Cabin on the Kane Lake Road, B.C. (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Last week I wrote about characters in the Canadian Cartographic past. I thought I’d continue that theme this week with an illustration of how mapping is not the objective scientific pursuit we all think it to be. Instead, mapping is an exercise influenced by politics, exploitation of resources, culture and religion. Hubris comes into play in there somewhere, too. Mapmakers influence perception through their use of scale, their level of detail and even just by what they choose to put on the map. Determining which maps are actually made is perhaps the penultimate influence on public perception.
One of the most memorable Canadian mapping ‘junkets’ involved an American millionaire by the name of Charles C. Bedaux.
In 1934 Beadaux, then living in France, initiated the Bedaux Sub-Arctic Expedition, that planned to use specially built tractors and horses to traverse, map and cut a road from Edmonton, Alberta, through northern British Columbia to the Pacific Ocean. The 1,800 kilometer route was to go through Fort St. John, Redfern Lake, Sifton Pass and Telegraph Creek. While the media reported that Bedaux claimed the expedition was purely scientific, there were other rumors abounding.
Woodland trail, Yukon, Canada (2009) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
In any event, this strange expedition left Edmonton with a crew of 43 people including Bedaux’s wife, her Spanish maid, and an Italian Countess to tend to Bedaux, along with the usual accoutrements of pate de fois gras, champagne and a gamekeeper. Oh yes, and a movie cameraman to record the adventure. This was not your usual surveying venture, but along with this cavalcade of oddities, were a topnotch group of scientists and surveyors. Poor sods.
Immediately after leaving Edmonton they were caught in rainstorms that slowed their progress and caught them in muskeg, even though Bedaux’s vehicles had extra wheels that were to lift them over the worst obstacles. Bedaux had brought everything with him from French cook pans, lock and tackle to lift the tractors over vertical terrain, and claw-foot bathtubs. All the equipment literally weighed ton.
As the expedition progressed, the situation worsened. The tractors’s problems didn’t get any better and had they to be pulled out by some of the expedition’s 100 pack horses. When even this didn’t help them make better progress, he determined to start divesting himself of equipment. Not the bathtubs and champagne of course, but scientific equipment like the surveyor’s theodolite. The situation became more bizarre as Bedaux railroaded the surveyor’s assistant into becoming his houseboy, and demanded the other scientists become actors in staged moviemaking involving forest fires and staged stampedes of the horses.
Old water mill in the countryside near Besoncon, France (2004) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Finally, after 14,00 kilometers, Bedaux abandoned the expedition over 400 kilometers from Telegraph Creek. Bedaux returned to France, but the meticulous maps and drawings prepared by the surveyor of the venture, one Frank Swannell, went on eight years later, to lead to the building of the Alaska Highway which followed Bedaux’s route north from Fort St. John.
And Bedaux, well his fate wasn’t quite so memorable. You see one of the rumors about Bedaux was that his venture was really a testing ground for German military transport trucks in alpine conditions. During World War II Bedaux hitched his star to the Third Reich and acted as go-between between the Germans and the Vichy French. It is suggested that he passed information to the Germans, and in 1943 he was captured in North Africa by the Americans. He was brought back to America and charged with trading with the enemy, but in 1944 he overdosed on barbiturates and died.
Thus ended another bit of Canadian cartographic history. But one wonders. Maybe we have the Germans to thank for the Alaska Highway.