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Into the Wild (Again)

Rick Bass retraces the steps of an eccentric explorer in British Columbia

The names of the mountain lakes and rivers are the names of our horses -- Tuchodi, Gataga. I have come by floatplane into a mountainous land nearly the size of Ireland, with not a single road within that landmass -- 16 million acres -- and will saddle up and ride on, farther into the wildest country in North America. There's an outrageous beauty to be viewed in any direction, one that was once familiar to our species and is still probably hard-wired into us, but a beauty few have ever experienced in this life. It is the beauty of seeing such a grandness of scale that the longer you look at the high basins and immense mountain ranges and braided, glinting rivers rushing down from the snowfields, the bigger the country gets. You watch mesmerized as the big rivers scour and sculpt lush valley bottoms, as the luminous silver-blue-green waters carry uncountable trillions of tons of sediment north to the Arctic Ocean. The country gets in your mind and in your heart, and then it grows, expanding every hour, every day.

We're not the first to fall in love with the vast wilderness of Muskwa-Kechika in northern British Columbia. The Kaska tribe has lived and hunted here for roughly 9,000 years, since soon after the ice began going away. (Nor is all of the ice yet gone; magnificent ice caps and glaciers still shroud the highest reaches of the Muskwa-Kechika, serrated ice- and snow-teeth gleaming to the horizon in all directions.)

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In the early twentieth century, a few fur trappers began snowshoeing into the unmapped wilderness region, and a handful of prospectors scratched and picked at the edges of the immense country, shoveling and sifting. Surely each of these travelers loved this incomparable land, as did one of its more curious and celebrated explorers of the period, the French-born industrialist Charles Bedaux.

Bedaux was one of the founders of modern time-efficiency standards for the workplace, selling his ideas to the manufacturing giants that were just getting their feet under them between World War I and World War II. At one point he was said to be the richest man in the world, and I think it says a lot about Bedaux as well as the rugged land itself that of all the places available to him for his recreation, the world over, he chose the Muskwa-Kechika.

He had first experienced the region in 1927 on a hunting expedition and was evidently smitten enough that he returned seven years later. He did not go back into the country lightly. His goal upon returning was to take five Citroën half-tracks from Edmonton in Alberta up across the Rocky Mountains of northern British Columbia -- straight through the heart of the Muskwa-Kechika -- and down into Telegraph Creek, on the Pacific side of the Great Divide. He had conducted a similar expedition with half-tracks through the Egyptian desert and had been impressed with the vehicles' durability and overland capabilities.

A man of huge appetites, he brought along his wife as well as a French chef, a gamekeeper from his estate, a mistress, 30 cowboys, 75 packhorses, caviar, French wines and cheeses, and a shortwave radio and radio operator to keep the rest of the world informed of his adventures and progress. Further mindful of how he was represented to the world, he contracted an award-winning cinematographer, Floyd Crosby -- father of the rock musician David Crosby of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young -- to chronicle the expedition on film and in photographs.

The cowboys were hired mostly from the fur trading outpost of Hudson's Hope and paid double wages, still in the heart of the Depression. Even today, those cowboys' descendants speak highly of Bedaux for having single-handedly kept their little outpost alive during those hard times.

It seemed a great lark, and from the journals those cowboys kept, it was. There was plenty of hardship and even some misery (though, astonishingly to me, not a single serious injury), but to the men who endured the journey -- each performing his specialized task -- it was such a grand adventure that many of them referred to it, even 50 years later, as the highlight of their lives. They worked hard and played hard and, in the manner of young men, had time and energy for both. Along the way -- hacking and hewing trails through the heavy undergrowth with handsaws and machetes -- they stopped often to film, under the cinematographer's choreography, scenes of high drama to show the folks back home.

The Citroëns in particular were often the centerpieces of these vignettes; they kept bogging down in the marshy lowlands while still approaching the foothills of the mountains, and in Crosby's archives there are numerous rolls of film depicting horses, men, and Citroëns alike straining and heaving to pull one vehicle or another out of the mire. Some days they made only a few miles of mud-slogging progress; other days not even that much. Soon enough, the explorers realized that while the Citroëns had been peerless in the North African desert, they would not be able to penetrate the outlying swamps, even as the ice-glistening teeth of the magnificent Kechika Range drew slowly nearer. When the expedition realized the Citroëns could go no farther, they staged a mock accident in which two of the Citroëns were driven over a precipice and into the raging river below. The drivers, unnoticed by the camera's careful angle, leaped out just as the half-tracks careened over the edge.Another half-track was lashed to a log raft and sent spinning down the same rapids while the crew ran alongside, pretending to be dismayed but, we can well imagine, secretly overjoyed that it was one Citroën they would no longer be digging out of the mud hourly.

From there they rode horses up into the high country, camping at night and, despite the rigors of the passage, feasting on champagne and caviar. Setting up big, fancy wall tents every evening, breaking them down every morning, and pushing on. Bedaux's second-in-command was a geologist, and there were rumors that the purpose of the expedition was a mineral exploration, but I don't believe it; I think they were out to have a grand adventure in a land Bedaux had come to love deeply. A businessman who surely wanted to have his cake and eat it too, he couldn't have been oblivious to the mineral seams on the highest peaks, and the streaks of rich butter-yellow ore, but I think it was an adventure first and business a distant second. There were some who thought Bedaux was taking notes on behalf of the government for a trans-Alaska highway -- part of the route he traveled would indeed one day become that highway. But I believe that even if only for once in his life, he realized that the world's riches might not always lie in what could be taken but instead in what might be left behind, and that the greatest wealth lay not in the perceived efficiency of units of labor but in time spent doing nothing more than watching the slow, steady unscrolling of beautiful country, with awe flooding the soul and the human spirit becoming larger, rather than being reduced by the tyranny of machines and measurements. I wonder if, as he slept, or just before he slept, he considered such things. I wonder also at how bittersweet and strange it must have been for him eventually to leave this vigorous life of hardship and return to his urban wealth and industrial responsibilities.

image of Rick Bass
OnEarth contributing editor Rick Bass is a member of the Yaak Valley Forest Council. His most recent book is The Wild Marsh, published in July 2009 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
You failed to speak of the Cordillera expedition of 1982. In which one man did reach the pacific.