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"Cold? Yes ... I Love It"
LOUISE BOYD: ARCTIC EXPLORER
LOUISE BOYD grew up in California, a green and sunny land, yet fell in love with the Arctic, a cold, very cold, region mostly covered in ice, where during the long winter months the sun never shines.
She got her "first taste of the far north" as a tourist in 1924. Louise Boyd, 1928. Four years earlier she had inherited three million dollars when her father died just a year after her mother's death. Both her brothers had died of rheumatic fever as teenagers.
Boyd had been traveling here and there trying to figure out what to do with her life. Finally, she traveled on a Norwegian steamer to Spitsbergen, an Arctic island northwest ofGreenland, and to the edge of the pack ice, a jumble of massive hunks and blocks and piles of ice that forms in the polar basin and gets carried southward by the ocean currents. Ice that for much of the year forms barriers around the thousands of islands in the Arctic region. Ice that can crush a ship that stays too long as winter is setting in.
Boyd got just a glimpse of the pack ice, but it was enough to make her determined to return to "see more of the ice," and to see the land that lay beyond the ice. That land was Franz Josef Land, an archipelago of about eighty-five mostly ice-covered islands in the Arctic Ocean. Two Austrian explorers had discovered it in the late 1880s and named it after Austrian emperor Franz Josef I.
"I Revel in the Cold"
Two years after her first trip, Boyd went to TromsØ, a port in Norway, and tried to charter the Hobby, a small ship used to hunt seals, to go to the pack ice and Franz Josef Land. The captain, however, refused her money because he believed in the old superstition that women were bad luck to have aboard a ship. Boyd "begged, pleaded and cajoled" until the captain relented.
The day and night before the Hobby arrived at the pack ice, Boyd stayed on deck, awake, for twenty-four hours. The captain and crew, she later explained, "could smell ice, and would stick their noses up and sniff it. And they expected me to. Howcould I know what ice smelled like? But I wanted to be there at the start, ready when the gates to the Arctic opened and let me enter. What was the loss of a night's sleep? Nothing!"
Thick fog prevented them from seeing the ice, but they could hear it crash and bang and groan and growl along with the rumble and roar of the wind and waves.
Hours passed as the captain guided the Hobby through the pack ice, sometimes ramming and grinding through solid ice, other times following open water, called a lead, that could be as small as a crack or tiny stream and as big as a lake. Finally, they were on the other side of the pack ice. The fog lifted and the sun shone and Louise Boyd surveyed the scene: "I had a feeling of regret that isolation combined with some danger, made such beauty inaccessible and known to so few ... . I understood for the first time what an old seaman meant when he told me that once you had been to the Arctic and in the ice you never would forget it and always wanted to go back."
Boyd, whom a society reporter once described as "tall, blue-eyed, graceful, slender, erect, and elegant," had brought along four friends--Janet Coleman from San Francisco, the Count and Countess Rivadavia, and Francis De Gisbert, an expert on the polar region. Their purpose--at a time when there was little opposition to hunting and no protection of animals--was to hunt on Franz Josef Land. Boyd, credited as the first woman to set foot on Franz Josef Land, shot polar bears, including one at forty feet that was charging her. "I had a narrow escape," shelater said. "Bears move at an incredibly fast pace once they are charging over the ice, and the great thing for a person to do is to keep cool."
During this trip, Boyd carefully collected "botanical specimens" from Cape Flora on Northbrook Island, including several species that had not yet been reported by anyone. She kept a written record of everything that she observed from "jagged peaks" and "dome-shaped glacier-covered mountains" and islands "positively alive with gulls" and "sheltered spots with an abundance of white and yellow flowers of the anemone ranunculus family" to the "moving, hummocky ice-fields."
A passionate photographer, Boyd shot twenty-one thousand feet of film and took seven hundred pictures in order to study the "sea and land ice as well as the topography and natural history of Arctic lands." Once some crewmen of the Hobby took her out in a small boat to get close-up pictures of polar bears. Suddenly gale-force winds whipped up the water and the fog encircled them. The force of the wind and waves broke up the pack ice, setting chunks of it floating perilously close to their rowboat. Hours passed before the fog lifted and they realized that, in their attempt to return to the ship, they had been rowing away from the Hobby instead of toward it.
At the end of the six-week expedition, Boyd said, "I revel in the cold. I have got the Arctic lure and will certainly go North again."
Boyd was back two years later, in 1928, on board the Hobby. She had intended to do more polar bear hunting, but insteadshe ended up hunting for some missing men--the famed Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his five companions. Ironically, they had been searching for another lost explorer, who was rescued shortly after the plane with Amundsen and his crew disappeared. Amundsen's achievements--first to reach the South Pole, first to navigate the Northwest Passage, first to fly over the North Pole--made his disappearance front-page news. A massive search was undertaken. Thousands of people sent money to help pay for the search. Icebreakers and cruisers and warships from Norway, Sweden, France, Italy, and Russia crisscrossed the dangerous wind-whipped waters filled with ice floes and shrouded in dense fog. Ski patrols searched desolate islands.
"Ice Does Such Eerie Things"
Boyd offered the services of the Hobby and its crew to the Norwegian government at her expense. "We felt it a privilege to give up our plans and join in the search for Amundsen," she later wrote. Two pilots joined the crew and their seaplanes were lashed to the Hobby's lower deck. Boyd was in the middle of the action and took her turn standing watch, even in the midst of violent winds and thunderous waves. "Four of us stood watch around the clock," she recalled. "We would just stand there and look. Ice does such eerie things. There are illusions like mirages, and there were times we could clearly see tents. Then we'd lower boats and go off and investigate. But it always turned out the same--strange formations of ice, nothing more."
Amundsen and his companions were never found. The Hobby had searched for ten weeks and traveled "some 10,000 mites ... along the west coast of Spitsbergen, east to Franz Josef Land, and from there northward in the pack ice ... as well as westward into the Greenland Sea." The King of Norway presented Boyd with the Order of St. Olaf for her part in the search. The French government made her a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. The French Navy presented to her a diamond-studded miniature of the medal inscribed with the words Hommage, Reconnaissance de la Marine Française à Miss Boyd, 1928. Her hometown newspaper published an article with the headline "Arctic Search Fun for Marin 'Tomboy."' According to the article, "Folks here think of her as the little tomboy schoolgirl who rode her father's horses and frolicked with her two brothers ... [but] ... city residents are not surprised at her latest adventure ... . She has spent years exploring the far places of the earth and every once in a while, comes home to say howdy and good-bye."
Her experiences on board the Hobby gave Boyd invaluable information about cruising in polar seas. Feeling ready to tackle even more hazardous waters, she planned to undertake an expedition in 1931 across the Greenland Sea to the east coast of Greenland, a region that was typically blocked by an ice belt as much as 150 miles wide. Her purpose was to photograph "every fiord and sound in the region of Franz Josef and King Oscar fords," part of the largest and most complex fiord region in the world. The region was a land, Boyd explained, "wheredeep inlets cleave the coast and run back among the mountains as far as 120 miles (190 km), ... where walls of rock, bizarre in form and brilliant in color, rise to heights of more than a mile above the calm waters of the fiords; where mighty glaciers come down from the inland ice cap to the fiord heads and spill over the valley walls."
"Land of Extraordinary Grandeur"
Boyd chartered a bigger, sturdier vessel, the Veleskari, a 125-foot-long and 27-foot-wide sealing vessel made of oak and greenheart planking with a mast of California pine and a coal-burning engine; hired a seasoned captain and crew; invited R. H. Menzies, a botanist, to join her; and assembled supplies: 250 tons of coal, 1,155 tons of fuel oil for the motor dory and other small boats, 9 tons of drinking water (23 more tons were pumped on board from melting icebergs and used during the voyage), photographic and botanical equipment and surveying instruments, 9 tents and 27 sleeping bags, and enough food for the voyage plus an additional three months. Her list of clothing for the summer expedition included an oilskin coat and hip rubber boots ("needed for when the deck is rail-under in sea water"), woolen underwear, sweaters, breeches, hobnailed boots, woolen muffler, fur cap, and woolen mittens.
Weather and ice conditions for this expedition were terrible. At times, the ice towered above the ship's railing. The captain spent days in the crow's nest searching for openings in the ice. The crew exploded dynamite that they tied to the ends ofpoles and stuck under the ice near the ship. "The reward of crossing this belt of ice," Boyd later wrote, "is access to a land of extraordinary grandeur and beauty."
The expedition was a great success. Boyd visited every fiord and sound, made many shore trips, took thousands of photographs, collected botanical species, observed many birds and animals, visited several Inuit settlements, traveled to the inner end of the Ice Fiord, a feat no one else had yet accomplished, and she discovered a new glacier--the De Geer Glacier. All this fueled her desire to continue organizing and leading and financing scientific expeditions that would contribute to the "knowledge of that alluring region ... its majestic scenery, its plant and animal life, its geology and physiography, and the ice."
Louise Boyd was full of confidence about her ability to organize an expedition and to deal with the demands and dangers of the Arctic region. But she had doubts about whether or not she was "suited for leadership, particularly with a group of men." Seven years later, a reporter asked her about her experiences leading men, and she replied, "As for the men, most of them go back with me each voyage. We get along fine."
In the history of Arctic exploration, Louise Boyd was the first woman to lead an expedition--undoubtedly because she had the combination of motivation and determination and ability, and, perhaps most important, the money to do it. But she was not the first woman to be an essential part of an expedition. Indigenous women had done that for years. A Chipewyan Indian woman named "Green Stocking" participated in thepreparation for Sir John Franklin's harrowing overland Arctic expedition in 1819--22. Tookoolito, an Inuit from Baffin Island, was the hero among the nineteen people of the Polaris expedition who were stranded on the ice for six months in the late 1800s. Anarulunguaq was awarded a medal from the King of Denmark for her participation in Knud Rasmussen's 1921-24 expedition that covered twenty thousand miles.
Nevertheless, men dominated the world of Arctic exploration. Boyd eased her way through this world by not straying too far from the conventional definitions of femininity. "I like the pleasant things most women enjoy," she told a newspaper reporter, "even if I do wear breeches and boots on an expedition, even sleep in them at times. At sea, I didn't bother with my hands, except to keep them from being frozen ... . But I powder my nose before going on deck, no matter how rough the sea is."
"Seawater Poured In"
Building on the success of her 1931 expedition, Boyd organized another one in 1933 with the help of the American Geographical Society, a professional organization that had used Boyd's extensive and detailed photographs to make large-scale topographical maps. Boyd, the leader and photographer, was joined by a surveyor, an assistant surveyor, a physiographer, a geologist, and a botanist (who developed appendicitis along the way and had to be sent back to Norway on a whaler that happened by). She added two tide gauges and a sonic depth-sounding device to the equipment.
The Veleskari reached open seas on July 4, and it was the third time Boyd had spent the Fourth of July in Arctic waters. Although they were in heavy seas and the ship was "railed under," Boyd reported that they celebrated by "flying Old Glory and having the best the galley could provide, while sea water poured in--to a depth of a foot on the floor of the galley--and cooking became almost an acrobatic feat."
This time the voyage across the Greenland Sea was relatively ice free, and they arrived at the east coast of Greenland in early July.
Boyd and her staff spent the next sixty days taking photographs, making maps, exploring the fiords, and studying hundreds and hundreds of icebergs of all shapes and sizes that were formed by calving, or breaking off from glaciers. She observed that icebergs were the great source of noise in the fiords:
You hear the trickle of small rivulets on the larger bergs, and the drip-drip of water splashing from their sides. The smaller ice formed from the calving of bergs makes a crackling sound in warm weather. Occasionally there is a swish against the shore of waves produced by the overturning and breaking up of some ponderous mass. Loudest of all, like the sound of cannonading, is the boom of a berg as it splits off from its parent glacier or the crash of bursting ice as a mighty berg collapses. These extraordinary sounds echo and re-echo through the fiords.
For most of August, Boyd and her party camped in the Gregory Lake and Mystery Lake valleys. "Inanimate nature seemed almost alive in these valleys," she wrote. "Changes were constantly taking place in the topography: rocks, large and small, single and in groups, constantly ripped down the steep mountainsides, forming deep troughs and rolling out on the valley floor ... . Ice calved off from hanging glaciers thousands of feet above us and spilled its fresh white substance over the varicolored rocks."
The first week of September, the Veleskari had started out of Franz Josef Fiord on its homeward journey when a ferocious gale stopped them. "Nature was closing her door on us!" Boyd later wrote. "The snow of the coming winter had arrived. Extending from summit to sea level, as far as one could see, Greenland was white ... . Nature's warning to us was: 'Go Home!'" Fortunately, after a few days, the weather improved. The Veleskari set sail again and, finding the Greenland Sea ice-free ("a most unusual condition," Boyd noted), reached the Lofoten Islands, Norway, in four days and two hours--record time.
Boyd planned her next two expeditions--1937 and 1938--as a unit. The American Geographical Society had recently published her book, The Fiord Region of East Greenland, about her earlier expeditions, and the society was eager to continue working with her. Boyd had two major objectives: to expand the use of the sonic depth-sounding device to make bottomprofiles of the Greenland Sea and the fiords, and to see how far north her expedition could get.
The 1937 expedition left Alesund, Norway, on June 4 and spent two weeks cruising along the coast and stopping at offshore islands with their rookeries, the nesting places for thousands of Arctic birds--eiders and Arctic terns and long-tailed ducks. Then they set course for Bear Island and then on to Jan Mayen Island, a desolate, volcanic island that in the seventeenth century was the site of a major whaling station. On the very rare good weather days, Mount Beerenberg was visible, and, in Boyd's words, "loomed up in majestic glory that few mountains can rival, its 8,000-foot, glacier-hung summit, a weather breeder and catcher of clouds and fog, gleaming in the sunlight." They brought mail and news to the men at the weather station and stayed several days to conduct various studies, take pictures, map a glacier, and observe the birds.
They departed, Boyd wrote, with the "all-important question ... when and where we should meet the ice."
"A Tantalizing Game of Ice-Pack Tag"
They met the ice--dense, heavy ice and floes, some of which had fifteen-foot-high hummocks--on July 12. It took them fourteen days to bump, push, pull, wiggle, and dynamite a way through it. At times, they could see the coast of Greenland, but their progress was "a tantalizing game of ice-pack tag, a sort of hide-and-seek with the coast." Their return trip in August was even more harrowing when winter set in earlier than usual and they got trapped between the coast and a belt of heavy polar ice with floes as high as the Veleskari's stern. At one point, the ship was "pinched" by the heavy ice and tipped several degrees over to the side. It took well-placed sticks of dynamite to get free. Faced with the prospects of being stuck for the winter or, worse yet, having the ship crushed by heavy ice, everyone on board worked day and night to find a way out. Crewmen hammered heavy ice anchors into floes to create leverage for pulling and shoving the Veleskari through the ice. The captain and first mate took alternating nonstop lookout shifts in the crow's nest until the ship finally broke through at the end of August.
While the ice and weather conditions in 1937 had been the worst Boyd had ever seen, they were better "than ever before" in 1938. That allowed the expedition to reach Ile de France, an island off Greenland, and make the farthest north landing ever achieved by ship on the east coast of Greenland. Along the way, Boyd and her staff of scientists visited many fiords and bays and islands where they stopped and went ashore to take pictures and gather information about the geology and plants and birds and animals.
At Bessel fiord, Boyd observed many musk oxen and gathered the wool that they had shed. "I have made a point of gathering the wool wherever I found it," she explained. She had mufflers and a sweater, dress, and jacket made for her by membersof the Norwegian Home Industries in Alesund, Norway. According to Boyd, there was"no evidence that the Danish or Norwegian hunters or other visitors to Greenland gathered this wool; even when I told the hunters of its merit, they seemed to feel that it was not worth bothering about."
Boyd also warned "prospective photographers in East Greenland of the menace of lone musk ox bulls in certain localities." A lone musk ox bull, she reported, would attack Boyd and hercrew with "a series of full-speed rushes, punctuated by halts during which he tore into the ground with horns and hoofs." A gunshot into the air usually scared the ox away. However, once they had to shoot a bull. "We got it," Boyd said, "before he got me."
The Veleskari arrived back in Norway in early September. The expedition had gathered a wealth of information, including the discovery of an ocean bank, or a mountain ridge, later named Louise A. Boyd Bank, along the bottom of the Greenland Sea between Bear Island and Jan Mayen Island.
The outbreak of World War II in 1939 put an end to Louise Boyd's independent expeditions. Realizing the strategic importance of the region and her treasure trove of invaluable experience and knowledge, Boyd volunteered her services to the United States War Department. In 1941, she led an expedition, sponsored by the U.S. government, to study the effects of polar magnetism on radio communications. In 1949, she was honored by the Department of the Army for her "outstanding patriotic service."
In 1955, Louise Boyd, at the age of sixty-eight, made her last trip to the Arctic region. This time she was in an airplane and became the first woman to fly over and around the North Pole. On board, she had the flag of the Society of Women Geographers. "North, north, north we flew," she later wrote.
Soon we left all land behind us. From the cabin window I saw great stretches of ocean flecked with patches of whitefloating ice ... . And as I saw the ocean change to massive fields of solid white, my heart leaped up ... . Then--in a moment of happiness which I shall never forget--our instruments told me we were there. For directly below us, 9,000 feet down, lay the North Pole. No cloud in that brilliant blue sky hid our view of this glorious field of shining ice.
During her life, Boyd received many awards and honors, including three honorary doctorates. The Geographic Institute of Denmark named the land between the glaciers she discovered--De Geer Glacier and Jatte Glacier--Miss Boyd Land. The American Polar Society honored her. The American Geographical Society elected her to the Council of Fellows, the first woman to achieve that status in the society's 108-year history. She was elected a member of Britain's Royal Geographical Society, which had refused to admit women until 1912.
In 1967 the Explorers Club in New York City honored Boyd as "one of the world's greatest women explorers." As always, Boyd arrived elegantly dressed; this time she wore a pink dress and a spray of fresh white orchids. "I don't feel dressed unless I'm wearing flowers," she once told a reporter. "Even in Greenland, I'd find something and wear it with a safety pin." She also said that she always wore a hat. "I've never thought of going without one, unless it was to the dentist."
Louise Boyd died in sunny California in 1972. As she had requested, her cremated remains were scattered over ice-covered land.
Copyright © 2006 by Penny Colman