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Paul Sparkes: ‘A clear call’ ...

Book cover
Book cover - Submitted

“After Louise hired (Captain Bob) Bartlett as skipper, Dr. J.H. Dellinger from the National Bureau of Standards had reservations due to Bartlett’s reputation for profanity even amongst seafaring men. Dellinger stated that Louise was unconcerned. Later in the trip she declared, ‘I don’t think there remains any cusswords for me to learn — think the full vocabulary has been recited on this trip.’”

Louise Boyd
Louise Boyd

The year was 1941, a decidedly dangerous time to be sailing into the North Atlantic. “Louise” was Louise Arner Boyd (1887-1972) a wealthy American who, with no home obligations, pursued her fascination for the polar regions with one questing voyage after another. She financed scientific missions and organized expeditions; she collected an observer’s storehouse of knowledge and put it in book form while at the same time catering to that lifelong appetite for the forbidding region.

Miss Boyd is now the subject of a new book. “The Polar Adventures of a Rich American Dame” was published by Dundurn, Toronto in 2017.  The author is Joanna Kafarowski, who discovered that this was one woman’s story that simply had to be written.

Probing the north

The 1941 voyage was made with Bartlett’s 152-foot Effie M. Morrissey and with an all-Newfoundland crew. The American Government at the time stated that the principal purpose of the expedition was to secure data on radio transmission in Arctic regions. The Morrissey sailed out of Washington, down the Potomac and up the North American eastern seaboard. But she first put into Brigus, Bartlett’s home, before turning her bow northeastwards.

Who was Louise Boyd? Well, first of all, she was a single woman comfortable in a glittering world of royal receptions or on a temperamental icefloe. She could pour tea, ride in her Packard but also shoulder a rifle when a polar bear came into her sights.

Boyd made seven trips north from 1926 to 1941 and she was no mollycoddled tourist. She held no scientific qualifications but she used her financial and intellectual resources well. As she sailed along northern coasts, gazed upon fields of ice or darted ashore to visit people at remote points, the awards, citations and honours accumulated.

Mixed reactions

Bob Bartlett’s colourful vocabulary was not all Louise Boyd had to contend with. Consider this extract from the diary of the doctor aboard the Morrissey on the 1941 trip; the doctor refers to “Miss B”: “I don’t give a damn about her or her whole scientific project which is so insincere on her part, her motivation being purely selfish and self-promoting.”

Fresh out of medical school, the doctor was all of 23. Not everyone knew that even though she financed this trip, Louise worked for the National Bureau of Standards collecting information ‘which would assist in the navigation of those little-known, ice-infested waters’. Denmark had fallen to the Nazis and surely Greenland was in the sights of the warring submarine fleet.

Author Joanna Kafarowski
Author Joanna Kafarowski

At some 360 pages and replete with photographs, “The Polar Adventures of a Rich American Dame” looked to me like a huge undertaking. So I put the question to the author who lives at Niagara on the Lake when she is not in Northern England.

“My initial interest in Miss Boyd began about twelve years ago when I was in the Arctic conducting fieldwork for my PhD,” Joanna Kafarowski wrote. “I have a passion for polar exploration and simply came across her name in a book. After returning, I looked for a biography about her but found nothing. A chance family holiday to California later that year took me to the Marin History Museum in San Rafael where I discovered boxes of Boyd family documents and artifacts.

“My interest was sufficiently piqued that I decided to write that biography myself. This was ten years ago.

“Since then, I criss-crossed Scandinavia and North America haunting archives, libraries and museums and interviewing those who worked for, or knew Miss Boyd. Part of that journey included learning about the charismatic Captain Bob and I was honoured to give a talk about the rocky relationship between Miss Boyd and Captain Bob when I attended the 2009 Captain Bob Bartlett Symposium hosted by the Newfoundland and Labrador Historical Association in Brigus.

“I’m so happy that my research took me to Newfoundland which continues to be one of my most favourite places.”

Another reader’s view

Margot Mayo is a Nurse Practitioner who owns and operates Jema Travel Clinic in St. John’s. In the mid-1980s she worked at Cambridge Bay on Victoria Island. This site was on the DEW line (Distant Early Warning) where Margot’s meteorologist husband was stationed.

“I had never heard of Louise Arner Boyd before but when I started reading this book, I immediately thought, how remarkable she must have been; how truly ahead of her time! And what a sad early life she had ... further in the book I recalled the kind of clothing we wore at Cambridge Bay in the 1980s and how much more protective it was as compared with what was available to Miss Boyd on her expeditions.”

“I can’t get over the strong desire she had to venture into little-known and hazardous regions back eighty and more years ago. She could handle a gun - she shot a polar bear; she travelled and worked among all-male crews. You would easily expect this of a woman today, but not back then. Knowing something of the northern regions helped me understand the kind of environment in which this fascinating woman travelled.”

Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. E-mail:  psparkes@thetelegram.com.

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