“I must say that the charm of the Arctic, its infinite diversity, its aloofness from the rest of the world, made it a field which gives its own reward. Only those who have seen the magnificent sunsets over the ice, who have…been buffeted by storms… can appreciate the spell which always draws us back there.”
― Louise Arner Boyd
Sailing towards the west coast of Greenland in the war-torn summer of 1941, the Effie M. Morrissey navigated its way through a narrow fjord and anchored off the town of Julianehaab. The American ship appeared vulnerable and run-down next to the impressive U.S. Coast Guard vessels Bowdoin and Comanche.
It was a perilous time. Only eight weeks before, a British cargo vessel had been torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat off Cape Farewell just to the south. As newly minted members of the Greenland Patrol of the Atlantic Fleet, the Bowdoin and the Comanche were responsible for preventing German forces from establishing a base on Greenland and for providing vital support for the Allies.
As the Morrissey’s passengers disembarked, town residents gathered onshore. Commander Donald Macmillan of the Bowdoin hurried forward to greet the person in charge. Defying all expectations, the leader was no grizzled Navy man. Instead, a stately, well-coiffed California woman of a certain age clambered out of the rowboat and strode toward him.
Louise Arner Boyd was the world’s leading female Arctic explorer and geographer. By that time, she had organized, financed and led six maritime expeditions to East Greenland, Franz Josef Land, Jan Mayen Land and Spitsbergen. She had been showered with honors by five countries, and her scientific accomplishments and daring exploits had earned her newspaper headlines and global renown. A month earlier, many journalists had covered the departure of the 1941 Louise A. Boyd Expedition to Greenland from Washington D.C. But after the Morrissey weighed anchor, more than a few local residents wondered what this outspoken, unusual woman was doing in the company of high-ranking officers engaged in war matters.
The answer to that question was a secret. Boyd, operating under the guise of her work as an explorer, was conducting a covert mission for the American government, searching for possible military landing sites and investigating the improvement of radio communications in this region. Even the captain and crew of her own ship were unaware of the expedition’s true goals.
Boyd’s extensive technical knowledge of Greenland and her work as a U.S. military consultant would make her an invaluable asset to the Allied war effort. But, for all her accomplishments and service to her country, she has largely been forgotten, and not just because historians preferred to consider the larger-than-life dramas of her male colleagues. Her focus on contributing to scientific journals rather than pandering to the sensationalistic whims of the reading public cost her some acclaim. And she had no direct descendants to carry on her legacy.
Her 1941 mission along the western coast of Greenland and eastern Arctic Canada was Boyd’s seventh and final expedition. As on her previous voyages, she pushed the boundaries of geographic knowledge and undertook hazardous journeys to dangerous places. Boyd also brought in promising young scientists to participate in vital polar research. Exploration of the Arctic seascape—with its vast expanses of bobbing ice, the rhythmic sway of the wooden ship as it traversed the surging waves, the soothing solitude of the north—resonated deeply with Boyd and defined who she was and what she did.
“Far north, hidden behind grim barriers of pack ice, are lands that hold one spell-bound,” she wrote in 1935's The Fiord Region of East Greenland. “Gigantic imaginary gates, with hinges set in the horizon, seem to guard these lands. Slowly the gates swing open, and one enters another world where men are insignificant amid the awesome immensity of lonely mountains, fiords and glaciers.”
But her life had not always been like this. Born in 1887 to a California gold miner who struck it rich and a patrician mother from Rochester, Louise Arner Boyd was raised in a genteel mansion in San Rafael, California. As a child, she was enthralled by real-life tales of polar exploration, but grew up expecting to marry and have children. Like her mother, Boyd became a socialite and philanthropist active in community work.
READ MORE : SMITHSONIAN.COM