A most bizarre case The Mad Trapper of Rat River
Top left - Albert Johnson, The Mad Trapper of Rat River - Yukon Archives photo Top right - Aklavik Grave of the Mad Trapper - The sign reads: Albert Johnson arrived in Ross River August 21, 1927. Complaints of local trappers brought the RCMP on him. He shot two officers and became a fugitive of the law. With howling huskies, dangerous trails, frozen nights, the posse finally caught up with him. He was killed up the Eagle River Feb. 17, 1932. Photo by Vince Fedoroff
It is a strange feeling to stand by the grave of a man who was a fugitive in life and is a legend in death.
The place is Aklavik, a tiny village in the Mackenzie River Delta in the northwest corner of Canada’s Northwest Territories and the man called himself Albert Johnson. He was dubbed “the mad trapper of Rat River” and was the fugitive in the most bizarre and dramatic manhunt in Canada’s history.
To this day, little light has been shed on the real identity of the strange man who was finally gunned down in the mid-winter snows in Eagle River, Yukon on February 17, 1932.
To appreciate the degree of superhuman endurance, tenacity, cunning, savagery, desperation, mystery, ingenuity and suspense associated with the death of Albert Johnson, the reader must first appreciate the circumstances and conditions under which the events took place.
This is the great Mackenzie River Valley and the entire drama was played out in the killing sub-zero temperatures of the mid-winter darkness above the Arctic Circle.
For 48 days, a lone man withstood all attempts of a combined force of Royal Canadian Mounted Police assisted by Indian and white trappers to apprehend him for wounding a police officer.
The chase encompassed 240 kms. While Johnson travelled on snowshoes and broke trail, his pursuers used dog teams and were further aided by an aircraft and radio communication.
The forest and tundra of Arctic Canada is one of the most demanding environments on earth. This is the homeland of the Loucheux Indian.
The forest dwelling Loucheux, whose livelihood depends almost entirely on hunting, fishing and trapping, are acknowledged to be the most skilled hunters in the Arctic forests.
The inherent dangers associated with a semi-nomadic existence in this remote and demanding Arctic environment make such high levels of skill tantamount to survival.
A white man, to survive in the high Arctic forests, had to be able bodied, keen of mind and experienced in the ways of wilderness living.
Albert Johnson was admirably well suited for the rigorous life of the high north trapper and prospector.
Johnson appeared in the Fort McPherson area on the Peel River around 1931. The taciturn stranger with the cold pale-blue eyes was soon regarded as an unsociable loner who preferred his own company and the solitude of a cabin or bush camp.
In the sparsely populated river valleys of Canada’s Arctic, this was strange and unseemly behavior where friendly and social interchange was the basic fabric of life.
The cold-eyed stranger’s surly silence in this already silent and lonely land made people uneasy.
A Mountie was obliged to question Johnson as a result of a formal complaint lodged against him by two Loucheux trappers. It was ascertained that Johnson refused to acknowledge or say a single word when the Mountie visited his lonely cabin on Rat River.
When the same officer returned with a search warrant several days later, Johnson, still without saying a word, shot and seriously wounded the constable.
On the third occasion, a heavily armed posse laid siege to his cabin for three days. They even used dynamite to blow the roof off and dislodge the trapper from his cabin but to no avail. He fired round for round and for the third time forced his attackers to retire for further supplies and to plan a subsequent assault.
Radio reports of the confrontation between the taciturn trapper and the famed mounted police force of Canada’s Arctic had reached the outside world and had fired up the interest of North Americans.
It has been stated that the daily reports of the chase and periodic shoot-outs hastened the public acceptance of radio as a medium for blow-by-blow news coverage.
When a larger and better equipped posse was again ready to confront Johnson, it was learned he had abandoned his damaged cabin at Rat River. He had disappeared on foot into the frigid white world of the vast Mackenzie River Valley.
The wilderness trained Mounties, the Loucheux and white trappers live by sight, sound and a sixth sense, they interpret what they see and hear. Even the seemingly indefatigable and super-elusive Albert Johnson must leave tracks in the winter snows.
A week passed before the Mounties found a faint trace of the trapper’s trail and resumed pursuit.
He was found, a gun battle ensued and a Mountie was shot dead by Johnson. He then scaled an ice covered canyon wall and disappeared once more into the twilight of the Arctic wilderness.
It was around this time that the famed pioneer bush pilot, Wop May, joined the manhunt with his ski equipped aircraft.
The aircraft not only ferried supplies to the pursuit parties, but was instrumental in spotting the fugitive’s trail from the air.
Johnson, meanwhile, had somehow managed to cross the forbidding Richardson Mountain Range using a caribou herd and a blizzard to obliterate his trail.
It was a fantastic feat for a man travelling alone and on foot and the crowning proof of the man’s amazing stamina and endurance.
In spite of the odds against him, it was almost by accident that he was encountered, surrounded and eventually shot to death on the Eagle River, 40 days after the initial confrontation on the Rat River.
Defiant to the last, he seriously wounded yet another Mountie before he died.
Although called upon to surrender a score of times by the law officers, Johnson was never heard to utter a single word during the almost seven weeks of siege, pursuit and battle.
Who was he really? ...and where did he come from?
He was a silent man, in a lonely land.
The rifles and snowshoes of the “mad trapper of Rat River” remain on display at the RCMP Museum in Regina, Saskatchewan.