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Louise Boyd: The Girl Who Tamed the Arctic

5 min read

As we prepare to celebrate International Women’s Day, we’re reminded of great female Arctic explorers. Though not as numerous as their male counterparts, women who have taken Arctic expeditions have made great contributions to our understanding of the Arctic today, and our ability to access its pristine regions.

Louise Arner Boyd courtesy of Wikipedia

Louise Arner Boyd, born September 16, 1887, was one such woman.

An American, in 1955 she became the first woman to fly over the North Pole. She was also the third woman in history awarded the Chevalier Cross of the Order of Saint Olav by the Norwegian government.

Seeing Polar Pack Ice and the Arctic Ocean For The First Time

One of the greatest challenges facing any explorer in the 19th and 20th centuries was securing funds to mount an expedition. Here, young Louise Boyd had an edge.

One of three children born to a San Francisco investment banker, John Franklin Boyd, and his wife Louise Cook Arner, Louise enjoyed a privileged upbringing with a quality education. Sadly, both of her brothers died of heart disease, leaving Boyd an only child -- and the only heir to the family’s fortune.

Boyd traveled often with her parents, exploring Europe but spending more of her time caring for them as the pair aged and mourned their lost sons. In the spring of 1919, at the age of 31, Boyd did something almost unheard of for a woman in that day: she took a train to Buffalo, purchased a touring car, and drove across the United States on her own.

Remember, this was a time when dirt roads and trails were the norm, as the transcontinental highway system hadn’t yet been created. Boyd began to realize her love of travel went well with the two other passions she nurtured in her excursions: writing and photography.

Boyd’s parents passed away one after the other, in 1919 and 1920. Alone in the world and with a substantial amount of wealth at her disposal, Boyd traveled to Norway in 1924, where a sea cruise introduced her to the phenomenon of polar pack ice for the first time.

She was hooked.

One Expedition Leads to Another

No sooner was that spark lit than Boyd began planning her first big adventure. She was taken seriously, too — in 1925, she was able to charter the Hobby, previously used by none other than famed polar explorer Roald Amundsen.

It was during this first trip that she earned the moniker “The Girl Who Tamed the Arctic,” as the media delighted in her exploits and explorations —especially polar bear hunting.

Hobby courtesy of Wikipedia

This was more than a way for an heiress to entertain herself. As Boyd planned her second trip in 1928, news broke that Amundsen, himself on a rescue mission, had disappeared. She’d already chartered the Hobby and so offered the services of herself, her ship and crew to the Norwegian government.

Though they were unable to locate Amundsen and crew, Louise Boyd became the first American woman, and the third woman ever, to receive Norway’s Chevalier Cross of the Order of Saint Olav.

Boyd Tames Greenland

As we remember trailblazers this International Women’s Day, it’s important to note Louise Boyd’s contributions to the study of Greenland’s culture, geography and wildlife. Boyd spent much of the 1930s exploring Greenland’s rugged and wild east and north coasts, photographing and documenting hundreds of botanical specimens.

In fact, a fjord in East Greenland was named Louise Boyd Land in her honor, and her research is still used by climate change scientists today.

She became a published author when her work was shared by the American Geographical Society; she was elected a delegate to the International Geographical Congress in 1934.

Greenland Village. Photo by Acacia Johnson.

Her knowledge of Greenland, the North Pole, and the Arctic made Boyd an important asset to the United States government at the onset of World War II. In fact, she was asked not to publish a book she’d been writing about her more recent arctic discoveries and instead was appointed to lead an expedition down Greenland’s west coast and on to Baffin Island and Labrador, Canada. She published her book, The Coast of Northeast Greenland, after the war.

There’s much more to be learned about arctic explorer Louise Arner Boyd and her many accomplishments. Taming the Arctic: The 20th Century Renown Explorer--Louise Arner Boyd, a 2013 book authored by Durlynn Anema (Ph.D.) and published by The National Writers Press.

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