Rumours surround legendary Bedaux trek

By Noelle Grosse for the Saskatoon Sun

(As printed in the Sunday, 11 October edition)

-WDM photo, an early exhibit diorama including a Bedaux Citroen half-track

Everyone said it couldn't be done, but Charles Bedaux tried anyway, and the result was the legendary Bedaux Subarctic Expedition of 1934.

Over 60 years later, many myths surround the Bedaux Expedition, and they sometimes obscure historical facts about the story. That's why the Western Development Museum in Moose Jaw is fortunate to have a piece of the expedition itself one of two remaining Citroen half-track trucks used on the trek.

Charles Bedaux was a French-born American adventurer who befriended Europe's elite, including Edward VIII and French car maker Andre Citroen. Citroen provided Bedaux with the half-track trucks he used on his expedition. Bedaux visited the Canadian Rockies and in 1934, he set out to explore unmapped regions of northern British Columbia. Accompanying Bedaux were three women: his wife, an Italian countess rumored to be his mistress and the ladies' maid. Bedaux wanted to make the expedition into a film, so his crew included cameramen, several Alberta cowboys, and High Noon director Floyd Crosby. Geographer Frank Swannell and Ernest Lemarque were sent by the Canadian government to map the 2,400 km trek.

Five Citroen half-track trucks pulled out of Edmonton, on July 4, 1934, bound for Telegraph Creek B.C. Each truck had a roller on the front to negotiate boulders and branches, and rear wheels which could be taken off and replaced by a track without changing the steering. Although the Citroen trucks had conquered the Sahara Desert, they were no match for the Canadian Rockies. Frequent rains in the summer of 1934 turned soil into a sticky muck called gumbo. Bedaux abandoned the Citroens one by one, some in more dramatic fashion than others. Two trucks slid off 30 m cliffs, while the cameras rolled. Another was sent by raft down the river, where it was to meet a carefully planted stick of dynamite. The shot was ruined when the dynamite failed to go off and the truck floated into a sandbar. The two remaining Citroens were abandoned at a ranch near Halfway River.

The group continued on horseback, but in Sept. 1934, Bedaux finally halted the expedition, just kilometres short of Telegraph Creek. Winter was quickly approaching and the group's horses were dying of disease.

The story of Charles Bedaux ends tragically in 1944. He was arrested while overseeing a German pipeline project in North Africa, was taken back to the United States on charges of treason, and overdosed on sleeping pills while awaiting trial. Rumors swirled that Bedaux' Canadian adventure was really a spy mission for the Nazis. No evidence was found to support the rumor, but it reminded the Canadian government that much of the country was isolated and defenceless.

The Alaska Highway was built within a few years, not far from the original path carved by Charles Bedaux. Once the highway opened up the territory around Telegraph Creek, a Fort St. John, B.C. automotive dealer found the two remaining Citroens. One of these was acquired by the Western Development Museum in the 1950s.

Interest in the Bedaux expedition has been renewed in recent years by the release of film footage recovered from the trip. The story of Charles Bedaux continues to intrigue people over six decades later -- a flamboyant, fascinating page in Canadian history. For more information about other Western Development Museum artifacts, please call the WDM Curatorial Centre at (306) 934-1400.

Home