies. In 1933, then, Boyd took the plunge and invited a team of scientists to join her on her next journey. This time the Veslekari would boast the most advanced equipment available, and even some pieces that had not been invented yet that Boyd ordered specially produced for her expedition. State of the art echo sounders would allow mapping of the ocean floor, tide gauges would measure precise differences in Arctic tidal flow, and new phototheodolites would permit her to take photo series with a surveyor’s precision. Her team included two geologists, a botanist (who dropped out at the last moment), two surveyors, and a physiographer in addition to the hearty Norwegian crew that would be running the ship and carrying the team’s scientific equipment.
Arctic expeditions are at the mercy of the short summer season. Days are long, but there aren’t terribly many of them before ice returns to the waters and ships need to disembark in order to avoid being frozen in for the year. Every day spent not observing is a day one is likely not going to get back again, and so when word reached the Veslekari that another ship, the Polarbjorn, had run aground, doing the right thing and going to their rescue meant sacrificing a major chunk of the mission, and settling for secondary goals. The scientists on the crew began to grumble about the lost observation time, and one of them in particular, who had never gotten used to the fact that the expedition was headed by a woman, started sowing dissent among the crew.
This was to be a recurring theme on Boyd’s expeditions – in spite of the fact that they were receiving a completely funded scientific study, replete with good food, lodging and equipment, to a part of the world inaccessible to them otherwise, there would always come a time where a decision would have to be made for the good of the expedition in general, a responsibility which fell upon Boyd as expedition leader. Scientists who could not climb above the perspective that their particular experiment was clearly the most important on board and that all other considerations should be secondary to the support of its goals fumed when Boyd made a decision for the good of the expedition that took time away from their particular research, and they would take their frustrations out in private tirades against the woman in charge of things. They ignored her growing experience in Arctic conditions and her meticulousness in organizing and equipping expeditions in order to gripe about her lack of a degree or her big-picture decision making. Dr. John Schilling sneered during her 1941 campaign, “She has missed everything that has been worthwhile. I think this has been true of a great many things in her life, notably a husband.” Harlen Bretz wrote in 1933, “I need rest and recuperation from her awful irrelevance, her terrible clack, her frightful sentences, her selfishness, her incompetence to lead a scientific expedition.”
Louise Arner Boyd grew from a rudderless socialite to an unflappable leader whose services and knowledge were eagerly sought out by a world plunging into war.
In spite of the misogynistic fits of pique by scientists ungraciously receiving a free ride, the expedition continued on. The ship returned to the Franz Josef Fiord, where Boyd had explored in 1931, and the team split into two squads to carry out reconnaissance, Boyd and the ship’s captain heading to Kjerulf Fiord while the others scientists ventured into Fraenkel Land. Once the land was scouted, the expedition had to carry all necessary equipment on their backs into the Arctic interior, venturing without a guide or accurate maps into the unknown with no one to rely upon but each other.
They ascended to their first camp, whimsically called Camp One, at 1,991 feet elevation, before trekking up further to Camp Three, at 2,476 feet. Strong winds wrecked camera equipment, and nighttime cold dug into weary bodies, but the scientists were producing reams of useful data, and lingered longer than they should have to squeeze every last bit of observation they could out of the rapidly closing summer season. As a result, when they concluded their work on August 23, heavy weather was beginning to close perilously in around them. The Veslekari was the last ship to leave Greenland that season and so, when it ran aground on September 3, there was no one to help them. If the crew couldn’t break the ship free, there would be no option but to stay in it through the long winter and hope their resources held out. They worked hard to lighten the vessel, hauling by hand tons of coal and oil and equipment out while using icebergs and hoists to create some sort of motion that ultimately pulled the ship free at the next high tide.
It was a close escape, but it didn’t deter Boyd from arranging a further two expeditions after publishing The Fiord Region of East Greenland (1935), a lavishly illustrated account of her 1931 and 1933 voyages featuring 350 photographs taken on the journey, maps of the hitherto unexplored Gregory Valley, surveys of Miss Boyd Land, Arch Glacier, and Moraineless Glacier, and bathymetric maps of the floor of the Greenland Sea. On the strength of her work, she was made a delegate to the International Geographical Congress of 1934.
1937 provided Boyd’s most perilous journey yet. After a successful exploration of Tyroler Fiord, Franz Josef Fiord, and Kjerulf Fiord, the Veslekari found itself enclosed by ice as it attempted its return to Europe. Finding narrow wedges through the ice fields, it would follow them only to discover that not only had the way forward suddenly disappeared, but the way back was rapidly closing up as well. Every hand on board, from the porters to the scientists, scrabbled overboard to poke and prod at the icebergs surrounding the ship, madly trying to coax a path out of the perilous waters while the ship’s captain barked orders from the crow’s nest. No sooner did the ship find some open water than new ice floes would close in and force yet another detour in a mad attempt to break free at last. For three hundred miles and many sleepless nights the ship made its painfully slow progress through the ice that threatened to rupture and crush the small vessel at any moment until at last a break-out was found.
Two narrow escapes in two expeditions might have warned Boyd off exploration entirely, but she still had one more venture in the tank, and in 1938 she vowed to carry out the mission that 1937’s horrendous weather had prevented – to shove as far north as possible with the Veslekari along the Greenland coast, documenting all she could with her infrared and panchromatic films, and gathering important botanical specimens herself using collection techniques that she had, in consultation with the legendary botanist Alice Eastwood, adapted over time to the unique problems of the Arctic environment. The 1938 expedition was blessed with good weather, and was able to make a difficult landing on the northern side of Ile de France. The good ship had made it to 77 degrees, 48 minutes of latitude, which was the second furthest north ever attained by a ship in those waters, and the furthest north ever achieved by an American.
The landing at Ile de France and the documentation via the latest photographic and echo sounding methods were triumphs widely reported by the press, but the results of the 1937 and 1938 missions would have to wait a decade for publication. World War II made Greenland an object of sudden interest to Axis and Allies alike, who saw in it a potential springboard for an invasion of the US. The United States government requested all of Boyd’s Arctic data, which she happily gave them, and insisted that she not publish any of her work until the war was over, lest it prove useful to German invasion plans. She complied with this request as well, and became an important advisor to the government about Arctic exploration techniques and Greenland’s unique geography. She was further chosen in 1941 to lead a government expedition to study the ionosphere of the Arctic regions, which she funded entirely from her own resources.
She was recognized many times over by professional and governmental agencies for the value of her work, but after the end of the war and following the publication of her second book in 1948, she found that her intensive days of exploration were behind her. At sixty-one she still had energy to spare, but scientific expeditions were reaching a level of organization and sophistication that made individual efforts like hers seem suddenly woefully inadequate. She continued exploring the globe, and even chartered a plane to fly over the North Pole in 1955, but more in the capacity of tourist than trailblazer, until a dramatic but unexplained reduction in her finances forced her to sell her home and narrow the scale of her adventuring. By 1971, she was told that her lifestyle had been exceeding her means for many years and, with the onset of intestinal cancer, she was compelled in 1971 to auction off all but the most necessary of her worldly goods and move into a convalescent home in San Francisco, where she died in 1972. She left behind thousands of photographs of an almost alien world, which she would be doubtlessly satisfied to learn are still referenced by climate scientists seeking to document the changes Greenland has faced in the last eighty years, and thus to tell the grand, horrible story of a climate change in its barest of infancy when she first set foot on the Greenlandic coast as a young explorer, full of ideas and life.
FURTHER READING: I first came across Boyd’s story in Women of the Four Winds: The Adventures of Four of America’s First Women Explorers (1985) by Elizabeth Fagg Olds. That book contains not only Boyd’s life, but also that of mountaineer Annie Smith Peck, African explorer Delia Akeley, and the globe-trotting spy Marguerite Harrison, and is well worth a read. More recently, Boyd’s life has been captured in stand alone volumes by Durlyn Anema (2013) and Joanna Kafarowski (2017). Kafarowski’s book has maps of each expedition, which are invaluable to those not keenly familiar with Greenlandic geography in visualizing her journeys, and features extensive quotations from Boyd’s works and the correspondence of the scientists who served under her, making it a great stand-alone volume of her time and works.
Photo Credit: Louise Boyd, the American photographer and polar explorer, pictured in Tromsø Harbour on June 28, 1928; Photographer Anders Beer Wilse (1865 – 1949); Public Domain