Polar Regions

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In Those Days: Tales of Arctic Whaling

In Those Days: Tales of Arctic Whaling

Collected Writings on Arctic History
edition:Paperback
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The Polar Adventures of a Rich American Dame
Excerpt

She gripped the ship’s railing tightly with both rough-gloved hands while gazing sombrely into the sprawling darkness of the frozen night. Tall for a woman, broad-shouldered, wavy brown hair tucked under a snug cap framing a handsome face with piercing blue eyes, she could easily have been mistaken for one of the crew. Beneath her feet, the Hobby juddered and jarred as it made its way through the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean. The air was a constant thrum of men’s guttural voices, the clang of thick cables and ropes, the bursting swell of the ocean as the ship slammed through the seething waves, moving forward on its perilous mission. Though unaccustomed to life onboard ship, and only recently acquainted with northern waters, California native Louise Arner Boyd found herself profoundly moved and invigorated by the experience — and more than a little unsettled. Whether above or below deck, she was never alone. There were always experienced seamen keeping a watchful eye on the gently bred American socialite who had somehow become an integral part of one of the most desperate quests in polar history — the 1928 search for missing famed Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.
She caught herself as the ship yawed abruptly to starboard. What was she thinking? Only a few weeks before, she had been dressed in a bejewelled gown, dining on lobster at Claridge’s in London, England, and dancing the quickstep at the Ritz. And yet here she was, wearing stiff leather boots and rough woollen trousers that itched like the dickens, standing unsteadily on the slippery bow of a ship sailing northward. There was so much for her to absorb — so much that the male crew members just took for granted. Louise spent hours poring over detailed nautical charts, checking the Hobby’s position with a sextant, and quizzing the officers; more than might be expected of a respectable society lady of a certain age. But, if she was going to contribute and really make a difference to this expedition, then she had to learn, and quickly, too. As Hobby’s hull rose and fell rhythmically, she mused to herself that this was not the trip to Greenland that she had originally intended. Who knew what winding, dreary path her life would have taken if the Amundsen tragedy had not intervened and disrupted her travel plans? As unlikely as it seemed, Miss Louise Arner Boyd of San Rafael, California, was never supposed to be discussing weighty matters with naval commanders on the high seas, recognized by all onboard as one of the leaders of a daring rescue mission of international significance.
During that summer of 1928, far above the frigid Arctic Circle, the weathered schooner Hobby, Louise, and the Norwegian crew, including Captain Kristian Johannesen and Captain’s Mate Astrup Holm, were sailing north in search of one of the greatest explorers of all time. Renowned for his bold exploits, geographic contributions, and endless brushes with death, Roald Amundsen had inexplicably vanished on June 18 during an effort to rescue the Italian explorer Umberto Nobile, who had himself gone missing in the airship Italia on its return flight from the North Pole. A Norwegian journalist noted tersely in a local Oslo paper, “It’s a terrible thought that the rescue of one explorer might end with the death of another.”
Louise’s first trip north had been an idyllic pleasure cruise a few years earlier. She had sailed with some intrepid friends around the rugged coast of Spitsbergen, Norway, and farther north, close to elusive Franz Josef Land. It was a fulfillment of a childhood dream. During her earlier trip to Spitsbergen, she had been overcome by joy at her first sight of the Arctic Ocean. She was entranced by the deepening silence late at night that was broken only by the heaving and jostling of the massive icebergs, the harsh crispness of the cold air that seared the lungs, that sense of absolute oneness with the primal core of the world. It stirred her blood just to think of it. To be honest, it was also the thrill of the mighty polar-bear hunt that attracted her. Like many adventurous women of her class, she craved the chase, the adrenalin-pumping rush that comes from sighting, stalking, and shooting one of the most fearsome beasts on earth. And she desired the kill as much as any man, when the blood-lust was upon her and the animal fell dead beneath her still-smoking rifle. But more than that, she went north because she wanted to know what was out there. She had to see it for herself. But leading a polar expedition and joining the ranks of fellow American polar explorers such as Elisha Kent Kane, Robert E. Peary, and Richard Byrd? Well, that happened by coincidence — or perhaps it was her destiny.
Just as the ship left Troms. harbour at the start of the rescue mission, newspaper headlines heralded, “Woman Joins Arctic Search — Miss Boyd To Assist Rescue” and “Miss Boyd Confident of Rescue Outlook. Californian Going in Search of Amundsen Is Huntress and Business Woman.” Were they really referring to her — a forty-year-old sophisticated woman-about-town? Forty! It had taken her quite by surprise.
She thought long and hard that year about what she wanted out of life. She wasn’t married and had no children — no ties at all. Her mother and father had passed away a few years earlier and she’d lost both of her brothers when she was young. No family then to judge or criticize or offer loving guidance and support. She was quite alone. There was no one to really care what she did so she just went ahead and did it. In the spring of 1928, her plans to hire a ship and travel north of Norway once more were well under way. But fate intervened when Amundsen was lost. Louise thought about the people closest to her and the pivotal events leading to this critical junction in her life.

 

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