How Belarusian Swamps Enraptured The American Daredevil Girl In 1930s

By the age of 37 American adventure traveler Louise Arner Boyd was already dubbed the ‘Arctic Diana’ for her polar voyages. However, Belarusian marshes of Polesie captivated her no less than the glaciers of the Arctic Ocean.

Louise was born in San Rafael, California in a wealthy family and was orphaned in her teens. The girl used her parents’ fortune to travel — she made a trip to Norway, saw the Polar Ice Pack and made a filming trip to the Arctic.

Louise Boyd with an unidentified man at the outset of the 1928 search for Amundsen. Photo: www.archives.gov

In 1934, Louise came to Warsaw to participate in the international congress of geographers. It was there that she learned about the mysterious lands of the ‘Eastern Cresy’ (a Polish name for the present-day territory of Western Belarus – author’s note)’

The same year, Boyd took an expedition through Kobrin, Pinsk, Kletsk, Nesvizh, and Slonim.

The Belarusian ‘exotic among the marshes’ impressed the American so much that upon return to the States Boyd published a photo album about her adventure.

In 2019 one can follow Boyd’s route to see that the magic of these places is still there — it is the same land that stunned the ‘strange girl’ from California 80 years ago.

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Jewish Holidays and deserted Pinsk

Louise Boyd chose Pinsk as the starting point in her travel, but the first days of her visit unsuccessfully coincided with Jewish holidays.

All the shops were closed and the large market square was empty,” she wrote in the comments to her album. A significant part of locals was Jewish, so the city appeared somewhat deserted.

The Jewish community is still present in the city with 138,000 population. The building of the gymnasium where the first president of Israel Haim Weizman and Nobel laureate Sayman Kuznets studied is also still there.

Points of interest: See Lenina square, which was the Market square Boyd mentioned, and continue your way to the First City Gymnasium building (39 Lenina St.)

Louise and the River

Louise immediately noticed the lively boat traffic in Pinsk: “One can notice rafts towed by wheeled steamers coming from the remote eastern regions, from where they are transported through the canal to Poland.”

belarusian swamps polesie

One still can admire barges, tugs and passenger ships at the river station. These boats are no longer wheeled, so a sight-seeing river trip will lack sprinkling sprays of water.

Points of interest: Any local will show you the way to the River Port, a two-story bright-blue house on the water. In summer you can take a steamboat trip accompanied by the pop hits of the 90s.

The Pot of Cultures

The building of the former Jesuit Collegium and the tower of the Roman Catholic cathedral church, founded in 1396, can be seen from any part of the city.

They are monuments to the melting pot of cultures and religions that impressed the American traveler:

“Everyone who visits Pinsk will understand that this is a land where many ethnic groups are mixed in terms of language, nationality, and religion. The impressive building of the late 17th century is a Jesuit college on the market.”

The Collegium building is an architectural marvel with its two meters thick walls, windows looking like loopholes and underground passages to the river and food cellars. It is basically an impregnable fortress that could withstand the longest siege.

Points of interest: Jesuit Collegium is located just a few steps from Lenina square, from where you can also notice steeples of Cathedral Basilica on Lenina St., 18.

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Louise and Fishermen

It was locals who got into the lens of Louise Boyd, kids and adults sailing boats and doing household chores. The traveler noted the role of fishing in the lives of the residents: “The marshes are well supplied with fish, and fishing is naturally main support of the population.”

Poleshuks (the people of Polesie – author’s note) once used nets to catch fish from their boats:

“Where the water is visible, it is so still that the fishermen and their canoes are perfectly reflected.”

Though fishnets aren’t allowed anymore, it’s definitely worth trying spin fishing. Once still can get a great take of pike in these waters.

Point of interest: To try and get a great take of pike, go to the territories of ‘Srendnaja Pripyat’ (‘Middle Pripyat’) Reserve (location: 52.142116, 26.159640).

The Great Swamps

“The first impression made on me by the marshes was of their great silence,” Louise remembered her way through the marshes.

A silence broken only by the occasional swish of canoe paddles or the rare whistle of a steamer.”

At the end of the expedition around Polesye Boyd’s group found an isolated island village. Hidden from the outside world by rivers and swamps, the locals preserved the traditional way of life.

They covered roofs with reeds, fished right in front of the houses using ‘chaika.’ (‘a gull’ – author’s note) boats and collected honey in pine decks.

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The village is still out there, and although the old buildings are mostly destroyed, you can still touch the unique spirit of the Belarusian peasant life and enter the house under the roof made of reed.

Point of interest: Kudrichi Village (location: 52.133667, 26.398534) is located 30 kilometers from Pinsk, in the heart of the Belarusian Polesye, so prepare some equipment for a forest hike.

Text by Anton Ananich.