Bannock and Beans: A Cowboy’s Account of the Bedaux Expedition
November 4, 2013
Review By Mark Diotte
Two thousand and nine marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Bedaux expedition, the failed attempt of Charles Bedaux to cross the wilderness of northern British Columbia in five half-track Citroën vehicles supported by a host of cowboys and over one hundred packhorses. Yet, White’s account of this expedition is less about Bedaux than about vividly describing and encountering a wilderness, a landscape, and a cowboy lifestyle more commonly associated with the United States than with British Columbia. Indeed, in terms of the cowboy, White’s narrative is imbued with an ethos of hard work, perseverance, and humour. The figure of the cowboy comes alive in White’s personable, comforting, matter-of-fact tone, which is similar to that of Eric Collier in Three against the Wilderness or M. Wylie Blanchett in The Curve of Time. Interspersed with historical photographs, the narrative is written in two sections. The first is based on the 1934 Bedaux expedition; the second is based on the attempted creation of Bedaux’s Empire Ranch by Bob Beattie and Carl Davidson.
Bob White – packer, wrangler, and company hunter – begins by chronicling the difficult and extensive preparations needed to undertake the expedition. Having been hired from a pool of “over 3500 applications,” White and his trading partner Bob Godberson formed part of the six-man, fifty-seven-horse freight group led by former British military officer Edward (Nick) Geake. Preparation included selecting and sometimes breaking over fifty head of horses and making up the packs – some of which included items such as folding beds and twenty awkward, ten-gallon gasoline containers.
Despite the difficulty of the expedition, White narrates disaster and delight in the same calm, practical tone. Faced with a flood, White’s perseverance and good humour are evident from the understatement, “we were very concerned about the horses for it appeared that the meadow would be flooded” (72). At other times, humour prevails. Wry remarks on various blunders or the latest “cooling off” someone received from falling into a river are both effective and enjoyable. Often it is Floyd Crosby, Bedaux’s filmmaker, who is the source of the comedy. Staged scenes such as “the shooting of the gray horse in Goat Gulch” (98) or a sun-filled, daytime “night herding” scene are frequent in the narrative, and White seems to enjoy Crosby’s propensity for staking out the most difficult parts of the trail in the hopes of encountering action and comedy.
The “Empire Ranch” section of the book is less eventful than is the first, and it details multiple trips to “the location” of the proposed ranch along the Sustut River. The highlight of this section is White’s experiences with the wilderness and the winter landscape. Remarks such as “we had a difficult time getting the toboggan up through the canyon” (154) or “the weather had turned much colder” (157) understate the thirty-five- to fifty-five-below zero temperatures, the arduous terrain, and the enormous endurance it takes to pack supplies over the “800 miles” White and his companions travelled from 26 February to 3 May 1936 (143). White’s attitude towards the wilderness is best summed up by his remark in a snow-camp in thirty-five-below weather: “George turned out some good bannock, and with the rice and caribou meat … we had a pretty good meal, not to mention good old tea” (157).
In “A Tribute to Trapper Bob,” White’s niece Edie Dean remarks that White “was most at home under the open sky, whether astride a horse, rounding up a herd of cattle, stalking big game along a rocky hillside, or piloting a raft down a swift northern river” (232). I find White’s narrative compelling not only for its description of the cowboy life but also for how he sees and encounters the BC landscape and how he makes his readers a part of it.