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Summertime and the living is(n’t) easy - July

July 2 in the Gregorian calendar is the 183rd day of the year (184th in leap years). For most of the world this marks the half way point -182 days remaining to keep those new year resolutions or perhaps start planning new ones.

Above is a photograph of Isobel, dressed for summer in the Arctic. It’s a look that wouldn’t be out of place in Scotland during the same season, indeed if you ‘google’ it visitors are generally advised to bring layers and prepare for all seasons. No doubt Isobel’s early years of Scottish summers in a draughty castle would have stood her in good stead for her adventures further north.

In 1933, Isobel spent the summer in Nome, Alaska. It’s home to the Inupiaq people, who are best known for their development of pictographic writing systems. The Inupiaq are members of the larger Inuit culture, which spans the entire northern coasts of Alaska and Canada, as well as Greenland. Here the temperature rarely gets above 20C/69F.

Alaska was a Russian colony from 1744 until it was bought by the USA in 1867 (22 years before Isobel was born), for the princely sum of $7.2 million (equivalent to approximately $142 million today). Yet, it would be a further ninety two years before it became officially recognised as the 49th state (3rd Jan 1959).

In the 1930’s, summer travel across Alaska was mostly by boat. Riverboats linked villages, bringing supplies and visitors and airstrips were plentiful to provide alternatives when the weather closed in. Isobel flew to Nome from Fort Yukon (her second time on a plane) and it’s recorded that she travelled with 360kg/790Ibs of luggage – hardly surprising since she insisted in taking all her film making and photographic equipment with her, along with books on botany.

Her five weeks in Nome, were only partially planned. The boat she had expected to travel on became damaged and then couldn’t pick her up due to the thick ice. Isobel was highly adaptable though and believed that everything happened for a reason. She used the time to build her network and her reputation as a botanist, for it was here that she met Charles Thornton, who helped her to collect 200 of the 278 local plants. This unexpected stopover also provided a new means of continuing her journey to Point Barrow, via a boat called the Trader, owned by a Russian, Ira Rank.

Unlike the predominately male explorers who shared her love of the northern territory, Isobel almost exclusively travelled alone, relying on the kindness of strangers to achieve her goals. With no ambition to conquer or be the first, Isobel was free to change her itinerary and take opportunities as they presented themselves. Her quest was to observe, learn and document the people, flora and fauna she met along the way and her writings, although packed with vivid descriptions, where first and foremost a personal record of her travels. It’s probably why she garnered such an avid readership at home. With radio and television still in their infancy, storytelling, especially tales of distant lands, were much sought after and lucrative. Isobel become something of a celebrity purely by word of mouth.

World Friendship Day takes place on 30th July. The original idea of the day came from Hallmark cards in the 1930’s, about the same time that Isobel was connecting with locals, traders and fellow explorers in the Arctic. Many would start out as names on a page or third party introductions but go on to become life-long friends. Gus Masik, the Estonian-born fur trapper who met Isobel when she reached Point Barrow (September 1933), was one of them, but that’s another story …


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The North Star Explorer

Learn more about Isobel’s passion for the natural world, her experience of travelling to remote places and her encounters expressed through art and creative writing.

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