Louise Arner Boyd – Sophisticated Arctic Explorer

Louise Boyd in 1928

Imagine seeing Louse Arner Boyd on one of her polar expeditions – she would be dressed in typical Arctic gear, including boots, heavy sweater, oilskin jacket, and she could curse like a fisherman. But she would always put on makeup and powder her nose before going on deck. She might also be seen wearing a flower – usually a camellia. She even had a suitcase designed for her by Louis Vuitton.

Louise was a polar explorer in the 1920s through the 1940s. But she wasn’t a typical woman adventurer; she was wealthy and could afford to pay her own way (she often brought her maid on board). She might not have endured the rough conditions aboard the ships that other explorers might have had to suffer. But she still had to endure the dangers of the polar region and she had a tough time convincing men that she could explore with the best of them.

Louise’s First Polar Adventures

Louise Arner Boyd was born into a wealthy family in San Francisco in 1887; her father had made his fortune in gold mining. She was a tomboy, riding and shooting with her two older brothers. After the deaths of her parents in the early 1920s, she found running the family business boring, and she started to travel. Her first trips were conventional tours of Europe, but she had always found the Arctic fascinating.

In 1924 she took a tourist ship to Spitzbergen, off the north coast of Norway. This trip was in part a polar bear hunting expedition, and Louise was a crack shot. She was thought to have bagged as many as 29 bears. Later, sensitive to criticism, she downplayed the shootings.

The Hobby – used for her explorations.

Her second voyage was important because it steered her in a different course in her adventures. As she began the trip in 1928, she learned of the disappearance of Roald Amundsen, a famous polar explorer. Amundsen and a pilot had taken off in a small plane to look for a dirigible expedition that had crashed. Louise immediately contacted the Norwegian authorities and put her ship to use to search for Amundsen. (He was never found.)

She was later awarded a medal by King Haakon VII of Norway, and she began to be taken more seriously by the scientific community and some (but not all) men scientists and explorers.

During the search, Louise worked with scientists and Arctic explorers on the ship and she discovered that she was interested in learning and documenting her trips rather than shooting polar bears. She began taking photographs and collecting botanical specimens. And she set out on her next expeditions with a more serious purpose – to chart the polar regions around western Greenland.

Dangers of Polar Exploration

Isfjord, Ilulissat, Diskobay, West Greenland. Edge of the Sermeq Kujalleq Glacier, one of largest Glacier Streams of the Greenland ice cap.

A quick note on the dangers of the Arctic; Like all adventures, exploring the polar regions of the Arctic Ocean have danger. The Arctic is a difficult place to travel in because of the cold and the shifting ice. The temperatures can be as much as -40 degrees Fahrenheit, and the window for traveling is small – only a few months in the summer. If ships wait too long to leave the Arctic, they can be blocked in by ice for the winter.

Louise’s Polar Expeditions

The preparation for an expedition takes many months and a good deal of money. Louise was a super-star at preparation. She spent her own money to buy the most up-to-date equipment and the best supplies. Everything down to the smallest detail was considered; you didn’t want to run out of something critical in the Arctic wilderness.

Louise’s third expedition in 1931 was primarily a photographic reconnaissance, in preparation for longer expeditions with more scientists aboard. This journey is the only one where she talks about meeting indigenous people. She liked and admired the Eskimos in Greenland, saying that they had “quiet, charming manners, … direct eyes, and their faces that …radiate kindness.”

On her first journeys, Louise had taken friends, but now she was dealing with the men of the scientific community. She had some difficulty getting scientists to join her, but she was persistent. On each voyage, she learned more, took more photos, documented more new fjords in Greenland, and endured new dangers.

In her 1938 season, she managed through sheer determination to go as close to the north pole as was possible at that time. The pack ice halted her ship only 800 miles from the pole, a new record.

Louise and the Scientists

As I did more reading about Louise Boyd in the biography by Joanna Kafarowski, I found out more about her relationships with the scientific community and the scientists who worked with her on her expeditions.

The scientists didn’t like Louise for several reasons:

  • She was a woman and she was their “boss,” running the expedition with an iron hand.
  • She wasn’t a scientist, not a member of the GOB (Good Old Boys) club of “real” scientists.
  • They were prima donnas, each wanting to be the star. But they were in the Arctic, and they had to listen to her for their own safety.

The scientists would huddle on the aft deck and mimic and mock Louise. It’s not clear if she understood what was going on; I hope not. When they were stuck on the ship, they blamed her instead of blaming the ice. After the expedition, some of them continued to belittle her, laughing at the way she gave presentations (she mispronounced “expedition” as “exposition”), her dress, and her voice.

But her botanical collections and scientific observations were precise and she used proper techniques. Her photos and charts of Greenland were valuable to the U.S. as intelligence sources during World War II.

She won the respect of the American Geographical Society, which sponsored several of her voyages and published her books. And she was

Louise’s Achievements

Her last polar expedition was in 1938; after that, World War II interfered and she was never able to go back. But she had achieved quite a lot. She was a recognized authority on the polar region, particularly Greenland, and she worked for the U.S. government during the war.

She was finally recognized by the American Polar Society for her contributions to the knowledge of Spitsbergen, Franz Joseph Land, East Greenland, and the Greenland Sea.

She wanted to get to the North Pole, so in 1955 (she was 67) she chartered a flight and flew over it. The end of her life was sad; she had spent all her money and she was in poor health. She died in 1972, just before her 85th birthday; her ashes were dropped in the Arctic Ocean.

I especially enjoy knowing that her name is on some Arctic landmarks  – a fjord named “Miss Boyd Land,” the Louise Glacier and the Louise A Boyd Bank.

While she might not have endured some of the conditions of earlier women adventurers, Louise Boyd exemplified the persistent, courageous, and adventurous woman who succeeds.


Disclosure: The books featured in my posts have links to Amazon.com, and I receive money if you buy a book from one of these links.

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