If you were born into fabulous wealth with no real responsibilities, what would you do? Loaf around, wealthily, assuming your place at the top of the do-nothing aristocracy? Or philanthropy, perhaps, might call you into service, bestowing gifts upon those less fortunate. Then there’s the impulse to continually strive for more money, always more money, working oneself to the bone just to accumulate more of everything.
Louise Boyd chose a different track. Born in 1887 in Marin County, California, to a family flush with money sluiced from the Sierra foothills in the gold rush, Boyd spent her childhood in redwood forests near her home in San Rafael and across the bay in the Oakland Hills. Yet the easy-going carefree days of youth ended as teenager for Boyd after both her brothers died from illnesses. Things grew even more grim when both of her parents died just a few years later. Boyd was left the only heir to a massive fortune, with little to do with it.
So she decided to become an Arctic explorer.
Not at first, necessarily. Boyd inherited her family’s fortune in 1920 and spent the next few years traveling by train through Europe and making long-distance trips across the entirety of the US, also by rail. This wasn’t her first taste of long travel. In 1919, she’d also driven across the country, from New York to California, a rare feat for anyone, man or woman, before the transcontinental highway system when most of the West was still traveled over dirt roads. In 1924, Boyd’s future was set after she booked passage aboard a Norwegian cruise ship, visiting the Arctic for the very first time. The trip expanded her horizons northward, a direction that would draw her attention for the rest of her life.
In 1926, eager to return, Boyd chartered a boat to steam to the Arctic from Norway, this time acting as an enthusiastic guide for friends. They visited frozen islands to the north of Russia where they hunted seals and polar bears, at the time, a rite of passage for Arctic adventurers.
Boyd had grown so comfortable in the Arctic even, that when famed polar explorer Roald Amundsen went missing there in 1928, himself trying to find another explorer who’d gone MIA, Umberto Nobile, she volunteered to charter yet another boat to go on a hunt find the missing men. Boyd’s team searched some 10,000 miles of the Arctic Ocean, from Franz Josef Land above Russia, westward clear to Greenland, but found no trace of Amundsen or Nobile (Nobile later emerged alive from the Arctic; Amundsen was never seen again). Nevertheless, Boyd was awarded the Chevalier Cross of the Order of Saint Olav for her efforts by the Norwegian government.
At this point, hopelessly obsessed with the place, Boyd started making regular expeditions to the Arctic, especially to Greenland. In 1931 she assembled a team and sailed for the northeast coast where they studied and photographed glaciers and recorded details about Arctic plant and animal life. For the next decade, she returned nearly on an annual basis. Boyd measured the depths of the oceans, discovered unknown submerged mountain ranges, sailed into fjords that had never been sailed, and mapped areas of Greenland that had yet to be mapped, producing topographic charts of stunning accuracy. Boyd also found the time to write two books about her work in the Arctic, one of which, “The Coast of Northeast Greenland,” is still available today.
Boyd eventually turned her attention from mapping and biology of the Arctic toward the effects of polar magnetism on radio waves. Her work attracted the attention of the US military who made her an advisor on military strategy in the Arctic.
Not bad for a wealthy socialite who could have spent decades lounging in the sun-dappled courts of Marin County estates.
Boyd during the search for Amundsen.
Meanwhile, though she was burning through her fortune, Boyd accepted little pay for any of her scientific or military work, funding her expeditions primarily with her family’s gold mining wealth. She lived for these expeditions. She also refused to adhere to stereotypes, one way or the other.
“I like the pleasant things most women enjoy, even if I do wear breeches and boots on an expedition, even sleep in them at times… but I powder my nose before going on deck, no matter how rough the sea is.”
By 1955, the days of boating in the Arctic were largely behind “The Ice Queen,” a nickname she picked up on her travels, but at 67 years of age, the pull to see what was over the horizon continued to drag Boyd’s attention north. She hired a private plane and pilot, plotted a course, and became the first woman to fly over the North Pole.
Boyd died at 84 years old. Rather than be buried alongside her family in a plot on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais, she requested that her ashes be scattered at sea in the Arctic. The work she did there still influences Arctic scientists today. “Her photographs, soundings, and explorations provide a baseline for a lot of the scientific investigation that goes on today into climate change,” said the chief curator of the Marin History Museum.
Today, an area of northeast Greenland even bears her name: Louise Boyd Land.
Words by Justin Housman