Skip to content

From the archives

Carbon Copy

In equal balance justly weighed

Slouching toward Democracy

Where have all the wise men gone?

By Populist Demand

When urban and rural voters went separate ways

Ice Corps

The cold, hard truth

Joanna Kafarowski

I was almost forty when I realized my dream of visiting the Canadian Arctic. The lands north of the treeline had beckoned to me since childhood, so when my family and I took a year off to travel, that was where we headed first. For two months, we drove across Yukon and the Northwest Territories in our aging Chevy van. As we turned south again, away from that vast, remote world, I knew I would return someday. It didn’t take long: two years later, as a late-blooming PhD student, I found myself ensconced in the Inuit village of Inukjuak, along the eastern coast of Hudson Bay. I was there to study environmental contaminants with local women and to learn more about the Nunavik region in Quebec.

One evening, as I lost myself in a stack of books, I came across the name Louise Arner Boyd. I had never heard of her before, but I was intrigued enough by her story to find out more. Born in 1887 to a high-society family in the United States, Boyd organized, financed, and participated in seven scientific expeditions to Greenland and Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago. During her long lifetime, she was showered with awards and respected by her peers. After her death in 1972, however, she was largely forgotten.

I went on to complete my doctorate and become a university lecturer, but Boyd stayed on my mind. Even on holiday, I couldn’t escape her. A family vacation in California led me by chance to San Rafael, where Boyd had grown up. While there, I spent a blissful afternoon at the Marin History Museum’s Boyd Gate House rummaging through dusty boxes and uncovering treasures that attested to her life of adventure.

My fascination with this audacious woman started to get the better of me. I was swept away reading about her role in the 1928 rescue mission to find Roald Amundsen, for example, and I marvelled at her relentless drive to photograph and map remote East Greenland. My university job began to take a back seat. Finally, I surrendered to my passion and left academia.

I embarked on a decade-long journey to research, write, and publish Boyd’s biography. And then, quite abruptly, I finished that book. Even as my subject retreated to a quieter region of my brain, though, I knew my work to uncover the lives of extraordinary women in polar history would continue. It was just a matter of who would be next.

The answer came after I gave a talk at the Library of Congress, where I met Karen Ronne Tupek, the daughter of the explorers Jackie and Finn Ronne. I knew that Jackie had been an acquaintance of Boyd’s, but the connection went deeper than I realized. Boyd mentored Jackie and introduced her to friends in the Society of Woman Geographers, which had formed in 1925 as an alternative to the exclusively male Explorers Club. By the late 1940s, Boyd’s work as an adventurer was nearly at an end, but she taught the younger woman the strategic importance of networking. The lessons paid off: From 1946 to 1948, Jackie served as the communications expert, historian, and assistant scientist for the Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition. She was the first female to undertake such a trip. Later she became a respected lecturer and writer, a pioneer in Antarctic tourism, and an early advocate for the Antarctic Treaty.

Despite her accomplishments, Jackie Ronne has been remembered primarily as the wife of Finn. Her biography was never written. So when Karen mentioned that she possessed her mother’s extensive archives — including a stack of letters to Boyd — I took it as a sign.

Over the next four years, as I delved into the life of Jackie Ronne, I learned more and more about so many other splendid women who had been overlooked. By shining a light on their achievements, I can do my part to redress the gender imbalance in historical studies of polar exploration. These scientists, photographers, and voyagers matter because they dared to seek the unknowable, despite the cost. And, truth be told, it infuriates me that Shackleton, Scott, Amundsen, and Nansen are household names, while Arnarulunnguaq Peary, Mina Benson Hubbard, Isobel Wylie Hutchison, and Mary Alice McWhinnie remain obscure. I want more people to discover the lives of these incredible women, the worlds they traversed, and the determination that helped get them there.

Joanna Kafarowski is the author of Antarctic Pioneer.