Filming the Far North: Louise Arner Boyd’s Arctic Travels

When the San Rafael Elks purchased Maple Lawn, the estate formerly owned by California Gold Rush heiress Louise Arner Boyd, they also acquired 150 reels of 35mm nitrate film stored on the grounds. Boyd shot the reels over nearly two decades, from travels in the early 1920s, to a 1941 trip to West  Greenland, with a half dozen other self-financed Arctic expeditions in between. The Elks donated the reels to the National Archives in 1974, where they were copied to safety film and are preserved today.

Boyd was a photographer, a socialite, and an explorer. Born in 1887, she became the sole heir to a three million dollar fortune in 1920. Boyd spent every penny she had pursuing travel, adventure, and what came to be her life’s work–Arctic exploration. As the primary photographer on seven expeditions, she recorded her own journey from tourist and big game hunter in the Far North to leader and contributor of scientific knowledge in a part of the globe that was not yet accurately mapped in the early 20th Century. 

Louise Boyd got her first glimpse of the sea ice on a European tour in 1924. In 1926, Boyd returned to Tromsø, Norway, with friends and chartered the Hobby, a ship previously used as a supply vessel by polar explorer Roald Amundsen. The party traveled north to Franz Josef Land on a big game safari and sightseeing tour. Along the way, Boyd shot 21,000 feet of motion picture film (more than five hours at a standard silent frame rate) and took 700 photographs. She recorded everything, from her friends and the hired crew, to the sea ice, to the hunting and skinning of a disturbing number of polar bears. The edited film contains intertitles that explain how the skins were processed and preserved, along with facts about the ice and other wildlife. The clips below show how Boyd shot and constructed the film to serve as an educational introduction to the Arctic environment.

Selected clips from Louise Arner Boyd’s 1926 trip to the Arctic. These clips, primarily of types of sea ice with an in-focus appearance from Boyd at the end, show how Boyd edited the footage and added intertitles to create an educational film. (Local Identifier: 401.83.2)

Boyd and her friends returned to Tromsø in 1928, intending to repeat the 1926 trip. When they arrived, however, they learned that aviator and explorer Umberto Nobile had crashed his dirigible and that Roald Amundsen had disappeared after flying out in search of Nobile’s party. Boyd quickly pivoted, outfitting the Hobby for a search and rescue mission for Amundsen. Although she did not find Amundsen, over the course of that summer Louise Boyd came into contact with explorers and scientists who shaped her future expeditions.

Clips from footage Boyd filmed on her 1928 search and rescue expedition to locate missing explorer Roald Amundsen. The complete item can be viewed on YouTube. (Local Identifier: 401.83.28)

As Boyd became more immersed in scientific work and the large format photography that was used to create more accurate maps of East Greenland, she continued to shoot motion pictures, but no longer edited them into educational films. The following clips, from her 1933 expedition to East Greenland, show her continued fascination with the landscape and the ice.

Clips from footage shot by Louise Boyd during her 1933 expedition to East Greenland. Later films appear to be unedited and have no intertitles. (Local Identifier: 401.83.45)

Louise Boyd’s last expedition, her only trip to West Greenland, was in 1941. With the Second World War raging in Europe, the United States government asked Boyd to delay publishing her latest book of photographs for the American Geographical Society so that potential enemies would not have access to detailed images and information about the northeast coast of Greenland. Louise Boyd not only complied, but copied, documented, and shared her work with the government. Soon, she had partnered with the National Bureau of Standards to finance and organize an expedition to West Greenland so they could gather information that would be critical for understanding anomalies in radio communication between the United States and Europe. Records held at NARA also reveal that Boyd had an additional, secret mission to locate a potential air landing site near York Harbor at Baffin Island. There is very little footage from the 1941 expedition, and the quality of the surviving footage is not great.

Louise Arner Boyd’s final Arctic adventure was in 1955, when she chartered a plane to become the first woman to fly over the North Pole. A remote region in East Greenland was named Louise Boyd Land in her honor. Boyd died in 1972 at the age of 84.

Learn More:

The First Woman to Lead Arctic Expeditions: A short documentary made by PBS

The Queen of the Arctic: Louise Arner Boyd” by Elisabeth Isaksson and Anka Ryall. Published May 2023 in the open access journal, Polar Research.

The Call of the Arctic: Travels of Louise Boyd,” by Jocelyn Moss, published by the Marin History Museum in 1987. (No longer available on their website, but linked via the Wayback Machine.)

Women of the Polar Archives: The Films and Stories of Marie Peary Stafford and Louise Boyd” An article I wrote in 2010 for NARA’s Prologue magazine. Contains more details about Louise Boyd’s expeditions, using contemporary articles and textual records held by NARA.

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