The Polar Adventures of Louise Arner Boyd …and Bob Bartlett

Well, I was delighted to open my mail the other day and find a brand new copy of The Polar Adventures of a Rich American Dame: A Life of Louise Arner Boyd.  Author Joanna Kafarowski has scoured archives in Denmark, Norway, the United States, and Canada to bring us into the unusual world of Louise Arner Boyd. Louise was born in 1888 to a society hostess and a mining magnate. Not long after the San Francisco earthquake, she was a debutante in San Rafael, California,  presented by her father to hundreds of well-heeled guests who’d arrived in horse-drawn carriages.

LA Boyd

As an adult, Louise had no surviving siblings or parents, no husband and no children. She did, however, have plenty of money. “She was quite alone,” Kafarowski writes. “There was no one to really care about what she did so she just went ahead and did it” (p. 19). What she did was go to the Arctic, a woman in what was very much a man’s world. She organized and directed seven Arctic expeditions, paying for them with the money she’d inherited. As it did for Captain Bob Bartlett, the Arctic “fulfilled her completely” (p. 125).

There, Boyd conducted scientific research, took countless photographs and made films of Arctic coastlines and topography, and “discovered” the land known as Louise Boyd Land. She also toured and photographed Poland, producing a book called Polish Countrysides. In 1928, she tried to rescue the lost explorer Roald Amundsen who had disappeared near Norway on a rescue mission himself. Throughout her Arctic career, Boyd was showered with honours in the manner of most Arctic explorers.

But, as a woman, she was not like most Arctic explorers. As Kafarowski writes, “[Boyd] challenged the ideal of a polar explorer as defined by manliness, stoicism, and heroism” (p. 309). Which begs the question: when she hired Captain Bob Bartlett and his ship, the Effie Morrissey, for a wartime trip north, how did they get along? Not well, Kafarowski found, as did I. Bartlett is a minor character in this book but we get glimpses into the temper flares that occurred during his time with Boyd. Bartlett wouldn’t have liked the fact that Boyd was a seagoing woman – but there were women that he warmed to. His chief objection would have been that Boyd didn’t sufficiently respect his crew; she once bought fruit and vegetables as a treat for him and the scientists on board the Morrissey, and not the crew. This would have been close to a cardinal sin in Bartlett’s native Newfoundland as well as on the Arctic voyages he skippered.

The book features many photographs, a number of nicely drawn maps, and a wealth of detail about Boyd and her Arctic voyages. Thankfully this book rescues Boyd from the obscurity to which she seemed destined. Anyone interested in Arctic history will certainly enjoy The Polar Adventures of a Rich American Dame.


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