Louise Arner Boyd, Arctic adventurer
An American follows in the path of her Norwegian hero
Any program with “unladylike” as a theme is somehow enticing, and it was easy to be drawn in by PBS’ series “Unladylike2020: Unsung Women Who Changed America,” part of their American Masters programming. The series was produced to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States.
Consisting of 26 short films featuring women trailblazers, who, in the words of PBS, “broke barriers in male-dominated fields at the turn of the 20th century.” The films are concise and pack a punch, running for no more than 15 minutes each. The pace and use of black-and-white documentary footage, historic photos and archival materials, layered with colorful animated cutouts, is dynamic and entertaining.
One of these American heroines had a strong connection to Norway. Louise Arner Boyd (1887-1972) was an Arctic explorer who was inspired by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen’s feats; Boyd considered him her hero. When she was only 19, she had the good fortune to watch the successful culmination of his Northwest Passage sea expedition, when he arrived in San Francisco, not far from her home. At the height of the golden age of polar exploration in 1906, she watched her hero’s ship Gjøa nearing the shore.
A short time later, explorers were racing to see who would be the first to reach both the North Pole (Frederick Cook vs. Robert Peary in 1909) and The South Pole (Robert Falcon Scott vs. Amundsen, December 1911). Amundsen won the latter, but it came at a great cost. Scott and his team reached the South Pole a mere five weeks after Amundsen, but he and his team never returned. Scott’s remains were recovered 10 months after they had reached their goal.
Yet none of this could deter Boyd’s enthusiasm. Adventure was perhaps in her blood. Her father made a fortune in the Gold Rush. She loved sports and considered herself a tomboy, preferring to participate in hunting, horseback riding, and hiking with her brothers. Tragically, she lost them when they were young, and her parents died by the time she turned 32.
Boyd’s inheritance funded her first Arctic trip in 1924. In the biopic short, footage of her sailing around Spitsbergen, a majestic glacier afloat in the background. Her poetic and profound perceptions follow: “Far north hidden behind grim barriers of pack ice are lands that hold one spellbound. One enters another world, where men are insignificant amid the awesome immensity of mountains, fjords, and glaciers.”
Two years later in 1926, she sponsored her own expedition to the Arctic seas, the first woman to do so. There she hunted polar bears, proving she could stand toe to toe with the men.
Ruminating about the tensions between the sexes, she stated, “My brain left all of me that was feminine behind on the ship, and with a rifle over my shoulder, I set out, bound on proving I belonged there just as much as the men!’
Today, this all may sound barbaric, but the film explains that often these “trophies” were used in natural history dioramas for educational purposes.
Disturbing news struck in 1928: Amundsen and his crew had vanished at sea. Boyd’s response was to join the rescue search for her hero. The search lasted for 10 weeks, but unfortunately, the 22 men were never found.
The tragedy did not deter Boyd, who transitioned from adventurer to explorer. Taking an interest in more scientific endeavors, she worked with the American Geographic Society during the 1930s. She added to the fields of geology, oceanography, botany, and glaciology, convincing experts in those areas to come along to explore uncharted land.
Boyd became an official photographer on her expeditions, documenting ice patterns. She developed her own film and invented ways of shooting in extreme conditions, which allowed her to get scientific results on the spot.
She also pioneered the use of photogrammetry, the science of taking photographs to create models or maps.” Boyd’s drawings also showed her artistic talent. Her findings are useful to this day, as researchers analyze the Arctic’s rapid transformation.
Boyd’s amazing enthusiasm and artistic eye were not limited to the land, sea, ice, and fauna. She also spent time with the Inuit people, and she even has a fjord in Greenland named after her.
In 1938, Boyd received a prestigious medal from the American Geographical Society and had the honor of adding her signature to the Fliers’ and Explorers’ Globe, which put her in the company of such greats as aviator Amelia Earhart and her hero Amundsen.
Nonetheless, all these achievements and honors did not preclude the lack of respect she experienced from her male colleagues. “The greatest handicap I have is being a woman, which caused many to look upon me as not worthy to be included in the scientific world,” she said.
Boyd’s last Arctic adventure took place in 1955, when she was the first woman to fly over the North Pole. She expressed her joy: “North, North, North, we flew. Then, in a moment of happiness, which I shall never forget, our instruments told me we were there. Directly below us, lay the North Pole!”
(One of the crew on board was the Norwegian-American aviator Thor Solberg, who made the first transatlantic flight from New York to Norway in 1935.)
Boyd lived for another 17 years. When she died in San Francisco in 1972, her last wish was to have her ashes scattered in the Arctic Ocean, a most fitting finish for this extraordinary woman pioneer.
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 15, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.